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Activist Stephen Langford is facing two years’ jail for sticking a piece of A4 paper to a statue of Lachlan Macquarie in Sydney’s Hyde Park. By Amy Fallon.

The activist facing jail for Macquarie statue protest

Stephen Langford during one of his daily swims near Katoomba.
Credit: Amy Fallon

It’s a freezing, mid-winter’s day in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. Stephen Langford walks to the edge of a lake in his boxer shorts and plunges in the frigid water. In a few weeks, the veteran refugee activist will be in court again, facing jail for defacing a statue. For now, though, he seems indifferent towards the charges.

“Sydney was a penal colony, so it would be just like cuddling a koala if I was imprisoned,” the 62-year-old says. “This case just shows that we do not have rights. People say, ‘You’re joking, is that really possible?
In other countries they’ve thrown statues in the river.’ ”

The incident for which the retired nurse is due to face a Sydney court this month involves some scissors, glue and a sheet of A4 paper that Langford stuck onto a monument of Governor Lachlan Macquarie in Sydney’s Hyde Park. On the sheet were the British military officer’s own words: “All Aborigines from Sydney onwards are to be made prisoners of war and if they resist they are to be shot and their bodies to be hung from trees in the most conspicuous places near where they fall so as to strike fear into the hearts of surviving natives.”

The 1816 command from Macquarie resulted in a massacre at Appin the same year. At least 14 Dharawal and Gandangara people were shot or run off a cliff by his regiment, in what is now south-west Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Along with the governor’s directive, Langford wrote on the paper: “for public education, please do not remove”.

The activist is facing multiple charges. He stuck the same message to the statue on a number of occasions last year. The charge he will next face court for on October 25 involves an alleged offence of destroying or damaging property, otherwise known as malicious damage, for which his defence relies on an implied freedom of political communication in Australia’s constitution. Langford faces up to two years’ jail. Another hearing involving a separate charge that was due to be held last month was adjourned to next year.

The campaigner first saw the statue, erected in 2013, in a Greens newsletter not long before he was charged. He told The Saturday Paper that although he didn’t know much about Macquarie, he never set out to demonise him.

“Macquarie’s a really big name in Sydney and I thought how come with all this fame about him we don’t know this, and this is not on the statue?” says Langford.

“The wording on it is crazy – a ‘perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart’. What the heck is that? Even in Communist countries they didn’t have that kind of bullshit.”

Langford’s lawyer, Mark Davis, said that in his client’s view it was not possible to have a Macquarie statue in a prominent position without knowing the truth about him.

“Langford’s not throwing cans of red paint, he’s not throwing a rope around it and trying to pull it down,” Davis tells The Saturday Paper. “He uses Blu Tack or a bit of children’s glue to confront us with the truth of these words in a non-damaging way.”

Davis adds that “maybe one day those words that Langford keeps sticking on posters will be on a brass plaque, underneath the statue of Macquarie”.

In 2017, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said she had referred concerns about the monument to the council’s Indigenous advisory panel “for their consideration”. Following this, it was decided that a broader community discussion was needed before developing a policy on the city’s colonial statues. Due to a range of views and the sensitivity of the issue, the council was advised that an in-person consultation was better, but the pandemic has not allowed this.

Professor Jakelin Troy, the director of Indigenous research at the University of Sydney, described Macquarie as a “thug fundamentally”. But she noted that statues hadn’t been toppled here as had occurred in other parts of the world.

“In Australia we have a history of civil disobedience but it tends to be more worker labour protest marches and land rights marches,” she says. “We don’t engage ourselves so much with the symbols of power. It’s more the voice, we use a voice.”

An activist of decades, Langford is the son of an industrial chemist who fled Vienna in 1938. His family lived in New Zealand, where Langford was born.

“My father was welcomed and they collected money for him in the Canterbury University in Christchurch,” says Langford, drawing a comparison on the treatment of refugees by Australia and New Zealand.

“The gold standard on refugees is the 1951 Refugee Convention and behind that is the expulsion or fleeing of the Jewish Europeans from Europe.”

The key human rights document, which turns 70 this year, has been forgotten in Australia, he says.

“It’s part of international law but has been thoroughly trashed since 1990, by both Coalition and Labor governments,” says Langford. “This has to change and civil society has to start fighting for the convention to be respected.”

Langford appeared in court over the monument protests last year, which sparked a small demonstration. At it, Taressa Mongta, a Yuin woman who lives in Surry Hills in inner-city Sydney, said she did not understand why Langford was in court for simply stating what was on public record about the governor.

“It’s okay for Australia to demand of other people in other countries that they be just and protect people’s human rights while at the same time pointing the finger the other way and sweeping everything that happens here underneath the carpet,” she said.

Eileen Haley, a Sydney-based writer working on a historical fantasy novel partly inspired by the Appin War of 1814-16, also turned out to support Langford.

She told The Saturday Paper that Macquarie was regarded as “the father of the nation” but was in reality “another agent of British imperialism”.

She says: “Macquarie invaded previously uncolonised lands in what is now Sydney’s south-west, and the Native Institution he set up in the context of the Appin War was the start of the Stolen Generations.”

The children’s asylum to which she refers, set up by the then governor in Parramatta in 1814, also incorporated the first school for Indigenous children in New South Wales. Haley says it was established to “take Aboriginal children away from their families and indoctrinate them into imperialist ways”.

After his December hearing, Langford read out a humorous poem he’d penned, detailing his arrest:

So I stuck a piece of paper to Macquarie, just a scrap

I thought I’d cycle home with my dog and shopping, take a nap.

Then suddenly on College Street, four police cars, maybe three

Something like the last scene in Thelma and Louise.

He ended it by saying the police lock-up in Surry Hills, where he says he was strip searched and his treatment was “horrible, unbelievable”, was “just a taste of something that is truly a national disgrace”. Still, he “couldn’t give a toss if I was sent to jail”.

“What are they going to do, tell me that I can’t get a job afterwards? I’m 62,” Langford says.

The pond where the activist now swims every day since relocating to Katoomba last year is at “The Gully”, an Indigenous meeting place where the Gundungurra and Darug peoples lived in the late 1800s until 1957, when they were evicted to make way for a racetrack. The area is now a dedicated Aboriginal Place under NSW law.

When he hits the water, Langford can’t help but think of Macquarie.

“It’s a feeling of reality and the truth because the truth is going in there: it’s cold but it’s the truth of the lake in a way,” he says. “It’s invigorating and it was also invigorating to see the truth being told the day I stuck the piece of paper to the statue.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Statue of limitations".

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Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist writing on social justice and human rights.