Former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has died, aged 66. Along with Ian Paisley, McGuinness was one of the two key figures in making the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace agreement work. The partnership of Paisley, a hard-line Unionist preacher and McGuinness, a former-IRA leader was unlikely but somehow worked in a relationship that was so friendly at the end the pair earned the nickname The Chuckle Brothers. These tribal warriors both surprised us as men of peace and brought the province back from the precipice of deadly conflict and made it boringly normal.
Born in Derry in 1950 McGuinness grew up in a city with a long history of sectarian violence. He was educated in Catholic schools but it was Unionists and the British that made him a republican not the Christian Brothers. Derry was predominately Catholic but ruled by Protestants in a gerrymander across provincial and local council boundaries. He spent school holidays on his grandmother’s small farm across the border in Co Donegal and the difference was palpable. “Even at a very young age, I could never understand why, when you went over that line, you were supposed to be in a different country,” he said in a 1998 interview. “Coming back to the North again was always like coming back under a big black cloud.” When aged 15, he was interviewed for a job in a Protestant-owned firm and he said it came down to two questions. “What’s your name? What school did you go to? And out the door.”
Derry Catholics suffered discrimination in other ways. They lived in crowded and inadequate housing and suffered massive unemployment. Decades of resentment blew up in the seminal rebellion year of 1968. A new breed of charismatic leaders like Bernadette Devlin and John Hume demanded change and universal civil rights. Derry was the focus of groups such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the Derry Housing Action Committee aimed at fixing sectarian injustice. However many Protestants saw them as a front for republican organisations and many marches were banned. By the end of the decade tensions in Derry had broken out into violence with the 1969 Battle of the Bogside one of the key starting points of the Troubles. McGuinness, then 19, would later admit that Battle had hardened his republican attitudes.
McGuinness did get a job as an apprentice in a Catholic-owned butchery but butchery elsewhere convinced him his service lay elsewhere. By then he had joined the Provisional IRA though they were not very active in Derry. Most violence in the early days was between soldiers and stone-throwing youths. Matters escalated in 1971 when a British Army soldier was killed when his vehicle was petrol bombed in the Bogside. When two rioters were shot dead in July it was the cue for an IRA campaign in the city. The government introduced internment without trial in August 1971 directed almost exclusively against republicans and 21 people were killed in three days of rioting across Northern Ireland.
McGuinness worked his last day at the bacon counter on 8 August 1971. As internment began he went on the run rarely sleeping in the same bed twice. By 1972, he was second-in-command in the city as Bloody Sunday unfolded in the city. He always denied claims he was involved in bomb handling on the day and the 1990s Saville Inquiry found “he did not engage in any activity that provided any of the soldiers with any justification for opening fire”. Regardless “the Butcher’s Boy” gained notoriety while the Provos bombed Derry commercial centre methodically, with far less civilian casualties than Belfast.
McGuinness was never convicted of any offence in Northern Ireland but served time in the Republic. In 1973, he was convicted by the juryless Special Criminal Court, after being arrested near a car containing 110 kg of explosives and 5000 rounds of ammunition. Like many republicans, McGuinness refused to recognise the court but declared his membership of the Provisional IRA : ‘We have fought against the killing of our people… I am a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann and very, very proud of it”. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment at Port Laoise.
He claims to have left the IRA when he was released in 1974. He joined the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein eventually becoming its best-known face after Belfast boss Gerry Adams. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont in 1982. He did not take his seat but was involved in irregular contact with the British government. As the war dragged on towards an unsatisfactory stalemate the Army used its intelligence unit to infiltrate the IRA in Northern Ireland but the Republicans continued to have success with its operations on the British mainland. The bomb with the largest economic impact was the 1992 attack on the Baltic exchange in the City of London. Three people died but the £800m damage bill eclipsing by £200m the entire damage of the conflict to date and raised the prospect of devastating the British economy. The British made coded messages to the IRA that if they were prepared to call off the violence, anything might be possible.
In 1997 McGuinness was elected to Westminster as the MP for Mid Ulster and in April the following year he was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, ending years of violence. Following its agreement he was nominated by his party for minister for education in the power-sharing executive. Suspicions between republicans and unionists dogged the new body with many talks failing. However when McGuinness helped secure IRA arms decommissioning in 2005 a significant roadblock to peace was achieved. His success helped him lead negotiations during talks that paved the way for the 2007 St Andrew’s Agreement. It resulted in the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a new Northern Ireland Executive and Sinn Fein’s support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, courts and rule of law.
In May 2007 McGuinness became deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, with former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley elected first minister. While the disagreements about the status of Northern Ireland never went away, the pair forged a remarkable partnership successfully bringing investment and business confidence back to the province and a sense of optimism. When Paisley died, McGuinness held back the tears as he said “Over a number of decades we were political opponents and held very different views on many, many issues but the one thing we were absolutely united on was the principle that our people were better able to govern themselves than any British government.” McGuinness, like Paisley, proved to be just as astute in peace as he was in war.
One of Australia’s greatest hidden gifts to the life that colonised it is an enormous water resource far below the ground. Spanning four states and territories over a fifth of the continent and continuing out into the Gulf of Carpentaria it is the Great Artesian Basin, and is the largest and deepest artesian water basin in the world. In some places it does resemble a basin, but it is mostly solid rock with water stored in the pores.
The GAB’s water is ancient, falling as rain or leaks from rivers west of the Great Dividing Range over a million years ago. That water takes a slow journey of one to five metres a year percolating through cracks in sandstone sheets (aquifers) held together under pressure from the impermeable stones (aquitards) above and beneath. As well as heading roughly west the water also trickles down under gravity.
Over time water is stored in vast quantities. It emerges to the ground naturally under pressure through springs and geological faults. Native plants and animals relied on springs in parched landscapes, particularly in the south-west where the Basin is shallower. Humans arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago and quickly fanned out to every corner. It is likely they swiftly found this precious resource. Burial sites 20,000 years old showed evidence of trading posts alongside artesian springs. Use of bore water dramatically increased with the arrival of Europeans into central Australia.
The first bore in 1878 found water 53m below the surface at Killara in north-west New South Wales. Within ten years, substantial finds were made at Cunnamulla and especially Barcaldine, both in Queensland. The Barcaldine bore pumped 700,000 litres a day unleashing a drilling boom and pastoral settlement in the central west. By 1900 there were more than 500 bores in the Basin thought it wasn’t easy to find water and not all were successful.
Enough reliable water was pumped out to support 120 towns and hundreds of properties in Outback Australia. Initially the pastoral industries took the most water but more recently water release by oil and gas has caught up. Mining of copper, uranium, coal, bauxite and opals also depends on water, much of it artesian, while tourist spas are also an intensive user of Basin water.
Human activity will unlikely ever dry up the Basin. In 120 years of bores about 0.1 percent of the total water was extracted from the Basin. But what it has done is lower the pressure declining the flow of water, sometimes by 80%. A third of bores have stopped flowing altogether. The springs have been severely damaged by excavation, stock and humans while exotic pests degrade the area around springs. Early bore technology was flawed too with many leaking and most were uncontrolled in their discharge of water, and 95% of the water ended up into open drains.
Diminishing flow was recognised as early as 1912 when New South Wales introduced licensing of bores and eventually vested groundwater to the state. They also brought in bore construction standards. In 1990 governments agreed on a Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI) to cap and pipe bores. Across Australia capping programs rehabilitated free-flowing bores and replaced drains with pipes but the majority of the 3000 uncontrolled bores and 34,000km of open drains remain in place.
A Strategic Management Plan was put in place in 2000 and agreed by the Council Of Australian Governments. But just like the Murray Darling (river) Basin plan, the issue of licences and multiple jurisdictions means the issue is inescapably political. The jury remains out on the impact of the extraction of large use of water for mining, especially coal seam gas mining. Graziers have to be convinced capping and piping will help them decrease their operating costs as well as increasing the pressure of the water and the reliability of its supply.
In Queensland the GAB is managed by a 10-year-plan which expires in June this year. Queensland’s government wants to cap and pipe all its uncapped bores and bore drains in the next 10-year cycle. It is, as the government policy maker I spoke to told me, “an aspirational target” but it helps show the state is serious about the problem. The new draft plan (now out for community consultation) allows for action if a licence holder fails to comply with conditions.
There are estimated to be more than 25,000 bores tapping the Queensland GAB, taking 315,000 ML a year. A diagram from the draft plan I saw at a Mount Isa community meeting showed that in 2016 around 90,400 ML was accounted for in losses through seepage and evaporation from uncontrolled bores and open bore drains. This exceeds the amount extracted by stock and domestic of 66,000 ML and the oil and gas industries 64,000 ML with other uses accounting for 93,000 ML.
Since 1989 almost 1000 bores have been rehabilitated under government-funded program but an estimated one in five uncapped bores in Queensland remain untreated while 28% of bore drains have yet to be replaced with pipelines. Under the plan all stock and domestic water users will be required to deliver water through water-tight delivery systems by the time the plan expires in 2027. Stock and domestic licences that permit free flowing bores or bore drains will require a bore management plan outlining what steps will be taken to deliver a water-tight delivery system.
The future of the Great Artesian Basin is exciting if it is managed properly. GAB water has a future as an energy source. Birdsville already has a geothermal power plant and other towns such as Winton are looking to copy it. It will make water available for future development and social and cultural activities that depend on water, including for the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in native title areas. It is crucial it is not destroyed in the same way humans are destroying Australia’s other natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef.
When I was planning a long weekend in Brisbane, I asked my up-with-the-music-pulse mate Muddy were there any interesting bands playing the city that weekend. Well, he said, the Pixies are playing the Thursday night and a few mutual friends were going. That was enough for me. Though not a huge fan, I did have a Pixies album in my collection (admittedly it’s a “best of” but whatever,). I was also aware of their reputation as one of the most influential bands of the 90s, though I missed them at their peak. Importantly there were still tickets available and with my credit card still smoking from the cost of the flights from Mount Isa, I forked out another $100 there and then to join the fun.
The gig was on in the Riverstage, a new venue for me and on the Thursday night the meeting point was the Buffalo Bar before a pleasant walk through the Botanical Gardens. Just outside the Riverstage venue was this Polo with the personalised plates “Pixi35”. The car was empty but we presume there was a big fan nearby somewhere.
Then it was inside the venue which was far from packed on the night. The venue holds 15,000 but there was only 3000-4000 or so inside. Yet the queue for the bar was a mile long so it was a dry concert for us. The other annoying fact was the 10pm curfew, crass stupidity imposed by Brisbane City Council. Given there are no homes for at least 500m in any direction, perhaps they are worried we’d keep the fruit bats awake. Dumb.
I took a photo on my phone of the foursome I went with but Muddy and Hugh have disappeared into the gloom while JD is visible but engrossed in his phone. That made the photo all about Joe, who at least looks happy to be here.
Muddy and I took a spot towards the front. Hugh claims they were only a row or so behind us, but that’s a quantum difference in moshpitness. In any case, it’s lights on and excitement building as the band is about to come to the stage around 8.15pm.
Finally the band take the stage and blast into their set without too much formality. As the Brisbane Times reviewer said, the Pixies don’t leave time to draw breath with 28 songs in 90 minutes. And it wasn’t long before I was dancing along with their pounding rhythm. The other comment I made to Muddy was that I like a band that does the old-fashioned thing of putting their name on the drums.
Singer and lead guitarist Black Francis didn’t interact much with the crowd preferring to let the music do the talking for him. I was surprised how many songs I knew Veloria, Where is My Mind, Monkey’s Gone to Heaven, Here Comes Your Man, Debaser and finishing up with Into the White. Plus several more I’ve forgotten.
Paz Lenchantin has been the bass player since 2014 replacing original female bassist Kim Deal. She was ace and sang a couple of songs too.
The Pixies were wrapped up and encored out by 9.45pm (at least plenty of time to find another pub). Wouldn’t rush to go back to see them again but they have a great catalogue and entertained with their performance. They were a tight outfit on stage and the drummer/bass combo was top notch. Yeah Blank Frank’s bantz was a disappointment but there is an undoubted aura of something special.
For a far more musically considered take on the Pixies – and better photos – check out Muddy’s blog piece with links to other reviews. While I admitted took it a bit for granted on the night, reading the reviews reminds me of their importance in the scheme of things and it was a privilege to watch them play. When I got back to Mount Isa and told people I was at a big concert in Brisbane on the weekend, the usual response was, “oh, did you enjoy Adele?”
I hate to admit it but I shed tears while watching the new film Australian film Lion. I’ve always hating crying at the movies ever since I was kid and used to laugh at my mum when she cried at the drop of a hat in any emotional scene of a movie, no matter how silly the premise. “Stop it, you” she would say to me while drying her tears, her anger at me betrayed by a smile. Mum has been dead ten years now but I remembered her and her tears as I watched the first meeting of a man and his mother in 25 years at the end of Lion. I was annoyed at myself, knowing full well my emotions were being played on by the filmmakers but like my own mother all those years ago, I could not help myself. My eyes are capable of betraying me again at the memory the following morning.
Lion tells an incredible true story and it has been turned into one of the best Australian films in years. Saroo Brierley was born in 1981 in a small village near the Central Indian city of Khandwa. His father had left home and the desperately poor family relied on the money his mother made from carrying rocks from a quarry. Saroo’s older brother Guddu supplemented their income by stealing coal from trains to sell for food and would take the five-year-old Saroo with him on adventures. One night Guddu and Saroo travel to a nearby city on a train where Guddu earned money working as a sweeper. The pair get separated and Saroo falls asleep on a train. When he wakes up his brother is gone and the train was moving.
Saroo could not escape from an empty locked cabin and his calls for help at stations at were unheeded. After two days the train ended up in faraway Calcutta – 1500km from Khandwa. At the station Saroo escapes into the throng but is lost in a strange city where no one speaks his native Hindi. Sleeping rough, he narrowly avoids being kidnapped at night into child slavery and according to the film he meets a woman who befriends him and takes him home (in real life it was a male railway worker) .
But Saroo becomes suspicious of her intentions when she invites a man over who checks him out and he distrusts their promises to help him find his family. Saroo escapes once more until he befriends a man, who takes him to the police station. The illiterate Saroo tells police he from “Ganatelay” but no one knows of a place of that name.
Saroo is placed in an orphanage but ads in the Calcutta paper fail to locate his family. Eventually he agrees to be adopted by a Tasmanian couple and he flies alone to Tasmania, where the Brierley couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham take him home. They fill his life with love so he is happy though he is affected by a second Indian adoption into the family a year later. The second boy is less happy and practises self harm but they get on with life regardless.
The timeframe moves forward from the late 1980s to 2008 when Saroo Brierley is now an Australianised young man, played by Dev Patel. Saroo moves from Tasmania to Melbourne to learn hotel management and becomes involved with an American student (Rooney Mara). They are invited to a meal at the house of an Indian couple where the sight of traditional Indian food stirs long hidden memories in Saroo. He tells them his story of travelling two days on a train to Calcutta and all he can remember is a train station with a water tank. Someone suggests he work out how fast Indian trains travelled in the 1980s and to use Google Earth to find his home.
It was a massive undertaking but it was a search that was to obsess Saroo. Working out in a 1500km radius from Calcutta he finally found landmarks in Google earth that matched his childhood memories: a waterfall where he played as a boy, the quarry where his mother worked, a train station with a water tower and a town called Ganesh Talai. This was his hme town he garbled as “Ganatelay”. From memory he followed the route to where he believed his house was and knew he had found his home.
In 2013 Saroo flew to Ganesh Talai. To his disappointment the old house was long abandoned and turned into an animal compound. With his Hindi long forgotten, he had difficulty making people understand his quest. Finally he told an English-speaking local he was born here and the man took him to meet an old woman. It was Saroo’s mother, who instantly recognised her son. The proof was a bump on the head from a long-forgotten accident when he was run over by a bike while carrying a watermelon and the melon smashed against his head.
After many tears of happiness (theirs and mine), Saroo asks about his older brother. he was dead, he was told. There were tears of sadness soon replaced with more tears of joy when his mother told him a younger sister was still alive. The film closes with the real Saroo bring his real Tasmanian mother to India to see his real real Indian mother. The end credits tell three important facts. Firstly Saroo’s brother Guddu died the night he went missing, after being struck by a train. Secondly Saroo’s mother never gave up hope of finding her other boy and deliberately stayed in the same village so that she would be easy to find. Lastly, Seroo found out that not only did he pronounce the name of the town wrong, he also pronounced his own name wrong. He was Sheru, not Saroo. In Hindi Sheru means Lion.
The New Yorker was right to say the second half of the film was a slow and muted affair after “the Dickensian punch of the first” but the story of Saroo’s disappearance and rediscovery remains remarkable. It also throws necessary light on the fact that over 90,000 children go missing in India each year, something authorities prefer to ignore, with public officials complicit in the problem. According to children’s rights group Bachpan Bachao Andolan 10 times that number are trafficked, and forced to beg or work in farms, factories and homes, or sold for sex and marriage. The tears of Lion are nothing compared to the thousands of innocent young lives destroyed every year for profit.
With Native Title changes in the news again, it seems timely to look back on the 25th anniversary of the Mabo High Court case that started it all. In 1992 a High Court case was heard for a group of remote Torres Strait Islanders that would have profound impact on land law in Australia, indeed in all settler nations. The case, known as Mabo for its most well-known plaintiff, built on a rich judicial heritage to establish native title in Australia. The story that follows is a greatly condensed summary of Bryan Keon-Cohen’s A Mabo Memoir” with the author being one of the lawyers for Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs in a case that lasted 10 years.
The landmark decisions of US Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1820s and 1830s established the modern doctrines followed in New Zealand and Canada that recognise native title but no case in Australia succeeded until Mabo. Mabo was built on the Gove case of 1971 which was a legal failure but a pioneering case never appealed to the High Court. The 1836 New South Wales Supreme Court proposition that no law existed in the colony before 1788 was upheld by the Privy Council in 1889 (a decision Justice Lionel Murphy called a “convenient falsehood” in 1979) and was never debated or challenged in the constitutional debates of the 1890s.
In the Gove case (Milirrpum v Nabalco) the Yolgnu people of Arnhem Land argued the common law recognised pre-existing traditional rights to land founded on prior occupation, customs and traditions, enforceable even after British colonisation. Justice Blackburn decided no such doctrine was known to Australian law “for want of authority to support it” though he admitted customary laws were a recognisable system of law. The case did eventually lead to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) which recognised traditional rights to land in the Territory.
However in Queensland the Bjelke-Petersen government went in the opposite direction proposing to remove the minimal protection of Aboriginals and Islanders to reside on lands gazetted as “reserves” under the Land Act 1910 (Qld) and it was the Torres Strait Islanders who led the charge against that move.
About four to five thousand people live in the Torres with less than 500 on the western island of Mer (renamed Murray Island by the white newcomers). Rich volcanic soil allowed Meriam residents to do gardening with associated customs and traditions, which became the core of the Mabo case. Cultivation of bananas and yams was associated with a local cult called “Bomai-Malo” which featured prominently in evidence.
Mer was not included in Cook’s 1770 claim of possession of eastern Australia. Christianity arrived with the London Missionary Society one hundred years later and over 30 years their violent evangelical Christianity profoundly impacted Meriam practices. The LMS arrival “The Coming of the Light” is still celebrated every July 1, a fact Queensland used to argue Meriam customs had vanished along with traditional rights to land.
Between 1872 and 1879 the Torres Strait Islands were annexed to Queensland through instruments issued by Whitehall and Brisbane, administered through Thursday Island. This late arrival meant Islanders were subject to fewer destructive influences than the mainland though the Queensland system soon affected all aspects of Islanders’ life. The first Government Resident John Douglas was appointed in 1886 and when he died in 1904 control passed to the Aboriginal Chief Protector whose powers were established under the 1897 Protection Act making islanders subject to the same extensive and restrictive controls as those on mainland Aboriginal reserves.
After a three-year strike on Mer in the 1930s was ended by the arrest of island ringleaders a new Torres Strait Islanders Act 1939 vested some local control in councils but maintained the repression of prior laws and Queensland departmental control. By-laws established offenses such as fornication, adultery, “message-carrying” and domestic squabbling, with fines, imprisonment and banishment from the island for “offenders”. The Department established “birth-to-death” cards which contained an ongoing record of most aspects of person’s life, cards which were used to great effect to attack Eddie Mabo in the court case.
In 1980-81 the Bjelke-Petersen government decided to repeal the 1939 act, revoke island reserves and introduce Deeds of Grant in Trust (DOGITs) in their place. This was Joh’s attempt to head off land rights, but this decision helped trigger the Mabo case.
Eddie Mabo was born on Mer on 29 June 1936 but his mother died just five days later. Mabo claimed he was eventually adopted by her brother Bennie Mabo. When Bennie and his wife died without producing offspring of their own, Mabo claimed to inherit his land under Meriam custom and tradition, a claim hotly contested by his cousin and adoptive sister and eventually denied at the trial. Mabo was educated in Meriam lore, traditional land management, Christianity and traditional beliefs. In 1956 Mabo pleaded guilty to an offence against the community by-laws which contributed to his alienation from Meriam leaders and he left the island first to Thursday Island and then to the mainland. In 1959 then a 23-year-old labourer at Halifax he married 16-year-old Bonita, a descendant of Kanakas from Vanuatu.
Mabo became involved with Indigenous organisations in Townsville and established a Black Community School there in 1971. Working as a gardener at James Cook University he began researching his background and discovered that under Australian law he did not own his traditional land at Mer.
As the Bjelke-Petersen rammed through its DOGIT legislation it was opposed by Aboriginal and Islander groups who contested the autonomy of trustees to lease DOGIT areas to outsiders. Eddie Mabo and Noel Loos organised a lands rights conference in Townsville in 1981 where Mabo spoke about traditional land ownership on Mer. Reverend Dave Passi also spoke of his ownership of Meriam land which he said was threatened by the DOGIT system. The conference discussed a possible High Court challenge which Barbara Hocking of the Melbourne Bar said might prompt political action even if unsuccessful. A group of Mer delegates decided they would take a Gove-type case to the High Court. This was purely about land rights and not an issue of independence or sovereignty. Other court cases had found sovereignty not justiciable in an Australian court.
In 1982 five plaintiffs representing the Meriam group (Mabo, his elderly aunt Celuia Mapo Salee, brothers Dave and Sam Passi and Councillor James Rice) handed a 32-page statement of claim to the High Court based on relevant facts, law and the detailed testimony about their gardening and fishing activities with proceedings served against Queensland and the Commonwealth. A fact-finding trip to Mer uncovered records of a 1913 sale of a block of land by an Islander to Queenslander for use as “Jail House, Court House and Recreation Reserve” and also a Murray Island Community Council and Court which operated from the 1890s.
In August 1982 Queensland issued a summons to strike out the claim as not worthy of consideration accompanied by an affidavit sworn by Patrick Killoran, Director of Queensland’s Aboriginal Affairs department. Killoran claimed the “former modes of life” of Meriam people was “fundamentally and irrevocably modified by outsiders”. The plaintiffs counter-applied to have the case heard immediately referred to the full High Court for hearing. Neither application succeeded in court and the parties compromised on an agreed statement of facts and questions of law to be presented to a single High Court judge. After two years however, Queensland agreed to none of the facts making a complex and lengthy trial inevitable.
A 1984 directions hearing achieved little other than a Queensland request for the plaintiffs to amend the statement of claim, an attempt to bury them in paperwork. But with Queensland’s legal options dwindling the Bjelke-Petersen government decided to pass legislation to stop it dead. Claiming the case challenged Queensland’s annexation of Mer (it didn’t), the government passed the Queensland Coast Islands Declaratory Bill 1985 to vest the island in the Crown and free it from “any right, interest or claim that the occupants of the land may have claimed to have existed prior to annexation”. Once passed, Queensland’s lawyers amended their case with new material which relied on the new act as a complete defence to the action.
In response the plaintiffs issued a “demurrer”proceeding designed to have the High Court declare the Act unconstitutional. Their grounds were that the 1985 parliament could not retrospectively change the meaning of the 1879 law, Queensland did not have the power to pass laws to extinguish traditional land rights, and it did not address the Commonwealth-controlled “reefs and seas”. However in the end they succeeded only because the law was inconsistent with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Remaining under High Court jurisdiction, the matter was referred to the Queensland Supreme Court in 1986 to establish findings of fact.
The first phase of the trial under Justice Martin Moynihan came in late 1986 with the plaintiffs suffering blows of illness of judge and lawyers, and the withdrawal of the Passi brothers from the case (with Mabo’s aunt now dead that left just him and Rice as plaintiffs). Queensland’s objections to Mabo’s testimony as hearsay were so frequent it broke the flow of evidence and the judge decided defer all rulings on admissibility until the end of the evidence. Moynihan ruled Mabo’s witness statement inadmissible meaning his lawyers had to rely solely on oral evidence. Mabo did describe the legend of octopus-shaped Malo who designated the eight tribes into eight distinct parts of the island with inheritance passing down the eldest male line.
The court adjourned until early 1987 but was abandoned when the plaintiffs convinced Toohey J to hear the demurrer in the High Court in what would become known as Mabo (No 1). There was another directions hearing which left the matter of evidence in Moynihan’s hands but established that some traditional evidence was valid. Ten days later Moynihan decided to “let it all in and rule at the end”, in other words let High Court decide on admissibility, a decision the plaintiffs supported and Queensland did not appeal.
Mabo (No 1) was served in the High Court in March 1987 with a directions hearing in April. The parties agreed that if the demurrer failed the case would be over but if they did strike down the Declaratory Act the trial must continue. A full High Court was scheduled to hear the demurrer case in 1988. That allowed enough time to study the case history of “terra nullius”. Australian law was based on the Privy Council 1889 case Cooper v Stuart about English law relating to estates and had nothing to do with Indigenous people in colonies. The question did English common law recognise pre-existing traditional land rights when introduced into the Straits in 1879 would be the core question in Mabo (No 2).
Mabo (No 1) was almost undone on Day 1 when J Gerard Brennan admitted his son Jesuit priest Frank Brennan was an adviser to Aboriginal people but the plaintiffs breathed a sigh of relief when he was not asked to disqualify himself. The plaintiffs argued the Queensland Act was inconsistent with Commonwealth laws especially the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. Queensland argued native title was extinguished in 1879 when, according to Queensland’s Solicitor General, “there was a peaceful annexation of people who were, at the time, thought to be uncivilised and who were thought not to have an organised society with an established system of law.” However the court did not accept Queensland’s assertion it could not be re-examined by re-assessing historical facts.
Queensland’s lawyers told the court “they were instructed” (which was code for “they would rather not say this”) there was no record of any by-law approving the island courts. The plaintiffs replied the court did exist and it made decisions which were signed off by the government. The hearing lasted three days and then there was a nine month delay for the outcome.
The case succeeded 4-3 with Justices Brennan, Deane, Toohey and Gaudron agreeing the Declaratory Act was racially discriminatory. The Mabo (No 1) decision meant the claim could continue though whether it would succeed remained open. It was also an important decision for native title as it meant those interests must be dealt with on an equal footing as all other equivalent property rights.
Preparation for Mabo (No 2) helped by another development, a successful Indian rights case Guerin, handed down by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1984. However having done little for seven years the Commonwealth now hardened its interest in the case’s offshore claims and threatened another demurrer case about proprietary rights on the high seas. After two and a half years the Brisbane Supreme Court trial resumed in front of Moynihan J in May 1989. Queensland used its detailed and intrusive knowledge of Islander family details to undermine Mabo’s testimony especially about claimed inheritance and adoption.
Mabo disputed records that showed him returned to his birth father in 1947 however Moynihan J preferred the written record over Mabo’s evidence. Queensland undermined his testimony to be a descendent of traditional leaders or “Aiet” which the state showed was a personal name, a fact that contributed to the judge disbelieving Mabo’s testimony about his own interests. But while Mabo’s personal claim was jeopardised his evidence on the system was untarnished and compelling. For the plaintiffs’ case it was the recognition of the system upon which rights and interests were founded that was the critical question for the High Court.
On May 22, the court moved from Brisbane to Mer so Mabo could point out the boundary-markers. They arrived in the middle of an industrial dispute with island municipal garbage collectors on strike forcing Mabo and his supporters to cart rubbish away on a Sunday so the judge would not see the mess. On the first day Mabo showed a mound of rocks to the court which he said were boundary markers and the court visited the nearby island of Dawar which had an area of claim of plaintiff James Rice.
The following morning Moynihan J opened court at the community hall calling it an “historic occasion” and he said sitting there helped him understand the evidence about Murray Island, its people and culture. The court heard 11 witnesses and then moved to Thursday Island where another five witnesses were heard. Meriam evidence touched on aspects of customs and traditions of land and sea, ownership and stewardship, and boundaries and Island Court disputes. It also revealed islander opposition to plaintiff claims, especially Mabo’s on account of him leaving the island many years ago. However encouraged by events in Mer, Dave Passi applied to be re-admitted as plaintiff though brother Sam stayed out due to fear of costs. Dave Passi’s readmittance was critical as Moynihan’s Determination would later show, because only his claims had a factual foundation solid enough to proceed to the High Court.
Another significant moment came in July 1989 when the plaintiffs dropped the claim against the “outer seas” outside the jurisdiction of Queensland which dismissed the Commonwealth from the proceedings. Evidence concluded in Brisbane with the testimony of Rice and Passi. Rice was a retired school teacher, an island councillor and an Assembly of God official who supported Mabo’s territorial claim but denied Mabo was an island leader. Queensland claimed Rice was subject to a tenancy agreement but Rice could not recall ever paying anything to anyone. Anglican minister Dave Passi was the final witness. Passi said his ministry was influenced by traditional custom “Malo’s Law” which he said was a “law of preservation of land, soil, trees”. Passi said he could see God sending Malo to the island “to prepare the place for the Coming of the Gospel.” For Passi the ancient Bomai-Malo cult with its laws of Malo and the LMS Coming of the Light in 1871 fused together in one philosophy. His oral testimony of how land was transferred by the Passi clan was the clearest display of traditional landholding arrangements and when asked how he “inherited interests” to his land, he replied “I am a Passi. I am born into it, and I am born into the ownership of the land.” That ownership did not extend to the women. “If my sister wants to use the land, she may use it, but will not own it.” It was patriarchal but it did establish to the court it was a recognisable system of law.
Among the other witnesses in Brisbane was Meriam elder Henry Kabere, a close friend and supporter of Rice and a huge source of traditional knowledge. Kabere described a story his grandmother told him of a gunship that landed with the LMS in 1879, which fitted the narrative of the plaintiffs that the area was colonised by conquest not settlement. Kabere also testified the Island Courts used Malo law in their decision-making, including island adoption of extended families members. Expert witness Dr Jeremy Beckett, who studied on Mer, agreed most social interaction on the island was based on kinship. Dr Beckett also agreed the Malo precepts were a system with “fairly simple principles” but it was “in the majority of cases, effective”. It was also the only thing the LMS did not try to suppress or affect the rules and regulations.
On July 3, the plaintiffs withdrew part of its claim for Eddie Mabo based in the fact they could not prove he was a leader, the same day as Queensland began its defence. Queensland denied the existence of traditional rights to land, and even if they did exist they were extinguished by the extension of sovereignty in 1879. Nor, they said, was Mabo adopted by Benny Mabo and had no right to Benny’s land. Their historical evidence included the infamous exhibit 80, 42 massive bound volumes of archival records and the whole of the Island Courts record, (which suited the plaintiffs but the judge called it “terrifying”.
Queensland’s most significant witness was former DAIA director (1964-1985) Patrick Killoran. Reportedly close to Bjelke-Petersen, his Department ran as a secretive and defensive government agency exercising almost total control of Indigenous lives in the state. Killoran spoke extensively of the paternalistic administration of island life and tendered the social history cards that governed all aspects of islander lives. The thrust of his evidence under questioning was to avoid any concessions that might preserve native-title rights using obfuscation and irrelevancies. Killoran dismissed the Island Court as dealing with “minor stuff” and would not conceded it fixed land disputes on traditional island principles. Even where evidence was found of a government land payment for a kindergarten in 1968, Queensland claimed this was an ex-gratia payment to keep Islanders quiet and comfortable. Killoran said it was Crown land and the word “purchase” in the correspondence was merely “intended by my Department to be a convenient shorthand method of referring to those persons’ loss of use of the land concerned.” Killoran also dismissed Mabo’s adoption calling it “shuffling of kiddies” to get the maximum child benefit payment.
On completion of the evidence Moynihan J asked for written submissions on “the crunch issues” – the existence and nature of “the system”. The plaintiffs submitted 150 pages drawing an analogy with the common law system as it evolved over 500 years. “Few of its details are the same… Yet we have no difficulty in dealing with the system as a continuity over such a vast period, and despite such vast changes”. Queensland produced a lengthy document in reply disputing the facts of the case which had to be replied to before the judge produced his own fourth version of each numbered fact in his Determination.
Oral submission then began in September 1989. Queensland argued the island court records showed little about a system with no reference to Malo’s Law. It said Britain did not recognise native custom in the Torres Strait Islanders in 1879 because there was no system in place “to deal with the problems of administration”.
Justice Martin Moynihan’s 497-page Determination of Facts was handed down in Brisbane on November 16, 1990. The key chapter was on Murray Islands Society and Land which the High Court focussed on rather than the individual claims. Moynihan J acknowledged the islanders strong sense of relationship to their islands saying “they have no doubt that the Murray Islands are theirs” which was later relied on by one of the High Court judges. Moynihan noted the knowledge of boundaries and the shame of trespass were cultural attitudes “rooted in the pre-contact past”. He rejected the plaintiff rights to the reefs and reef flats ruling out the tidal zone from the high-water mark. He also rejected Mabo’s claim of adoption and therefore his personal land claim. However he agreed the plaintiffs’ traditional rights and interest in land founded on Meriam customs and traditions had survived in legally recognisable form.
Neither side appealed the Determination and the case proceeded to the High Court for final appeal. The common law precedent standing against the plaintiffs was a Privy Council decision on 1889 Cooper v Stuart which purported to confirm the legal assumption underpinning colonisation: Australian colonies were settled not conquered by Britain and the doctrine of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) applied. However while terra nullius provided legal and policy context, it was rarely mentioned in court. Mabo was set for a three-day hearing in May 1991 (and took four), a lengthy time for the High Court and an indication of its importance as a test case. The key issue would be what happened to traditional rights on annexation.
The biggest difficulty the plaintiffs had in trial was in determining whether the claims were individual or communal which encouraged Queensland to claim Moynihan J’s findings were inadequate to allow legal argument to proceed. However Queensland had problems too, its argument no ordered system of land tenure survived annexation did not impress the judges. They accepted Moynihan’s Determination that possession did exist under an identifiable system. Deane J asked Queensland’s team if the Islanders’ status was trespassers after annexation. And after some squirming they admitted Gaudron J’s point “the native population could have lawfully been driven into the sea”. This was not a good look for Queensland which had stressed the state had protected the Islanders on a reserve created for their benefit.
Queensland mentioned the Irish case of Tanistry, where land held under the Tanistry tenure was inherited by the deceased eldest son. The state argued this custom was abolished by the introduction of the English Common Law to Ireland, as were the customs and traditions of Mer in 1879. Queensland also attempted to show that Marshall’s American judgement in Johnson v McIntosh gave the sovereign power free right to terminate right of occupancy. When challenged by Brennan J this was not an “enabling doctrine” for the common law, Queensland’s solicitor-general Geoff Davies reluctantly agreed that “unfortunately the position seems to have been very much in those days that might was right and that those who controlled the country determined what the rights were”.
Following the hearing Eddie Mabo was diagnosed with cancer and his health declined rapidly. He died in Townsville on January 21, 1992. After his grave was vandalised by unknown offenders his family eventually re-buried him on Mer. His death left just two plaintiffs Dave Passi and James Rice to face the High Court judgement on June 3, 1992. Five judgements were delivered, two joint decisions, two separate decisions by Brennan and Toohey JJ (all supporting the plaintiff) and a dissenting decision by Dawson J. Brennan J’s was regarded as the most comprehensive and influential judgement. The six assenting judges agreed the common law recognised an enforceable traditional property right based on provable customs and traditions – native title – which was not extinguished by British sovereignty in Australia or the introduction of British common law in each of the colonies. However being a subsidiary of the ultimate title of lands vested in the Crown at the time of colonisation, native title could be extinguished or impaired by subsequent Crown acts especially in the granting of fee simple titles or commercial leases to settlers. At a stroke this decision saved the commonwealth, states and grantees from Indigenous claims of invalidity and compensation.
Mason CJ later said the doctrine of terra nullius was not central to the decision nor was there any challenge to British sovereignty. He also denied the court was influenced by writings of Henry Reynolds, especially in his 1987 book The Law of the Land. The central question was whether native title was recognised by the common law at the colonisation of a “settled” country to which the answer was “yes”. He said settlement was appropriate, because “the indigenous inhabitants were regarded as barbarous or unsettled, and without a settled law.” However Brennan, Deane and Gaudron JJ rejected terra nullius as outmoded and unacceptable. Brennan J said it was unjust to characterise pre-colonial Australian inhabitants as “people too low in the scale of social organisation to be acknowledged as possessing rights and interests in land.”
It was this judgement that made Mabo so important not just for Torres Strait Islanders but also Australia’s Aboriginal people. Any group who exhibited systems of custom and tradition had rights and interests in their traditional country. Deane and Gaudron JJ reached into Australian colonial history to describe Governor King’s 1804 actions on the Hawkesbury River as the “first stages of the conflagration of oppression and conflict which was, over the following century, to spread across the continent to dispossess, degrade and devastate the Aboriginal peoples and leave a national legacy of unutterable shame”.
While the Australian’s editorial (January 26, 1993) applauded the decision as common sense saying “European settlers did not occupy a country free of inhabitants”, others were less measured. Historian Geoffrey Blainey claimed the decision could “turn Australia in two separate nations” while Victorian premier Jeff Kennett said “back yards were at risk” (they weren’t). Most hysterical was Western Mining chairman Hugh Morgan who claimed the High Court pandered to “the guilt industry” and gave substance to the “Bolshevik left for a separate Aboriginal state”.
Historian Bain Attwood argued the sense of national crisis provoked by Mabo arose from the challenge some saw the decision posed to Australia’s sense of self. But its enduring legacy was the Keating government’s legislative response. The Native Title Bill 1993 initially had three elements; native title legislation, an Indigenous land acquisition and management fund, and a “social justice” package which never saw the light of day. The land acquisition fund was operated by the Indigenous Land Corporation and by 2009 had acquired 222 properties in a land area of 5.7 million hectares.
States followed with their own legislation but the Native Title Act was substantially amended by the Howard government’s Ten Point Plan in 1998 following the Wik decision. Deputy prime minister Tim Fischer infamously claimed those changes provided “bucket loads of extinguishment” and indeed validly extinguished native title for thousands of land interests granted by the Crown since 1788. It also restricted the “future act” regime stopping claimants from negotiating terms with miners on claimed land prior to resolution of the claim.
From 1994 to 2010 indigenous groups made 1556 applications for native title covering 13% of Australia’s land mass with 458 of those claims still before the court as of 2010. The real success of the legislation has been agreement-making with 470 Indigenous Land Use Agreements signed off by 2010, using native title for community purposes such as energy facilities, health care centres and gas pipelines. The people of Mer negotiated an ILUA in 2010 to permit the building of a new primary school and associated roads and services.
But the law remains, as Justice Michael Kirby said in 2002, “an impenetrable jungle of legislation” that was difficult to navigate. In 2008 Rudd minister Jenny Macklin delivered the Mabo lecture where she highlighted three areas for reform: the complex and slow claims processes, inadequate representation for claimants, and the flow of payments to claimants and native title holders. Political will remains lacking to make these necessary changes happen. It is unlikely current changes before parliament will in any way help the Indigenous cause.
My cartoonist Bret Currie sent in a cartoon to me this morning as he does every Friday morning for the Saturday edition of the paper. They usually raise a smile but initially I was a bit troubled by this one on Australia Day (which was the day before). My first reaction was dislike, this went well beyond caricature and into stereotype. Normally I put his cartoon straight up on our Facebook page but I hesitated this morning.
Then I looked at it again and smiled and realised Bret had achieved his objective. People will like it, I concluded. Plus he was making a sharp point about Australian cultural values. I immediately put it up on our Facebook page with the caption “Typing this very quietly in case anyone is suffering a ‘reaction’ to Australia Day, as Bret Currie infers in this week’s cartoon.” And 12 hours later there hasn’t been a single negative reaction.
Perhaps because in the end that’s all Australia Day is, a day for partying with food, drink and sport. With those values it doesn’t matter what date it is held. I have long held January 26 is inappropriate and Australia Day should be the fourth Monday in January. It would still occasionally fall on January 26 though it wouldn’t solve the problem Bret points out about fair dinkum sickies the day after. But it is less political charged than having it on January 26 all the time.
Just how politically charged the current date is noted by some of the rot I saw today from government members when asked whether the date should change. Barnaby Joyce was stupid-in-chief. He not only attacked the idea of change but those wanting change. “I’m just sick of these people who every time they want to make us feel guilty about it,” he said. Joyce said the reason people want the date to change is not because it was wrong but simply they wanted the white Brits who still loved January 26 to feel guilty. But having said it’s all about me, he then went Full Metal Barnaby:
“They don’t like Christmas, they don’t like Australia Day, they’re just miserable … and I wish they’d crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit.”
Eh? They don’t like Christmas??
Who doesn’t like Christmas? I like Christmas, Barnaby, and if you mean the vast majority of Indigenous people who support a change, well I couldn’t answer for them, but I’d suspect the answer is a) actually, they do like Christmas and b) it has bugger all to do with Australia Day.
But “they’re just miserable”. It’s obvious that the “they” Joyce is zooming in on is not Aboriginal people but the green inner city left. Indeed they are one constituency that mostly wants the date changed. But they are not alone. Is it just them he wants to crawl under a rock and hide for a little bit or must all of us seek temporary refuge somewhere?
Meanwhile Joyce was warming to his theme. The idea, he said, “of moving the date away from January 26 is political correctness gone mad and those pushing for change should instead go to work on the public holiday.” Political correctness gone mad is a slogan with zero meaning, Barnaby. And just because you might be taking it easy, you forget many of us are already working on the public holiday. Besides, those with the day off would happy swap it for another day. “Today (Australia 26) is a day about celebration,” Joyce concluded, but he never addressed why it had to be that date, because that wasn’t his argument.
This deflection of argument was also perfected by Eric Abetz. Like Joyce, Abetz ignored the Aboriginal arguments to concentrate on his real enemy: “left-wing activists and latte-sipping apologists.” Abetz is simply wrong here, many on the right see moving Australia Day off January 26 is a necessary step on our road to true independence. As Ian Macfarlane “It’s about healing a wound, drawing a line, getting on with the really important issues facing our indigenous communities.” As for the latte-sipping apologists, this is another nonsense phase beloved by the right that somehow implies political menace into dainty coffee drinking.
While presumably sipping something other than coffee, Senator Abetz said Australians “celebrate living in the freest and most aspirational nation in the world”. Well maybe so, but why can freedom and aspiration only be celebrated on that date?
It took Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell to remind why January 26 is the date. “The only significance of that date is the coming to Australia of white people,” he said.
What Joyce and Abetz really hate is they are being made to feel guilty for their triumphalism. It is the usurper’s complex that makes the act the aggrieved one when called out on misbehaviour.
There is no doubt January 26 was an important date for Australians as it marked the beginning of change of ownership of a continent over the next 130 years. If that is what we are celebrating then stop taking a sickie and admit it. In the meantime, change the date.
There are few things more magical than a swim first thing in the morning. It is heart balm for the day. I assess the damage and conclude that I have come to no harm as a result of alcohol consumed last night. I am glad I hit the wall at the time I did. After a decent splash I hop out and return to the caravan.
Today is a Thursday. It has no Day number for it has been released from the schedule and set free to wonder where it will. As long as it checks in for parole this afternoon at Trial Bay Gaol.
We do have one piece of housekeeping to attend to today. We need a new house to stay in thanks to tonight’s lockout at this here caravan park. But ﬁrst breakfast calls. We walk up the hill to the coffee shop on the corner. We sit outside preening in the sunshine and doing good justice to strong coffee and egg and bacon mufﬁns.
A slow stroll back to the park where the superintendent was becoming a bit worried in case we might not be moving out prior to checkout curfew. Indeed there is a glowering cleaning lady armed with her mop waiting ﬁercely for us outside our van. She is itching to get stuck into repairing our damage as soon as we are packed up. We bid fond farewell to this lovely park (if not its Amazonian maid) and set off in search of the town’s secondary caravan park.
It is not quite on the bay, hidden behind the creek. The view is not as instantly inspiring as the other place but it too has its camouﬂaged charms. The site of our caravan is directly overlooking the creek and it has an element of relaxation all its own. We would soon have the measure of the place. As we checked in, we told the owner that we had to move out of its competitor’s park. He was the one who told us the ﬁrst park had an expiry date of eight years before being set free again. He couldn’t help inserting a little bit of malicious glee into his voice as he told us. I couldn’t help but approve of the decision to close it. It was a lovely place to stay but I think it is more important to let it return to a more natural state, a state that does not necessarily have a part for humans in it.
I think of all the magniﬁcent trees I saw in the forests near Bowraville. These fabulous photosynthesisers have done a damn ﬁne job as custodians of the planet’s life. If only we could say the same.
We collapse in our new home and vegetate gently on the veranda with the help of books and today’s paper. An hour passes silently apart from the chortling and chirping of birds and the low murmur of the sea somewhere behind the creek.
Then the ﬁrst spurt of energy today, Two of us decide on a trip to the mouth of the Macleay. Muddy slip slides away towards his appointment with his masseuse. Grunty and I take the therapy of the bicycle. No panniers on board as we set off over the hill at the back of town and onto the wetlands road to the river. The road meanders a while before it ﬁnally arrives at the boathouse on a wide section of the river. The river ﬂows by in regal fashion either side of a big delta island. Pelicans patrol the banks searching for careless ﬁsh.
But we cannot see the mouth of the river and we double back towards another turnoff. This is the dirt road to the estuary itself. And at the end of the road, we come to the pier at the rivermouth. It is quite majestic here. The weather has once again kept its promises with us and is delivering another beautiful ﬁne day. The riverbirds are squawking noisily and swapping gossip with their seafaring brethren. We see a small ﬁshing boat cutting the umbilical chord of the Macleay and leaping into the dangerous clash and clatter of the ocean waves as it takes its chances out on the Paciﬁc. It chugs away from the shore in pipe smoking swagger. And probably no little relief for having successfully negotiated the treacherous sandbanks of the seaway.
Back along the beach we see South West Rocks a couple of kilometres away. Wait a minute! That has got to be the most direct way back. There is a creek to cross at the end of the beach but I’m sure that the footbridge I’ve seen can help us out. Did I mention the footbridge? We saw it as we cycled from one caravan park to the other and presumed it links the town with the beach beyond the creek. I didn’t realise it was going to come in so handy. Only problem is we have to haul ourselves and our bicycles down off the high rocky breakwater and then check out if the sand is rideable. I get down gingerly with my machine and test it out. It’s ﬁne, the wheels keep moving. Then I assist Grunty down with his bike and we are away. The first proper beach ride of the trip. Only two kilometres of sand to traverse but it is truly a species of magic. The waves crash in my eardrums, the sun spreads warmth on my back and my eyes bask in the glory of the spray and the sand-dunes.
I speed up to give vent to the pleasures of this god. All too soon I am at the end of the beach staring at the breakwater on the town side of the creek. Grunty arrives in hot pursuit. We have to get off and lift our bikes over the soft sand to ﬁnd a way off the beach. Soon we are on a walking trail and lo and behold there is the footbridge right ahead of us. A splendid way to get back into town. After all this energy, it is deﬁnitely time for a swim.
We cruise back to Horseshoe Bay and have an enjoyable splurge in the waves as the clock ticks inexorably towards lunchtime. I couldn’t help seeing the pub every time I looked up the hill towards town. Glenn joins us on the beach and he is re-invigorated and singing the praises of his massage.
It is time for us to chant the Psalmer’s Arms and we march up the hill to salute the ﬂag. Inside the pub, lunch turns out to be a slow leisurely affair. A couple of hours saunter by in a discussion of South West Rocks’ bread and circuses.
Finally its time to head back to our caravan to collect our energies and take stock of our affairs. It is past three o’ clock so we had better get a move if we were going to perform our one real venture for the day. We hop on our bikes and head towards Arakoon lying 10 kilometres away and home of Trial Bay Gaol. The story of Australian penal institutions has always been a popular one to tell and many Australian towns have turned their old hoosegows into museums so that they can enlighten us with their grim stories. Trial Bay Gaol was founded in 1886 to satisfy two disparate aims. A Mr Moriarty, the local chief engineer, wanted to build a breakwater to provide safe harbour on the Macleay river and a Mr MacLean, a sheriff and prison inspector, wanted to establish a reform prison. Trial Bay Gaol was the answer to Moriarty and MacLean’s separate prayers.
Conditions here were considerably more lenient than in contemporary Australian prisons and the prisoners were convenient cheap labour to build the breakwater. The prison’s ﬁrst incarnation last until 1903. But it was to have a second life when it reopened in 1915 and for three years it served to assuage local hysteria as a camp for German internees during the First World War. Whatever about its sinister story, we certainly can’t fault the views as we circle in on Arakoon.
Overhanging the bay, the sandstone gaol blends in with the scenery. Above the prison are the cliffs of the headland, while out to sea the Paciﬁc magniﬁcently holds court over all. We dismount the bikes outside the prison and almost immediately a sense of the sadness of history pounced on me. I was barely aware of this as we passed the gate and paid our money to enter.
We are steered upstairs into the old ofﬁces which now contains the prison’s museum. We wander through the exhibits and the photographs. From the prison’s first lifetime we see the list of its inmates often with a brief description of their status. Some are denoted as ‘freethinkers’, that peculiar 19th century version of the political prisoner. Others are more contemptuously described as having ‘intelligence nil’ though it is not made abundantly clear whether they are referring to staff or inmates.
We do see the salaries paid out to the staff and its individual variety reﬂects the complicated hierarchical structure of the prison’s ofﬁcialdom. There is a list of escapees some of whom were still at large at the time of writing.
Then we move on to the section describing the second phase of the prison’s lifetime. There are pictures of the Germans who called this place home for almost three years. They were shufﬂed off boats at Jerseyville on the Macleay and forced to walk the 10 kilometres to the prison. Inside its walls were kept some of Australia’s best educated and most brilliant people. Australia’s foremost orthopaedic surgeon of the time, Max Steiner, had the misfortune to be German and Jewish and he was incarcerated here with his family. At least the children of the inmates had the best orthopaedic care in the country.
The photographs from the era are touching. The faces look proud but there is a sense of bewilderment as they wonder what terrible misfortune caused their lives to be uprooted that forced them into a concentration camp. Despite the conditions, there was a great cultural life in the prison, music concerts and great German dramatic productions. The pictures from the theatrical productions showed that they went to extraordinary lengths to create authenticity. The sets, costumes and designs were all first class and lavish despite what must have been the most minimal of supplies. Steiner himself was also an accomplished artist and his sketches of the gaol and the bay adorn the museum as they contribute a sense of memory to the views.
Finally we ﬁnished our indoor tour and we emerge to see the rest of the gaol. First the viewing platform. Following one of my obsessions, I simply cannot go past a viewing post. I’ve just got to see the bigger picture. And the canvas is quite broad at this point with an inspiring view sweeping along the bay to South West Rocks.
Back at ground level, I amble past the kitchen complete with its massive stone kiln. The picture from the internee era shows a more vibrant time, the kiln in mid-puff while the kitchen bristles and bakes with bustling activity. The ghostly shadow today gives off its own perforation. Then it’s on to the punishment cells. Suitably dark and black and clanking with the sound of shackles. There is no photo here, it was not part of the advertising arsenal of the facilities.
Onwards to the main cell blocks of the prison. There are two blocks, one was used by convicts, the newer one used by internees. The place was a shopping mall of ghosts each brushing into you and clamouring for attention. I wander around until I can take no more spectral spruiking and when I am back outside the gaol, I shiver involuntarily. Grunty and I are in the mood to cycle up the hill to the monument erected by the Germans in memory of the three internees that died during the prison’s tenure. It is a simple stone monument. Only one of the deaths is described, a man who was ‘carried away at sea’. The monument was blown up in 1919 in an act of postwar anti German sentiment. Though we don’t get an exact date, we get an exact time. It happened at 4:30pm apparently, so we are a half hour late for its anniversary. It remained in rubble until 1960 when 41 years and another war had dimmed the tide of fury so they could be properly re-commemorated. The memorial doesn’t state what the time was when it was re-built.
The setting sun glares at us from below. We ﬂy back down the hill and I catch up with Mudster who has gone his own way to the beach below the gaol for an afternoon swim. I don’t need much of an invitation to join him. Grunt goes his own way in search of an intemet kiosk he saw along the way.
I hop into the calm waters of Trial Bay. At the time, I thought it might be the last swim of the campaign as this is the last overnight beach stop of the trip according to the Book, however we were soon to re-write the rules of the Book and find a more coastal route to Sydney without unduly bothering the Pacific Highway. Such talk is some way ahead of us.
For now, let me bask in the evening waters of Trial Bay. It is a rarity for east coast beaches as it faces west into the setting sun. Glenn and I dry off and cycle back to South West Rocks in the lengthening shadows. Glenn had decided not to change out of his Speedos so he is looking far too much like a triathlete for my liking on the way back. En route we pass the store at the Arakoon caravan park where Grunty is busy scribbling away his tale on their internet PC. I noted that the among the consumables sold by its shop were Deep Fried Mars Bars. I was surprised to see this rare outburst of Glaswegian culture in a Paciﬁc backwater but I pass on the gastronomic experience in any case.
There is not much light left by the time we get back. Back at home base we shower and change and sit around quietly in the growing darkness. After an hour or so, Grunty comes a knocking. We are soon taking the 10 minute walk back to town and the Sea Breeze hotel.
Very little time is wasted before we are all tucking into a plate of the lamb shanks, everyone pigging out on Glenn’s popular choice from last night. The pub is nowhere near as busy tonight as last night. So where are the people from the caravan park’s full house all eating tonight? The mystery is never satisfactorily resolved. Instead the place has totally emptied out by 9:30pm and we are among the last to leave the premises. Thursday is clearly the night when South West Rocks the cradle.
No-one is in a card playing mood tonight. It must be the prospect of a serious cycle tomorrow. We have got a big job ahead of us; 100kms and possibly more. Wauchope (pronounced Waw-hope) is the destination, a little bit inland from Port Macquarie. Wauchope has a railway station and here is where we expect to meet Hugh tomorrow afternoon to complete the Gang of Four. He is taking the early train down from Brisbane tomorrow in order to cycle the second week and join us for whatever set of adventures it will throw at us. And if you think we had a problem telling people we started at Rathdowney (which in any case wasn’t true for Muddy) and therefore settled on Brisbane, then poor old Hugh had no option but to tell everyone in his Northern Irish accent that he cycled from Wauchope. He had no hope.
We are all completely trampled and begin to sleep pondering the trip to Wauchope. We are confident we can do a serious beach ride if what those two English cyclists told us is correct, that is, the beach north of Port Macquarie was okay to ride on. I couldn’t consider this question for much longer. Because by then, two men dressed up as continents crushed me between their tectonic plates. I held my breath for as long as I could and dived underneath. There in a cave of snow, I blew my nose and staggered back as the resulting noise triggered an avalanche. A mustachioed person wearing a spiked helmet popped up from under the carpet and said, “So you now know that a half sun is better than no sun at all”. My nose was still under the pillow when I woke up on Friday morning.