The forgotten people: Howard on Menzies

Robert Menzies with factory workers at Birmingham, England in 1941. Photo:

On Saturday afternoon I turned on the TV to catch up with world news. The dial was set to ABC and as the TV flicked into life I realised I had tuned into a repeat of the earlier episode of Howard On Menzies. It didn’t take me long to forget about world news and become engrossed in what I was watching. Having enjoyed that, I lapped up the final episode last night. Howard wasn’t a bad interviewer, I decided, and had access to an A-list of talent. The subtitle of the documentary was Building Modern Australia, and that was John Howard’s theme, that Robert Gordon Menzies had ruled Australia for so long we could talk of a “Menzies era” inexorably shaping the country as it glided through the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.

The ideas in the television show (and let’s remember that is what it was, a “show”) come from Howard’s monumental 700-page biography The Menzies Era: The years that shaped modern Australia. Howard says historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested he (Howard) was ideally placed to write the biography of Menzies “from a political perspective” as another long-term leader from the same party. Howard says the era of Menzies lasted from 1949 to 1972, as the three Liberal prime ministers that followed him were all served as ministers in the Menzies government.

Menzies was a towering figure in Australian politics throughout the centre of the 20th century and his influence began well before 1949. Menzies was a brilliant intellectual who would have succeeded in whatever career path he chose. Born in a small country town (an upbringing he was proud of, but quietly escaped) he served a political apprenticeship in the Victorian parliament and was a stellar barrister. Former judge Michael Kirby told Howard that Menzies would have certainly ended up on the High Court had he continued in law. But he gravitated towards federal politics in the 1930s where he found an easy fit as attorney-general in Lyons’ UAP government.

In 1935 he went to England, which began a lifelong affair with the country and its institutions. “One realises that a Parliament for England is something growing from the very roots of English soil”, he wrote. For Menzies “home” was Britain, though that was not to disparage his native Australia, which he saw as a British appendage. Menzies was in the constant public eye as AG, earning the nickname Pig Iron Bob for his firm stand when he clamped down on workers who refused to load boats carrying iron ore for Japan.

When Lyons died in 1939, Menzies was the obvious replacement. Though he had resigned from the ministry in a dispute with the Country Party over the national insurance bill, Menzies was sworn in as UAP prime minister. Ongoing hostility from Labor and the Country Party left Menzies vulnerable and he did not help his cause by spending much of the early war years in Britain. Britain was where the action was, and where Menzies wanted to be, but he neglected his power base. An ungrateful Australia booted him out of office in 1941.

Left to stew in his juices in a backwater while the affairs of the world went on without him, Menzies did a root and branch investigation into what power really meant to him. The start of his political renaissance is charted by his best biographer Judith Brett in her analysis of a series of radio speeches beginning in 1942 called The Forgotten Years. Then a backbencher, ‘The Forgotten People’ is Robert Menzies’ appeal to the Australian middle class, whom he saw as the moral backbone of the society. “proud, scrupulous, thrifty and modest.” The middle class lived outside the public sphere and centred their lives on their homes. Menzies imagined them as independent citizens exercising their judgment as to what is best for the nation as a whole. These views struck a powerful note with their intended audience and were to ground his future political success.

The occupations they had were “salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. Menzies believed that no party spoke for these people and set about creating his own as he sat out the war. His new Liberal Party was smashed in the 1946 election but the time was right in 1949. By then the electorate had enough of Labor’s post-war austerity and wanted something new to believe it. The times were right for Menzies.

Menzies had a lot of luck in his following career. In 1954 he was on the nose until he used the Petrov Affair to whip up the fear of communism. The Labor party split of 1955 put it out of action for the rest of the decade, yet Arthur Calwell almost snatched government in 1961, Menzies winning by one seat. Menzies’ final victory in 1964 was a triumph as he used Labor sectarianism to push through popular reforms in education, snatching much of their Catholic vote in the process. He retired in glory on Australia Day 1966 handing over power to Harold Holt.

Hated and despised by Labor in equal measure, it wasn’t until another towering intellect came along in Gough Whitlam, that Menzies’ ghost could be exorcised. And it took another Labor genius Paul Keating to read the last rites. Howard tries to get us to look at Menzies in a new light, but with Howard being in Menzies own image, perhaps is fatally undermined in that task.

But as a gripping sequence between Howard and Bob Hawke reminds us, Menzies’ longevity in power is extraordinary in a democracy and questions need to be asked about he survived so long. Luck played a large part as did his ability to turn world affairs to his account. The quality of his opposition was poor, Labor being even more conservative and set in their ways than Menzies was. And the power of his personality made him the dominant figure in his own party making sure that there would be no night of the long knives from within. His patrician bearing could never make him a man of the people and he failed in his personal quest to ban Communism. But he was always a political survivor. As Barry Humphries said “no one liked him except the electorate”.  

Howard On Menzies teased out many of those issues, as it was about Howard as much as it was about Menzies. Menzies’ success was based on “quiet prosperity” which is an oxymoron today, and probably was in Menzies’ time, predicated by hiding behind tariff walls, picket fences and whitewashed history. There was no doubt the people Menzies appealed to were hard-working and decent and Howard tried to tap into them to guarantee his own long term survival. But by the late 20th century the walls were crumbling and despite Howard’s dictum of “we will decide who comes to this country”, he could not keep his Australia as white and pure as Menzies’ Australia.

As I said, Howard had a stellar list of Australian greats ready to give their fascinating tuppence worth on Menzies. But one of Menzies’ key lessons was missed in the program. As he sat out the war, he realised an important electoral demographic was women, and he spoke to their needs. But Judith Brett aside, they were largely absent from Howard on Menzies. They remained the forgotten people.

On John Mulvaney and Indigenous antiquity

John Mulvaney (right) at Lake Mungo in the early 1970s. National Archives of Australia A6180,23/8/74/3

There were two bits of intertwining news yesterday, one exciting, one sad. The exciting news was a study of Indigenous Australian DNA dated their origins to more than 50,000 years making them the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth. The sad news was the death of a man who did more than most to place the Aboriginal context in deep time: John Mulvaney, aged 90.

Aboriginal Australia lacked a written language which made it inscrutable to historians, making it easier to write them out of history. It took experts from other disciplines such as archaeologists like Mulvaney, anthropologists like Bill Stanner and ethnographers like Deborah Rose Bird to make sense of available texts and create a new history for Australia millennia old not 230 years.

Over 10 years ago geneticist Spencer Wells found proof humans travelled from Africa to Australia and not vice versa when he found Australian Aboriginal blood has DNA mutations, or markers, from Africa that are 50,000 years old, but no African tribes have Australian markers. He also found genetic data which shows humans travelled along the south Asian coastline (when sea-levels were low) before reaching Australia. The new study by geneticists that also traced the DNA journey from Africa to Australia would have been no surprise to Mulvaney. He made the astonishing discovery that although Africa was the wellspring of humanity, the earliest signs of human evolution outside Africa are in western New South Wales.

At the time sea levels were lower than at present and mainland Australia was part of the mega continent of Sahul with New Guinea and Tasmania. There is evidence humans were here at least 50 kya (thousand years ago). The earliest direct age for human occupation of Australia is between 50 and 60 kya for stone tools at Malakunanja and Nauwalabila rock shelters in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Humans quickly fanned across the continent. Given how rabbits spread across Australia in a century, it is possible the human invasion happened in a similar timeframe. The spread was aided by great herbivore trails that crossed the land linking watering and feeding sites. Stone artifacts have been found at Devil’s Lair, a single-chamber cave area, near the south-west tip of Western Australia which date to 48kya.

The oldest human remains are in western New South Wales at Lake Mungo (Willandra Lakes). A near complete skeleton was found in 1974 sprinkled with powdered red ochre before the grave was filled in. In 1999 paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne said the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton is 62kya plus or minus 6000. However later research in Nature journal said humans had been present at Lake Mungo no earlier than 50kya and no later than 46 kya while the skeleton dated to 45-42 kya. 

Mulvaney was one of the first archaeologists to realise the significance of the find. He went to Cambridge on a scholarship in the 1950s to study pre-history and urged the need for preservation of cultural materials in museums and legislation to protect important sites. He used the new science of carbon dating to push back known dates of human existence in Australia, first to 13 kya, then eclipsed by others to 20 kya, 30 kya and beyond. He carefully packed the Lake Mungo skeleton into a suitcase to take to the National Museum of Australia.

The Lake Mungo finds put Australia on the world map of pre-history. Use of ochre for paint and grindstones for pulverising plant food were skills humans learned in Africa and brought to Australia. From 60-43kya Lake Mungo was full of freshwater and the land was green and lush but the newcomers had to adapt to climate stress. Australia was an ancient land with low fertility, poor soil quality and a low energy ecology. At Kow Swamp, Victoria a population of humans dating to 22-19 kya lived by Kow Lake shore in a period of glacial advance in the Southern Highlands until their shellfish population died out and they moved on.

Mulvaney was instrumental in getting Kakadu and Lake Mungo added to the World Heritage List (and helped develop the criteria for that list in the 1970s.) The discovery at Lake Mungo showed the power of the site to represent archaeology’s resonance in society and the broader cultural meaning of antiquity. It also helped the political ambitions of Indigenous Australians when they could point to this astonishing connection with deep time.

The new genetic findings, based on a population analysis of 83 Indigenous Australians and 25 Papuans, shows these groups can trace their origins back 50 kya and they remained almost entirely isolated until 4kya. I said these findings would not have been a surprise to Mulvaney. Nor are they a surprise to Indigenous Australians. Larissa Behrendt said they confirmed their oral history (another form of history mostly ignored in the western written tradition). Behrendt said Aboriginal culture and traditions were often viewed through a Eurocentric gaze that failed to see the rich historical wisdom in its values and teachings. “Cultural stories were often illustrated for children without looking for deeper meanings and codes,” Behrendt said. “These stories didn’t just tell a tale of how the echidna got its spikes, they contained – like parables in the bible – a set of messages about the importance of sharing resources in a hunter-gatherer society and the consequences of selfishness.”

Behrendt is talking about the dismantling of the racial discourse of white Australia and its near-sighted notions of superiority. What Mulvaney found was pre-history and its awesome timescale was uniquely qualified to make that discourse irrelevant. In an attention economy-dominated society where a week is a long time in politics, fame lasts 15 minutes and soundbites eight seconds, the deep timescale of Indigenous Australia cannot be discussed enough.

Remembering William S Burroughs

william-s-burroughs-2Twenty years after his death William S Burroughs still has the power to keep media writing about him. This week The News Hub recounted how Burroughs was arrested in France in 1959 for importing opiates into the country but he was released after trial. The reason? “Burroughs was excused and given a suspended sentence because his work ‘The Naked Lunch’ was considered to have too much artistic value to leave the man rotting in a Paris prison.” The French appreciated Burrough’s debauched writings, while his native America was “too caught up in (its) Protestant predispositions to appreciate a great artist.”

The story is true, but it underestimates Burroughs’ intrinsic American-ness. In his biography “The ‘Priest’ They Called Him” author Graham Caveny said Burroughs was “as American as the electric chair”. William Burroughs was the grandson of William Seward Burroughs I who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine company. In 1885 the elder Burroughs invented and patented the first workable adding and listing machine in St. Louis. His grandson William Seward Burroughs II was born in that city 29 years later in 1914 just as Europe was about to go to war. His father Mortimer Perry had no desire to join the family business and ran an antique shop. But the family wealth gave young William a good education.

He went to John Burroughs school in St Louis. There was no relation nor was there an affinity and Burroughs the boy left Burroughs the school without a graduation. He was sent to the private Los Alamos Ranch School for boys in New Mexico. In this rustic scout-like setting, Burroughs discovered sex and drugs. He was gay but was expelled for taking chloral hydrate, a sedative drug used for insomnia. Disgraced and back in St Louis he kept his head down long enough to finish high school and enrolled for Harvard.

He arrived there in 1932 at the bottom of the depression. There were 25 million unemployed and the US was deep in debt. He seemed to buckle down and got an arts degree in four years. In 1936 he did the Grand Tour of Europe. There he found homosexual freedom he could not find in the US. Nonetheless, he married Austrian Jew Ilse Klapper who needed an American visa to flee the Nazis. Klapper was living in London and her visa was about to expire when Burroughs saved her life. They married in Athens and then separated. She lived in New York until the end of the war and divorced Burroughs before settling in Zurich. They remained friends.

Burroughs returned alone to St Louis. His parents were distraught he had treated his wife so shabbily but did not stop his sizeable allowance. Burroughs mooched around following boyfriends until Pearl Harbor stepped in. He was drafted but his mother had him declared mentally unsuitable for military service. The punishment was a six month stint in a psychiatric evaluation unit. On the advice of someone he met there, he travelled to Chicago where men were scarce and jobs were easy to get.

He became a “bugman” for AJ Cohen Exterminators, an experience that informed his writing. The thrill of killing cockroaches quickly died and he followed a lover to New York. He settled in Greenwich Village and was introduced to a shy young Jewish boy from New Jersey named Allen Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg he met Jack Kerouac and their mutual friendship solidified. Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Lucien Carr, another friend, killed his male lover. Carr told Kerouac and Burroughs he had stabbed him after a row and dumped the body in the Hudson river. Burroughs advised him to find a lawyer. Carr turned himself in after two days and after plea bargaining down to manslaughter he served two years at a reformatory. Burroughs and Kerouac were charged for a failure to report a crime but released.

Burroughs had written on and off but the murder spurred him into action. Ginsberg and Kerouac helped on his manuscripts. Burroughs experimented heavily with drugs and persuaded doctors to write morphine prescriptions. As the war ended, he got involved with another woman. Joan Vollmer was one of the Beats, a smart lady and a match for Burroughs. She knew he was gay but said “he made love like a pimp”. She was addicted to benzedrine. Their house was raided and Burroughs was given a four month suspended sentence for forging prescriptions.

He returned to St Louis and Joan deteriorated. Burroughs came back to her when he found out how bad her condition was. In 1947 they moved to a ranch in Texas where they took their drugs unmolested. Joan gave birth to William Burroughs III that year. The Burroughs left Texas after he was arrested and lost his licence for sex with Joan in his car. They moved on from New Orleans after police there took an interest in his drug habits.

They went to Mexico where their mutual self-destruction took a sudden turn. When drunk in their apartment, they decided to play William Tell. He placed an apple on her head but missed the apple and shot a bullet through her head. Burroughs was released on bail after 13 days and was told the trial for her murder would be a year later. Burroughs did not take his chances with a Mexican court and fled to New York.

The incident was the catalyst for literary greatness. Later he said, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death”. He quickly wrote his first two novels about his two main predilections: “Junky” and “Queer”. “Junky” was released in 1953 under the name of William Lee.

Burroughs travelled to Europe and settled in the Moroccan frontier city of Tangier where he could indulge his taste in drugs and men. With Ginsberg’s help he published The Naked Lunch in 1959. It was banned in Britain (the Lady Chatterley’s Lover court case had yet to decide if it one could read it to one’s wife and servants). Burroughs said in the introduction Jack Kerouac suggested the title. “The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

The non-linear story of sex and drugs was published in the US in 1962. Boston Police arrested a bookseller for obscenity when he tried to sell the book. It took two years for the trial to come to court. Norman Mailer defended the Naked Lunch speaking of “artistry… more deliberate and profound than I thought before”. In 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the work “not obscene” based on criteria developed largely to defend the book. The case against Burroughs’s novel still stands as the last US obscenity trial against a work of literature.

Burroughs moved to Paris, the home from home for American intellectuals. In this intense period he produced The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1963). By 1967 he was famous enough to merit a spot on the album cover of Sergeant Pepper. He returned to New York where he was the darling of a set mixing with Warhol, Basquiat and Ginsberg. Ginsberg also looked after Burroughs’ son. Father and son never got on and young Billy Burroughs turned his hostility into autobiographical published works. He was also drug dependent (probably since birth) and died of liver cancer in 1981. By now Burroughs was a giant of counter-culture. He released voice albums and starred in movies. In Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, he played himself in the role of Father Tom a defrocked priest and junkie.

In 1983 he moved to St Lawrence, Kansas, where aged almost 70, he bought his first and only home. David Cronenberg filmed the unfilmable Naked Lunch and Burroughs returned to New York occasionally to meet old friends. There weren’t many left, dying off due to their extravagant lifestyles but Burroughs seemed to outlast them all. Allen Ginsberg died in April 1997 and that was enough for Burroughs himself; he finally threw in his Russian roulette chips barely four months later. He was 83 and an opiate addict for the last 40 years of his life. All through his life he kept another addiction; that of guns, sleeping with one every night.

His reputation is mixed. Some like Mailer say he is one of the greatest and most influential writers of the twentieth century, but others found him over-rated. What is undeniable is his impact across literature, art, cinema and music is vast. At the end of the Naked Lunch, still his best known work, Burroughs wrote: “The Word is divided into units which be all in one piece and should be so taken, but the pieces can be had in any order being tied up back and forth, in and out fore and aft like an innaresting sex arrangement.” As the Telegraph wrote, this aberrant perspective is perhaps the reason why his words were widely adopted.

To Big Red, Birdsville and back

Just back from a long weekend in Bedourie where the highlight was a trip to Big Red west of Birdsville. This adventure was planned months ago as neither my Bedourie friends nor I had been to the dune but it was put in doubt by the big rains down south which played havoc with the Birdsville Races last week.

Even as I drove the five hours down from Mount Isa to Bedourie on Thursday, the news was the road to Birdsville was open for 4WD traffic but the Big Red road was still closed. It was fingers crossed for Friday morning.

The news in the morning was good – Diamantina Shire Council had just re-opened the Birdsville-Big Red road to 4WD access only.

So I set off with my friends in their big Prado and the car proved its worth on the drive.

There was plenty of water over the road between Bedourie and Birdsville but the track out to Big Red was a serious challenge.


We saw one vehicle stuck awaiting help from a council grader to get out of the mud. Local knowledge said the best strategy was to stay on the centre of road where the base was hardest and we made it through, taking about 30 to 40 minutes to drive the 30km from Birdsville.


The 30m high dunes stand out in the flat wilderness and situated on a north-south alignment they provide great views east towards Birdsville and the Channel Country and west into the vastness of the Simpson Desert. Below is the view east with the site of the campground below where the annual Big Red Bash concert is held (though like the Birdsville Races it was rain affected this year and moved into town.)


Below is the view west into the Simpson Desert National Park. There is a track down below which remains officially closed though that wasn’t stopping two intrepid South Australians we met on the top of the Dune who were heading to Adelaide via Maree. They cheerfully invited us to join them. We respectfully declined. It would be a long journey even they could somehow make it through. A sign along the way says the Birdsville Bakery was a “cupla miles away” but in the other direction the Mount Dare pub was a “cupla days away “.


It was a bit blowy on top of the sand dunes so we didn’t hang around for long but we stayed long enough to enjoy the endless view into the desert. This was as far as the road was open, it was clear the further south you went the more rain there was.


The Prado comfortably managed the job up and down.


Then it was back through the puddles and rivers of water to Birdsville. Take my word it was muddy in parts and it felt like proper bush bashing.


Back in town Birdsville had emptied out the thousands of racegoers during the week and was back to its sleepy self.br8.JPG

However we didn’t go to the pub but our preferred option the Birdsville Bakery. The Bakery only opens in winter but it has a good vibe and a good way in slogans: “It’s a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll.”


On the wall inside is what looks like a cardboard cut-out but is an actual photo of Malcolm Turnbull with the Bakery owner in August 2015 eating one of their famed camel pies. As communications minister Turnbull was out this way with then-local MP Bruce Scott to check out local telecoms difficulties. But the tagline on the photo tells you what happened next: “Old mate Malc got the top job 2 weeks after he had a Curried Camel Pie! What will it do for you?” As for me, I never got to find out, plumping for a chicken and mayo roll instead. Unlike Turnbull, the only thing I spilled was breadcrumbs.br10.JPG

The Diamantina was running freely in Birdsville as was the Eyre Creek further north (pictured below). The bird life was amazing and all that lovely water should be filling Lake Eyre up nicely.


A couple of updates (2017)

1. It turns out we did not make it to Big Red Dune after all. Where we ended up was Little Red Dune and we needed to detour north 5km up a track to find the actual Big Red. I did actually get to the proper thing when I attended the 2017 Big Red Bash.

2. The Birdsville Bakery changed hands in 2017 for $1.2m and is now open year round for all your camel pie needs.

Mary Kathleen uranium mine and ghost town

mk7.JPGMary Kathleen is a ghost town halfway between Mount Isa and Cloncurry built for a uranium mine that existed from the 1950s to the 1980s. Uranium was first found at the site in 1954 by Clem Walton and Norm McConachy and the site was named for Norm’s wife who had died only two weeks earlier. They sold the mining rights to Rio Tinto who formed Mary Kathleen Uranium (MKU) Ltd to develop a mine and service town. An architect-designed town grew during 1956-58, with reticulated water from Lake Corella.


A sales contract with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority was signed in 1956. The project was developed by MKU at a cost of $24 million. Mining commenced at the end of 1956 and the treatment plant was commissioned in June 1958. At the opening, Prime Minister Robert Menzies unveiled this plaque with Queensland premier Frank Nicklin. In the first five years of open-cut operation, MKU extracted 4080 tonnes of uranium oxide but in 1963 the major supply contract had been satisfied ahead of schedule, and large reserves of ore lay at grass. The works were closed down until 1974, when Rio Tinto got new supply contracts with Japanese, German and American power utilities.


This photo from the Mount Isa North West Star taken in December 1974 promoted the town. The caption read: “The town centre where shops, post office, canteen, bank and other facilities are located. The town’s churches and sporting facilities, including swimming pool, bowling greens and golf course, are nearby.” The company made a share issue to raise capital, and the Commonwealth Government, through the Australian Atomic Energy Commission underwrote it, obtaining a 42% holding in the company. At the end of 1982 the mine was depleted and closed down after 4802 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate had been produced in its second phase of operation. During 12 years of operations 31 million tonnes of material was mined, including 7 million tonnes of ore. Around 1200 people lived at Mary Kathleen in 1981.

mk2.JPGMary Kathleen became the site of Australia’s first major rehabilitation project of a uranium mine, completed in 1985 at a cost of $19 million. All the buildings were carted away leaving the site empty. The sign on the gate at the Barkly Hwy entrance to the site says “Even though no buildings remain, the ghost town like atmosphere makes one wonder what this flourishing community would have been like”.mk3.JPG

A long unmaintained partially bitumen road takes you to the entrance to the town. The mine itself is a further 5km away. The site is now private property but open to visitors and a regular stopping point for caravans in the winter tourist months.


Only a few remnants of buildings remain. Everything was dismantled and auctioned off. A couple of buildings remain at Mary Kathleen Park, 60km away in Cloncurry.


One of the old streets of Mary Kathleen where houses once stood.


This is a view looking down eastwards towards the abandoned township nestled in the Selwyn Ranges whose peaks line the highway from Cloncurry to Mount Isa.


The mine site still has the remains of the processing plant and site office as well as the open cut mine. Nowadays the mine resembles a swimming hole and exudes a spectacular blue colour due to the washing of minerals from the mine walls. People swim here but it is extremely toxic and radioactive. Geiger counters still go ballistic around the region. According to scientists, uptake of radionuclides and heavy metals into vegetation are sufficient to raise concerns over cattle now freely grazing across the site.