The Courier-Mail and the 1971 Brisbane Springbok riot

Today’s Courier-Mail front page has, it claims,” the real story behind a Queensland political myth”. The article is about former Premier Peter Beattie’s involvement in the 1971 Springbok tour riot in Brisbane and a vintage picture of Beattie complete with impressive 70s moustache adorns the front page. The article is based on a newly released police dossier which the Courier-Mail trumpets as “Forty years on, the facts come out”.


If the front page claims too much, then the bland inside headline of “Two sides to every story” hides more than it reveals. With Beattie among 400 protesters facing off against 500 police there were at least 900 sides to this story, plus important parts played by politicians, the unions and the mostly craven media, of which the Courier-Mail was the worst example. Given subsequent revelations about Queensland’s police corruption and the way they supported the brutal repression of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era with the complicity of the media, a 64-page police dossier from the time is hardly to be trusted as an independent verification of what happened. Nor is today’s article the first time “the facts” have come out about the 1971 riot.

The best recounting of what happened when the white South African rugby team came to Brisbane during the Apartheid era was in Raymond Evans’ “Springbok Tour Confrontation”, a chapter in Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History (2004) edited by Evans and Carole Ferrier. Evans began his account with an ABC audio tape. Protesters and foreign journalists (the Courier-Mail ones stayed on the police side of the line) recounted events with fear audible in their voices. “They [the police] just chased us, with a big grin on their faces” said one. “When people got to the bottom of the hill, they realised they had been trapped. I think that’s when they started to be brutal,” said another.

The voices were describing the events of the cold winter’s night of Thursday, 22 July 1971. The Springbok tour party were staying at the Tower Mill Motel on Wickham Terrace. They were separated from the protesters in the hillside park by a line of military style police officers. The turnout of demonstrators was poor partly because of police intimidation and partly because Brisbanites bought the official line “sport and politics should not mix”. That this was a fiction easily exposed did not matter – the media at the time did not expose it. Yet federal and state political leaders used the Springboks to bolster faltering credentials. Liberal PM Billy McMahon provided RAAF transport after civilian carriers refused to carry the Springboks. He also opened up Enoggera Barracks to house the additional police Joh called in.

Bjelke-Petersen, then an untested Premier, used the tour to try out anti-democratic practices he would re-use over the next 16 years. Joh declared a State of Emergency, secured the Exhibition Grounds for the game, and suspended civil liberties for a month. The legislation gave police carte blanche for the operation that followed. The day before the Mill protest, 200 students marched to the city centre and 36 were arrested with excessive force applied. TV cameramen and press photographers were also hassled by police and had their film confiscated.

Trade unionists mostly did not take part in the protests believing the convenient lie about sport and politics though some unions did make life awkward for Joh in the lead-up. The game was played at the Exhibition Grounds because BWIU unionists blackbanned essential plumbing works at the Ballymore rugby ground. The BWIU also halted the production of police batons and the AMIEU stopped the transport of police horses to the demonstration. But most sports-loving unionists stayed away. It was students such as Beattie who filled the police cells that night. They were easier to demonise as hippies and long-haired layabouts.

On the night of the riot, the numbers of students, aboriginals and academics outside the Mill was swollen by plain clothes police as agent provocateurs. With no warning, the line of uniformed police marched forward and ordered the protesters to clear the footpath. The demonstrators had to flee down the steep and pitch-dark hill into Wickham Park. The police followed, attacking with fists, batons and boots as plain-clothes colleagues join in. Some protesters jumped an eight-metre high embankment into the busy traffic of Albert Street below. Others were thrown over.

Beattie, along with others, sought sanctuary in the nearby Trades Hall building (now demolished to make way for the IBM building). One unionist recalled seeing a girl held and punched by police while Beattie was also jumped on and held to the floor. Students forcibly ejected two of the three policemen attacking Beattie and the third became frightened when he realised he was alone. Constable Lindsay Daniels left the injured Beattie alone and became quiet. He was wearing two different police numbers both of which were wrenched off by students who greatly outnumbered him.

Outside, 50 police attempted to gain entry to the building. When ambulance officers came, they were followed by police who were restrained by an accompanying inspector. Beattie was taken under armed guard to the orthopaedic ward of the Royal Brisbane Hospital with suspected spinal injuries. According to the Courier-Mail, two doctors told police no excessive force was used in the attack.

Evans obtained the police report several years later and interviewed Beattie. Beattie told Evans he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest though he was the one assaulted. “I will never forgive or forget what happened next,” Beattie said. “I was verballed by the police who manufactured the most incredible statements about the whole thing.” Beattie was released on bail and police never pressed charges.

The following day angry students at the University of Queensland decided to hold a political strike. That night protesters significantly outnumbered police at the Mill and officers refrained from repeating their tactics from the night before. On Saturday the threat of violence kept the crowd down at the game – just 6000 attended instead of the anticipated 30,000 full house. With the Oval ringed by barbed wire, protesters launched a demonstration in nearby Victoria Park instead. 2000 people turned up faced by 900 police. Led by Labor Senator George Georges, the marchers went down Fortitude Valley and into the city conducting the first ever sit-in at Queen Street. Violence was minimal as marchers like Labor MP Bill Hayden urged caution. But peace did not last.

That evening, a thousand people gathered again at the Mill. Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod commanded his men to drive the protesters into the park. Whitrod, inside the motel, claimed the charge started when a rock was thrown into a window. The offending missile was never produced and glaziers called to fix the window insisted the glass fell outside the building. But Whitrod had to act under pressure from country officers threatening a no confidence motion in his “soft” handling of demonstrators.

They were supported by Joh. The Premier was determined to stop “all this business of going soft on all these demonstrations”. He could see this leading to “complete anarchy”.  But the only anarchy in town that weekend was caused by rampaging police officers sanctioned by the Government while the Courier-Mail looked the other way. Forty years on, the paper is as cowardly as ever, preferring to concentrate on the irrelevant issue of whether Beattie called the police “pigs” rather than question the assault. The Springbok riot set the template for 15 years of police brutality and corruption sanctioned by an undemocratic Premier who could hose down a meek press by “feeding the chooks”.

7 thoughts on “The Courier-Mail and the 1971 Brisbane Springbok riot

  1. I was across the road from the Tower Mill, the night the police charged the demonstrators. It was a peaceful demo (if you discount the noisy chanting!)
    I noticed that there were big men I had never seen before joining the back of the demonstration in Wickham Terrace. Some wore jeans and police style leather jackets ( which had holes for police numbers). One had a pair of hand cuffs in his back pocket.
    I warned my friends and left the demonstration, walking down the hill through Wickham Park. As I did so groups of uniformed police were starting up the hill. As I reached Albert St, a paddy wagon pulled up. That’s when the screaming started. The police up top had charged, spontaneously we were told.
    Alan Knight

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