The history of Queensland’s Special Branch remembered

Barry Kroch speaks at the Queensland Police Museum
Barry Krosch speaks at the Queensland Police Museum

In 2014, Queensland’s police force turns 150 years old. One of the first of the anniversary retrospectives took place at the Queensland Police Museum yesterday. Former Special Branch detective Barry Krosch attracted a full house of over 100 people to the Museum to listen to his talk on the Queensland Special Branch, which existed from 1948 to 1989. Krosch was in the Special Branch for 10 years and today presents his master’s thesis on the history of the secretive organisation. His supervisor Dr Paul Reynolds of UQ said the inception of the Special Branch was related to the start of the Cold War with many jurisdictions across the western world initiating surveillance operations around this time.

Krosch said every Australian state started Special Branches around 1948 and ASIO began its operations in 1949 – the same year as former policeman George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four. Queensland’s Special Branch started on April 7, 1948 initially called Special Bureau using detectives from a similar pre-Second World War bureau. The bureau was based on the British model of surveillance dating back to the 1880s and was given the responsibility to deal with “subversive activities”, which at the time meant Communist activities. Communists controlled many Queensland unions and Labor Premier Ned Hanlon was rattled by large-scale demonstrations at Roma St and King George Square during the 1948 great rail strike. Krosch said protesters outsmarted the Government but within a day, the Special Bureau was up and running.

It was renamed the Special Branch in 1950 with 13 detectives and five civilians. They followed a strict classification system which divided Communists into party members, “avowed” Communists, known to police as Communists, suspected Communists, and Communist sympathisers. They also monitored Socialists, Nazis, Fabians, Women’s movements, “revolutionaries and saboteurs” and even Jehovah’s Witnesses. Almost every political activist outside the main parties had a Special Branch file. ASIO paid for Special Branch activities and Branch operatives from across the country attended ASIO conferences so there was much synchronisation between state arms.

The Branch’s autonomous tendencies were noted in 1970 by new Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod. Whitrod reviewed its operation and was unimpressed by its unaccountability and its lack of supervision. Whitrod had a baptism of fire in 1971 with the Springbok tour protests and the high profile arrest of student leader Peter Beattie. Krosch noted Beattie’s file number was 2E 1528. The E series covered industrial and political figures and 2 meant he was an individual not an organisation (and also not a Communist, Jew or Jehovah’s Witness which had their own codes).

Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen detested Whitrod and forced him out in 1976. Under Whitrod’s replacement Terence Lewis, it was a torrid time of overt and covert action and many arrests. Krosch joined the Branch in 1978 around the time of the Sydney Hilton Bombing. Krosch said the Branch had two roles – intelligence and VIP protection. Krosch said the two were interlocked but the protection role was often overlooked despite its importance and it took up much time and resources.

The Special Branch passed on much information to ASIO, which would later be a godsend to researchers like Krosch. In the late 1980s, Queensland’s Special Branch came under increasing scrutiny as the Joh regime unravelled. The Moonlight State documentary was instrumental in leading to the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption in 1988. Krosch remembers being a minder for Tony Fitzgerald during the week and Joh at the weekend, and being quizzed by both camps for information. Krosch wouldn’t say anything to either side. Krosch said the Inquiry looked at 20 Special Branch files out of 9000 so its investigation was lightweight.

However in its July 1989 report, one of 242 recommendations was to disband the Branch. An election was coming with Labor expected to win and also promising to disband the Branch. New commissioner Noel Newnham authorised the culling of thousands of files and index cards. In November a senior police officer blew the whistle on the Branch to Channel Nine Sydney’s Jana Wendt.

Before the election, in what Krosch called the most turbulent week in Queensland politics, Newnham oversaw days of shredding files despite public outrage. Labor won the election on December 2 and was due to be sworn in on December 7. In the handover week Newnham took the decision to disband the Branch.

On the morning of the 7th Newnham met incoming police minister Terry Mackenroth who promised him that disbanding the Branch would be his first item of business. Newnham told him he’d already done it. On the 8th, officers held a “funeral” for the Branch. Krosch said a further request to cull files in 1992 was denied by the Library Board of Queensland for two reasons. Firstly they documented the activity of the Special Branch and secondly they shed light on the organisations they monitored.

“So few Special Branch resources have survived,” the Board said, “all the more important these ones survive.” Krosch encouraged researchers to fully document the Branch while former members were still alive. He doubted many in the audience would be back for the 50th anniversary in 2038.

Revisiting Batman’s Treaty

Members of the Kulin Nations, Port Phillip Bay, negotiating a
Members of the Kulin Nations negotiating a “treaty” with John Batman in 1835 (1886)
Original woodblock print, hand colored, published in the Garran Picturesque Atlas (1886). S.C. Heckwell, artist. Courtesy of the Koorie Heritage Trust.

In 1968 anthropologist WEH Stanner wrote of the “great Australian silence” around Aboriginal history. Stanner said the fantastical British claims to be rightful possessors of Australia was based on the notion of the country as “waste and desert” despite 40,000 years of occupation. Only once, said Stanner, did Europeans temporarily abandon these notions and recognise Aboriginal title: that was Batman’s Treaty of 1835 governing lands around Melbourne. The colonial government in Sydney quickly recognised this as a dangerous precedent and killed it. Whatever Batman’s Treaty’s faults – and they were many – the rest of the land was taken without negotiation, without compensation and without apology. Without a Waitangi Treaty, Australian Indigenous people have difficulty advancing claims of title, compensation and sovereignty. Its failure, said Stanner, began a “culture of disremembering”  that would last 150 years.

New Zealand-born historian Bain Attwood tells the story of that forgotten treaty in Possession: Batman’s treaty and the matter of history. Batman’s Treaty was two deeds, one for Melbourne, the other for Geelong. Tasmanian adventurer John Batman bought 600,000 acres of Kulin (the confederate tribes of Port Phillip and Westernport Bays) land for the Port Phillip Association, landholders and gentlemen from Hobart and Launceston. Its members included public servant Henry Arthur (nephew of Tasmanian governor George Arthur), soldier Thomas Bannister (brother of NSW Attorney General Saxe Bannister), lawyer John Gellibrand, banker Charles Swanston, surveyor John Helder Wedge, and Batman.

British demand for Australian wool was growing and the group coveted lands across Bass Strait ideal for pastoral use. There was a 100 mile Nineteen Counties limit of location around Sydney enforced by the colonial government but land grabbers (“squatters”) had their eyes on expansion and profit. The Port Phillip Association believed Melbourne was beyond the authority of the NSW Government. The Association didn’t want to be known as squatters and lawyer Gellibrand came up with the peculiar legal form of recognition to recognise Aboriginal title. He and Batman had earlier applied for land in Western Port in 1827 but were refused. This time they challenged NSW authority by entreating Van Diemen’s Land governor George Arthur.

They noted the Henty family had sought permission to take land for whaling at Portland Bay in 1834. Gellibrand and Batman’s letter to Arthur contained two fictions. They stated Thomas Henty had a treaty with Portland Aborigines (he did not) and another party had took possession of Two Fold Bay near Eden by negotiated purchase with Aborigines (they had not). Arthur referred the letter to Solicitor General Alfred Stephen. Stephen’s advice was Portland and Two Fold Bay were in NSW but were not in the settled region. Arthur supported the Association’s contention NSW authority did not extend to Port Phillip.

The British Government were familiar with treaties. They granted numerous territorial charters and grants to proprietary companies in the 17th century in Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Georgia. The most famous treaty was Quaker William Penn’s treaty of 1683 with the Delaware Indians immortalised in a painting by Benjamin West in 1772. West’s painting re-told the story as peaceful colonisation with a mythical meeting under an elm tree at Shackamaxon. Tasmanians drew on that legend to name the Treaty after Batman rather than a place as is more usual. Paintings of Batman, whose face was unknown, drew him in 17th century Quaker dress.

There had been no treaties in Australia – Sydney was taken by force and the Limits of Location were held by a 500-strong army of marines. The imaginary borders of NSW set by Cook and Phillip were altered in 1828 when the Joint Stock Co Colonisation Committee took control of South Australia. In Tasmania natives fought colonisation and in 1829 Batman offered to help reconcile Aborigines and whites. His efforts failed – he was responsible for the massacre of 15 lives. Following the failure of Black Line, Arthur pursued reconciliation which followed the official advice from the Colonial Office in 1830 that colonisation should be done with the “cooperation and consent of indigenous people”.

Around the same time former NSW Attorney-General Saxe Bannister wrote “Humane Policy or Justice for the Aborigines at Cape Colony and NSW”. In 1835 Bannister gave evidence to the House of Commons select committee inquiry on Aboriginal people. He believed in the superiority of British culture but they had a duty to uplift indigenous people and treaties were a means of peacemaking on the frontiers. Brother Tom Bannister was even more enthusiastic and copied passages from Saxe’s book. He regarded Van Diemenlander history as an indelible stain on the character of the British Government. The Port Phillip Association would follow the footsteps of Penn and Christianise the Aboriginal people of Port Phillip.

The Association saw the treaty as a deed of purchase in writing rather than speaking or ritual. Its terms were about possession of property while Aborigines’ idea of land tenure was using the land’s resources for a purpose. The Association’s aims were reflected in the treaty’s archaic language which granted “enfeoff” of country at Port Phillip. Feoffment was an ancient method of feudal conveyances which barred “diseisin” (recovery of land by party wrongfully dispossessed). It was a simpler form of conveyance rather than the more common ‘lease and release’. The ceremony called “livery of seisin” involved handing over a lump of soil as symbol of the property and enforcing the boundary by perambulation – how far a person could walk in a given time. (Native Americans sarcastically called it “ye hurry walk” where whites scrambled to gain as much property as they could). The terms were for a yearly rent or tribute of 100 pairs of blankets, 100 knives, 100 tomahawks, 50 suits of clothing, 50 looking glasses, 50 pairs of scissors and five tons of flour. It was a “fee simple estate” which meant perpetual full-scale succession not a lease.

Batman went to Port Phillip in May 1836 with three whites and seven blacks. They landed at Indented Head on the Bellarine Peninsula and walked to Port Phillip Bay where they supposedly met local chieftains. The Association told Arthur that Batman walked the boundary and gave the soil to the chiefs who understood what he was doing and signed the treaty. Batman attached a map of the land which was mostly a fantasy. The signatures may have been a forgery. Had the Kulins understood what Batman was doing, they would never had accepted it. For them a treaty was a political document between sovereign peoples rather than set of rights for whites. Batman went to Launceston two weeks later with the signed treaty leaving his men to claim the territory. The Port Phillip Association wrote to Secretary of State for the Colonies Spring Rice and told him the country was 100 miles beyond the jurisdiction of NSW although it was within the line from Bass Strait to Carpentaria which defined Australia in June 1835. They said the treaty was “quietly taken possession”. Rice’s Under Secretary Sir George Grey disagreed saying Port Phillip was part of NSW and there could be no other title to the land.

Acting on Grey’s instructions Governor Bourke directed the land go up for public auction. John Helder Wedge started the settlement in August 1835. Later that month another Van Diemen’s Land expedition sponsored by John Pascoe Fawkner landed on the Yarra and moved onto Port Phillip Association land. Wedge was worried both expeditions could be dispossessed. The Association showed Fawkner their treaty and appointed former convict and Aboriginal wanderer William Buckley as superintendent of Aborigines. Buckley was discovered by an astonished Wedge at Indented Head after escaping the first Port Phillip settlement in 1803 and living with the Aborigines for 32 years. Buckley acted as a go-between but couldn’t stop the violence as the settlement quickly grew beyond Melbourne. In September 1835 Bourke told the Association Port Phillip would be opened up for sale but discussed terms for them to keep a small part of the settlement.

Bourke saw the treaty as a threat to authority. British justice had abstained from jurisdiction over Aborigines but in 1823 the defence in R v Lowe argued a white soldier who murdered an Aborigine was not guilty because Aborigines did not have the rights of British subjects and the incident happened outside the limits of location. Chief Justice Francis Forbes rejected both arguments. The 1834 R v Steele case re-asserted the Lowe position with Forbes saying the King owned all unpossessed lands in the kingdom. Forbes was creating foundational history: NSW’s soil was vested in the king on settlement. In 1833 Macdonald v Levy Justice Burton said Aboriginal land was uninhabited because Aborigines were “wandering tribes” who lived without “certain habitation and without laws”. The “savages” lacked government and property rights and their rights to the land was repudiated. This was why Batman’s Treaty was such a threat to the new concept of sovereignty. It raised fundamental questions about the Crown’s jurisdiction and legal possession of the land.

Forbes told Bourke repudiation of the Treaty was a good peg to hang a proclamation defining the limits of colonisation. Bourke declared all treaties with Aborigines void. Treaty holders and Aborigines could be seen as “intruders” on Crown land. This gave Bourke the excuse to extend the limits of location and confirm the newly minted conception of Crown’s sovereignty.

Batman’s Treaty was a critical moment for Aborigines. The Colonial Office didn’t quite endorse Bourke’s approach repudiating Aboriginal right to land. They set the matter of government aside. They used words like “present proprietors” which assumed the Aboriginals wouldn’t be around in the future. Aborigines were confirmed as British subjects.

The Port Phillip Association retreated into history and Batman died in 1839, almost forgotten. His reputation was rescued by schoolteacher James Bonwick who recast him as a bushman colonial hero like Daniel Boone. Bonwick came up with Batman’s phrase “this will be a good place for a village” as the defining foundation moment for Melbourne. Bonwick was an evangelist troubled by British dispossession of Aborigines. However he was more concerned with redeeming British sins than upholding Aboriginal rights. He believed the Aborigines were doomed to pass away. Now Batman is fading once more into history, while the Kulin nations including the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people are finding their voice again.

Fighting child soldiers

booksFormer Canadian general Romeo Dallaire is calling on the world to use the Remembrance month of November to honour child soldiers lost in battle. The UN estimates 250,000 children are child soldiers and Dallaire has drawn on his own experience to build a campaigning case against their use. Dallaire was the Force Commander for the UNAMIR mission in Rwanda that tried in vain to stop a genocide of 800,000 people in 1994.

Child soldiers, says Dallaire in his book They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children (now a movie) are the most “available cost-effective and renewable weapon system in existence today.” Children are vulnerable and easy to catch, plentiful in Africa and easily able to carry light weapons and ammunition. They are excellent combatants, good ambush bait and easy cannon fodder. Girls are an even bigger prize than boys, able to everything boys do and also set up camp, prepare the food, control younger children and act as sex objects. This was well known as far back as Mozambique’s Graca Machel’s 1996 report to the UN The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Machel was instrumental in developing the 2007 Paris Principles which tried in vain to galvanise countries to enforce existing laws against the use of children under 18 in armed combat. After Dallaire finished exorcising his Rwandan experience in his book Shake Hands with the Devil, he threw himself full time into the issue, particularly military tactical responses to the problem and doctrines to deal with child soldiers in the field.

Child soldiers played a significant role in the paramilitary Interahamwe slaughter in Rwanda and were also recruited into the Tutsi resistance, some of whom were “cocky, gun happy and arrogant” and caused mayhem with the UN. The defeated young militia members of the Interahamwe fled to DRC where they caused chaos in refugee camps. As the years progressed the number of conflicts escalated, each needing an ever-increasing number of children. These wars are intractable and self-sustaining with little ideology or clear goals. Non-state actors such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, Coalition des patriotes resistants congolais (PARECO), Mai-Mai, CNDP and FDLR all extensively use children. Psychologically vulnerable and easily manipulated, children were also easy and cheap to maintain, eating and drinking less, unpaid, and not well clothed, sheltered, armed or logistically sustained. Adults also underestimate child soldiers, failing to see them as a threat.

Dallaire wants to prosecute leaders who use child soldiers but what should happen to the soldiers themselves? Picking up the pieces of broken children is hugely difficult and rarely a top priority in conflict resolution. It requires a process Dallaire called DDR: disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. Each step is difficult. He quotes the 2008 Global Report of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers which estimated half of child soldiers in Uganda registered for demobilisation fearing the army or rejection by their communities if they were identified as ex-LRA. Girls particularly were worried by stigmatisation. Disarmament was also difficult with many peace agreements not requiring child soldiers to surrender weapons after a ceasefire. Dallaire argues for a campaign to reduce illegal small arms trade by stressing the link to child soldiers.

Reintegration also requires long-term funding of child protection agencies and programs to ensure continuous support for education and training plus follow-up and monitoring in civilian life. Dallaire says DDR is under-funded and cannot be isolated from the larger economic and social issues that plague embattled and impoverished states. Donors are drawn away by the next crisis. Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative research project has been in existence for eight years and he admits it needs to change minds and many old ways of doing things to fix the problem. Dallaire understood child soldiers as ‘weapons systems’, victims of horrible abuse and agents of conflict.

Dallaire’s message to the public is to get involved. “Become an activist,” he concludes in They Fight Like Soldiers. “Inform others, influence public policy and public opinion, join an NGO’s efforts, and get engaged in advancing humanity beyond the evil that it does.”

Ludwig Leichhardt: Into the Unknown

unknownIn the opening sentences of the Ludwig Leichhardt biography “Into the Unknown“, author John Bailey tells his version of the last known days of the German explorer. It is April 1848 and Leichhardt is setting off from European settlement 500km west of Brisbane towards the Swan Colony (now Perth) on the west coast of Australia. The journey would take two to three years through rugged and hostile desert country. Leichhardt wrote one last letter to Sydney which Bailey says he gave his host Allan Macpherson as he off into the unknown. A couple of days later, Bailey suggest there was another meeting between Leichhardt and Macpherson. Bailey said Macpherson and friend William Hill traced Leichhardt’s party’s track to deliver a parting gift of a fat cow. They caught up with Leichhardt at nightfall but the German declined their gift saying he didn’t want a wild cow mixing with his docile herd as she might lead it astray. Macpherson and Hill left the following morning. As they left Hill asked Leichhardt where he was heading. “To the setting sun,” the explorer responded and they left, never to be heard of again.

The story is fascinating however I’m not convinced it is true. Macpherson’s station at what Bailey called “Cogoon”  is near Muckadilla, 40km west of where Roma now lies and I learned much of what Leichhardt did in the region from Roma historian Peter Keegan. Allan Macpherson was an intriguing character, and was the first white settler in the area and his story is told as part of the astonishing story of five generations of the Scottish Macpherson family in the service of the British Empire across the globe in Stephen Foster’s epic A Private Empire. Peter Keegan supplied much of the research to Foster about Macpherson’s tumultuous years in the district from 1847 to 1849, a time he spread between Mt Abundance, as Macpherson called his Cogoon Station and Keera, his property in New England. Leichhardt’s last letter was written a sheep outstation on the western edge of Mt Abundance.

I asked Keegan if he thought Macpherson crossed paths with Leichhardt. His view, as was fellow Leichhardt scholar Darryl Lewis, was that they never met. Macpherson was likely in Keera or Sydney or on the road when the German came through the district. I was fascinated by the detail in Bailey’s meeting – not just once but twice. The end notes were unhelpful – there was no source offered for where he got the information. I immediately emailed Keegan, who confirmed his view that neither meeting happened. “There were many people trying to get onto the Leichhardt bandwagon after he went missing,” he told me. I emailed John Bailey to ask where he got his information but am yet to hear back.

It may be one of the more intriguing mysteries of Australian historiography in what Bailey described as one of the most intriguing mysteries of Australian history. Bailey tells Leichhardt’s story in straightforward style. His youth is revealed through letters to family and close friends. Leichhardt was very intelligent and studied widely across many disciplines but he never emerged with a university degree. His disordered approach to course selection owed much to the influence of Wilhelm von Humboldt who saw education as a process of self-emancipation. Leichhardt’s family wasn’t wealthy and he desperately sought a patron to subsidise his education.

Enter John Nicholson, the son of a retired Bristol vicar, who came to Gottingen University to finish his studies. Leichhardt was there from Berlin University as part of his Wanderjahr. The pair hit it off and for four months were inseparable. Nicholson’s departure to England left Leichhardt grief-stricken.  At his lowest ebb, a saviour appeared – John Nicholson’s younger brother William, also sent to Germany to complete his education. Leichhardt became mentor to the younger Nicholson and they moved in together with the Englishman footing their bills. Leichhardt stopped attending lectures instead devoting himself to books and clinics learning the rudiments of medicine.

When William finished his degree in 1837 he planned to go home to England with Leichhardt to follow. Leichhardt had to serve a year in the military but obtained a deferment to 1840. Leichhardt loved London and later Paris when the pair moved there. Leichhardt attended lectures at the Jardins des Plantes and natural history museum. He spent two months at La Charite hospital where nurses asked him to translate for German patients. Nicholson and Leichhardt’s relationship gradually soured when they travelled through France and Italy. When Leichhardt heard the elder Nicholson was emigrating to Australia, it awoke in him the possibilities of exploration in that land. In 1841 he booked a passage on the Sir Edward Paget and passed the long journey offering lectures to uninterested passengers. He also got the captain to teach him celestial navigation. The ship arrived in Sydney on February 14, 1842.

Leichhardt quickly established himself as a man of considerable learning and found a patron in Lt Robert Lynd, a barrack-master who enjoying reading Goethe and collecting shells. Leichhardt began his Australian education with a trip to the Hunter Valley to study botany and geology. He became convinced the area was suitable for good winemaking and almost died of thirst when he got lost in Port Stephens. He later headed north to Moreton Bay and called in on his countrymen at Lutheran Aboriginal Mission at Zion Hill near Eagle Farm, an experience which depressed him. “There is no hope of converting this generation to Christianity and this generation will likely be the last,” he wrote. He went to the Darling Downs and finally back to Sydney with a bold expedition idea.

His destination was the short-lived military outpost of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula 3000km north-west of Sydney. Though he had no Government support, Sydney newspapers got behind him and he signed up eight companions. They left Sydney August 13, 1844 and sailed to Brisbane before setting out for the Darling Downs. He was joined by ornithologist John Gilbert and they – a German, four Englishmen, an American, a convict, a Welsh boy, two Aborigines, 17 horses and 16 cattle – spent their last night in European Australia at Jimbour Station on September 30.

Progress was slow and they followed the Condamine River west until around modern Chinchilla (Charley’s Creek is named for Leichhardt’s Aboriginal traveller). Gradually they moved north following the Dawson River where Leichhardt named geographical features after members of his expedition. They were behind schedule and Leichhardt cut rations amid grumblings from his crew. Gradually their resentment of Leichhardt grew as did the arguments. Leichhardt cut loose two members as rations were further tightened. By the start of 1845 they were following the Comet River north but an argument with Charley ended with the Aborigine whacking the German in the face. Leichhardt banished both blacks but quickly realised they were the two most useful members of the expedition knowing how to hunt and communicate with local blacks. They were soon forgiven.

In April 1845 they found a huge river Leichhardt called the Burdekin after a female patron of his expedition. In May he named a new river the Lynd for his Sydney friend and inched their way towards the Cape. Back in Sydney Lynd led the eulogy for the now-presumed dead traveller. Leichhardt was still alive and close to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the Mitchell River. Not long afterwards tragedy struck on the Nassau River. One night an Aboriginal war party attacked them and killed Gilbert and wounded two others. They pressed on and came to a river Leichhardt named the Gilbert for his “unfortunate companion”. On August 20, he named the Nicholson River for his friend William and then the Roper River for another member of his expedition. They descended Arnhem Land scrambling down rocks before emerging on the floodplain of the South Alligator River. They knew they were closing in on Port Essington as the blacks had European goods and a smattering of English. Just before Christmas they astonished the English garrison with their bedraggled presence and were lucky enough to find a ship leaving for Sydney after just three weeks.

Back in Sydney, Leichhardt was a sensation and the most celebrated man in Australia. Not content to rest on his laurels he began planning an even longer east-west trip to Swan Colony. He set off with his new party of seven from the Darling Downs in November 1846. This trip was a disaster with disputes between the travellers, especially Leichhardt and the upper-class Hovenden Hely who took exception at being assigned goat herder. They headed towards Peak Range in miserable weather, constant rain and flooding creeks. Almost all the party fell ill and were forced to wait months for rivers to recede and travellers to get better. Neither happened and they abandoned the expedition on June 7, 1847. On the way back, Leichhardt heard Sir Thomas Mitchell had supposedly discovered “a River to India” (the Barcoo which went nowhere near India but instead drained into Lake Eyre) and he mapped the Balonne and Condamine Rivers as they went west.

These discoveries led to Leichhardt starting his third expedition from Mt Abundance where he went “Into the Unknown”. For theories on what might have happened Leichhardt, you should read Darrell Lewis’s meticulously researched “Where is Dr Leichhardt“.

Stop Press and the New Front Page – Part 2

This is the second part of my post about Rachel Buchanan and Tim Dunlop’s new books about the media.  See Part 1 here.

If Buchanan’s book Stop Press is apolitical, Dunlop’s The New Front Page is a polemic. Dunlop was one of the earliest Australian bloggers, deeply impacted by living in the US in the wake of 9/11. Dunlop’s attitude to journalists and the media is grounded in other life experiences. As a youngster working in his father’s garage and later as an adult running record and video stores, it was all about customer service. Dunlop admits media has more complex relationships and must relate to its audience as citizens as well as customers. The problem the media never faced up to, says Dunlop, was that customers alone didn’t make them money but selling those customers to others did.

This attitude of audience as product, affected the way the media dealt with them and led to significant failures which deeply eroded audience trust. Newspapers have been in a slow decline since the 1920s as other media like radio and then television took away advertisers. Classified ads were still profitable until the Internet destroyed that business model. Dunlop sheds few tears for these developments. Journalists were complicit in their own demise, believing too much in their own invincibility and relying too much on reputation that reality rarely lived up to. Dunlop was one of the earliest to understand the new technology allowed to audience not only to talk back but create their own media narratives.

Dunlop was one of many writers across the world who found their muse in 9/11.  The day and its many consequences galvanised opposing views of history. The “mainstream media” as Dunlop and other bloggers called them, lined up almost to a masthead on one side of the argument. Too captive to their sources and too addicted to the drip of insider information, they were unable to connect the dots of the wider picture. Its failure to talk truth to power was epitomised, argued Dunlop, by the groupthink that supported US President GW Bush’s case for war in Iraq. The casus belli presented by Bush supporters was swallowed almost whole by the MSM. They were shown up by a variety of amateurs enabled by newly invented blogging technologies, who pointed out the faulty reporting. Dunlop and others were a rare counterpoint to what was otherwise painted as a national consensus for war.

The result were a lack of trust between media and audiences, hostility between the professional and amateur producers, and paranoia and barely concealed contempt from the professionals who saw the newbies as leeching on their work. They were interlopers that had to be resisted rather than challengers to be embraced. The later News of the World scandal confirmed for many the perfidy of the press who treat their audience solely as a commodity.

Dunlop’s own blog The Road to Surfdom, inspired many in Australia to follow his path. He charts his own inspiration to journalist Margo Kingston. Kingston was one of Fairfax’s best journalists but her outsider status was tested to breaking point when she covered Pauline Hanson’s failed 1998 election campaign. Kingston and Hanson seem unlikely bedfellows but they were both maverick women who refused to play media games. Kingston’s disillusionment with the politico-media alliance at the expense of their audience/voters led to her setting up Media Diary as an online portal for news and discussion. Media Diary became all-embracing and ultimately died when it wore out Kingston but it led the way for many in the audience to find their own voice, Dunlop included.

Dunlop had just done a PhD on democracy, citizenship and public debate. A blog like Surfdom allowed him to eloquently put those ideas into practice. Its success eventually led to a surprise job offer from News Ltd. Despite being an ardent critic of Murdoch’s Empire, Dunlop jumped at the chance to talk to the large audiences News Ltd portals offered. Dunlop quickly learned was treated as a second-class citizen in the News Ltd power structure but it attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. Some said he was selling out, but Dunlop accepted on the condition he would not have any editorial interference. He was a poaching blogger who was now a gamekeeper in the nation’s largest estate. Dunlop became obsessed with issues of moderating comments and curating the unruly conversation that swirled around him. It led to 18 hour days that were both exhilarating and exhausting. Eventually it was undone. His insistence on complete independence proved untenable when sooner or later he criticised the Empire itself. The relationship was terminally damaged after a post criticising the Australian’s editor was deleted. You shouldn’t be surprised, fellow blogging trailblazer Tim Blair advised him, you cannot bite the hand that feeds you.

Now independent again, Dunlop’s main concern remains democracy’s ability to allow a variety of voices to be heard. Social media has further muddied the waters, empowering audiences and yet offering new ways for media to show leadership. Newspapers are among the most-connected places in a city or town but their employees can no longer take their audience for granted. Nor can they just troll them for clicks. Dunlop says media practitioners must accept power relations have changed. They must engage audiences or as Dunlop says, according the “respect of talking to them, not down to them.” Otherwise journalism will have little role to play in the continuing evolution of democracy.

Stop Press and the New front Page – Part 1

Paul Barclay (right) introduced Tim Dunlop and Rachel Buchanan at Avid bookshop, Brisbane
Paul Barclay (right) introduced Tim Dunlop and Rachel Buchanan at Avid bookshop, Brisbane

Two authors writing on similar themes but with radically different perspectives are taking a discussion of their books on a national tour. I caught up with them – Tim Dunlop, author of The New Front Page and Rachel Buchanan, author of Stop Press – in Brisbane where they were quizzed about their books by the ABC’s Paul Barclay. The books published by Scribe are in a series of first person accounts about the changes underway in what Barclay called a “now emaciated” media industry. Dunlop is well known blogger and political commentator while Buchanan has been a journalist for over 20 years. Dunlop’s forte is the media’s relationship to politics, written from a left-wing perspective. Buchanan’s politics are private but what she does wear on her sleeve is her abiding love of newspapers.

The book subtitles reveal their perspectives on the industry. Dunlop’s New Media and the Rise of the Audience looks forward to a re-shaped landscape while Buchanan’s The Last Days of Newspapers is a valedictory for a dying industry. Buchanan and Dunlop occasionally talked at cross purposes with Dunlop’s focus on political journalism of less interest to Buchanan than newspapers as a whole. Barclay had a tough time find unifying themes but eventually the life-long learning that informed both their views made it a mostly fascinating discussion of Australia’s media landscape in 2013.

Buchanan, in her mid 40s, describes herself as a “paper girl” who has lived most of her life in the “dirty imperfect city of newspapers”. She was first published aged 16 in her native New Zealand and she ruefully remembers her first byline miscaptioned as Richard Buchanan. Starting out as a journalist in the mid 1980s, she landed in a slowly declining but still profitable industry. She loved the wonderful variety of the job doing everything from court reporting to heli-skiing. Her peregrinations led her to London before landing a job at The Age in Melbourne. The Age was the toughest paper she ever wrote for. Buchanan said her time there was a stressful competition with other journalists for a spot in the paper.

Buchanan tried to leave the industry several times. She wrote fiction, she did full time study, she eventually became an academic. But whatever she tried, she would eventually return to the fold of newspapers. As the years rolled by, she found the industry shrivelling around her though she was disturbed by the hypocrisy of continually expanding university programs for jobs that no longer existed. After several years in academia, she returned once again to newspapers in 2012. The reason was an unexpected return to New Zealand for family reasons where she picked up a job as a subeditor, fighting off accusations of being a scab. In 2007 Fairfax Media sacked their sub-editors in Newcastle and Wollongong and outsourced the production work of the Newcastle Herald and Illawarra Mercury to NZ at lower rates and with less people. The decision caused shock not only in the two NSW cities but resonated across the entire industry. Sub-editing, said Buchanan, was “once the hidden creative and technical grunt behind a newspaper.” Subbies were the ones who turned “nude” copy into published prose, house-style. They had a compendium of knowledge about the newspaper and the city they served. Now they were gone, replaced by contract labour, working hard and cheap and knowing nothing of their faraway markets.

It wasn’t their fault but Buchanan and her colleagues in Wellington had no feel for the Mercury or the Herald and knew little or nothing about local issues or personalities. Sub-editing was always stressful and in older times they often had to write to four deadlines a day. Now those peaks are gone, evened out by an incessant demand for daylong copy, done fast and non-stop. After 12 exhausting months in the job, Buchanan quit and came back to Australia to write her book.

Buchanan says the book is about the cultural and economic implications of the death of newspapers. Too much of the public conversation has been about the impact to the journalists and everyone else who worked in the industry has been forgotten. The job losses have affected all aspects of the supply chain from newsprint to delivery. It included the printers, the switchboard operators and the advertising execs. Most departments, said Buchanan, “were denuded, centralised or shut.”

As part of her research, Buchanan paid a visit to The Age’s space age printing plant at Tullamarine. In June 2012 Fairfax announced it was shutting Tullamarine and Chullora (Sydney) and moving metro printing to regional plants. Tullamarine was a massive operation encased in glass which had only opened in 2003. It housed three new German double-width printers and state of the art post-press equipment. Architect Ken Sowerby was showered with awards for design, construction, lighting, steel work and environmental friendliness. Designed to make 46,000 newspapers an hour, it was down to 40,000 by 2013 and dropping. Printer numbers too are dwindling. As one printer told Buchanan, “There was little skill left in the job…These machines do everything.” When Sowerby designed Tullamarine in the late 1990s, Australian newspapers were still expanding and the newly evolving online world was still a novelty. Buchanan remembers reading Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital when it came out in 1996 and thought it “super wacky, even absurd”. She now admits most of his predictions have come true.

Buchanan denies she has written a “history book” but admits even her journalist friends think it is. Stop Press is an elegant and wistful eulogy to a passing age. Journalism will survive, but the large-scale newspaper industry it lived in is on its last legs. Rachel Buchanan may be in mourning but Tim Dunlop is very much comfortable in the digital realm. For his take on the new front page replacing newspapers, see Part 2 of this post tomorrow.

Slowly recovering from Kevin Rudd

Photo credit: Andrew Meares
Photo credit: Andrew Meares

Little wonder Tony Abbott should lead the plaudits for the retiring Kevin Rudd, as few helped Abbott to the Prime Ministership as much as his predecessor.

Rudd’s three year destablisation of the former Gillard Government eventually succeeded in ousting her from the leadership. But the collateral damage had greatly tarnished Labor and the seemingly unelectable Abbott easily triumphed in September. Rudd’s supporters bragged their man had ‘saved the furniture‘ but his vandalism left Labor’s tables and chairs in such a precarious position in the first place. Gillard never got the credit for her work and in tandem with Abbott and Rupert Murdoch, Rudd worked to destroy her legacy.

Rudd was always a long-term planner when it came to self-interest. From his election to parliament in 1998, he assiduously courted the media, contacting opinion editors to get his work published and going over their heads when they refused. He also tandem-teamed with Joe Hockey on the Seven Sunrise program for several years. He considered running as leader against Latham in 2004, defeated Kim Beazley two years later and then oversaw Howard’s end in 2007. As Prime Minister his approval ratings soared with big ticket statements such as the Apology adding to his lustre while he and Wayne Swan’s interventionist response to the GFC saved Australia from recession.

But Rudd had too many ideas that went nowhere. He started to unravel in December 2009 after he failed to bring home a climate change agreement from Copenhagen. The same month the domestic political consensus on climate change ended thanks to new Opposition leader Tony Abbott and his right wing supporters. As Rudd flagged in the polls, word got out he was a prime minister who fretted over irrelevancies while tumbleweeds gathered around the big decisions. Rudd was the consummate media performer – his mastery over the airwaves got him his huge public profile – but as Prime Minister he worked the entire government’s decision-making process into the media cycle. As Kerry-Anne Walsh said in The Stalking of Julia Gillard, Rudd took didn’t have what it took to lead a political party: “A steely and steady personality, the ability to be calm under great pressure and under the weight of extreme criticism, and consistently clear thinking.”

These deficiencies were known to party colleagues when he ran against Kim Beazley in 2006. They knew Rudd was more popular than Beazley and backed him anyway. By mid-2010 that popularity had waned and Rudd was cut loose. But Rudd was not going to gently stand aside and quit. Within weeks of his overthrow, journalists were printing exclusive inside stories of Gillard’s “bastardry”. In the lead-up the 2010 election, Gillard’s hopes of clinging to victory were undermined by devastating questions from Laurie Oakes that showed intimate knowledge of what happened on the night Rudd was deposed.

Gillard retained the prime ministership by dint of her negotiation skills with former Nationals Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. They carved out an agreement to ensure a minority government would last three years. Minority governments are common in Europe but in Australia they were considered a recipe for chaos and the Opposition and a friendly press continually pointed this out, despite the 43rd parliament’s good record on passing legislation. Rudd thrust himself in the limelight whenever the opportunity offered itself – usually at the worst possible time for Gillard.

Early in the term, Gillard sealed her fate by agreeing to Greens and Independents demands to put a fixed price on carbon. Abbott declared the fixed price a tax and hung Gillard on her pre-election statement there would be no carbon tax. Less well remembered was the second half of that sentence: “..but let me be clear, I will be putting a price on carbon and I will move to an emission trading scheme.” It didn’t matter – from that moment shock jock Alan Jones and others called her “Juliar”. By the first anniversary of Rudd’s defeat, the knives were out. Newspapers feverishly reported “exclusive” polls in marginal seats that showed voters clamouring for Rudd’s return. At the last moment Rudd and wife Therese Rein cancelled what the media called an Assassination Party “for K’s former and current staff to say thank you” as Rein tweeted.

While Gillard implemented the carbon pricing package, Rudd stole the limelight with an announcement of heart surgery. As Walsh said Rudd knew the key to media success was “a consistent presence combined with a dash of theatre”.  Whether it was a blow-by-blow account of his ticker troubles or designing a blend of tea for a competition, Rudd popped up reminding people what they were missing. The media lapped it up and ran it in tandem with Gillard’s disaster du jour and op eds that blared “Rudd was Labor’s last chance”. Yet as Labor slipped in the polls, the caucus remained firmly behind Gillard. Unlike Rudd, she was consultative and dependable, albeit apparently unelectable.

Rudd’s supporters – Alan Griffin and Mark Bishop – denounced the people that brought Gillard to power as ‘faceless men’ without a hint of irony that Rudd’s own shadowy undermining campaign depended on anonymity and sourceless quotes to media favourites. Rudd relied on media momentum to finally overwhelm his opponent (Gillard, not Abbott). Much was made of the likely slaughter for the ALP in Queensland with pundits predicting only Rudd would survive. Though Rudd’s feverish campaigning in the 2012 state election for Anna Bligh had little effect, analysts preferred to concentrate on what Bligh’s annihilation would mean for Gillard. Rudd “zipped” around, secure in his popularity and posing for selfies with adoring fans.

On February 18, 2012 a strange video popped up on Youtube entitled “Kevin Rudd is a happy little Vegemite”. It is the first public glimpse of the Rudd insiders knew, foul-mouthed, explosive temper and quick to blame. A few days later, he resigned as foreign minister citing attacks by colleagues and declaring he no longer had Gillard’s support. With a leadership fight in the open, Gillard called in the heavy artillery. Ministers denounced Rudd’s tactics in extraordinary public attacks. Wayne Swan said they were sick of Rudd “driving the vote down by sabotaging policy announcements and undermining our substantial economic successes.”

Gillard called for a ballot and Rudd delayed, knowing he did not have the numbers. The media helped again, saying that it might be a two-phase ballot with defeat followed by victory six months later like Paul Keating in 1991. Gillard won the ballot easily 71-31. Rudd retired to the back bench but the cameras followed him as he lapped up the attention. The “clear air” Gillard craved never came. The relentless media and Chinese whispers added to the pollution. History repeated itself as farce in March 2013 when Simon Crean fell on his own sword trying to coax Rudd out for another challenge. Rudd ducked the challenge rather than lose again. But still the sideshow went on, Rudd pumped his persona up and Labor’s poll numbers went down. In June, staring defeat in the face, Bill Shorten blinked and handed Rudd back the leadership.

There was an instant coffee effect with polls briefly returning to 50-50. But Rudd was the souffle that tried to rise twice. Murdoch’s empire was as ruthless to him as they were to Gillard and as soon as he called the election, they openly called on the electorate to “kick this mob out“. Labor were a rabble, as much Rudd’s doing as any. As Walsh wrote, Rudd “always had to be at the chaotic centre of attention, whose needs and ambitions inevitably took priority over the interests of the government and the Labor Party, or his loyalty to colleague.” He had no workable strategy and once returned, he was defeated by the most underscrutinised Opposition in Australian political history. As ever with Kevin Rudd, the collateral damage was immense, leaving Labor a broken party. More importantly he badly failed the public. His failure to implement the “great moral challenge of our generation” leaves the next generation blaming Rudd’s megalomania as much as Abbott’s foolish policies for Australia’s climate change intransigence.

John Oxley and the Brisbane landing

The John Oxley obelisk at North Quay
The John Oxley obelisk at North Quay

Matthew Condon, in his wonderfully intimate and poetic portrayal of Brisbane, has a great investigative story of the John Oxley obelisk at North Quay.

“I have known it all my life,” Condon begins, “the large dull rectangular granite obelisk that marks the exact location where explorer and New South Wales Surveyor-General of Lands, John Oxley, set foot on the northern bank of the Brisbane River in 1824 and proclaimed a settlement site”. Except, as Condon would find out, this was not the place. The white birthplace of Brisbane, “the Caucasian holy ground” as Condon calls it, was actually further upstream at Milton.

The 2.5m-high obelisk is, as Condon noted, unprepossessing and difficult to locate. I was unaware of its existence though I had often cycled past the area. Situated near North Quay and Makerston Street, the obelisk is indistinct, hidden and almost apologetic. To get to it a pedestrian must cross busy lanes of traffic heading to the Riverside Expressway. The pedestrian path is a dead end and does not get much foot traffic. Bikers whizz past to the riverside paths directly below the steep cliff, oblivious to the featureless “grey lump” under pollution-ridden trees.

The monument was conceived in 1924 in the Brisbane centenary celebrations and purchased with money from a state government fund set up for the Oxley commemoration. It was installed a couple of years later. Photographer Frank Hurley’s photo of the monument after World War II shows a well-dressed young couple standing stiffly reading the plaque in the early afternoon. This was before the Expressway stranded it. As Condon says, it is an eerie corner that “feels to have died.” Condon also notes the peculiar wording of the obelisk’s text. “Here John Oxley Landing to Look for Water Discovered the Site of this City.” Something doesn’t seem right about it. The unpunctuated wording and unnecessary capitals seem clumsy and uncertain, and makes the discovery of the city seem accidental.

The idea for Brisbane emerged in 1817 when Secretary of State for War and the Colonies the Third Earl Bathurst held a commission of inquiry into transportation to NSW. Bathurst was worried NSW was no longer seen as a deterrent and authorised lawyer John Thomas Bigge to investigate options. Bigge recommended new settlements including Moreton Bay for hardened criminals. In 1822 Bathurst ordered Oxley to survey the site. Aboard the Mermaid, Oxley discovered the mouth of a river on November 29, which he named for NSW Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane. He returned in 1824 on board the Amity with a founding party of 54 and explored the river with botanist Allan Cunningham.

Brisbane historian John Steele quotes Oxley’s Field Books for September 28, 1824 (the date on the obelisk) in his 1972 book The Explorers of the Moreton Bay District 1770-1830. “We proceeded down the river, landing about three-quarters of a mile from our sleeping place, to look for water, which we found in abundance and of excellent quality, being at this season a chain of ponds watering a fine valley. The soil good, with timber and a few pines, by no means an ineligible station for a first settlement up the river.” Steele has a footnote for the word ‘landing’ which reads “probably at Frew Park, Milton. See Truman op.cit.”

Frew Park is named for Robert “Daddy” Frew long-time head of the Queensland Lawn Tennis Association and was the former home of the Milton Tennis Centre. It has long been derelict though there are plans to develop it. Tom Truman, history teacher at University of Queensland, wrote articles in the Courier-Mail in 1950 arguing the site of the “chain of ponds watering a fine valley” was in Milton. Truman also quotes Oxley’s Field Notes from the day before the landing to prove the location of Oxley’s sleeping place. Oxley said his party encountered a large group of Aborigines on the riverbank in Toowong and pitched camp “about half a mile below this encampment on the same side of the river there being a small creek between us, which I hoped would prevent them visiting us.” Condon believes this puts the campsite at Patrick Lane, Toowong near the Wesley Hospital. They moved downriver the next morning in search of fresh water. Truman says that day’s landing spot was where the old Western Creek entered the river below Coronation Drive in Milton – over 2.5km from the obelisk site. Truman said those who fixed the obelisk at North Quay had different information. “I should very much like to know what that extra information was,” he wrote.

Condon decided to find out that extra information. In 1988 a memorial to Oxley was unveiled at the Milton site in the atrium of the Oxley Centre consisting of three glass and steel posts “that look like the ragged remnants of a ship’s sail”. Opposite the centre across Coronation Drive is another plaque commemorating Oxley’s landing “hereabouts”. In three visits, Oxley never set foot on the part of the river now occupied by Brisbane’s CBD. The first commander at Redcliffe, Lieutenant Henry Miller, decided the beach was unsuitable and with Port Jackson pilot John Grey, moved the settlement to North Quay.  Grey and Miller climbed the embankment near the obelisk, not Oxley.

Condon went to Frew Park looking for the “chain of ponds”. Truman told him there used to be waterholes connected to the Western Creek which rose in Red Jacket Swamp (now Gregory Park), flowed through Frew and Milton Parks and joined the river at Dunmore Bridge.

Condon also traced the history of the obelisk. The Brisbane City treasurer’s department wrote to Mayor William Jolly in 1926 to make arrangement for the supply of granite blocks for a monument to Oxley at North Quay “under the supervision of the town planner and Dr Cumbrae-Stewart”.  Dr FWS Cumbrae-Stewart was co-founder of Brisbane’s Historical Society and a law professor at Queensland University. The site and inscription was his idea.

Condon tracked down 85-year-old daughter June Cumbrae-Stewart who told him her father was born in New Zealand before the family moved to Melbourne. Frank Stewart studied in Oxford and was called to the bar at London’s Inner Temple in 1887. He practiced in Melbourne before moving to Brisbane in 1898. In 1910 he was the first registrar and librarian of Queensland University. This moved him into more elevated circles and he added Cumbrae to his name from Scottish ancestry. He helped found the Queensland Historical Society in 1913 and became president. In 1924 he addressed the society about what he called Oxley’s landing site at North Quay a 100 years earlier.

Cumbrae-Stewart said “it would appear” Oxley first landed near the upper end of North Quay to look for water for which Oxley said, “we found in abundance..for a first settlement up the river”. Cumbrae-Stewart was likely confusing Oxley’s chain of ponds in Milton with Miller’s swampy land at the bottom of Roma Street and then worked backwards to shore up his argument. By September 1924 he was certain, telling an audience including Queensland Governor Matthew Nathan that North Quay was definitely the landing spot. Seven months earlier Nathan called for an obelisk to commemorate Oxley. Within a year Cumbrae-Stewart became a permanent trustee of the Oxley Centenary Fund. As Condon concluded, “he had the facts as he saw them, he had the backing, and then he had the money and the power to put his historical error into granite.”