The fires that followed me as I drove north up the Bruce Highway in November were well evident around Cardwell. They were obvious in the hills at the back of the town and they were also prominent on Hinchinbrook Island, as seen from the Cardwell jetty. The island is accessible by ferry from Cardwell and is home to the beautiful 32km Thorsborne Trail along its eastern seaboard which takes about four or five days to complete. Though some of the island remains closed due to the fire damage, the Trail is still open despite a further major rain event on December 16 from ex-tropical cyclone Owen.
The fires were also visible in the hills behind Cardwell but when I went to the visitors’ centre, they told me that Murray Falls, about 40km north of town, was still open. The Seaview Deli Cafe was most certainly open as when I asked them what time did they close, they told me they don’t close. It is a rare 24 hour cafe which caters for the Bruce Highway bus stop traffic throughout the night. They may or may not be aware they are under attack from a giant crayfish.
I set off 20km north up the highway before finding the turn-off to Murray Falls and then another 20km to get to the carpark. The area was deserted and the falls looked cool and inviting.
The falls are in the Girramay National Park tumbling 30 metres down the mountain. A short walking track through the rainforest leads to a lookout above the falls. Murray Falls are unhappily named. John Murray was a senior officer in Queensland’s notorious Native Police and was direct and indirectly involved in many deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Aboriginal people as the Queensland frontier moved north and west. After one massacre, Murray wrote they had been “taught a lesson which will show them their inferiority in war”. The Girramay People have successfully reclaimed native title over the region. I prefer the Girramay word for the falls, Jibirrji.
In November 1848, an exploration party led by Edmund Kennedy landed north of what is now Cardwell. Kennedy wanted to travel norths along the coast to Cape York but he was was immediately frustrated by the thick rainforest, swamps and rivers of the area. After two months, his party found an inland path through the mountains to the west of Cardwell and Tully. Kennedy maintained friendly relations with the Cardwell tribes but he was speared to death just 20km short of the Cape.
The Queensland Government officially opened the Kennedy district in 1861. George Dalrymple took up a pastoral run in the Valley of Lagoons in 1863 and established a port settlement on Rockingham Bay a year later. The port was originally known as Port Hinchinbrook, but was renamed for British secretary of state for war, Edmund Cardwell. Though the first port in the region, Cardwell was quickly superseded by Townsville.
The region has yet to fully recover from the damage of Cyclone Yasi which made landfall near Cardwell in 2011. Yasi damaged three quarters of the town’s buildings, destroyed the marina and wiped out crops. Attractions like Girramay National Park remain mostly unknown to the wider public despite Cardwell’s obvious attraction as one of the few towns on the highway that fronts the ocean.
The Girramay story is that Jibirrji falls were created by Guyurru, the brown pigeon. Guyurru cut a steep wall out of the rock with a tomahawk turning it into a circular falls. The pigeon then filled the plunge pool at the bottom with tasty witchetty grubs wrapped inside leaves. I didn’t see the pigeon or the grubs it feasted on, but I did enjoy a cool dip in the croc-free waterhole. The fires seemed a million miles away.
Afterwards I went back to town and enjoyed the 5km-long coastal front walk from Port Hinchinbrook in the south to the war memorial in the north. Cardwell was an important supply depot for the Battle of the Coral Sea which took place 800km offshore in 1942. The town’s monument celebrates the actions of the USS Lexington which was sunk during the battle. In 2017 a 92-year-old survivor from the ship, led Cardwell’s 75th year anniversary commemorations.
That evening as I returned to the cafe for some fish and chips I looked out over Rockingham Bay and Hinchinbrook Island. The sky and sea were basked in eerie shades of blue and purple as the fires eased into the evening with smoke still wrapping the island. The photo below is exactly as I took it on my phone, like Cardwell itself, needing no filters or enhancements.
An independent Edwardian Irishwoman who lived 40 years in the desert with Aboriginal people a century ago should be a modern day heroine in Australia and Ireland, but Daisy Bates’ reputation remains troubled. The “Great White Queen of the Never-Never Lands” was a household name during the decades she spent in exile from European comforts at a remote railhead near the Western Australian and South Australian border, but her extreme views on race caused her reputation to plummet and only now is her vast ethnographic output getting the attention it deserves.
Bates (1859-1951) lived a vast life spanning a century of intense social change. She saw herself as a woman of science but her views on cannibalism, extinction and caste discredited her within the academic community. She lived a remarkable spartan existence in a hot desert tent for many decades. As the Irish Times said in October, “she grasped opportunities for reinvention with both hands and carved out a niche for herself, claiming her place in Australian folk history.” Bob Reece’s 2007 biography Daisy Bates: Grand Dame of the Desert remains the best text on her life and I’m indebted to his research for this article.
Bates’ 40 years in the desert is highly unusual but her backstory is also colourful. In 1936 as an old woman she told a tale to journalist Ernestine Hill of her upper-class Irish protestant background that was almost entirely false apart from the setting. She was born Margaret Dwyer in Roscrea, Co Tipperary in 1859 to alcoholic Catholic shopkeeper James Dwyer and wife Bridget. Bridget died when Margaret was four and she was raised with her siblings by maternal grandmother Catherine, of wealthier farming stock than the Dwyers. Catherine died four years later and Margaret was sent to Britain before returning to an uncle in Roscrea and educated by the nuns as an “orphan”.
After school she moved to England where she styled herself as Daisy May O’Dwyer. In 1882 aged 22, she moved to Australia in a Queensland government scheme of free passages for bonded farm labourers and domestic servants. She landed in Townsville and moved to a station near Charters Towers where she married horse boy Eddie Murrant in 1884 in an Anglican ceremony. “Breaker” Morant, as he later became famously known, was also an assisted immigrant and younger than Daisy. The courtship was swift but the marriage unravelled just as quickly. Eddie was arrested for theft of pigs and Daisy swiftly ditched him.
It was the start of an astonishing period of three marriages in 12 months – none of which were formally divorced, though her serial bigamy was not discovered in her lifetime. After leaving Eddie, Bates went to Berry, New South Wales where she worked as a governess. On 17 February 1885 she married cattleman Jack Bates in Nowra. But when he went droving she moved to Sydney and on 10 June she married Ernest Baglehole. Little is known of that relationship and within months she was back with Bates.
She gave birth to her only child Arnold Bates in August 1886 but showed little interest in her son or his father declaring she would never have sex with a man again, a promise she appears to have kept. For seven years she lived with pastoral families as a governess before setting sail alone to England in 1894 for what turned out a stay of five years. In London she worked on social campaigner WT Stead’s Review of Reviews, learning the craft of journalism which became a crucial source of income later in life.
She returned to Australia in 1899 to seek out Jack who was buying a pastoral property in north west Western Australia. Their reunion was unsuccessful but it was her first introduction to Aboriginal people who gave her a skin classification governing relationships. Daisy went to Perth where she was feted as a celebrity for her English experiences and her carefully cultivated exotic accent. She moved to an Aboriginal Mission in the Kimberley where she learned basic anthropological fieldwork. Back in Perth she heard about the rapidly disappearing Bibbelmun people of the south-west and set up camp with them, and organised a corroboree for royal visitors in 1901.
Daisy earned money with freelance newspaper assignments and in 1904 was employed by the WA government to collect Aboriginal vocabularies. Queensland “protector” Dr Walter Roth was hired to report on the condition of Aborigines in the west. Bates helped him but would not accompany him because the coastal route the government chose meant he would meet “the wrong kind of informants”. Instead she conducted a survey of the Bibbelmun language and read her first ethnological paper at Melbourne in 1905.
Like many of her era, she became convinced Aboriginal people would become extinct due to their inability to cope with “civilisation”. She strongly defended regulatory action which strengthened her position with the government though it compromised her academic integrity. By 1907 she was considered an “expert” and lectured on the “half caste” problem and keeping Aboriginal people from white influences.
She set off on an epic eight month journey to understand the social organisation of south west tribal groups and by 1909 her manuscript was a large treatise on every aspect of Indigenous life in the west. English social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown found her work when he came to WA for research. Though he wanted to use her field notes they fell out because of her lack of interest in theory. They also quarrelled over the treatment of Aboriginal venereal victims with Radcliffe-Brown arguing for quarantine lock hospitals on islands off Carnarvon while Bates said they were better off in their homelands.
In Perth in 1912, Bates got the news that would set her life course. She was appointed WA’s unpaid and unsupported Protector of Aborigines at Eucla on the Great Australian Bight. She stayed at a sheep station but was drawn to tend the sick and noted “how quickly the natives have annexed me”. In 1913 she left the station to live under canvas at Fowler’s Bay and spent her days tending to the aged and ill, and collecting dialects and customs. In 1914 she travelled to Adelaide for a science congress and was feted by women’s groups and journalists. She gave testimony to a government inquiry on Aborigines and was opposed to bringing them in to missions or town fringe camps.
She sold her property she inherited from Jack and subsidised her income with articles for The Argus and The Australasian documenting her bush experiences. After a breakdown in 1919 she briefly worked as a matron in a soldiers’ convalescent home in Adelaide before moving to Ooldea Siding on the transcontinental railway 200km from Fowler’s Bay. She remained there until 1935. Ooldea had a permanent underground aquifer and was an important crossroads for Aboriginal people, the site of initiation ceremonies and trade networks. A dozen white fettlers also lived here and Bates helped the Aboriginal women stay away from the sexual appetites and diseases of the rail workers.
Bates lived a penurious existence with no government support but refused charity. She kept apart from the fettlers and insisted Aboriginal visitors call out “Kabbarli” (grandmother) before entering her tent. Inside the tent she kept “the necessaries plus my MSS. and letters and Dickens”. She requisitioned a 500-gallon water tank to store her manuscripts. There was no toilet in deference to the natives who regarded fixed sanitary conveniences as disgusting.
She survived harsh hot summers and cold desert winters and a long railway strike which prevented supplies for many months, entrenching her anti-union stance: “the strike makers are as secret and deadly…as the monsters of the Inquisition”. She survived sandy blight which rendered her blind for three weeks in 1920 requiring a hospital visit to Perth. She also survived an Aboriginal “rebellion” of 100 hungry natives by calmly making tea and promoting the qualities of the shrewish wife of the rebellion leader who everyone hated.
She wrote articles on infanticide and cannibalism which she claimed to have encountered at Dampier Peninsula’s Beagle Bay in 1900. She also wrote that in 1908 at Peak Hill in the Murchison region Aboriginal women killed and ate newborns “sharing it with every woman in the group”. Experts believed she was sincere but was misled by informants. Many thought she was sensationalising her reports to improve her newspaper copy. Her strong stubborn streak meant the more she was challenged by anthropologists, the more sweeping and exaggerated her claims became.
Her views on caste also attracted controversy. She banned half-caste babies from the Ooldea camp and criticised a WA plan for a Central Australian Reserve preferring a “women’s patrol” to stop tribal people from entering settled areas. Her view was “the Aboriginal people are unmoral, the half-castes are immoral, and to breed our own coloured population…is an ugly reflection on all of us”. A mixed race delegation to WA premier Philip Collier denied Collier’s claim Bates was a saviour to the natives. “She is doing it for publicity so people may call her a courageous woman for living among the blacks. If she did not encourage them to cadge at Ooldea, they would fend for themselves”.
Undeterred, Bates collected and recorded the culture of the desert groups at Ooldea. She remained a Christian though her bible was her revered Dickens’ collection. She found similarities between the Irish and Aborigines “being light-hearted, quick to take offence and quick to forgive”. As custodians died, they entrusted ceremonial boards and totemic stones to her and rare weapons made in the old way. She survived 16 years in the desert thanks to her intellectual interests and her spiritual strength. She kept a keen interest in the birds and animals that frequented the camp and sent specimens to museums in London.
In 1932 journalist Ernestine Hill visited and told Bates’s extraordinary story to the world as “the Woman of Ooldea”. Hill noted the contrast of Bates’s upper class demeanour and her spartan desert existence. “A white woman voluntarily exiled from her own people for 20 years finds all her joy in writing the legends and the songs of the vanished tribes,” Hill wrote.
When the United Aborigines Mission opened a post at Ooldea in 1933, they provided rations and medicine and Daisy could not compete. “Its coming has brought my work of investigation to a dead end,” she wrote. She received a CBE in the 1934 New Year’s Honours and moved to an Adelaide hotel to write her experiences in the desert for the Advertiser. Then 76 and with failing eyesight and health, she needed Hill’s help to put her manuscript to paper while syndicated articles about “Kabbarli” helped pay the bills. The first of 21 articles called “My Natives and I” appeared in 1936 in Australian publications.
In 1938 her publisher suggested her manuscript be called The Passing of the Aborigines and she was delighted with the name. “I do sincerely hope that the fact of their passing will be understood and appreciated by Australians,” she replied. When it appeared in 1939 the reviews were mostly positive and the book became hugely influential in setting a patronising tone to Aboriginal people. British writer Arthur Mee wrote in the foreword she provided “succour (to) a noisome race, melancholy in outlook and terrible in habits”. Bates’ reputation as an expert was assured though her prediction of Aboriginal extinction was wrong as their dramatic decline in numbers levelled out. As Reece wrote about her attitude to “half-castes”, she was unable to blame the white men responsible for the “menace of colour” and took out her anger and frustration on their progeny.
In the late 1930s the elderly Bates returned to camp life at Pyap near Loxton on the Murray. She gave talks at the local school and showed the children how to make damper. But with few Aborigines to attend to, she moved to Wynbring Siding 160km east of Ooldea in 1941 aged 82. She wanted “the love and respect of those poor cannibals of Central Australia”. These people, she said, learned “there were two kinds of white women, our flotsam and jetsam eastwards and ‘Kabbarli’…and that is my lovely reward”.
Wynbring was even more remote than Ooldea with few trains, daily temperatures in the mid 40s, no post and unreliable water. Visitors from Ooldea trickled into camp but she was unable to care for the sick being old and frail herself. Theft was also an issue. She despaired Aboriginal people would never return to their “old quiet ways” and the elders had lost their power. In 1945 she was admitted to Port Augusta hospital where staff tired of her Lady Muck attitude. She moved to Adelaide as “an eccentric institution” vain as ever about her appearance but whose shortsightedness made her a traffic hazard. She died on 18 April 1951 and her funeral was a quiet affair with less than 100 mourners. There was no one from Ooldea though she left her estate for their “relief of poverty and distress”.
As Reece concluded, time has not softened the impact of Daisy Bates’ distorted views on Aboriginal society and its future nor her rejection of Aboriginal part-descent. But there was no doubting her kindness to Aboriginal people and her ethnographic work has been crucial in WA native title claims as “an indefatigable recorder of what could be salvaged of the traditional culture”. Bates’ extraordinary story was one of singular courage and vision, however wrong-headed.
This is the tenth annual Woolly Days media person of the year, and the award itself is a bit woolly. Sometimes I give it to journalists or other media professionals who impressed that year and sometimes I give it to people outside the industry who for whatever reason dominated the media that year. A bit like Time’s person of the year, there is no actual award nor does the person have to be admirable – Time gave it to Adolf Hitler in 1938 as a warning not an accolade. “Hitler became the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today,” Time wrote at the time.
This year Time have strayed into my territory giving their person of the year to the admirable guardians. The guardians are four journalists and one news organisation who have courageously brought the truth to the world: Jamal Khashoggi (the Saudi Arabian journalist murdered in the Saudi Istanbul consulate) Maria Ressa (the Filipino journalist who has taken on her murderous regime), Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, (imprisoned by Burma for their journalism) and the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, US (who lost five staff in a mass shooting). Any one of them would have been worthy winners of my award this year. But rather than repeat Time’s work, I take a leaf out of their book and give my media person of the year as a warning not an accolade. US president Donald Trump has thrashed global accords, promoted a neo-Nazi agenda, declared war on the media, has openly lied to advance his agenda, and is inspiring a plethora of authoritarian leaders and would-be leaders across the world. Eighty years on from Hitler in 1938 Trump is the greatest threatening force that “the democratic, freedom-loving world” faces.
Any normal politician would have been destroyed if they were involved in just one or two of those controversies. But Trump is not normal and his scores of controversies appear almost all without consequence. Indeed his strategy is to flood the media with controversies and lies (The Washington Post estimate in 710 days, President Trump has made 7645 false or misleading claims) which all compete for media space. None lasts long enough in the short news cycle to land a mortal blow while each individual attack is dismissed as “fake news”. The real fake news, usually in his favour, is disseminated widely via uncurated, algorithm-driven social media while the truth is still getting its pants on.
It is true that the Mueller investigation hangs over him like a Sword of Damocles threatening imprisonment and impeachment. The US Constitution allows for the impeachment of a president for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.” The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives can vote with a simple majority to impeach a president. But the impeached leader is then tried in the GOP-run Senate and it needs an unlikely two-thirds vote to find him guilty and remove him from office. In the meantime Trump remains in King Lear mode raging against the unnatural elements toying with his fate.
Trump wants to portray the media as enemies. His strategist Steve Bannon blatantly told the New York Times after the election the media was the opposition party, not the wounded Dems. But the media did not want to be the enemy, merely the chroniclers of his presidency. They wanted to normalise his presidency using existing frames of reference, with outdated notions about “respect for the presidency” and hearing both sides of the argument despite being blatantly manipulated by the White House and its support base.
Media companies have come to rely on Trump, despite his animosity. For ratings-driven news outlets, the always-controversial candidate was the gift that kept giving. As CBS CEO Leslie Moonves admitted: “Trump may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Organisations critical of Trump such as the New York Times have grown their subscription base greatly covering Trump’s ups and downs. But with the American newspaper industry losing over a third of its staff since 2006 the analysis of the downs has not been as thorough as it used to be.
The supposed “adults in the room” have had as little success as the media in managing Trump. Former foreign secretary Rex Tillerson spoke about Trump’s modus operandi. “When the President would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it.’ And I’d have to say to him, ‘Well Mr President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law. It violates treaty,'” Tillerson said in November. “He got really frustrated … I think he grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him you can’t do that and let’s talk about what we can do.” The transactional Trump preferred to move the argument to what he wanted to do, and his supporters followed suit. .
According to researcher danah boyd, “alt-right and alt-light” trolls, conspiracy theorists, and offensive and outrageous provocateurs, all bathe in the flood of negative publicity, and use the media’s coverage, “particularly its storm of outraged, fact-checking, oppositional coverage” to whip up their base, generate interest in their ideas, and stoke the belief mainstream media was against them. Trump’s actions mirror his base. In October when a supporter was arrested in October for mailing bombs to Trump opponents and another murdered 11 Jewish worshippers in a Jewish synagogue, Trump put the blame elsewhere: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame.”
Trump does not want to put out the flame – he relies on its light and heat. CNN and its White House correspondent Jim Acosta are public enemy number 1. Trump and Acosta’s extraordinary ongoing battle flared up in public in November in extraordinary fashion. When Acosta asked about the so-called “migrant caravan” and Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Trump shut him down. “You are a rude, terrible person,” Trump said to Acosta, also reprimanding him for “horrible” treatment of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. Acosta stood his ground but failed to return to fire about Trump’s own terrible rudeness. Here was a golden opportunity to accuse an angry president of being a congenital liar but Acosta did not take it. And neither the underhand way his administration manipulated a video to make Acosta look worse, or the court overturning his decision to deny Acosta a White House pass has made an iota of difference to the way Trump deals with the press gallery, or them with him.
Media educator Jay Rosen has been arguing for years press organisations need to change the way they deal with Trump, who he called the “most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today”. Rosen says normal practice cannot cope with Trump’s political style which incorporates a hate movement against journalists. He says that instead of sending veterans like Acosta, media companies should send in the interns. “Our major news organisations don’t have to cooperate with this. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live and they don’t have to send their top people,” Rosen said. “They can ‘switch’ systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts… The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up.”
No organisation has yet seen the sense in Rosen’s words and given something up. Instead they are constantly playing catch up while Trump bends or breaks the rules further. He also works around them using social media, especially Twitter. Donald Trump discovered Twitter around February 2013 – at the start of the presidential cycle that led to his extraordinary win in 2016. The @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account had existed since 2009 but for four years broadcast bland promotional fare. A young movie maker Justin McConney who Trump admired for a golf video advised him to transfer his freewheeling approach to the world’s most unregulated public arena. “I wanted the Donald Trump who is on Howard Stern, commenting on anything and everything,” McConney said at the time.
Trump was not immediately sold but after media coverage of his fork-and-knife pizza-eating dinner with Sarah Palin in 2011, McConney convinced him to record a video blog explaining his decision which was about not eating the crust to “keep the weight down”. Not only did it cut out the middle man in getting the message out instantly, it generated a bonus round of coverage of the blog itself. His use of social media grew as he toyed with the idea of a 2012 run and he began to throw in social commentary. When he bought an Android phone in 2013 the shackles came off completely and he tweeted 8000 times that year. When he entered the Republican primary field in 2015, Trump used outrageous tweets to earn traditional media coverage — as better-qualified opponents struggled for attention. Everyone expected it to end once he was elected president but he merely doubled down with his new-found authority, and 45 million followers positive and negative are gripped by his every 280-word rant. He has only gotten worse in 2018. As his public enemy number one CNN says “his tweets read like a stream of consciousness, verbal vomit — always (or almost always) focused on the ongoing special counsel investigation being led by Robert Mueller.”
Even McConney says Trump has gone too far, but who will stop him? Unlikely the American electorate. Trump has a plausible path back to the White House in 2020 because he has not lost the trust of the rust belt states that voted for him in the first place. Certainly not other world leaders as the famous photo taken in June that accompanies this article shows. The unrepentant schoolboy Trump stares up at headmistress Angela Merkel and fellow frustrated teachers Shinzo Abe, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May as he stonewalled G7 agreement on trade and tariffs, a year after he withdrew from the Paris climate agreement.
Even if he is somehow brought to earth by Mueller’s investigation, there are other authoritarians such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in Philippines, Salman in Saudi Arabia, Orban in Hungary all watching and learning Trump’s crafty anarchy at work dismantling democratic checks and balances. The guardians named by Time in those countries are doing a good job but Donald Trump is showing that with the help of state media manipulations the guardians can be depicted as enemies. That is the real media message of 2018. I hope 2019 finds a solution to this problem. Happy New Year.