The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07”. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.

Advertisements

That Unhappy race Part 5 – The Drew and Hale Commissions

Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.
Aboriginal people at Durundur reserve.

By the 1870s those pushing for further white expansion in Queensland could see only one way forward: corralling all the indigenous people into one manageable place far from white towns. In Maryborough residents were deeply offended by the large group of Aborigines camped near the town cemetery. Though the Maryborough blacks had not been troublesome since 1853, there continued many massacres of indigenous people in the area. There was an existential fear among whites after Hornet Bank and Cullin-la-Ringo which had never gone away. There was also distaste at alcohol-fuelled quarrels and the tendency of the blacks to wander the streets naked. There were calls to move “savages” away from sensitive eyes of white women and children.

Edward Fuller was a Primitive Methodist who believed Aborigines could be shown the path to a white god. He thought the solution in Maryborough was a mission on Fraser Island. Fraser was proposed as a mission site in the 1840s but nothing came of it. Government proposals in the 1860s to gazette a reserve got a chilly reception from squatters wanting to develop the island. Fuller began his Fraser mission in 1870 attracting over 30 people to his camp. But he suffered the usual problem of white encroachment with timber-getters moving in, supplying the blacks with alcohol. Fuller was a frustrated man on a mission and his inability to convert at Fraser Island, was mirrored by later failures at Lake Weyba, Hinchinbrook Island and Bellenden Plains.

Frank Bridgman had better luck with the first secular reserve at Mackay in 1871. Bridgman was a southern grazier who brought sheep to the Isaac region. Initially Bridgman was not averse to supporting the native police’s brutal tactics to “disperse” blacks from his property at Grosvenor Downs near Fort Cooper native police barracks. Judith Wright‘s grandfather Albert wrote in his diary in 1868 that “about 60 Blacks were shot at Grosvenor Downs last week”.

Bridgman and fellow Mackay squatters sent a letter to colonial secretary Arthur Palmer – himself a squatter of the Mackay hinterland – asking for more protection “against the numbers and increasing audacity of the Blacks”. By 1870 Bridgman was thinking of other ways to solve the problem. He believed a labour reserve of cheap Aboriginal workers might be useful in the sparsely populated north, or as he put it, “labour being valuable, there will be less wish to have them shot down.” He wrote a letter to Palmer in 1870 asking for separate lands in country too poor for white farmers. Bridgman recommended scrubby land near a Homebush lagoon be gazetted for Aboriginal people. The land commissioner approved the request in 1871 and within two years Bridgman established the Association for the Employment and Protection of Aborigines in Mackay. The Association wanted low paid indigenous workers to replace indentured South Sea labour which was under attack in parliament. Bridgman hoped to use them on his own sugar plantation.

By March 1873 over 200 Aborigines moved onto Bridgman’s reserve at GooneenberryPalmer was now premier and his government established a commission under William Drew to see if the Mackay scheme could be applied across the colony. The commissioners visited the north and spoke to squatters (but not to indigenous people). Bridgman told them Aboriginal people were reliable employees.

In their May 1874 report the Drew Commission admitted a system of reserves and protectors would be expensive. But It argued Queensland was only profitable from the lease and sale of crown lands “which the Aborigines originally occupied”. However Palmer was booted out of power and new premier Arthur Macalister ignored the report.

What forced Macalister’s hand was the report of an attempted murder which filtered its way to all-powerful London. The Native Police shooting of a black at Cooktown made the Sydney papers and ultimately caught the attention of Lord Carnarvon, Secretary of State for the Colonies in London. Carnarvon requested an explanation from the Marquis of Normanby, the governor of Queensland. Normanby rejected allegations of atrocities and argued Aboriginal lives were being improved by white settlement. Yet this London interest was embarrassing and unwanted. Normanby and Macalister agreed to re-institute the Drew Commission to implement its suggestions. The Brisbane Courier said this was warranted but defended native police practices on the wild north frontier. “If the aborigines were more civilised than they are, we should either make treaties with them, or we should be at open war with them,” the Courier said.

Queensland’s government opted for a report to buy more time. In 1876 new Governor William Cairns instituted another commission under Anglican Bishop of Brisbane Mathew Hale with four other commissioners. Like the Drew Commission it was stacked with squatter sympathisers or explorers like Gregory and Landsborough who also saw the destruction of Aboriginal society as an inevitable consequence of Christian civilisation.

The Hale Commission was authorised to “inquire into and investigate the condition of Aboriginal inhabitants of Queensland and to report on the best means to legislate or otherwise improve their condition”. But rather than report, they immediately set about establishing a reserve under Tom Petrie at Bribie Island. Petrie used his knowledge of Aboriginal languages to get them to work. Initial reports were favourable. Petrie suggested Brisbane blacks should be compelled to live at the reserve. But Petrie didn’t stay long and his replacement Father Duncan McNab was a zealot with little empathy for Aboriginals.

McNab had a roving commission from the Catholic Church to convert the aborigines as long as it did not cost the church money. He had to fend for himself and applied to take over the Bribie mission when Petrie left. But McNab could not get the Aboriginal people to work. Hale wrote to the police commissioner complaining blacks were still being allowed into Brisbane, a deterrent to keeping them on Bribie.

McNab suggested the place was the problem, not him. He recommended a new reserve at Durundur on the Stanley River in the upper Brisbane Valley. Supported by new premier John Douglas, Durundur was opened in 1877 and a few blacks moved in. Local squatters were pleased thinking it would supply cheap labour. The Commission also approved another settlement at Mackay near Cape Hillsborough but this idea lapsed due to lack of government funds. The commission appointed Bridgman as its northern coastal districts agent. He suggested new reserves including one at Palm Island. Palms would eventually become Queensland’s most infamous gulag in the 20th century.

The early efforts of building concentration camps at Mackay, Fraser and Durundur all failed. McNab was impatient, wanting to immediately cure the Aboriginal people of pagan ways while funding dried up from Brisbane. The Drew and Hale Commissions had asked an important question that would not go away: did the Aboriginal people have rights to the land as prior occupants?

That Unhappy Race Part 4: Gideon Lang

Cullin-la-Ringo station, Qld c 1875.
Cullin-la-Ringo station, Qld c 1875.

In 1865 a new figure enters the story of Queensland’s Aboriginal affairs. On July 12 a Victorian squatter Gideon Lang stood up in St George’s Hall in Melbourne and delivered a lecture on a pamphlet he called The Aborigines of Australia. Lang’s account was the most detailed yet by a settler on Aboriginal people in eastern Australia.

Gideon Scott Lang was a Scot who moved to Melbourne as a young man to follow two older brothers. At Buninyong he joined them in a farming venture where they faced the usual problem of how to pacify a large group of Aboriginal people on their run. The Langs found a peaceful solution with an agreement to feed some of them if no attacks were made on their stock. The Langs were successful and Gideon branched northwards to the Riverina before he visited the Darling Downs looking for selections. He was elected MP for Liverpool Plains and Gwydir in 1856 and served on the 1856 NSW Inquiry into Aboriginal conditions. By 1865 he was a director of a Melbourne bank and influential in Victorian circles.

In his pamphlet Lang admitted he wasn’t a “blind partisan” for Aboriginal people having taken part in an attack against them during his squatting days. But Lang had come to the conclusion that had anyone died in that attack he would have considered himself a murderer. The first half of his pamphlet deals with his own experiences in the south and the solutions they came up with to co-exist with Aboriginal people.

However the second half was looked on with alarm in Brisbane: it was a direct attack on the Queensland squatters, their government and their native police.  It was especially timely following massacres in revenge for the deaths of white settlers at Cullin-la-Ringo four years earlier. Lang said the issues on the frontier were caused by a lack of recognition of Aboriginal society, deprivation of hunting grounds and the lack of government oversight. Lang said it led to atrocious cruelties on both sides, particularly in Queensland where it was the “rule and custom to arrange the black question by killing them off.”

Lang said he held these beliefs for 10 years but had delayed publication of his pamphlet until he found proof of massacres. That proof, he said, had now emerged. In May that year Aboriginal people had killed Native Police lieutenant Cecil Hill on the lower Dawson. His death hardened of attitudes against the blacks, expressed by a letter writer to the Brisbane Courier: “These incorrigible rogues are becoming unbearable, and required a regular dressing down. Ordinary morality can only be driven into their obtuse skulls by leaden lessons.”

Officials were more circumspect and described revenge attacks for the death of Hill as “collisions” in the official record. These collisions, as Lang found out, were group punishment on a large number of blacks. Lang suggested the need for a “chief curator” of Aborigines, with the power of a police commissioner, to punish frontier outrages by white and black alike. The curators would have power to negotiate the use of waterholes with local groups before issuing new pastoral land licences, and stations could hire local blacks who would receive food, blankets, tomahawks and tobacco.

Lang optimistically believed that within two years black and white would live amicably together. The blacks’ view of plan was unknown, but the white Queensland squatters were apoplectic at being told how to run their business by an uppity southerner. Queensland MP and squatter Gordon Sandeman spoke on behalf of his caste. Sandeman rejected claims of atrocities as “sensational” and said Lang had no experience of Queensland. He described the native police as a “defensive force” and asked why didn’t Lang make his opposition known in the 1856 NSW inquiry when still in parliament. Sandeman said the most humane solution was to not permit Aboriginal people on squatters’ runs, though he did not offer any solution as to where they might otherwise go.

Archibald Meston would later take some of Lang’s ideas for his Proposed System in 1895 including the idea of chief curator, which Meston called “protector”.  One major difference was that Lang offered Aboriginal people a choice to take part whereas Meston’s plan was coercive. In the short term Lang’s plan came to nothing. There was some relief from colonisation due to an economic crisis in 1866 and the frontier temporarily stalled.

In the late 1860s, the new threat was from mining not land grabs. Payable gold on the Mary River near Gympie, the Cape River near Bowen, and Ravenswood near Townsville brought thousands of miners to Queensland. There were more finds at Etheridge River near Georgetown and Charters Towers and the rush continued to the Cape at Palmer River, invading rugged lands too forbidding for pastoralists.

The blacks, as one settler said, no longer knew where to go out of the way of white people. “No localities they might keep to themselves had been pointed out to them and no system of treatment of them had been laid down,” wrote another. The government looked on helplessly as blacks drifted to makeshift camps outside new white towns where they were not welcome.

In 1872 the London-based Aboriginal Protection Society asked Queensland’s third governor the Marquis of Normanby to appoint an unpaid board to look into the Aboriginal problem. New premier Arthur Palmer was unenthusiastic thinking the inquiry’s expenses would cripple the treasury. However Normanby got his Inquiry up, anxious to avoid embarrassing inquiries from London about “blackbirding” which had started in Queensland’s sugar industry. The government’s lack of support meant that inquiry was also doomed to fail but it had lasting implications we will look at next.

That Unhappy Race Part 3: The Squatters’ Inquiry

20140221_120659[1]In 1861 the new Queensland Government held its first Inquiry into Aboriginal affairs. It would not be its last. Among the white “indiscretions” it examined was the killing of five Aboriginal people at Fassifern by Native Police lieutenant Frederick Wheeler. Wheeler was one of several white young men who saw their role was to eliminate all black people. In Fassifern there had been reports of Indigenous people killing settlers’ stock. Without bothering to establish who was responsible Lt Wheeler shot and killed four men and one woman. He would have got away with murder but for the fact one of the dead worked for local squatter, Ipswich magistrate and MP, Henry Challinor.

The 1861 Queensland Legislative Assembly Select Committee issued a slap on Wheeler’s wrists despite reports of other killings in the Logan district. They said he acted with “indiscretion” but because he was a “most valuable and zealous officer” his punishment should merely be removal to another area. Wheeler moved to Central Queensland and continued his reign of terror on blacks. It was not until 1876 he was charged in Rockhampton with the death of a black youth. Wheeler fled Australia rather than face justice.

The 1861 Inquiry followed a similar trajectory to inquiries in NSW in 1856 and 1858. All looked at the problem with white eyes and none addressed the causes of the violence on the frontier. The squatters’ parliament in Brisbane thought it was an inevitable consequence of colonisation and believed only a military-style native police force could solve the problem.

The 1861 recommendations were a master-class of administrative action that addressed processes rather than causes. It ordered the native police appoint cadets, troopers should be stationed away from towns to avoid temptations of alcohol, they should be recruited from areas far from where they would serve, officers would provide monthly reports, and a new and simpler means of keeping accounts was required.

The Inquiry decided that despite “misguided” officers like Wheeler the native police had to stay. The Queensland “myalls” (wild blacks) could not adjust to civilisation. The Inquiry noted “all attempts to Christianise or educate the Aborigines of Australia have hitherto proved abortive”. They said Aboriginal people were cannibals beyond redemption who had “no idea of a future state”, and were “sunk in the lowest depths of barbarism”. The Inquiry offered no suggestions how to improve their situation.

The policy of Aboriginal expulsion from their lands received a green light to continue. Challinor, the man who exposed Wheeler, told the Inquiry Aborigines should be entitled to hunt game in the own country. He also supported the Christian mission of William Ridley who recommended co-existence. But Aboriginal people roaming wild among the cattle did not suit squatter interests.

Back in 1837 Colonial Secretary Glenelg told the Australian colonies the Aborigines were to be treated as British subjects. But in 1861 Queensland decided this rule did not apply beyond the frontier. Rare voices like Challinor advocated for Aboriginal protectors in each district to arbitrate issues between black and white. But with Aboriginal testimony not allowed in Queensland courts until 1884 their side of the argument was not heard.

They weren’t heard from in the 1861 Inquiry either and white voices were not supportive. Queensland’s first Surveyor-General Augustus Gregory praised the native police as necessary to the safety of the colony and said it was popular on the frontier. Aboriginal sympathiser Tom Petrie, who spoke Indigenous languages, said the native police had a beneficial role and a white-only force would be “inefficient”. Even the two missionaries from Zion’s Hill, Johann Zillman and Augustus Rode, admitted they had made no conversions and agreed the native police kept the black population in a state of fear.

The overwhelming view of Queensland’s parliament was either that there was no problem, or if there was, it would solve itself. With this sanguine view the government withdrew itself from Aboriginal affairs to weightier matters: how to make more money for the squatters.

Those like Challinor that saw the problem, were mostly driven by Christian concerns. The squatters contemptuously called them the Church Party and considered them well-meaning fools with no idea of life on the frontier. Ridley was now a journalist in Sydney using newspapers to get across his ideas. He said the missions in Wellington Valley (NSW) and Poonindie (SA) showed Aboriginal people were capable of “social and spiritual improvement”. He believed for missions to be successful, they must attract Aboriginal people in large numbers. They should not be drilled in European ways and should instead learn bushcraft with time off for hunting and other traditional pursuits. School should be taught in English but hours needed to be short and the missions needed to be far from the temptations of towns and their “vile passions”.

Station manager JC White, wrote a similar letter to the government about the “pressing” need to find new lands for Aboriginal people. White said station owners forbade them from crossing their runs to hunt kangaroos in case they set fire to the grass. Some resorted to killing cattle, increasing the likelihood of conflict. White said that in their natural state Aboriginal people were not bloodthirsty or cruel but “kindly disposed, hospitable and social, intelligent and improvable”. White suggested protectorates and depots where they could receive food rations, and negotiate for employment on stations. He also suggested the native police should be abolished except on “extreme frontiers”. Governor Bowen was impressed by White’s letter and authorised land grants to persons or institutions that might establish Indigenous missions and industrial schools.

When a Catholic priest WJ Larkin offered his services of educating Aborigines in the Roma district, he too got some support from the government keen to keep London’s Exeter Hall liberals onside. But a change of government brought a change of attitude and Queensland poured money into the expansion of the railways rather than improving the lives of Aboriginal people. However the ideas that germinated in the work of Ridley, Challinor, Petrie, White and Larkin would eventually coalesce in Archibald Meston’s 1895 “Proposed System”.

See Part 1 and Part 2

A trip to Coochiemudlo Island

20150609_093145To the Quandamooka people, the islands of Moreton Bay were rich hunting grounds. They could roast water lily bulbs and the roots of ferns, pick pandanus fruit and hunt birds, reptiles, bats, bandicoots and koalas. They could hunt or net dugong, dolphin, and turtle and harvest a wide range of fish and shellfish. One small island in particular lay tantalisingly close to the mainland and they named it for its distinctive iron-coloured cliffs: “kutchi mudlo” (red stone).

20150609_100632Stones on the island showed they traded with people as far inland as Rosewood, west of Ipswich. The Quandamooka used ochre from the soft red rock to decorate their bodies and shields. They told Dreamtime legends that the red was the blood of a dolphin speared by a sparrow-hawk.

Coastal Aboriginal people lived in blissful ignorance of a dangerous world beyond for thousands of years. Captain Cook named Moreton Bay on his trip north in 1770 but did not explore it. Matthew Flinders explored the bay in great detail aboard the Norfolk in July 1799. He landed on Coochiemudlo on what is now Norfolk Beach on July 19. Next month on Sunday, July 19 there will be the annual recreation of that landing. Flinders assumed the Pumicestone Passage was a river and failed to spot the opening of the Brisbane River.

20150609_095533In 1823 cedar-lumberers Thomas Pamphlett, Richard Parsons, John Finnegan and John Thompson were wrecked on Moreton Island and survived with the help of friendly Aborigines. Pamphlett and Finnegan were rescued in November 1823 by Surveyor-General John Oxley, on a voyage from Sydney to find a site for a new northern colony. The two men showed Oxley the mouth of the Brisbane River, almost a quarter of a century after Flinders missed it. In 1824 Oxley’s recommendation that a convict settlement be established at Moreton Bay was implemented.

20150609_100235When the colony of Queensland was declared in 1859, bullock teams swum over from the mainland to Coochiemudlo to drag felled trees to the sea. Coochiemudlo was also used for oyster farming in the 1880s by the Moreton Bay Oyster Company until ravaged by a marine mud worm at the turn of that century. The islands were also becoming popular as a recreation resort for wealthy Brisbanites, and tourist steamers plied the Bay.

20150609_110929In 1887, the western half of Coochiemudlo was subdivided into one acre lots which owners turned into market gardens producing bananas, passion fruit, grapes, paw paw, pineapples, tomatoes, vegetables and flowers. Despite an auction of 90 lots of crown land in early 1888 there was initially little interest from anyone settling on the island. The earliest residents were father and son Henry and Norman Wright who camped there for four years amid the sandflies and mosquitoes before leaving “this god forsaken place” about 1900.

The unoccupied land was exploited for timber and cattle grazing. It wasn’t until after the First World War that two injured veterans Doug Morton and Eric Gordon started to share-farm on the island. Gordon did not stay long but Morton, who survived Gallipoli and the Somme, found he could survive Coochiemudlo too, and lived there for 40 years.

20150609_102144In 1921 he married Mary Colburn from a farming family at Victoria Point and she was the only woman on the island for the next 12 years. Doug and Mary grew commercial crops and flowers, and cultivating a custard apple they named Island Gem. Doug built jetties and developed the tourist industry. Morton’s Steps on the west of the island are named for him. The Mortons left Coochiemudlo in 1966, when they felt it had become too crowded.

By then the farming era was over. Alfred Grant developed the eastern half of the island in the 1950s. Richard Marsh and Company also subdivided the north and west of the island into tiny allotments for small holiday cottages. Sales stagnated in the 1960s and only 20 people lived permanently on Coochiemudlo in 1970.

20150609_085829A regular ferry service in the 1970s and then a vehicular barge in 1987 made the island more attractive to commuters and retirees and permanent residency increased. The foreshore was kept as a reserve keeping the pristine look from the sea.

Despite living in Brisbane for 17 years, I’d never been to the island until this week. A return 10-minute trip on the ferry from Victoria Point cost just $8 and the island felt like it was a million miles from anywhere despite being less than 40km from the centre of Brisbane.

20150609_091041The walk around the foreshore (a mixture of beach front and mangrove) took me around 90 minutes to two hours. There are only a handful of stores and cafes and they congregate around the jetty. There is supposed to be bicycle hire on the island but I did not see any evidence of that when I was there. Perhaps they only advertise on weekends. In any case, the island is ideal for walkers and nowhere is far from anyplace else on Coochie. It’s a beautiful and relaxing part of south-east Queensland, and I’ll be back – though I’m not sure I’ll be there on July 19 for the pageantry of Matthew Flinders day. What the Quandamooka make of that day I do not know, but I suspect that like Australia Day, they don’t look on it with fondness.

That Unhappy Race Part 2 – Queensland’s new and violent frontier

Bora ring, Banyo, Qld (an initiation site for young men)
Bora ring, Banyo, Qld (an initiation site for young men)

When the economic depression of the early 1840s ended, there was a rush to expand into known parts of Australia. New South Wales was settled as far west as the climate would allow and many followed the Darling River tributaries north into Queensland. Explorer Ludwig Leichhardt set off north from the Darling Downs in 1844 and settlers were quick to follow him up the Dawson River and along the coast to Rockhampton. Newly wealthy gold profiteers from the south arrived to acquire land in the north.

The cattle and sheep they brought fouled Aboriginal waterways and there was inevitable conflict. As tit-for-tat killing escalated, whites saw it as a life or death struggle and formed punitive parties aimed at group punishment “to show the blacks a lesson”. The government ignored the growing violence on the frontier while the missionaries were discredited as being unsuccessful. Undaunted, former Moreton Bay missionary William Ridley went on a 450-mile mission of southern Queensland to understand the similarity of Aboriginal languages and he was accepted wherever he went.

Ridley could see how cattle were crowding Aboriginal people off their country, “cut off from four-fifths of their usual supply of food”. Ridley thought the only way the pastoralists’ needs could co-exist with Aboriginal needs was if the government cordoned off land to the native people. He would provide key testimony at the 1861 Select Committee on Aborigines at the Queensland Parliament.

Matters deteriorated after 1857 when eight members of the Fraser family were killed by Aboriginal people at Hornet Bank Station on the Dawson. Frontier newspapers called for an overwhelming response and they got it: At least 300 Aborigines were killed in the following 18 months. One of the first actions of the new Queensland Parliament established in 1860 was to sort out the problem – with disastrous consequences for Indigenous people.

The new Queensland Government started life broke with just seven-and-a-half pennies in the Treasury which were stolen after a few days. The Sydney government, unhappy with Queensland’s new status, billed it for ₤20,000 of work carried out before separation in 1859. New governor George Bowen needed to raise money quickly by borrowing against future earnings in land sales. Bowen rushed through the 1860 Land Act offering attractive terms on one-year leases of 100-square-mile runs. The terms insisted the runs be stocked to one-quarter capacity ahead of a second 14-year lease.

The terms suited the Pure Merinos, the squatters of the Darling Downs. They dominated Queensland’s first parliament (the universal male suffrage offered in NSW was not extended north of the border until the 1880s). By 1861 gold-financed land-hungry speculators rushed north into the Kennedy, Maranoa, Warrego, Comet and Barcoo districts. Aboriginal people resisted but were overwhelmed by the native police.

A rare voice of objection was former officer of native police, Frederick Walker. Walker was a British emigrant who worked on central NSW properties before forming a semi-official troop to protect properties in Port Phillip. His successful work took him into the Riverina, and then north into the Macintyre and Condamine districts. Walker was developing a conscience saying squatters and Aboriginal had reciprocal rights. Yet he continued to crush Aboriginal resistance moving to the Wide Bay in 1852. Squatters didn’t like his plain-talking nor the levy they had to pay to support his troop and used his heavy drinking as an excuse to have him removed in 1854. When the native police force was halved, Aboriginal attacks increased while Walker continue to mount a private force until ordered to disband by the government in 1859.

The Hornet Bank massacre destroyed trust between black and white and the native police had orders to “disperse any large assemblages of Blacks”. Walker wrote to the government complaining of harsh treatment by troopers and in some cases, murder. He hoped to stop this “infernal system” which had “cast a deep stain on the honour of this Colony”. While Walker believed Aboriginal people were less civilised than the British, he thought them deserving of human justice. He encouraged Aboriginal labour at his Bauhinia property and those of his neighbours. Unhappy with the lack of concern shown in Queensland’s parliament, Walker sent letters to The Times in London speaking of “deliberate murder” on the frontier. However Walker unwittingly facilitated the further invasion of Aboriginal lands during his search for the missing explorers Burke and Wills opening up the Plains of Promise in the Carpentaria and the rich Burdekin River valleys.

Any hope he might be taken seriously disappeared after another massacre of whites in 1861 at Cullin-la-Ringo near the modern town of Emerald. This second massacre seemed to prove Aboriginal treachery in white eyes and confirmed the Queensland Government in its policy to continue with the native police. The “live and let live” policy promoted by William Ridley and Frederick Walker was completely discredited.

On Irish jokes and Australian casual racism

Iau_irish‘ve been thinking about the relationship between Ireland and Australia so I read with interest yesterday Pádraig Collins’ angry article in the Guardian. The article was headlined “When it comes to smearing the Irish, Australia is the world’s serial offender” which was over-precious and over the top, though the writer made some good points. Collins is, like me, an Irish-born journalist now living in Australia, and I know why he is angry.

Collins was responding to TV footage of Liberal apparatchik Grahame Morris’s bizarre anti-Irish rant during a same sex marriage debate. After saying he “loved the Irish”, Morris used Irish caricatures such as failed potatoes, silly shamrocks and funny accents to explain why Australia should pay no attention to the stunning “yes” vote in Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum. No doubt being an equal opportunities bigot, Morris would have found equally hilarious reasons why Australia should not follow the example of Britain, New Zealand or the many other jurisdictions that have legalised SSM.

Collins didn’t think the shamrock as a weed joke funny, nor the inability to distinguish to pronounce “th” funny, though he didn’t mind people having a crack at them. (I know British people found it funny when I pronounced tree and three the same way and in the end I did “thry” to differentiate them when I lived in the UK in the 1980s). But what most annoyed Collins was the crack on the Famine.

The Famine of the late 1840s is Ireland’s defining event, its Holocaust which left two million dead and another two million emigrants in five years. The Irish are touchy if you make jokes about it. Personally I think both the Holocaust and the famine are fair game for jokes, but it depends on the attitude of the teller and who or what is the butt of the joke. Morris’s big butt was if the Irish were too stupid not to survive food shortage caused by potato failure, then you shouldn’t trust their opinion on anything. The actual reasons for the famine are complex – and Irish and British attitudes are at fault – but it is this sense of the “stupid Irish” that helps define Australian attitudes to Ireland.

It was an attitude that started well before the Famine. The Irish were a constant undercurrent to those swearing loyalty to the Union flag on Australian shores from 1788. Even the enlightened marine Watkin Tench laughed at the stupid Irish convicts who escaped from their Sydney prison thinking China was just a hundred miles to the north. When the Irish weren’t been stupid, they were being drunk and that remains equally funny. On St Patrick’s Day, Tony Abbott made several jokes at Irish expense in a “cringetacular” 70-second video including a fake apology for not having “a Guinness or three” with the Irish (or a Guinness or tree, as Morris might say.)

As Collins reminds us, Abbott is a serial offender of Irish jokes and unafraid to use other Celtic stereotypes. In his joke “the English made the laws, the Scottish made the money and the Irish made the music”, the Scottish are mocked for their meanness, the Irish for their irrelevance outside the arts, while the adult English get on with the job. It explains why despite his religion Tony Abbott has no sympathy for the Irish. Abbott is an English Catholic, who, like his mentor BA Santamaria and his friends Cardinal George Pell and Greg Sheridan, tries to keep his religion out of the conversation. Of these only Sheridan is an Irish Catholic, which probably explains why the joke is usually on him. He might be among those Irish, according to Abbott in another joke, who not only lost money on the race, but also on the action replay.

It’s not just politicians that lose money on race. The Age spoke of a “drunk Paddy in $500k flood of tears” adding to a rich history of Australian media discrimination against the Irish, that also dates to colonial times. Though the man’s name was Padraig (the Irish for Patrick, and hence for Paddy) it stung too much like “grasping Jew” and the financial size of the mess he created allied to the man’s public shame caused his suicide a day later. As the Irish ambassador Noel White said the headline “drunk Paddy” simultaneously demeaned an individual as well as taking a swipe at an entire national group. White reminded his Sydney Morning Herald readers the Irish were part of the Australian narrative since European settlement and that still arrive “young, talented and hard-working” in the Australian cause. But that image is less memorable than being stupid and drunk. The drunken Irishman was popularised by Punch magazine in the 19th century and it still leads to uncritical acceptance of a distorted national stereotype that affects the Irish in Australia. White reminded Australians the stereotype also diminishes those who use it.

Collins cited Peter FitzSimons who, during an impassioned article on getting rid of the monarchy and the Australian’s “plain” obituary of Colleen McCullough, unexpectedly segues to an Irish joke. According to FitzSimons, “Paddy and Margaret” live “outside Dublin” so their suburban problem is one Aussies will get: loud barking dogs in the neighbour’s yard during the night. Paddy’s solution is stupid and hence Irish but there is a dash of sense in it that makes it funny. Paddy moves the dogs to his garden and says “now we’ll see how dey fookin’ well like it”. Again there is the tree/three problem and an added sense of foul-mouthed language made acceptable Irish style: “fookin” or “feck”. But what we find funny is not the stupid Irish but the absurd truth that barking dogs will annoy neighbours more than their owners. Collins quotes another FitzSimons Irish joke about an antique expert asking “Paddy” what his stuffed dogs would fetch if they were in better condition. “Sticks”, Paddy replies. This obvious punchline is potentially funny but why does the man have to be Paddy? Is it only the Irish who would either misunderstand the question, or understand it but deliberately misinform with the answer? Again with another FitzSimons “joke of the week”: Paddy texts his wife: “Mary, I’m just having one more pint with the lads. If I’m not back in 20 minutes, read this message again.” No doubt FitzSimons thinks it hilarious “Paddy and Mary” are drunk and stupid.

FitzSimons would defend his right to tell Irish jokes due to his Irish heritage or his Australian heritage, which is half Irish anyway. Collins puts him to the sword as a “regular one man Charlie Hebdo, keeping the world safe for Paddy jokes”. But what it really shows is endemic casual racism in Australia. Australia is an accepting country but much Australian humour is unreconstructed as “Abo jokes”, blackface on television or cricket signs of “curry munchers” show. It is not that the Irish are the butt but anyone who is the “other”. That the Irish remain “the other” in Australia despite 237 years of simultaneous colonisation, tells us more about Australia’s amnesia to its history rather than Irish sensitivity to jokes against it.

Collins says Irish jokes died with the dinosaurs but I disagree. They are still there – and the Irish are telling them. My own Irish jokes are self-deprecating but the Irish are never reduced to “Paddy” and they are not quite the butt of the jokes. Abbott is unintentionally on the money when he claims Bill Shorten’s straying from a political point was an “Irish joke”. Irish absurdism turns the joke upside down, making the world look stupid. Collins should ignore the idiocy of Morris and Abbott. The joke will eventually be on them and their decrepit views.