Operation SATOUR – Recollections on the impact of the 1971 Springbok riots in Brisbane

A few weeks ago I received an invite to attend a talk at the Queensland Police Museum in Brisbane. The two hour talk was on the riots in Brisbane during the 1971 visit of the South African Springbok rugby team.  I was invited because of an article I wrote two and a half years ago about the riots inspired by a Courier Mail article and based on a chapter in the book “Radical Brisbane”.

I was intrigued the Queensland Police Service would host a session on what was not one of their finest hours. The man who invited me was Barry Krosch who had read my article. Krosch was a former police officer who spend nine years in the special branch. He later assisted the Fitzgerald Inquiry which blew the lid on Queensland’s political and police corruption during the 70s and 80s.

Now retired to Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s town of Kingaroy, he is doing his masters at Griffith Uni on the study of the special branch. He organised the speakers at the Police Museum and gave his own insights to special branch activities, though he was not in the force at the time of the riots. Krosch spoke about interactions with ASIO and shared examples of their filing system which bordered on the obsessive –  the Springbok tour was called “Operation SATOUR” and filed under “5K” for ‘visits and ships’ not to be confused with ‘7K’ which catalogued ‘mentally unbalanced and cranks’.

The MC was Brisbane News Ltd boss David Fagan. I am not the biggest fan of Fagan nor his Courier-Mail but he was a smooth and perfect host on the day. Fagan noted the riots had a profound effect on Queensland politics for two decades. It strengthened the power of a vulnerable new Premier who could “barely string a sentence together” under the badge of law and order with “unfortunate consequences” while it radicalised a generation on the left. Another speaker lawyer Terry O’Gorman told us how that radicalisation occurred.  A radical from the era, journalism professor Alan Knight, gave his eye-witness account as well as outlining the failures of the media to expose what happened, earning the Courier-Mail the title of Brisbane’s Pravda.

Krosch’s thesis supervisor Professor Mark Finnane opened the session with a wider political context for the 1971 riots. The riots did not magically appear from nowhere, Finnane argued, but were a continuation of major political ideas and conflicts affecting sport across Australia and the world. By the 1960s, the South African apartheid system was an anomaly in post-colonial Africa. World pressure was intense and South Africa was excluded from the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth in 1962 and the Tokyo Olympics two years later. They were also suspended from FIFA in 1964 though not formally kicked out until after the 1976 Soweto riots.

But rugby and cricket held out. Teams from Australia toured South Africa and when the South Africans came to Australia they were confronted by protests. In 1971, thousands marched against the Springboks in Melbourne and Sydney. Conservative governments in Canberra and the states hated the ‘leftist tendencies’ of the protesters and Joh opposed with ‘special fervour’, as Finnane put it.

Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O’Gorman took the story onwards. O’Gorman sees Joh’s actions as an abuse of power compounded by Australia’s lack of a Bill of Rights. But the protests did not register immediately to him. O’Gorman was a deeply Catholic and conservative young man and was studying law at the University of Queensland, oblivious to protests going on around him. He was not involved on Thursday, July 22 when police charged on the protestors outside the Springboks’ motel at Tower Mill. With the aid of agent provocateurs in the mob, the crowd was sent fleeing down the hill with many serious injuries.

A day later O’Gorman heard the stories of students involved. Reformist police boss Ray Whitrod tried to keep order but zealous country officers equated protesters as commies and disobeyed him. O’Gorman realised there was a gap between the principles of law and the lack of theoretical restraint in police upholding those laws. He joined the legal observer group on the day of the game.

The day remains etched in his memory with its fearful tension and excessive use of force. O’Gorman became radicalised by the riots and a fierce opponent of the regime. He had his revenge cross-questioning Joh at the Fitzgerald Inquiry to devastating results. But O’Gorman wasn’t thinking about 1971 or 1989 when he concluded his talk, but rather could it happen again. The G20 meeting in Brisbane next year and the Commonwealth Games in 2018 will be tests of whether governments cloak themselves in law and order and whether police equate protests with terrorism, he said. “It behoves us to ensure all voices are heard, including protest voices, just as police do their difficult job of protecting heads of state.”

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3 thoughts on “Operation SATOUR – Recollections on the impact of the 1971 Springbok riots in Brisbane

  1. The aim of the demonstrators was more than speech. They aimed to obstruct. It was the job of the police to clear them. Which was not easy but had to be attempted

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