Australian male politicians like their violent metaphors especially when describing their own exploits. Tony Abbott’s autobiography Battlelines reflected his pugilism while one of his former opponents, former Labor deputy PM and Treasurer Wayne Swan, prefers to be remembered for “The Good Fight”. Swan was my local MP and as I started my journalism career I interviewed him before the 2007 election (an interview for which I remain extremely grateful – his LNP opponent turned me down). Swan batted away my questions with aplomb, but tougher questions were coming. Labor, of course won that election, and Swan was installed Treasurer of a country about to sway in vicious global headwinds. His Good Fight was just beginning.
He begins the book in early January 2008 while on holidays at the Sunshine Coast with a recollection of a phone call from his American counterpart. US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was worried by an economy buffeted by a sub-prime mortgage crisis that started in mid-2007. US housing prices were falling and the country was in recession. Paulson told Swan a recovery was possible but only if there wasn’t a “meltdown” in housing prices. Swan’s Treasury advice was that global risks were substantial but Australia was well placed to ride it out. His holiday reading of Alan Greenspan’s memoir combined with a biography of Australian depression-era treasurer EG Theodore brought the fear of another collapse home to him and made him realise the next few years would not be “an easy cruise”.
Though it started in 2007, the prospect of a financial crisis made little impact on the election that year. It never came up in discussion in my own interview with Swan and I was not alone – neither the media nor the Treasury saw it as a live issue. The priorities of the incoming Labor government were carbon pricing, water reform and federal financial relations. The massive overspending of the final years of the Howard Government had led to inflationary pressures and interest rates were on the rise thanks to China’s enormous appetite for Australian iron ore. Labor, keen to be seen as economically cautious, committed itself to a 1.5% budget surplus and its razor gang went in search of savings. By the time of its first budget, interest rates had risen to over 7% though the sub-prime crisis in America rumbled on. Swan had just returned from IMF meetings in Washington which predicted world losses of 1 trillion dollars. Swan was walking a tightrope between global turbulence and an overheated Australian economy, a paradox expressed in talking points as “countervailing forces”.
The budget promised $33b in savings but only $7b in the first year, which caused The Australian to complain it didn’t tackle inflationary pressures. But Swan’s American experiences meant he didn’t want to ‘slam the economy into a wall’. That wall was fast approaching and by August 2008 Swan was discussing the possibility of a recession with officials. Treasury boss Ken Henry told him if a stimulus was needed, it had to be 1% of GDP, about $10b. The June National Accounts showed just 0.3% of growth, not a recession, but very close. On September 7, US mortgage underwriters Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had to be bailed out by Washington. Then a week later came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. A day later AIG also needed a Federal bailout. Immediately credit markets froze and investors ran for cover. Swan admitted it was terrifying news but publicly said Australian ‘fundamentals remained strong’. An extraordinary week ended with a US $700b financial rescue plan to mop up toxic assets.
The first Australian response was to buy $4b in mortgage-backed securities to keep the flow of credit and preserve mortgage competition. When US Congress voted down the rescue package, the Dow plunged 7%, the ASX down 4% the following day. The RBA cut interest rates by a full 1% and Henry advised Rudd and Swan to ‘go early, go hard, go households’ on a stimulus especially with a slowdown on Chinese growth. The stimulus came in at $10.4b targeted at pensioners and low-income earners in time for Christmas. Half the surplus was gone in one hit and Swan’s staff prepared for an even bigger second package. The world was a different place from 2007. The G7 was recording negative growth and global stocks had lost half their value. Rock bottom had not yet been reached.
Swan was “rewarded” with growth of 0.1% which meant recession was technically avoided but the knock on effects of the global crisis were starting to hit. More policy levers were pulled. The government established the OzCar special purpose vehicle to provide liquidity to car dealer financers, brought forward transport projects, and people were encouraged to spend their Mark I stimulus bonus. Mark II would cost another $42b, 4% of GDP, including a $900 ‘consumption payment’ for individuals, the school Building the Education Revolution program and the insulation program for 2.7 million homes. The idea was that for every dollar providing immediate stimulus, another $2 would have future benefits.
With the Opposition’s wait and see approach against the package, the government negotiated with cross-benchers including Nick Xenophon who wanted a water buyback scheme. The December quarter had negative growth of 0.5% with the global economy expected to contact 1% in 2009 so the pressure was on for the next three months again to avoid recession. Swan’s second budget would be the victim of massive write-downs and unemployment around 0.5%. It project a deficit of $7b though as Swan called ‘a massive own goal’, he never mentioned the actual figure.
He was on safer ground when he said Labor protected Australia against the brutality of a global recession. His strategy worked – Australia recorded 0.4% growth in the March quarter and technical recession was avoided once more. With the worst of the GFC apparently over, there were calls to halt or decrease the stimulus. Swan held the line that growth was still weak and stimulus filled the gap. There was now a ‘two speed economy’ with coal and gas demand rising in 2009-2010 pushing the dollar up while other industries stagnated. GDP growth continued around 0.5% for 2009.
The story of slow recovery continues in the second half of Swan’s book. But it is overshadowed by growing political conflict between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Swan begins with the July 2009 backflip by Malcolm Turnbull on Opposition support for a carbon price. Rudd ordered ministers to negotiate with the Liberals on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme but also told them to deliberately drag it out to extract maximum political advantage. It was a fatal miscalculation. Rudd dithered on forcing the double dissolution on carbon and pinned his hopes on a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009. His failure there sent him into meltdown, according to Swan.
By then Turnbull had been replaced by Tony Abbott who called the CPRS a ‘great big new tax’. Rudd went to Christmas without making a decision on 2010 strategy while Swan was tied up with the Henry Tax review recommendation to introduce a mining tax. In the New Year Rudd threw his energies into a federal takeover of the health system leaving Swan and Gillard to carry the messy CPRS and mining tax. In April Rudd announced the CPRS would be delayed three years.
May 2010 brought the fight over the mining tax. Swan said mining profits in 2008-2009 were $80b higher than 10 years earlier but the government was only collecting an additional $9b in revenue. Royalty and resource charges had reduced from 31% to 14%. The industry, the Opposition and Murdoch newspapers said the world would cave in if the tax was implemented and the scare campaign ramped up with slick advertising. Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers collapsed exposing his weak support in the party room.
Swan said he was a reluctant starter on the idea of replacing Rudd with Gillard. “I could see Kevin was leading us into the wilderness,” he said, “but I was torn between the dread of that and the undoubted ugliness that would accompany his ousting”. Swan said Rudd was prone to vengeful behaviour and over-centralised leadership due to a “pathological fear of leaks”. He dragged meetings on for hours without making decisions and complex briefing papers went unread. There was high staff turnover in his office. A Labor mauling in a NSW state by-election was partially put down to federal issues and by mid June 2010 Gillard was ready to challenge.
Swan knew removing a popular first-term PM was dangerous but saw it as unavoidable. When the spill came, Rudd did not stand. Swan said this robbed the party of a frank debate in the party room. Swan said he felt sorry for a man he had worked with since their days in the Queensland Goss Government from 1989 and their families had been close for a decade with Rudd a godfather to Swan’s only son. But he was now deputy prime minister under Gillard.
They focussed on three problems: climate change, asylum seekers and the mining tax. They hammered out a deal with the big mining companies that dropped the profits-based tax from 40 to 30% and applied to iron ore and coal only. It cleared the way for a 21 August election. Rudd remained in the spotlight and his strategic leaks damaged Gillard who didn’t help her cause with her talk of ‘the real Julia’. There was a sizeable swing against Labor in an election that ended in a draw. Swan narrowly retained his seat.
Suddenly the independents held the balance of power and after 17 long days and a $11b costing blunder by the Coalition, Windsor and Oakeshott gave the reins of power to Gillard. Swan thought minority government was suited to Gillard’s collegiate style but he later realised it suited Rudd too.
While Australia was recovering, Europe remained in strife and Treasury was making plans for a second GFC. Swan had reduced government spending but revenue shortfalls were making return to budget surplus more difficult by the day. Swan’s budget revenues had declined by $160b in 2007
Natural disasters like the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi were costly and the Japanese tsunami and the Auckland earthquake also suppressed demand. Though unemployment was down to 5.1%, the lowest in the industrial world, the budget fetish meant the media roasted Swan in December 2012 when he finally admitted Australia would not return to surplus in 2012-2013.
Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions emerged openly in 2012. He resigned as foreign minister in February over a perceived slight by Simon Crean. Gillard called a leadership ballot and beat Rudd 71-31. Rudd slid off to the backbench but immediately started work on his return.
Labor pressed on with the NDIS and Gonski reforms, but their hopes of getting ‘clear air’ were destroyed by issues such as Speaker Peter Slipper’s and Labor MP Craig Thompson’s legal problems. Rudd’s strategically-timed leaks also caused media disasters. On March 21 2013, Simon Crean engineered another leadership challenge, apparently promised the deputy PM position by Rudd. But Rudd didn’t take the bait forcing Crean to resign.
In Swan’s final budget he funded Gonski and the NDIS over ten years by closing corporate tax loopholes. With Gillard’s poll numbers never recovering from her broken promise on carbon taxing, Rudd was irrepressible. By June 2013 commentators were openly saying Gillard would not make it to the election. Gillard called a third spill on June 26 and lost 57-45. Swan resigned as deputy leader and treasurer. Rudd’s three year war of attrition had succeeded. But the cost was too high. Though Australia’s economy had grown 14% since the GFC, Australians did not feel better off. Labor’s leadership turmoil added to the sense of disgruntlement. The trenchant criticisms of Rudd made by Swan and other senior leaders after the failed March coup would haunt Rudd in the election campaign which was one disaster after another. As Swan said, Rudd’s campaign was only “selfie deep”. By election day, many were predicting Labor would have been better off sticking with Gillard. Rudd lost comfortably to Tony Abbott.
Swan’s “good fight” went on to his own election in Lilley, which he won “against the odds”. It was one of Labor’s few success stories on the night. Swan said Rudd had a plan for getting rid of Gillard but not for ruling the country. Swan said his own political philosophy was ‘where do we stand?’ not ‘what’s in it for me?’ Whether Swan’s fighting instinct still has something in it for him remains to be seen. Though now in opposition and on the back bench, the call remains. “For me,” he concluded, “the good fight will never be over.”
Settler societies Australia and the US share much in common, including how they took the land from prior inhabitants. But while defeated Native American heroes are part of the US pantheon, Australia does not accord the same respect to Indigenous people that fought invasion. Here the fiction the land was taken peacefully remains current, implicit in the recent statement by Prime Minister Abbott that before colonisation, Sydney was “nothing but bush”.
The 1788 truth is, Sydney, like the rest of Australia, was well populated and warriors like Pemulwuy fought hard against the “boat people” that took their land. But Pemulwuy remains unknown as does another resistance leader in far-away Western Australia. His dismissive white name was “Pigeon”, but he deserves to be known by his Bunuba name Jandamarra. Schooled in Indigenous and British ways, Jandamarra struck fear into a colony for three years, before falling to overwhelming force.
Before colonisation, the Kimberley was a densely populated indigenous region with 30,000 people speaking 50 languages. They called the formidable dividing mountain ranges ‘Milawundi’. The first white explorer Alexander Forrest called them the King Leopold Ranges for the Belgian monarch who carved out an empire in Africa. Forrest wanted a similar empire for Britain in north-west Australia. From here rose the mighty river the Bandaral ngarri, which the whites called the Fitzroy. Its source was the home of the Bunuba people who lived off fish, freshwater crocodiles, kangaroos, turkeys, goannas, emus, snakes and bats that thrived in the lush region. Hunting was governed by strict religious and kinship traditions that ensured a plentiful supply survived across the generations.
Blissfully unaware, the Bunuba lost their land at the stroke of a pen in London. In 1829 Captain James Stirling had landed on the Swan River claiming Western Australia for Britain. George Grey led a party to northern shores eight years later with a mission to ‘familiarise the natives with the British name and character’. Grey recommended a settlement, but it would be 30 years before the colony was ready to break out of its south-west corner.
At King Sound, the British founded the first town called Derby. Land hungry squatters from Victoria read Grey’s journals and came to graze sheep where he explored. This alarmed Perth leaders who funded an expedition to Camden Harbour in 1864 where they found lands ‘equal to the best runs in Victoria’. The land grab was on with ships arriving from Perth and Melbourne full of eager new settlers. These first settlements were failures with many dying of fever and sunstroke. A few hardy sheep station owners held on tenaciously despite high transport costs, a low wool price and a chronic lack of labour. Their economic salvation was the discovery of pearl shells abundant along the coast. Aboriginal divers were enslaved to dive deep and stay under water a long time. This system of slavery gradually made European occupation profitable.
Forrest discovered the rich Fitzroy and Ord River valleys in 1879. The first settlers arrived within three years sparking off a tit-for-tat war between white guns and Bunuba spears. Police chained black ‘suspects’ and took them to Rottnest Island to be imprisoned or hanged. The Aborigines remained independent and a thorn in the side of the pastoralists. The Bunuba thought it was fair to take food from the newcomers on their land. The settlers saw it as theft and shot and wounded Bunuba leader Ellamarra as a lesson. They disregarded Bunuba warnings about sacred places and allowed their sheep foul waterways. After more skirmishing Ellamarra was arrested and taken to Derby where he was sentenced to six month’s prison.
Ellamarra escaped after five months. A police patrol surrounded him at a homestead and despite rushing him, he escaped again hurling curses. He hid with his people in the hills away from deadly white firearms. The magistrate blamed conscripted black trackers for the failure and hired two Bunuba prisoners as black troopers. But they led police away from hiding grounds or secretly gave information to their own people. Frustrated pastoralists demanded terror to bring the blacks to heel. This was a dilemma to Perth bureaucrats who knew London wanted Aboriginal British subjects not be ill-treated. The WA press called for additional police saying the government couldn’t allow colonists to “be massacrers but on the other hand cannot allow insecurity to chase investors away”.
Some Bunuba attached themselves to white homesteads, including Jandamarra’s mother. Her son was renowned for his running speed and agility, traits that would later earn him the name Pigeon. Jandamarra was an accomplished stock worker, good with horses and shearing blades. He learned how to handle a gun and became an excellent marksman. Ellamarra was an early influence though he had been at large for three years by Jandamarra’s initiation. In 1889 Jandamarra unwittingly led police to the encampment when Ellamarra was hidden and he was captured.
When three white gold seekers were killed in July 1892 there were calls for revenge. A white raiding party attacked a Bunuba camp and killed six men. Ellamarra negotiated a peace treaty but attacks continued by other tribes throughout 1893.
Jandamarra was arrested for his small role in the stock raids. He was forced to live in the Derby police stables to look after the horses for two years. He returned to Bunuba country in 1891, a solitary figure isolated from his countrymen and police. He was expelled from Bunuba society after his sexual promiscuity broke taboos and he went to live with white settler Bill Richardson. In 1894 Richardson was drafted into the police by new sub-inspector Overand Drewry. Drewry wanted good bushmen to help hunt down the tribes that refused to conform to white ways. Richardson was assigned to look after the Lennard River police outpost and he brought Jandamarra with him.
They were an effective unit patrolling a vast area of the Kimberleys. Within days of taking up the post they captured Ellamarra on a warrant of killing sheep. A JP sentenced him to three years in a Derby prison but the wily leader escaped after only a few months. Richardson’s group captured him again only for him to break the chain and escape once more. Jandamarra may have been complicit in the second escape.
Richardson still held 17 Bunuba chained and ready for sentencing. But Jandamarra’s time had come. One of the 17 was Jandamarra’s brother-in-law Lilimarra. In the middle of the night Jandamarra released Lilimarra and they shot Richardson dead while he slept. They liberated the remaining prisoners and joined relatives camped nearby. Jandamarra collected firearms and waited to ambush drovers bringing cattle to water. The surprised stockmen would not believe their former friend Pigeon would shoot but he killed two while two others escaped. Their wagon contained a sizeable arsenal of weapons though few of Jandamarra’s men knew how to use them.
Word got back to Drewry and he sent five constables and six black troopers with more to come. In Perth Francis Connor demanded in parliament that ‘retribution be swift, sharp and decisive.’ The West Australian newspaper wanted a ‘sharp lesson be read to the whole band of murderers’. Drewry’s plan was more subtle: he prepared two Queensland Aboriginal servants to infiltrate the band and kill the leaders. However the Queenslanders turned tail, telling Jandamarra of the plan and returned claiming they could not find the Bunuba rebels.
Jandamarra broke his force into small armed parties and waited in ambush. Drewry was also looking for surprise and his force of 28 troopers manoeuvred around the Lennard River citadel for a dawn attack. Jandamarra outsmarted them hiding his men in caves with guns pointed at the police. Gunfire erupted but neither side would show themselves. The stalemate last eight hours until a bullet shattered Ellamarra’s back as he attempted to cross to Jandamarra’s cave. His death shook Bunuba confidence and the police trained fire on Jandamarra’s position. He was wounded in the exchange while his people retreated through the caves under the cover of his rifle fire. Only six women and three children surrendered.
Jandamarra and the others all escaped. Drewry’s message to Perth shocked settler society expecting a quick end to the rebellion. The government sent men and weapons under experienced officer, William Lawrence, demoting Drewry. Lawrence said extreme measures would be necessary. His men attacked an Aboriginal camp on the Margaret River killing 11 Gooniyandi men. He killed three more in the Milawundi foothills but cautiously decided the rugged terrain was too dangerous.
Instead they roamed the region indiscriminately killing all Aboriginals not associated with homesteads. Two troopers massacred 20 Worrora at Oobagooma Station. After three months Lawrence reported to authorities the settlers were happy with his extreme response. The Roebourne newspaper said the blacks now “rightly understand the Mosaic law of a life for a life”. But the Bunuba remained undefeated.
Wounded Jandamarra was nursed back to health by his mother and wife and when strong enough they moved 20 km to Tunnel Creek where food was plentiful. Jandamarra was aware of the carnage around him, though white Australians were not, with press coverage heavily censored. Only the Catholic Herald broke ranks accusing the government of ‘miserable slaughter’.
Premier John Forrest was not concerned about the plight of the Aborigines but he was worried by British reaction. A report into the killing was a whitewash saying it was ‘absolutely needful’. The Bunuba lowlands were annexed but the ranges were renamed “Pigeon Country” where no white would safely dare go. Drewry’s claim Jandamarra was dead was proved false and the inspector resigned in May 1895. In October seven troopers ambushed Jandamarra at a waterhole but he survived again escaping into the caves. His wife and mother were captured. Jandamarra became more daring, taunting his would-be captors.
He raided police quarters for food while troopers slept, his identity revealed by floury footprints. His cat-and-mouse game left police wary and fearful. False leads from prisoners added to the confusion. Police worries ammunition would fall into Aboriginal hands were futile as Jandamarra manufactured his own cartridges using captured gunpowder and molten lead for cast earthen bullets. Several times he was intercepted on visits to relatives at Lennard River Station only for him to escape, as if by magic.
Drewry’s replacement Sub-inspector Ord wanted to wait until after the 1896 wet season before launching his counter-attack. But the commissioner in Perth demanded immediate action and Ord led a posse to Lennard River. For five days they hid in the police station but Jandamarra did not take the bait. A search party found nothing and Jandamarra openly taunted the troops shouting down insults from the top of the ridge before disappearing into obscurity for several months more.
Then in June 1896 six Nyikina warriors escaped from Derby prison and returned to their Noonkanbah homelands to attack white settlements. They lit a series of fires fanned by hot winds on a 50 km front. Only the mudflats saved Derby from conflagration. Eventually Ord’s force tracked down the Nyikina and they shot nine dead.
Settlers searched for a route over the Milawundi, watched carefully by the rebels. It was a black trooper named Micki that swung the balance in favour of the police. At Christmas 1896 Micki captured Lilamarra as he visited relatives at Lennard River. The invasion of cattle in sacred places and food-gathering areas led to an attack on the homestead at Oscar Range killing one stockman. Police from Fitzroy Crossing gave chase. There was a firefight and once again Jandamarra escaped in a riddle of confusing tracks.
Ord swung the whole West Kimberley police force into action. Micki led the charge arresting five Bunuba in an hour. After five days the pursuers picked up Jandamarra’s tracks at what would be called Pigeon Creek. Micki and Jandamarra traded rifle fire in a foot race along a cliff face. Micki finally brought his man down as Jandamarra tried to make his escape. When a white policeman named Blythe tried to finish him off, Jandamarra shot back and somehow disappeared in the long grass despite multiple gun wounds. In the morning the troops retreated to tend Blythe’s wounds, thinking Jandamarra was surely dead.
But as they got ready to leave, a shot rang out killing one of the men. The posse escaped using prisoners as a shield. Jandamarra was still free but left a bloody trail and was without his women to nurse him back to health. It was Micki who delivered the final blow in his cave. Jandamarra was dead.
The white police with Micki claimed the credit and hacked Jandamarra’s head off and took it to Perth. People paid money to see the skull of the famous primitive warrior. But they were tricked. It was another black man’s head – Jandamarra’s skull had been sent to England as a trophy for an arms manufacturer.
The police report into his death made no mention of Bunuba stolen lands or the massacres of their people. Jandamarra and his band were ‘outlaws’ and police were simply enforcing the law. Pastoralists were the winners quickly stocking up Kimberley properties, employing Bunuba as workers. Their descendants were sacked after the equal wage award of 1968 and most drifted to Fitzroy Crossing forever denied access to their own lands.
The tragedy of the Jandamarra story was colonisers unprepared to negotiate with traditional owners. The WA Government is still not prepared to recognise traditional ownership while Jandamarra’s own story is mostly unknown.
A remote part of Queensland made the news in the last 24 hours when Bedourie, 2500 kms from Brisbane, was hit by an incredible dust storm. The storms are unusual but not unheard of, in a region that skirts the Simpson Desert. I’ve been to Bedourie and can testify to its remoteness and its lack of familiarity with the rest of Queensland. The reasons for this are geographical – the area is closer to Adelaide than south-east Queensland and also, historical.
When Queensland split from NSW in 1859, its borders were not as they are today. The new colony’s western border was defined as the 141st meridian of east longitude – lining up with SA’s eastern boundary with NSW and Victoria. The border was Haddon Corner not Poeppel Corner as it is today. This meant that the strip of land that now contains Mt Isa, Cloncurry, Boulia, Bedourie and Birdsville were not part of the new colony – at least for the first three years of Queensland’s existence. The story of this land which would eventually increase Queensland’s territory is told in Peter Saenger’s book Queensland’s Western Afterthought: 150 Years of Ups and Downs.
No sooner was Queensland’s first boundary set then there were immediate calls to stretch the boundary further west. Queensland’s first Surveyor-General AC Gregory noted that the 141st meridian split a natural feature of the landscape, a tract of country he called tantalisingly “the Plains of Promise”. Furthermore the eastern shore of those Plains within Queensland held no natural harbours. Gregory proposed the boundary should move west to more barren country on the 138th meridian to include all of the Plains of Promise and a harbour on the Gulf of Carpentaria.
That possible harbour was found by Captain Matthew Flinders in his 1802 voyage around around Australia when he anchored the Investigator between Sweers and Bentinck Islands in a well sheltered area area he called “Investigator Road”. But that was it for local investigations for 40 years until John Lort Stokes of the HMS Beagle surveyed Investigator Road and the Gulf hinterland country, naming the Albert River in the process. It was Stokes who named the Plains of Promise, given the name to the land he found 80km inland from Investigator Road. Some day, Stokes believed, this would become rich and fertile grazing lands.
Others didn’t find the land so promising. In 1844 Charles Sturt explored the bottom end of what would become the Afterthought crossing the Stzelecki and Cooper Creeks before finding a ‘gloomy stone-clad plain’ which he called Stony Desert (today called Sturt’s Stony Desert). This territory was so forbidding Sturt gave up his dreams of crossing the centre of the continent. While Sturt was retreating, German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt was taking his chances in the northern end of the strip in his first journey. He stayed near the coast as he went east to west roughly analogous to modern Karumba and Burketown. It was here that Leichhardt found to his cost the area was inhabited by people who resented his group’s presence. A group of Aborigines attacked the camp killing Leichhardt’s naturalist John Gilbert and wounding two others. Leichhardt’s group licked their wounds for two weeks before continuing and sighting the Gulf of Carpentaria “with feelings of indescribable pleasure”.
Leichhardt named a number of rivers, creeks and streams before struggling on to Port Essington. He returned to Sydney to describe the wonders of the lands he had found. When Leichhardt disappeared in 1848 on his even more forbidding east-west crossing to WA, Gregory was among those who joined the search for him in 1857. That trip did
not take Gregory into the strip but two years earlier he led a British Government scientific expedition across northern Australia following roughly similar territory to Leichhardt’s first trip 11 years earlier. Gregory saw that the land to the south-west of the strip was arid. “There is little to expect beside a barren sandy desert,” he wrote. The strip itself was better country but extremely rough going.
The explorations of Sturt, Leichhardt and Gregory had opened up the possibilities of the outback that the founders of Queensland were ready to exploit in 1859. The area west of the 141st meridian remained technically in NSW but the mother colony showed no interest in it. Gregory never saw Stokes’ “Plains of Promise” but he and others wanted it for Queensland graziers. But when Queensland’s first Governor George Bowen wrote to Secretary of State for the Colonies the Duke of Newcastle about the unclaimed land, Newcastle replied that SA also wanted to annex the land. “Also a certain group of gentlemen in Victoria,” Newcastle added, “wanted to form a settlement on the north coast of Australia.”
SA’s claim was obvious. It was agitating to stretch its northern border to the north coast. It gained what would eventually become the Northern Territory from NSW in 1863 and also had its eyes on that strip of land to east of the Territory. Nouveau riche Victoria too had notions of ownership. Its claims were based on the confidence of its goldfield wealth and the 1860 Burke and Wills expedition to conquer the unknown north. That expedition bisected the Plains of Promise and would eventually show they did not live up to their name. The expedition was financed by merchant Thomas Embling and lawyer William Stawell who drafted Victoria’s constitution in 1850. They knew NSW technically owned the unclaimed land but Sydney showed no inclination to develop it. It was Embling and Stawell’s influence that ensured the expedition route stayed on a straight course north to the Gulf rather than veering west to the Victoria River as was the original plan.
Burke’s advance party crossed into the unclaimed strip on Christmas Day 1860 near the modern site of Birdsville where the found the Diamantina River. They saw no dust storms as they advanced north into the Tropics during a dry wet season. They went past the Cloncurry River watched carefully by the Kalkadoon owners and toiled on until stopped by the marshy wastelands 20km short of the Gulf near what is now Magowra Station. The return journey passed into history with a series of avoidable calamities, and the expedition claiming seven European lives and an unknown number of Aborigines. Its profound and lasting impact on the unclaimed strip came not from the failed expedition itself but from the large number of search parties sent out to find Burke and Wills.
Robert O’Hara Burke was an incompetent leader but those who followed him were not. Alfred Howitt’s Melbourne expedition found King alive and Burke and Wills dead and brought them all back. From South Australia John McKinlay surveyed Cooper Creek, found many channels of the Diamantina and discovered good pastoral country at the Scott Ranges. He eventually reached the Gulf via the Leichhardt River. Queensland sent two more search parties, one led by William Landsborough which went by ship to the Albert River and established a depot, the other led by experienced bushman and native police commander Frederick Walker. Walker came overland from Rockhampton through the Blackall and Aramac districts into Hughenden. He eventually came to the depot on the Albert River and picked up tracks from Burke and Wills before being thwarted by heavy rains.
By the end of 1862 the broad physical outline of the coastline, its rivers and the interior had all been determined and mapped. In 1861 Bowen told the Duke of Newcastle Queensland would protect any settlers in the area as long as the western boundary was redrawn to include the Gulf of Carpentaria. In 1862 Newcastle finally came down on the side of Queensland’s claim. The boundary was redrawn to the 138th meridian. The natives were deemed numerous but not hostile and all the white explorers were of the view that this remote country could be settled comfortably.
There was just one problem: the land was already settled. Virtually every white explorer to the western strip encountered Aboriginal people on their journeys. The north coast was the home of the Gangalidda, Nunyunga and Garawa people while the Lardil and Kaiadilt lived on the islands. The area around Cloncurry was the home of the Mitakoodi and the fearsome Kalkadoons who numbered between 1500 to 2000 people. Around Boulia lived the Yalarrnga, Waluwarra and Pitta Pitta. In the desert south of the dust country in Bedourie lived the Arrenta, the Wangkanggurru and the Yarluyandi.
These people had enjoyed quiet ownership of their land for thousands of years. But from 1860 onwards their homelands were invaded by strangers who had no understanding of the subtle vagaries of the fluctuating environmental conditions. Their sole desire was to ‘conquer the wilderness’ and they came well armed to enforce their way of living. Aboriginal use of waterholes and the killing of stock for food angered the newcomers. These pastoralists supported by its government in Brisbane (and they were often the same people) encouraged the Native Police to remove Aboriginal people. Removal meant in most cases, shooting to death, euphemistically known as “dispersal”.
By 1880 most of the Indigenous people of the south-west had either been killed or forced to flee to South Australia. In the north the Kalkadoons resisted fiercely until they were defeated at Battle Mountain in 1884. By the 20th century the remaining Indigenes were locked up by the force of the Queensland Act. The western strip was in white hands though far from Brisbane it would remain “Queensland Western Afterthought”.
On this morning’s edition of Insiders, Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb tried to explain why his Victorian Liberal colleagues loss in yesterday’s state election had nothing to do with the Federal Government. The problem was not a new one, he said, they were down in the polls by the same “flatline difference” for at least three years. Robb was undoubtedly correct in his assessment but left himself open for an obvious retort, which interviewer Barrie Cassidy quickly pounced on. Wasn’t this what was happening in Canberra now, he asked. A somewhat flummoxed Robb ask what did he mean. Cassidy repeated Robb’s point that the Abbott Government were also flatlining in the polls. Robb quickly adjusted his radar and said ah that was different, they still had two years to improve their position.
Robb was granting his government the gift of the future, the same gift the Victorian Government had two years ago. It was a present Melbourne could not open and there is little reason to believe Robb’s colleagues will be similarly blessed. The Abbott Government is hopeless adrift and compromised fatally by the raft of promises and resolutions it made in opposition it could not possibly fill in government, especially when its right-wing credentials started to be felt as soon as it took office.
There are plenty of warnings for Abbott in Denis Napthine’s defeat overnight not least of which is the fable Australians will not dismiss a first time government. It might be the first time it has happened in 60 years in Victoria but federally the electorate is lot more volatile. The newly elected governments held on in their first elections in 1984, 1998 and 2010 but all were extremely tight and in all cases the incumbents had the preferred Prime Minister. This time round the Government is in freefall with an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister whom it becoming charitable to call hapless. Their management of the Senate independents is execrable and their few policy victories have had to be shared with Clive Palmer. Tony Abbott’s one area of strength seemed to be as a world leader especially in the wake of MH17 but he squandered that goodwill with his idiotic shirtfront comment and then looked like a bumbling, provincial and irrelevant fool as he hosted the G20 meeting.
The silly games his government played to keep climate change off the agenda rebounded badly and he is unlikely to garner much credit even if they succeed in the economic imperative of 2.1% world growth. The slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” is itself stupid and does not take into account confidence levels and perceptions of a shambolic leadership. Victoria’s economy was in good shape before this election as was Australia’s economy before the 2013 federal election. But Victoria was undone by the wrangling over Geoff Shaw and Labor was fatally debilitated by the Rudd/Gillard wars.
Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten has been castigated by the left as a ‘do nothing’ politician but he remains popular and was able to assist in the Victorian election campaign to help a similarly anodyne but effective leader Daniel Andrews. Meanwhile the Abbott brand was considered far too toxic to be seen anywhere south of the Murray this last month or so.
Abbott once famously called himself a weather vane. He must be aware that heavy storms are coming his way, especially as he tries to chart a course for a second budget while still negotiating the tricky reefs of his first one. Treasurer Hockey has been a poor performer in the first year, but the people will blame Abbott not him.
As Insiders also pointed out this morning, Abbott’s Prime Minister’s Office is becoming as notorious as Kevin Rudd’s for its obsessiveness with the message and its failure to deliver. Whether that is a problem with the office or the man is a moot point, but it is looking like a doomed Prime Ministership.
Abbott will face his reckoning either massacred at the next election, if he is lucky, or more likely stabbed in back by his own colleagues next December as panicked parliamentarians look to someone else, anyone, who can help save their skins. It will be, as Andrew Robb inadvertently pointed out today, already too late. The Liberal goose was cooked in early in 2014 and will uneaten and poisonous on the table until Labor feasts on its entrails in 2016.
It’s been ten years since one of the most shameful episodes in modern Queensland history in a place that has long been a site of the worst excesses of institutional racism in Australia. That place is Palm Island in beautiful Halifax Bay and the event is the aftermath of the senseless death of Indigenous man Cameron Doomadgee, known as Mulrunji. Mulrunji’s death needs to be seen in the context of the terrible history of Palm Island, which was founded as an Australian gulag in 1918.
Mulrunji was a 36 years old Murri man, a loving husband, father and carer for a disabled nephew who also worked part-time for the local council, and a very popular man on the island. Around 10am on Friday, November 19, 2004 Mulrunji was walking on Bay St on the island when he observed an incident in the street. Palm Island’s most senior policeman, Senior Sgt Chris Hurley assisted by Indigenous Police Liaison Office Lloyd Bengaroo were assisting the partner of Roy Bramwell who was intoxicated and swearing. The officers arrested Bramwell and as Mulrunji passed, he chided Bengaroo for locking up his own people. Bengaroo told Mulrunji to keep walking, instead he started singing Who Let The Dogs Out?
Hurley claims Mulrunji swore at him and arrested him, pushing into the police van with force. At the time Hurley was 33, a tall man weighing 115kgs. Posted to Palm in 2002, he was the ultimate figure of power and authority on the island. He had a reputation from his previous posting in Burketown as a womaniser, heavy drinker and being good with his fists. After arresting Mulrunji, Hurley drove the van back to the station arriving around 10.20am. As he unloaded the van, Mulrunji punched Hurley in the jaw and Hurley responded with a dig to the ribs. What next was disputed. Hurley claimed Mulrunji fell over the step. According to Bramwell Hurley shouted “Do you want more, Mr Doomadgee? Do you want more? Have you had enough?” Bengaroo stayed quiet fearing retribution if he spoke out. Hurley said nothing too, he was out cold on the pavement.
Hurley and another white copper thought he was ‘foxing’ (pretending) and dragged him by his hands to the cells, lying there with four fractured ribs, and a ruptured liver and portal vein. A doctor would later say his liver was ‘cleaved in two’. He was bleeding to death and calling for help which did not arrive. Instead, at 10.26am Mulrunji was formally charged with public nuisance. Around 11am Hurley entered the cell and kicked Mulrunji on the shoulder but got no response. After a couple of minutes they called for a paramedic who arrived 15 minutes later. The paramedic pronounced Mulrunji dead on arrival. Bengaroo said they should notify the family but Hurley told him to shut up. Mulrunji’s wife and sister came to the station with food but were told to go away. Other relatives arrived and were alarmed by the departing paramedic. Hurley said Mulrunji was sleeping and told them to leave too. He would later deny this but eventually admitted the truth.
It wasn’t until 3pm – over four hours later – that a Townsville policeman told the family their father was dead. In the meantime, the Palm coppers gave Bramwell $50 and told him to beat it and stay quiet. Normal investigative routines following a death in custody were not followed. The State Homicide Investigation Group did not get involved. Instead two friends of Hurley from Townsville CIB investigated. They chatted comfortably with Hurley, the death site was not secured and the report to the coroner three days later made no reference to Hurley’s assault on the victim. By now, community anger at Mulrunji’s death was at boiling point and 200 people marched to the station demanding answers.
The autopsy report was released after a week. It said there was no evidence of force and Mulrunji died of an ‘intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein’ and accidental fall onto a hard surface. Again 200 people marched in protest claiming it was murder and set fire to the courthouse and police station. Instead of offering support to the family, the state brought in 18 additional police. Labor Premier Peter Beattie invoked the Joh era 1986 Public Safety Preservation Act as white teachers, nurses, public servants and contractors fled the island. The police negotiated with former councillor Lex Wotton but eventually used helicopters and planes to re-secure the island. Wotton’s home was raided at 4.30am and he was Tasered and arrested along with many others, police breaking down doors in 50 homes in dawn raids reminiscent of 1957, the last time Palm Island erupted in race riots.
It was the 2004 riots that brought Palms to national attention, not Mulrunji’s death. The Beattie government ran for cover, exaggerating the threat (police confiscated just one gun) and talking tough about ending support, while refusing to open schools, run ferries or let bread or milk in for three days. They also banned Aboriginal Legal Aid from the island. There were 43 arrests with police ‘vehemently opposing’ bail. Most spent that Christmas in jail awaiting charges. Palms council wrote to Brisbane saying “our people are under siege” and the children were feeling “terrorised”. They requested police to stay away from Mulrunji’s funeral which was attended by 3,000 people – all black.
In February 2005 a coronial inquiry finally brought some much-needed context to the death. Palms was exposed as an Australian Alcatraz with a chronic housing shortage and rampant unemployment where people died on average aged 50. The original custodians were the Bwgcolman but in 1918 white Australians established Palms as a convenient off-shore prison colony for recalcitrant survivors of the Kalkadoon wars of north-west Queensland. It became the ultimate punishment centre for Queensland Indigenous people in a policy of containment and control. Authorities rounded up all the blacks that were considered troublemakers along the northern coast and packed them off to Palms. But by being ‘a penitentiary for troublesome cases’ it brought together a group of outstanding leaders in the one place who forged a new Indigenous identity from their various tribes.
Their lives were managed by the 1897 Queensland Act which restricted their movement, kept them segregated from the mainstream and treated them like children. Police held control over black wages (an amount worth over half a billion dollars in today’s money was never paid) and the island overseer Robert Curry was prosecutor, clerk of court and judge. Two smaller islands Curacao and Eclipse were used as further punishment places for Palms blacks where bread and water were the only rations. Curry had been overseer since the settlement started in 1918 and he ruled with a rod of iron. Floggings were frequent as well as summary removals. His medical officer Pattison argued against some of his decisions and Curry’s mind addled by novocaine and depression following the death of his wife snapped on February 3, 1930. In the early hours of the morning, Curry ran amok with a gun in his hand, shooting and injuring Pattison and smashing his wife with the butt of his rifle. Both later recovered.
He set fire to his own house killing his son and step-daughter who were inside. Then he destroyed one boat before sailing in the other to Fantome, where he sat on the beach, drinking. His assistant gave guns to some of the Murri residents and ordered them to shoot Curry. They waited for his return and when he did so, one of the Aboriginal men shot him dead. The man who pulled the trigger, Peter Prior was charged with murder as was Curry’s deputy for supplying the weapon. The judge threw the case out saying it only made it this far because it was not a white man who shot Curry.
After Curry, conditions improved on Palms under the supervision of Anglican chaplain Ernest Gribble who had long experience with Aboriginal people and who urged assimilation with the white population. During the Second World War the island housed many black American GIs as part of Prime Minister Curtin’s request to keep black soldiers away from white Australian women. The black Americans gave the Palms people a new sense of their identity but it was brutally quashed again by the arrival of a new supervisor in 1953 named Roy Bartlam.
Bartlam insisted on rigid apartheid and Murris had to salute all whites they passed in the street. If they were late for roll call or curfew, they were imprisoned. People were punished with seven day’s jail for laughing or whistling after bell rung to breaks and start and end the work day. Blacks were jailed for being untidy or not having their hair cut. Women were sent to prison for not having skirts below knee-length.
Bartlam’s ridiculous rules finally led to the breaking point of an all-out strike in 1957. The events had eerie resemblances to the riots that followed Mulrunji’s death in 2004. The trouble began when a native who had been charged with threatening the Super, broke away and was joined by a crowd of demonstrators. They attacked police and abused settlement officers. Bartlam underestimated community he had alienated and there was sudden unspoken urgency for change. Bartlam attempted to arrest 8 men planning the strike. A fight erupted and men refused go to jail and returned home. Murris controlled every corner and the native police joined the strike. They were promptly sacked. They sent a letter to Brisbane authorities demanding ‘adequate meat supply, increased wages, better housing and for Bartlam to leave the island.”
They threw bad meat at Bartlam’s house and marched up the whites-only Mango Avenue. Twenty police were rushed by RAAF planes to the island but were greeted by 250 demonstrators. After several days of siege, Bartlam’s men arrested the strike leaders in the middle of the night and the strike was ended. The leaders were exiled and Bartlam stayed but there were improvements in diet and conditions. As late as 1969 blacks were stilled banned from walking on Mango Avenue and new Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen equated Aboriginal activism with black terrorism.
But the tide was turning. The hated Queensland Act was finally overturned in the 1970s under threat from Whitlam’s anti-racism legislation. The community was promised a system for granting Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) which was Joh’s way of avoiding native title. It was finally issued in 1985 but the island still faced inadequate housing, sewerage and infectious diseases. Easier access to alcohol led to an upsurge in violence and suicide. Into the 2000s Palm Island remained a deeply troubled and desperately poor place hidden from view from mainstream Australia. Some locals called the place “Fallujah”.
All this was noted in Mulrunji’s inquest report. The Deputy Coroner found Hurley had contributed to his death. The police union were furious, the government backed off, and Hurley was never stood down. The largest police awards ceremony in Queensland history issued bravery awards for the cops involved in quelling the riot. Beattie refused a call for a Royal Commission. In 2009 Lex Wotton was jailed for seven years for his part in instigating the riot. The ghosts of mad Curry and bad Bartlam still walk large on Palms.
I went for a walk last week with Bruce Simpson in Leichhardt’s footsteps. Ludwig Leichhardt was the German explorer who disappeared in the Australian interior in 1848 with his team of men and animals on a quest to open up Australia’s interior to European eyes. Simpson was a drover and bushman who lived in many of the places that were opened up from Leichhardt explorations, including the place where he possibly died. Leichhardt’s disappearance after leaving Mt Abundance remains a great Australian mystery and one that is littered with near misses of evidence.
One such story is Simpson’s, an experienced bushman who turned to writing late in life. Aged 65, he published his life story in Packhouse Drover. “In Leichhardt’s footsteps” is Simpson’s fifth book and is also crammed with anecdotes from Simpson’s own life in western Queensland. Indeed the most memorable line in the book has nothing to do with Leichhardt but with a friend of Simpson who while holed up at the only hotel in remote Boulia would entertain his friends in the morning on the veranda by holding a full two gallon jug of water on his erect member.
Simpson’s connection to Leichhardt connection was perhaps less ballsy but also related to Boulia, one of the westernmost towns of Queensland. Leichhardt may well have come this way as he sought a way to the west coast, Burke and Wills certainly came through this region as they headed north in 1860. Both expeditions were before the birth of Boulia itself. Although Queensland had separated from NSW in 1859 this area, which Peter Saenger called “Queensland’s Western Afterthough” was not yet part of the new colony. Western Queensland ended at latitude 141 degrees east which marks the border with South Australia. The three degrees of land to 138 degrees east that marks the border with NT (then South Australia) was contested by Queensland, SA and Victoria. Though Victoria had no contiguous border with the region, it was they who financed Burke and Wills’ expedition. But when it went wrong, it was Queensland that led explorations to find them and the area was included in the northern colony in 1862.
The mystery of Burke and Wills was solved thanks to the survival of John King, but none of Leichhardt’s men survived the disappearance 12 years earlier. Where they went and what happened to them remains conjecture but almost exactly one hundred years later Simpson and his mates may have stumbled on their last camp site. That was on Glemormiston station, half way between Boulia and the NT border, as remote a settlement today as it was then.
In 1848 it was the home of the Wonkajera people, who survived this difficult landscape by marketing a narcotic called pituri along well-established trade routes. By the time Simpson got there in 1947, the Wonkajera and their pituri were long gone replaced by cattle stations, though some Aboriginal people still thrived as cowboys. In May 1948 (almost 100 years to the day when Leichhardt and his crew were last heard from at Mt Abundance, 23 April 1848) Simpson was part of a team mustering cattle through a patch of gidgee trees when “something” caught Simpson’s eye. It was a piece of iron on ground scorched by fire and turned up by a horse hoof. When the men dismounted to investigate they found a saddle buried in the dirt.
They then found other packs and riding saddles with bits of steel scattered over a wider area. When the men discovered steel buttons and buckles they were convinced they had stumbled on a camp from the distant past – and one whose inhabitants suffered a bad end. Just about to get back to work, Simpson found two stirrup irons of an unusual design. Simpson took them as a keepsake but they were later lost when sold with all his droving gear. Back at camp no one had heard of the relics the men had found. Glenormiston had been settled for 70 years so it seemed likely this camp was from before then. One of the men at the station said it had to be from the Leichhardt expedition as iron and steel could survive a long time in low humidity and arid soil.
Simpson immediately planned a return trip but it would be almost 40 years before it would happen. Simpson and his mates fell out with the station owner not long after the find and they left the property and its tantalising relics. Simpson forgot exactly where the site was and said the relics were ‘disdiscovered”. Simpson would work in many parts of Queensland, but the memory of what he found in Glenormiston never left him nor the nagging feeling it was related to Leichhardt’s lost expedition.
Leichhardt was an impoverished German with few connections who improbably crossed Australia by land south to north over 15 months in 1845-1856 for the loss of only one life. He was pronounced a hero on his return in Sydney and plotted an even bigger adventure east to west. His first go at this was thwarted by floods and illness and he was having a second go when he disappeared without trace. The men on his first east-west trip painted Leichhardt variously as a liar, thief, coward and martinet and his reputation suffered as British Australian collectively turned against the Prussian. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Leichhardt’s reputation as a great explorer was re-established.
Simpson mentioned his Glenormiston finds when he published Packhorse Drover in 1996 and it rekindled his interest in all things Leichhardt. His own reading of Leichhardt’s life convinced him that the German was a superb explorer and competent bushman whose reputation was unfairly maligned. Simpson was also fascinated by the incredible mystery of the German’s disappearance and the many failed attempts to find traces of him and his expedition. Leichhardt had seven or eight men (he left with sevcen but may have picked up an eighth at Mt Abundance), 77 animals, carts, tents and other paraphernalia. There are trees blazed with L and LL scattered through the outback and tales of massacres and “white aborigines” though none have been verified. The only genuine artefact ever found was a gunplate marked “Ludwig Leichhardt 1848″ apparently found in a tree near the WT/NT border. The person who found that is long dead, the tree cannot be found with accuracy and in any case it may have been moved there by Aboriginals not by Leichhardt himself.
One of the many legends about Leichhardt’s disappearance concerned Glenormiston station. When the station was first taken up in 1875, the manager John Richard Skuthorpe was told of a very old white man who live with Aborigines on the Mulligan River south of the station, speaking a language that was not English. When Skuthorpe went to investigate he found the man was dead and was buried with a saddle bag containing his papers. Skuthorpe became convinced the man was the German Classen who went with Leichhardt on the final expedition. Skuthorpe’s belief was based on a story conman Andrew Hume had told about meeting Classen in the NT many years after the disappearance.
Whatever the truth of these stories, Simpson decided to have another go at finding the Glenormiston relics. Simpson contacted the other surviving drover from the 1948 trip and with the help of an ABC documentary team and a few other interested parties, decided to head west in 1996 to find the site. Simpson would have two goes at finding the relics, first in 1996 and again in 1998. Both were frustrating failures as neither he nor the other drover could remember which part of this giant haystack their pin might be buried in. The country may have changed considerably in the intervening 50 years and there was likely considerable regrowth hiding the site. Simpson concluded his report that ‘Although the search was unsuccessful, the fact remains – the relics are there.”
Simpson is still very much there, almost 20 years later. ABC Landline did a profile on the “droving poet” in August this year. The program harked back on Simpson’s part in the glory years of droving until replaced by trucks in the 1960s. Leichhardt was not mentioned but it was clear Simpson was as Professor Bill Gammadge said “the spokesman for a way of life that’s vanishing very quickly”. Any hope that another tantalising clue into Leichhardt’s fate might be discovered is disappearing at the same rate. The Glenormiston Relics, like the fate of Leichhardt, remain a mystery.
Centenary commemorations of individual events are already forming a constant First World War reminder between now and 2018. Those who see the war as four years of senseless capitalistic carnage will no doubt be depressed by the litany of ceremonies but that won’t make them disappear any quicker. For better or worse, the First World War is an important marker of human history and one that cannot be ignored. A better question to ask than ‘why are we marking this anniversary?” is “what is the legacy of the First World War and why is it relevant 100 years later?”
I was confronted by that question last monyh in Laidley, near Brisbane, where the local historical society had re-enacted the recruitment march through the town. There in 1914 like many other towns across the world, young men enthusiastically signed up for “the cause”. As they marched up the main street to the music of the Salvation Army band, they were cheered on by townspeople who were greeted by signs the men held which asked “Will you Join Us?”.
The 2014 march had the band and a cheering audience and even the sign. But what were the 21st century crowd being asked to join if not in a fetish of history? Arguably the most important legacy is the mess that is the Middle East, a direct consequence of the war and a place where Australian forces are still sent to on a regular basis. But that fact is not noticeable in commemorations in Australia where spending on First World War centennial celebrations outstrips any other country.
That will reach a crescendo as Gallipoli approaches its anniversary in April 2015. The motifs will be about mateship, honour and sacrifice and there will be similar breast-beating when it comes to remembering Ypres, the Somme, Villers-Bretennoux and other places where Aussies died in large numbers. I asked the Laidley organiser why he was arranging their commemoration. “Because,” he said, “they died to preserve our way of life.” I didn’t say anything in response because I disagreed with him but didn’t think it polite to argue the point. How exactly, I wondered, did Australians dying in European trenches preserve “our” way of life?
I may have thought his words were simplistic, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. I’ve been thinking about them ever since: What was it in the world that was worth preserving in 1914? The First World War has never had the emotional capacity to engage like the Second World War. It wasn’t a fight against totalitarian evil and all parties seemed equally culpable of warmongering. There were no figures of evil as stark as Hitler and Stalin and there were no scapegoats like the Jews with which to heap homage on. Yet millions would die between 1914 and 1918 for a war that seemed to have no reason for beginning and no excuse to end. No nation in that war bothered to tell the world what its aims were in fighting the war.
Well, none but one. That one was America and it was done in president Woodrow Wilson’s extraordinary Fourteen Points. America was a latecomer to the war but by 1918 had proven it was the world’s superpower in economic capability. The words of its president were listened to as the prognostications of an all-conquering Caesar. In January that year Wilson addressed a joint session of Congress to publicly declare America’s war aims. Wilson was reacting to political pressure not moral obligation. The US had entered the war nine months earlier and there was still some resistance by many Americans wanting neutrality. Wilson had formed a group of experts he called The Inquiry to produce a report of the aims of all countries in the war and determine what America’s goals should be. Their report formed the basis of the Fourteen Points.
The points are almost completely forgotten today but they were hugely influential at the time as a wide-ranging and optimistic blueprint of how a 20th century democratic world might look. The first five points were about general conduct: The first point called for open diplomacy and no secret treaties, the second for freedom of the seas, the third for removal of economic barriers, the fourth about reducing arms and the fifth about balance in resolving colonial disputes. The next seven points delved deeper in the world’s trouble spots. Six called for an independent Russia, seven a free Belgium, eight a restored France, nine a genuine Italian nation, ten the dismantling of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, 11 independence for the Slav countries and Serbian access to the sea, 12 the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire (the point that still reverberates today) and 13 the re-establishment of Poland. The last point called for a new general association of nations to guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity”.
Wilson’s speeches of a new international order had captured the imagination of people across the world desperate for new ideas after the cynicism and destruction of the war. Wilson, said his biographer John Thompson, had the authority of a pope and the might of an emperor. Yet he was a reluctant warrior. A former president of Princeton, Wilson was an unlikely president of America. Elected in 1912, he played a major part in keeping the US out of the war that followed. Indeed, he was re-elected in 1916 on the express promise to keep America neutral. German U-boats dragged him into the war in 1917. But when in December 1918 he became the first serving US president to travel abroad he was treated in London and Paris like the Second Coming.
The Fourteen Points was delivered in January 1918 when the impact of the American war involvement was beginning to be felt. The Germanic centre had fought the allies on two fronts into a gigantic stalemate for three years. American manpower meant they were finally breeching the trenches. It was a Russian victory though that turned the war into defeat. Though the Russians lost much at Brest-Litovsk, they spread ideas of revolution into Germany. To protect its own political flank, Germany agreed to end the war and the country itself was never invaded.
The idealism of Wilson’s points struck an immediate chord, even Lenin applauded its vision as he returned to a disintegrating Russia. Wilson was offering not just peace but a new beginning. The plan was popular in Allied countries and even among the people in the Central Powers: everyone was war-weary after four years. But the plan had many enemies too, particularly among Wilson’s supposed allies who thought he was trying to entrench American hegemony. French president Clemenceau spoke for them when he supposedly said “The Good Lord only gave us Ten Commandments; the American president has given us fourteen.” Clemenceau had reason for his snark. The Points directly contradicted French and British secret plans for management of the world in the post-war period and they offered no clue as to how to deal with Germany.
In October 1918, Germany offered peace on the terms of the Fourteen Points and they later formed the basis for discussion in the Paris Peace Conference. Though Britain and France outfoxed Wilson in Paris and a hostile Senate defeated him in Washington when he returned, the Fourteen Points stand alone as a justification for the war. The points were Euro-centric, flawed and opaque – the former Ottoman countries are still working through an achievable form of government and democracy – but Wilson stands alone in articulating some vision from four years of carnage. I’m still not sure what “our” way of life is, but Wilson’s Points aren’t a bad start for discussion. They deserve better than to be forgotten in the rush of military commemoration.