Woolly Days media personality of the year 2014: Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Basher Mohamed

GresteIt’s that time of the year when I name the Woolly Days media personality of the year. The “award” dates back to 2009 when I complimented ABC boss Mark Scott for taking his organisation into the 21st century and leading the fighting against Australian media Murdochocracy. 2010 was the year of Julian Assange, who despite cringe-worthy self-centredness, did as much as anyone to tell stories people didn’t want told (the definition of journalism). In 2011 I gave it to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and journalist Nick Davies for shining a light on News Corp’s despicable practices in the UK, with the tacit approval of the police. Their full extent was revealed in Judge Brian Leveson’s inquiry in 2012 and he was my winner for that year. In 2013, Edward Snowden was a dominant winner for his spectacular expose for the intelligence practices and malpractices of the US and its allies.

There has been no standout this year but there is a deserving winner, or rather three deserving winners bucking a trend in news journalism. I recently saw the movie Nightcrawler, an excoriating treatment of evening news priorities. TV news journalism in the big American cities (and here in Australia) is all about ambulance chasing, the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy leading to news services overwhelmingly devoting time to petty local crime.

That criticism can’t be levelled at the three Al Jazeera employees who share the Woolly Days media personality of the year for 2014. Australian journalist Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian bureau chief Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and their Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed end the year as they started it in an Egyptian prison. The trio were reporting on the aftermath of the overthrow of Egypt’s elected government when arrested almost exactly a year ago. After a long and often farcical trial they were sentenced to multiple year prison terms for reporting news “damaging to national security.”

The sentences were widely condemned across the world though I queried their employer’s role in the matter. Al Jazeera’s owners, the emirs of Qatar, have dabbled dangerously in Middle East politics and bankrolled former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi with Qatari LNG. When Morsi was overthrown Qatar gave sanctuary to several high-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt accused Al Jazeera of bias in their reporting.

The most well-known of the three in Australia, Peter Greste acknowledged the problem in his letters from prison. Greste wrote that despite its responsibility for Islamist violence, the Brotherhood remained the largest social and political force in Egypt. “What then for a journalist striving for ‘balance, fairness and accuracy?’” Greste asked. “How do you accurately and fairly report on Egypt’s ongoing political struggle without talking to everyone involved?” Greste and Fahmy decided they had to keep talking to everyone, regardless of the consequences. This is admirable and courageous, but didn’t acknowledge Al Jazeera’s role in Egyptian politics.

While Greste has been the focus of Australian efforts thanks to his media-savvy parents, Fahmy has been more prominent in Canada, where he attended university. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is among those calling for his release. Fahmy’s CV is impressive. He was a stringer in the 2003 Iraq War for the LA Times and wrote a book on his experiences called “Baghdad Bound”. When the Arab Spring broke out, he returned to his native Egypt and chronicled the uprising in a photo documentary he called “Egyptian Freedom Story”.

Baher Mohamed is a graduate of Cairo University. He worked for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper for five years, and freelanced for CNN and Iran’s English-language Press TV before joining Al Jazeera in 2013. In his trial, the prosecution said his father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and had tried to make him go to religious classes organised by the Islamist movement. But Mohamed refused to attend because they were “boring”.  Mohamed got the seven years sentence of the other two but also an additional three years for having a weapon.

Their year in prison has been filled with false hope of an early release, most recently in November when Greste’s parents spoke of a possible pardon from Egypt’s president. Their best bet is a thaw in relations between Egypt and Qatar with the visit of a top Qatari envoy to Cairo. Egypt said it looked “forward to a new era that ends past disagreements” but made no mention of the Al Jazeera trio.

The Committee to Protect Journalists say they are among at least 12 journalists behind bars in Egypt. Four have been convicted including Greste, Fahmy and Mohamed. The other is Abdel Rahman Shaheen, a correspondent for Freedom and Justice News Gate. Shaheen was sentenced by a Suez court in June to three years jail on charges of inciting and committing violence during protests in April.

Many are saying Egypt has declared journalism a crime. The CPJ has released a documentary called Under Threat as the government cracks down on the press, forcing independent and critical voices into silence, exile, or prison. The film documents the dangers of working for Egyptian media, impunity in the killings of reporters, and the ongoing imprisonments of journalists. For braving those dangers, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed are my media personalities of 2014. Here’s hoping for a swift release for them and fellow journalists in 2015.

Wayne Swan still in the ring for ‘The Good Fight’

swanAustralian male politicians like their violent metaphors especially when describing their own exploits. Tony Abbott’s autobiography Battlelines reflected his pugilism while one of his former opponents, former Labor deputy PM and Treasurer Wayne Swan, prefers to be remembered for “The Good Fight”. Swan was my local MP and as I started my journalism career I interviewed him before the 2007 election (an interview for which I remain extremely grateful – his LNP opponent turned me down). Swan batted away my questions with aplomb, but tougher questions were coming. Labor won that election, and Swan was installed Treasurer of a country about to sway in vicious global headwinds. His Good Fight was just beginning.

He begins the book in early January 2008 while on holidays at the Sunshine Coast with a recollection of a phone call from his American counterpart. US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson was worried by an economy buffeted by a sub-prime mortgage crisis that started in mid-2007. US housing prices were falling and the country was in recession. Paulson told Swan a recovery was possible but only if there wasn’t a “meltdown” in housing prices. Swan’s Treasury advice was that global risks were substantial but Australia was well placed to ride it out. His holiday reading of Alan Greenspan’s memoir combined with a biography of Australian depression-era treasurer EG Theodore brought the fear of another collapse home to him and made him realise the next few years would not be “an easy cruise”.

Though it started in 2007, the prospect of a financial crisis made little impact on the election that year. It never came up in my own interview with Swan and I was not alone – neither the media nor the Treasury saw it as a live issue. The priorities of the incoming Labor government were carbon pricing, water reform and federal financial relations. The massive overspending of the final years of the Howard Government had led to inflationary pressures and interest rates were on the rise thanks to China’s enormous appetite for Australian iron ore. Labor, keen to be seen as economically cautious, committed itself to a 1.5% budget surplus and its razor gang went in search of savings. By the time of its first budget, interest rates had risen to over 7% though the sub-prime crisis in America rumbled on. Swan had just returned from IMF meetings in Washington which predicted world losses of 1 trillion dollars. Swan was walking a tightrope between global turbulence and an overheated Australian economy, a paradox expressed in talking points as “countervailing forces”.

The budget promised $33b in savings but only $7b in the first year, which caused The Australian newspaper to complain it didn’t tackle inflationary pressures. But Swan’s American experiences meant he didn’t want to ‘slam the economy into a wall’. That wall was fast approaching and by August 2008 Swan was discussing the possibility of a recession with officials. Treasury boss Ken Henry told him if a stimulus was needed, it had to be 1% of GDP, about $10b. The June National Accounts showed just 0.3% of growth, not a recession, but very close. On September 7, US mortgage underwriters Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae had to be bailed out by Washington. Then a week later came the collapse of Lehman Brothers. A day later AIG also needed a Federal bailout. Immediately credit markets froze and investors ran for cover. Swan admitted it was terrifying news but publicly said Australian ‘fundamentals remained strong’. An extraordinary week ended with a US $700b financial rescue plan to mop up toxic assets.

The first Australian response was to buy $4b in mortgage-backed securities to keep the flow of credit and preserve mortgage competition. When US Congress voted down the rescue package, the Dow plunged 7%, the ASX went down 4% the following day. The RBA cut interest rates by a full 1% and Henry advised Rudd and Swan to ‘go early, go hard, go households’ on a stimulus especially with a slowdown on Chinese growth. The stimulus came in at $10.4b targeted at pensioners and low-income earners in time for Christmas. Half the surplus was gone in one hit and Swan’s staff prepared for an even bigger second package. The world was a different place from 2007. The G7 was recording negative growth and global stocks had lost half their value. Rock bottom had not yet been reached.

Swan was “rewarded” with growth of 0.1% which meant recession was technically avoided but the knock on effects of the global crisis were starting to hit. More policy levers were pulled. The government established the OzCar special purpose vehicle to provide liquidity to car dealer financers, brought forward transport projects, and people were encouraged to spend their Mark I stimulus bonus. Mark II would cost another $42b, 4% of GDP, including a $900 ‘consumption payment’ for individuals, the school Building the Education Revolution program and the insulation program for 2.7 million homes. The idea was that for every dollar providing immediate stimulus, another $2 would have future benefits.

With the Opposition’s wait and see approach against the package, the government negotiated with cross-benchers including Nick Xenophon who wanted a water buyback scheme. The December quarter had negative growth of 0.5% with the global economy expected to contact 1% in 2009 so the pressure was on for the next three months again to avoid recession. Swan’s second budget would be the victim of massive write-downs and unemployment around 0.5%. It project a deficit of $7b though as Swan called ‘a massive own goal’, he never mentioned the actual figure.

He was on safer ground when he said Labor protected Australia against the brutality of a global recession. His strategy worked – Australia recorded 0.4% growth in the March quarter and technical recession was avoided once more. With the worst of the GFC apparently over, there were calls to halt or decrease the stimulus. Swan held the line that growth was still weak and stimulus filled the gap. There was now a ‘two speed economy’ with coal and gas demand rising in 2009-2010 pushing the dollar up while other industries stagnated. GDP growth continued around 0.5% for 2009.

The story of slow recovery continues in the second half of Swan’s book. But it is overshadowed by growing political conflict between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Swan begins with the July 2009 backflip by Malcolm Turnbull on Opposition support for a carbon price. Rudd ordered ministers to negotiate with the Liberals on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme but also told them to deliberately drag it out to extract maximum political advantage. It was a fatal miscalculation. Rudd dithered on forcing the double dissolution on carbon and pinned his hopes on a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009. His failure there sent him into meltdown, according to Swan.

By then Turnbull had been replaced by Tony Abbott who called the CPRS a ‘great big new tax’. Rudd went to Christmas without making a decision on 2010 strategy while Swan was tied up with the Henry Tax review recommendation to introduce a mining tax. In the New Year Rudd threw his energies into a federal takeover of the health system leaving Swan and Gillard to carry the messy CPRS and mining tax. In April Rudd announced the CPRS would be delayed three years.

May 2010 brought the fight over the mining tax. Swan said mining profits in 2008-2009 were $80b higher than 10 years earlier but the government was only collecting an additional $9b in revenue. Royalty and resource charges had reduced from 31% to 14%. The industry, the Opposition and Murdoch newspapers said the world would cave in if the tax was implemented and the scare campaign ramped up with slick advertising. Rudd’s stratospheric poll numbers collapsed exposing his weak support in the party room.

Swan said he was a reluctant starter on the idea of replacing Rudd with Gillard. “I could see Kevin was leading us into the wilderness,” he said, “but I was torn between the dread of that and the undoubted ugliness that would accompany his ousting”. Swan said Rudd was prone to vengeful behaviour and over-centralised leadership due to a “pathological fear of leaks”. He dragged meetings on for hours without making decisions and complex briefing papers went unread.  There was high staff turnover in his office.  A Labor mauling in a NSW state by-election was partially put down to federal issues and by mid June 2010 Gillard was ready to challenge.

Swan knew removing a popular first-term PM was dangerous but saw it as unavoidable. When the spill came, Rudd did not stand. Swan said this robbed the party of a frank debate in the party room. Swan said he felt sorry for a man he had worked with since their days in the Queensland Goss Government from 1989 and their families had been close for a decade with Rudd a godfather to Swan’s only son. But he was now deputy prime minister under Gillard.

They focussed on three problems: climate change, asylum seekers and the mining tax.  They hammered out a deal with the big mining companies that dropped the profits-based tax from 40 to 30% and applied to iron ore and coal only.  It cleared the way for a 21 August election. Rudd remained in the spotlight and his strategic leaks damaged Gillard who didn’t help her cause with her talk of ‘the real Julia’.   There was a sizeable swing against Labor in an election that ended in a draw. Swan narrowly retained his seat.

Suddenly the independents held the balance of power and after 17 long days and a $11b costing blunder by the Coalition, Windsor and Oakeshott gave the reins of power to Gillard. Swan thought minority government was suited to Gillard’s collegiate style but he later realised the uncertainty suited Rudd too.

While Australia was recovering, Europe remained in strife and Treasury was making plans for a second GFC. Swan had reduced government spending but revenue shortfalls were making return to budget surplus more difficult by the day. Swan’s budget revenues had declined by $160b in 2007.

Natural disasters like the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi were costly and the Japanese tsunami and the Auckland earthquake also suppressed demand. Though unemployment was down to 5.1%, the lowest in the industrial world, the budget fetish meant the media roasted Swan in December 2012 when he finally admitted Australia would not return to surplus in 2012-2013.

Kevin Rudd’s leadership ambitions emerged openly in 2012. He resigned as foreign minister in February over a perceived slight by Simon Crean. Gillard called a leadership ballot and beat Rudd 71-31. Rudd slid off to the backbench but immediately started plotting his return.

Labor pressed on with the NDIS and Gonski reforms, but their hopes of getting ‘clear air’ were destroyed by issues such as Speaker Peter Slipper’s and Labor MP Craig Thompson’s legal problems.  Rudd’s strategically-timed leaks also caused media disasters. On March 21 2013, Simon Crean engineered another leadership challenge, apparently promised the deputy PM position by Rudd. But Rudd didn’t take the bait forcing Crean to resign.

In Swan’s final budget he funded Gonski and the NDIS over ten years by closing corporate tax loopholes. With Gillard’s poll numbers never recovering from her broken promise on carbon taxing, Rudd was irrepressible. By June 2013 commentators were openly saying Gillard would not make it to the election. Gillard called a third spill on June 26 and lost 57-45. Swan resigned as deputy leader and treasurer. Rudd’s three year war of attrition had succeeded. But the cost was high. Though Australia’s economy had grown 14% since the GFC, Australians did not feel better off. Labor’s leadership turmoil added to the sense of disgruntlement. The trenchant criticisms of Rudd made by Swan and other senior leaders after the failed March coup would haunt Rudd in the election campaign which was one disaster after another. As Swan said, Rudd’s campaign was only “selfie deep”. By election day, many were predicting Labor would have been better off sticking with Gillard. Rudd lost comfortably to Tony Abbott.

Swan’s “good fight” went on to his own election in Lilley, which he won “against the odds”. It was one of Labor’s few success stories on the night. Swan said Rudd had a plan for getting rid of Gillard but not for ruling the country. Swan said his own political philosophy was ‘where do we stand?’ not ‘what’s in it for me?’  Whether Swan’s fighting instinct still has something in it for him remains to be seen. Though now in opposition and on the back bench, the call remains. “For me,” he concluded, “the good fight will never be over.”

Remembering Jandamarra: an Australian freedom fighter

Howard Pedersen’s book Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance tells a forgotten story

Settler societies Australia and the US share much in common, including how they took the land from prior inhabitants. But while Native American heroes are part of the US pantheon, Australia does not accord the same respect to Indigenous people that fought invasion. Here the fiction remains the land was taken peacefully, implicit in recent statements by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that before colonisation, Sydney was “nothing but bush”.

Sydney, like the rest of Australia, was well populated before 1788 and local warriors like Pemulwuy fought hard against the “boat people” that took their land. Pemulwuy remains unknown as does another resistance leader in Western Australia. His white name was “Pigeon”, but he deserves to be known by his Bunuba name Jandamarra. Schooled in Indigenous and British ways, Jandamarra struck fear into a colony for three years, before falling to overwhelming force.

His home country, the Kimberleys, was a densely populated indigenous region with 30,000 people speaking 50 languages. They called their formidable dividing mountain ranges “Milawundi” but the first white explorer Alexander Forrest called them the King Leopold Ranges for the Belgian monarch who carved out an empire in Africa. Forrest wanted a similar empire for Britain in north-west Australia. Here rose the mighty river the Bandaral ngarri, which whites called the Fitzroy. Its source was the home of the Bunuba people who lived off fish, freshwater crocodiles, kangaroos, turkeys, goannas, emus, snakes and bats that thrived in the lush region. Hunting was governed by strict religious and kinship traditions that ensured a plentiful supply survived across the generations.

The Bunuba lost their land at the stroke of a pen in London. In 1829 Captain James Stirling arrived on the Swan River claiming Western Australia for Britain. George Grey led a party to the north eight years later with a mission to “familiarise the natives with the British name and character”. Grey recommended a settlement which took 30 years to achieve.

At King Sound, the British founded the town of Derby. Land-hungry squatters from Victoria read Grey’s journals and came to graze sheep. Alarmed Perth leaders funded an expedition to Camden Harbour in 1864 where they found lands “equal to the best runs in Victoria”. The land grab began with ships arriving from Perth and Melbourne full of eager settlers. These first settlements were failures with many dying of fever and sunstroke. A few hardy sheep station owners held on despite high transport costs, a low wool price and a chronic lack of labour. Their economic salvation was the discovery of pearl shells abundant along the coast. Aboriginal divers were enslaved to dive deep and stay under water a long time to collect the shells. This trade gradually made European occupation profitable.

Forrest discovered the rich Fitzroy and Ord River valleys in 1879. The first settlers arrived within three years sparking a tit-for-tat war between white guns and Bunuba spears. Police chained black “suspects” and took them to Rottnest Island to be imprisoned or hanged. The Bunuba thought it was fair to take food from newcomers on their land. The settlers saw it as theft and shot and wounded Bunuba leader Ellamarra as a lesson. They disregarded Bunuba warnings about sacred places and allowed their sheep to foul waterways. Ellamarra was taken to Derby and sentenced to six month’s prison.

He escaped after five months. A police patrol surrounded him at a homestead but he escaped again, hurling curses before hiding in the hills. The magistrate blamed conscripted black trackers for the failure and hired two Bunuba prisoners as black troopers. They led police away from hiding grounds and secretly gave information to their own people. Frustrated pastoralists demanded terror to bring the blacks to heel. This was a dilemma for Perth bureaucrats who knew London didn’t like ill treatment of Aboriginal British subjects. The newspapers called for additional police saying the government couldn’t allow colonists to “be massacrers, but on the other hand cannot allow insecurity to chase investors away”.

Some Bunuba attached themselves to white homesteads, including Jandamarra’s mother. Her son was renowned for running speed and agility, traits that earned him the name Pigeon. Jandamarra was an accomplished stock worker, good with horses and shearing blades. He learned how to handle a gun and became an excellent marksman. Ellamarra was an early influence though he had been at large for three years before Jandamarra’s initiation. In 1889 Jandamarra unwittingly led police to the encampment where Ellamarra was hidden and Ellamarra was captured.

When three white gold seekers were killed in July 1892 there were calls for revenge. A white raiding party attacked a Bunuba camp and killed six men. Ellamarra negotiated a peace treaty but other tribes continued attacks throughout 1893.

Jandamarra was arrested for a small role in stock raids. For two years, he was sentenced to the Derby police stables where he tended horses. He returned to Bunuba country in 1891, a solitary figure isolated from countrymen and police. He was expelled from Bunuba society for sexual promiscuity and lived with white settler Bill Richardson. In 1894 Richardson was drafted by new police sub-inspector Overand Drewry who wanted good bushmen to hunt down the tribes that refused to conform to white ways. Richardson was assigned to the Lennard River police outpost and brought Jandamarra with him.

They were an effective unit patrolling a vast area of the Kimberleys. Within days they captured Ellamarra on a warrant of killing sheep. A JP sentenced Ellamarra to three years in a Derby prison but the wily leader escaped yet again after a few months. Richardson’s group captured him again but he broke the chain and escaped once more. Jandamarra may have been complicit in this escape.

Richardson still held 17 Bunuba chained for sentencing. But Jandamarra’s time had come. One of the 17 was Jandamarra’s brother-in-law Lilimarra. In the middle of the night Jandamarra released Lilimarra and they killed Richardson while he slept. They liberated the remaining prisoners and joined relatives camped nearby. Jandamarra collected firearms and waited to ambush drovers bringing cattle to water. The surprised stockmen would not believe their former friend Pigeon would shoot but he killed two while two others escaped. Their wagon contained a sizeable arsenal of weapons though few of Jandamarra’s men knew how to use them.

Word got back to Drewry who sent five constables and six black troopers. Perth MP Francis Connor demanded retribution be “swift, sharp and decisive.” The West Australian newspaper wanted a “sharp lesson be read to the whole band of murderers”. Drewry’s plan was more subtle: he prepared two Queensland Aboriginal servants to infiltrate the band and kill the leaders. However the Queenslanders turned tail, telling Jandamarra of the plan and returned claiming they could not find the Bunuba rebels.

Jandamarra broke his force into small armed parties and waited in ambush. Drewry also looked for surprise and 28 troopers manoeuvred around the Lennard River citadel for a dawn attack. Jandamarra outsmarted them hiding his men in caves with guns pointed at the police. Gunfire erupted but neither side would show themselves. The stalemate lasted eight hours until a bullet shattered Ellamarra’s back as he attempted to cross to Jandamarra’s cave. His death shook Bunuba confidence and the police trained fire on Jandamarra’s position. He was wounded while his people retreated through the caves under his rifle fire cover. Only six women and three children surrendered.

Jandamarra and the others escaped. The news shocked settler society expecting a quick end to the rebellion. The government sent men and weapons under experienced officer, William Lawrence, demoting Drewry. Lawrence said extreme measures were necessary. His men attacked an Aboriginal camp on the Margaret River killing 11 Gooniyandi men. He killed three more in the Milawundi foothills but decided the rugged terrain was too dangerous.

They roamed the region indiscriminately killing all Aboriginals not associated with homesteads. Two troopers massacred 20 Worrora at Oobagooma Station. After three months Lawrence reported to authorities the settlers were happy with his extreme response. The Roebourne newspaper said the blacks now “rightly understand the Mosaic law of a life for a life”. But the Bunuba remained undefeated.

Jandamarra was nursed back to health by his mother and wife and they moved 20km to Tunnel Creek where food was plentiful. Jandamarra was aware of the carnage though white Australians were not, with press coverage heavily censored. Only the Catholic Herald broke ranks accusing the government of “miserable slaughter”.

Premier John Forrest was unconcerned about the plight of the Aborigines but he was worried by British reaction. A report into the killing was a whitewash saying it was “absolutely needful”. The Bunuba lowlands were annexed but the ranges were renamed “Pigeon Country” where no white would dare go. Drewry’s claim Jandamarra was dead was proved false and the inspector resigned in May 1895. In October seven troopers ambushed Jandamarra at a waterhole but he survived again escaping into the caves. His wife and mother were captured. Jandamarra became more daring, taunting would-be captors.

He raided police quarters for food while troopers slept, his identity revealed by floury footprints. His cat-and-mouse game left police wary and fearful. False leads from prisoners added to the confusion. Police fears ammunition would fall into Aboriginal hands were futile as Jandamarra manufactured his own cartridges using captured gunpowder and molten lead for cast earthen bullets. Several times he was intercepted on visits to relatives at Lennard River Station only to escape, as if by magic.

Sub-inspector Ord wanted to wait until after the 1896 wet season before launching his counter-attack. But the commissioner in Perth demanded immediate action and Ord led a posse to Lennard River. For five days they hid in the police station but Jandamarra did not take the bait. He taunted them shouting down insults from the top of the ridge before disappearing for several months.

In June 1896 six Nyikina warriors escaped from Derby prison and returned to Noonkanbah homelands to attack white settlements. They lit fires fanned by hot winds on a 50 km front. Only the mudflats saved Derby from conflagration. Eventually Ord’s force tracked down the Nyikina and they shot nine dead.

Settlers searched for a route over the Milawundi, watched carefully by the rebels. It was a black trooper named Micki who swung the balance in favour of the police. At Christmas 1896 Micki captured Lilamarra as he visited relatives at Lennard River. The invasion of cattle in sacred places and food-gathering areas led to an attack on the Oscar Range homestead killing one stockman. Police from Fitzroy Crossing gave chase. There was a firefight and Jandamarra escaped again in a riddle of confusing tracks.

Ord swung the whole West Kimberley police force into action. Micki led the charge arresting five Bunuba in an hour. After five days the pursuers picked up Jandamarra’s tracks at what would be called Pigeon Creek. Micki and Jandamarra traded rifle fire in a foot race along a cliff face. Micki finally brought his man down as Jandamarra tried to escape. When a white policeman, Blythe tried to finish him off, Jandamarra shot back and disappeared in the long grass despite multiple gun wounds. In the morning the troops retreated to tend Blythe’s wounds, thinking Jandamarra was dead.

But as they got ready to leave, a shot rang out killing one man. The posse escaped using prisoners as a shield. Jandamarra was free but left a bloody trail and was without his women to nurse him back to health. Micki delivered the final blow in his cave. Jandamarra was dead.

White police claimed the credit and hacked Jandamarra’s head off to take to Perth. People paid to see the skull of the famous primitive warrior. But they were tricked. It was another black man’s head – Jandamarra’s skull had been sent to England as a trophy for an arms manufacturer.

The report into his death made no mention of Bunuba stolen lands or the massacres of their people. Jandamarra and his band were “outlaws” and police were enforcing the law. Pastoralists stocked up Kimberley properties, employing Bunuba as workers. Their descendants were sacked after the equal wage award of 1968 and most drifted to Fitzroy Crossing denied access to their own lands.

The tragedy of the Jandamarra story was colonisers unprepared to negotiate with traditional owners. The WA Government is still not prepared to recognise traditional ownership while Jandamarra’s story remains unknown.

Queensland’s Western Afterthought

1859 border
Queensland’s borders as set in 1859 excluding the western meridians.

A remote part of Queensland made the news in the last 24 hours. Bedourie, 2500 kms from Brisbane, was hit by an incredible dust storm. The storms are unusual, but not unheard of, in a region skirting the Simpson Desert. I can testify to Bedourie’s remoteness and difference from the rest of Queensland. The reasons are geographical – the area is closer to Adelaide than Brisbane – and also, historical.

When Queensland split from NSW in 1859, its western border was the 141st meridian of east longitude – lining up with SA’s eastern boundary with NSW and Victoria. The border was Haddon Corner not Poeppel Corner. The strip of land containing Mount Isa, Cloncurry, Boulia, Bedourie and Birdsville were not part of the new colony for the first three years of Queensland’s existence. The story of why this happened is told in Peter Saenger’s book Queensland’s Western Afterthought: 150 Years of Ups and Downs.

When Queensland’s first boundary was set there were immediate calls to stretch the boundary west. Queensland’s first Surveyor-General AC Gregory noted the 141st meridian split a natural feature of the landscape, country he called “the Plains of Promise”. The eastern shore of those Plains held no natural harbours. Gregory proposed the boundary should move west to more barren country on the 138th meridian to include all of the Plains of Promise and a harbour on the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Matthew Flinders found that harbour in his 1802 voyage around Australia. He anchored the Investigator between Sweers and Bentinck Islands in a sheltered area he called “Investigator Road”. There were no further investigations for 40 years until John Lort Stokes of the HMS Beagle surveyed the Gulf and hinterland country, naming the Albert River. Stokes gave the name Plains of Promise to the area 80km inland from Investigator Road. Stokes believed it would one day be rich and fertile grazing lands.

Others found it less promising. In 1844 Charles Sturt crossed the Strzelecki and Cooper Creeks before finding a ‘gloomy stone-clad plain’ he called the Stony Desert (now Sturt’s Stony Desert). It was so forbidding Sturt gave up his dreams of crossing the centre of the continent. Meanwhile German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt crossed the northern end of the strip in his first journey across Australia. He stayed near the coast and Aborigines attacked the camp killing Leichhardt’s naturalist John Gilbert, wounding two others. Leichhardt’s group licked their wounds for two weeks before continuing and sighting the Gulf of Carpentaria “with feelings of indescribable pleasure”.

Leichhardt named rivers, creeks and streams before struggling on to Port Essington. He returned to Sydney to describe the wonders of the lands he had found. Leichhardt disappeared in 1848 on his even more forbidding east-west crossing and Gregory joined the search for him in 1857. That trip did not take Gregory into the strip but two years earlier he led a government scientific expedition across northern Australia following similar territory to Leichhardt’s first trip. Gregory saw the arid land south-west of the strip. “There is little to expect beside a barren sandy desert,” he wrote.

Sturt, Leichhardt and Gregory opened up the outback which Queensland was ready to exploit. The area west of the 141st meridian remained technically in NSW but the mother colony showed no interest. Gregory never saw Stokes’ Plains of Promise but he and others wanted it for Queensland graziers. When Queensland’s first Governor George Bowen wrote to Secretary of State for the Colonies the Duke of Newcastle about the unclaimed land, Newcastle replied SA wanted the land. “Also a certain group of gentlemen in Victoria,” Newcastle added, “wanted to form a settlement on the north coast of Australia.”

SA wanted to stretch its northern border to the coast. It gained the Northern Territory from NSW in 1863 and also had eyes on the Strip. Victoria’s claims were based on the confidence of its goldfield wealth and the 1860 Burke and Wills expedition to conquer the unknown. That expedition bisected the Plains of Promise and showed they did not live up to their name. The expedition was financed by merchant Thomas Embling and lawyer William Stawell who drafted Victoria’s constitution in 1850. They knew NSW owned the land but Sydney showed no inclination to develop it. Embling and Stawell’s influence ensured Burke and Wills stayed on a straight course north rather than veering west to the Victoria River in the original plan.

Burke’s advance party crossed into the strip on Christmas Day 1860 near Birdsville and found the Diamantina River. They advanced north into the Tropics during a dry wet season. They went past the Cloncurry River watched carefully by Kalkadoon people and toiled to marshy wastelands 20km short of the Gulf near Magowra Station. The return journey passed into history with a series of avoidable calamities. The expedition claimed seven European lives and an unknown number of Aborigines. Its lasting impact came from the search parties sent to find them.

Alfred Howitt’s Melbourne expedition found King alive and Burke and Wills dead and brought them all back. From SA John McKinlay surveyed Cooper Creek, found many channels of the Diamantina, discovered good pastoral country in the Scott Ranges and reached the Gulf via the Leichhardt River. Queensland sent two search parties, one led by William Landsborough which went by ship to the Albert River, the other led by bushman and native police commander Frederick Walker. Walker came overland from Rockhampton through the Blackall and Aramac districts into Hughenden. He found Landsborough’s depot on the Albert River and picked up tracks from Burke and Wills before being thwarted by heavy rains.

The map of Queensland redrawn in 1862 to include the “Western Afterthought”

By end 1862 the broad physical outline of the coastline, its rivers and the interior were mapped. Bowen told Newcastle Queensland would protect settlers in the area if the western boundary was redrawn to include the Gulf. Newcastle agreed and the boundary was redrawn to the 138th meridian. White explorers believed this remote country could be settled comfortably.

There was one problem: the land was already settled. Every white explorer encountered Aboriginal people. The north coast was the home of the Gangalidda, Nunyunga and Garawa people while the Lardil and Kaiadilt lived on the islands. Cloncurry was the home of the Mitakoodi and the fearsome Kalkadoons who numbered between 1500 to 2000. Around Boulia lived the Yalarrnga, Waluwarra and Pitta Pitta. In the southern desert lived the Arrenta, the Wangkanggurru and the Yarluyandi.

These people had lived there for thousands of years. From 1860 their homelands were invaded by strangers with no understanding of fluctuating environmental conditions. They wanted to ‘conquer the wilderness’ and came armed to enforce their way. Aboriginal use of waterholes and the killing of stock for food angered the newcomers. Pastoralists supported by its government in Brisbane (often the same people) encouraged the Native Police to remove Aboriginal people. Removal meant in most cases killing them.

By 1880 most Indigenous people of the south-west had been killed or forced to flee to SA. In the north the Kalkadoons resisted until they were defeated at Battle Mountain in 1884. By the 20th century remaining Indigenes were locked up by the force of the Queensland Act. Queensland’s Western Afterthought was finally in white hands.