The Australian’s laughable war on Twitter

frayIt may be 2015 but Australia’s only national newspaper The Australian remains stuck in the 20th century, raging against the dying of the light. This weekend the ever-pompous broadsheet reached into its grab-bag of perceived enemies and pulled out the one marked “Twitter”. For hundreds of millions of users worldwide, Twitter is a great communications tool that companies, organisations and individuals use to market themselves and find out what is happening in their chosen field. For The Australian, it’s more personal. As its banner headline reads Twitter is “debasing quality journalism”.

No doubt the Oz has themselves in mind when they talk about “quality journalism” and there remains many talented journalists in their ranks. Unfortunately their work is skewed by editorial decisions tied to owner Rupert Murdoch’s increasingly unhinged world view. Was Murdoch debasing quality journalism with his tweetstorm last week, based on his observations after returning to Australia last month? Murdoch called the country “ungovernable” thanks to “extreme greenies”, “corrupt violent unions” and “deadly drugs”. The solution to this odious cocktail according to Murdoch? More of the same – another Abbott government.

The Australian is a faithful servant of His Master’s Voice ranting against environmentalism, unionism, drugs and more. It has long defended its position as the sacred arbiter of the news and its opinion pages are clogged with political analysts mostly to the right of Genghis Khan. The newspaper has been particularly dismissive of “pyjama-clad bloggers” and “under-employed academics” who dare venture into its chosen field with alternative views. Twitter, with its easy facility to talk back to power, has long been a target. But would @rupertmurdoch (now 1500 tweets old and counting, with 608,000 followers) appreciate a full page of this weekend’s Inquirer section devoted to exposing the evils of the 140-character communications mechanism?

The lead story on the page from reporter John Lyons (a talented journalist who seems reluctantly roped into this auto da fé) was about the Border Force debacle in Melbourne last week. The headline “The news, brought to you unedited” is dripping in irony at a company that sacked most of its sub-editors in 2013.

Yet the sub-headline continued to push the house message: “The idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to Twitter”.  It is a statement that makes as much sense as saying “the idea of checking facts and verifying sources is alien to paper”. Twitter is a tool used by hundreds of millions of people, with hundreds of millions different reasons. “Twitter” (even in the narrow News Ltd sense as “the people that use Twitter politically”) is made up mostly of individuals, not news organisations and they are not bound by the institutional, and increasingly fraught “rules of journalism”.

Despite calling it a Twitter war, Lyons initially plays a straight bat on the #borderfarce story acknowledging the effect Twitter has on the news cycle. But then it gets judgmental. There is a ritual attack on Fairfax before decrying the lack of filters in Twitter with people “re-tweeting” (his quotation marks, it’s obviously not a real word yet) information that often was wrong. That’s true, but no different to newspapers, and with far less influence. Traditional media says Lyons, “usually” (my quotation marks, it’s getting less and less usual) has several pairs of eyes looking at articles before publication.

The problem says Lyons is that (political) Twitter is skewed towards “the young and the left”, constituencies the Australian has well-nigh abandoned. Lyons quotes social media expert Axel Bruns who denies that simplistic skew saying Twitter was used by all sorts of constituencies for all sorts of reasons. That’s true. I was at an AgForce forum in Roma last week where farmers (hardly young and left) were encouraged to get their personal brand out on Twitter. Lyons attempts to be even handed but the headlines and fact-box “A Friday Afternoon Twitterstorm” push the house line that “Twitter” cannot be trusted.

This point is emphasised in the second story on the page, “When the Twitter tail wags the dog” by deputy editor Peter Fray. Once again, the frame is set by the sub-headline: “Some newsrooms are allowing social media to dictate what constitutes a news story”.  In this context “some newsrooms” is code for the enemies Fairfax and the ABC and Fray mentions them both in the context of the Australian Border Force story. Fray’s lament is not the stupidity or dangers of paramilitary government bodies but that Dutton’s jihadists (Fairfax and the ABC) prefer the “siren song” of social media over “sober tones of fact-checking, empirical evidence, objectivity and plain common sense.” The plea for common sense is a sure signal this is a right-wing rant and Fray does not explain why social media and journalistic practice has to be either/or and not both.

Fray (who tweets @peterfray) has three “truisms” to share about Twitter. It is fast not deep, it is dominated by “media types” and it is both a blessing and a curse for time-poor journalists. I would take issue with all three. To say it is not deep takes no account of hyperlinks; its supposed domination by media takes no account of celebrities or the millions of other non-media users; and it is only a curse to those that allow themselves to be ruled by it. Yes, there are unsubstantiated claims but lies are found out just as quickly. In a social media world where your reputation is everything, it doesn’t pay to muck around with the truth for too long.

But that seems completely lost on the writer of the hilariously awful third article on the page. Margaret Kelly (“who holds a degree in English literature and language”) was angry about lazy language, but inevitably social media comes in the firing line. In a confused rant that pours doubt on climate change and has Orwell disapproving of Facebook, Kelly laid into “groupthink” which “lives today in cyberspace where people want to be unknown”.  Kelly does not define groupthink but she says it leads to terrible things like Trending on Twitter. Kelly does define trending, which she says is “a lot of people saying the same sorts of things, mostly unconsidered… and trending is just what groupthink means.” Though her readers are none the wiser (not least at the ellipses which are in Kelly’s text) after this nonsense, it all leads to one definitive conclusion. “Frankly, in my view,” Kelly says, “only twits tweet.” Take that, all you 2.8 million Australian users of Twitter, you’ve been told. Though frankly, in my view, Ms Kelly ought to be careful about what she says about Rupert Murdoch in one of his papers.

Maralinga: The shame of Australian nuclear testing Part 1

Australia's first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.
Australia’s first nuclear explosion in October 1952 at Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of WA.

With the world remembering the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombs in Japan, reading Frank Walker’s book Maralinga proved a timely reminder of Australia’s own nuclear shame. In the 1950s Prime Minister Robert Menzies colluded with the British government to turn Australia into a giant nuclear experiment and its nine million people into guinea pigs.

Britain had been frozen out of the American nuclear testing program for good reason: many of its intelligence officers were double agents working for the Soviets. Britain needed a site for its post-war testing program and Australia’s remoteness, friendliness and utter compliance fitted the bill. The site it chose was the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of WA. On September 16, 1950 British prime minister Clement Attlee cabled Menzies to see if Australia would agree to the testing and for British “experts” to conduct reconnaissance of the islands. They wanted to drop the bomb in October 1952, and expected winds would take the radioactive cloud out to sea. Attlee said the area would be contaminated for “three years”.

Incredibly, without bothering to consult anyone, Menzies responded with an enthusiastic yes. There was no Australian oversight and Britain had total control of safety. After winning an election in 1951, Menzies finally announced the news to the public in February 1952 saying there was no danger to the public, but did not say where it would happen. There was no debate, instead the mood was one of excitement and the press speculated on the likely site (most assumed it would be at Woomera rocket range in SA). Parliament quickly passed a bill to deny Australians entry to huge zones of the country that might be used for testing.

Menzies painted a rosy picture of equal partnership but Australians provided labour and land only. There was a third secret use of Aussies: as lab rats for British nuclear experiments. Australia’s leading nuclear expert physicist Mark Oliphant was barred from the program for having the temerity to be publicly “appalled” at the atomic bombs’ impact on Japan. Instead Australia’s head scientist was the Briton Ernest Titterton who helped developed the US bomb. Titterton was an ardent supporter of nuclear weapons and his biggest fear was they might be stopped.

The ageing British Navy frigate HMS Plym was donated to be the carrier of the first atomic bomb in Australia. It sailed from Britain with the frame of the bomb while the radioactive core was flown to Australia. WA newspapers had wind of something big happening at Monte Bello as British and Australians built buildings and structures for the test. The nearest mainland town, Onslow, became packed with journalists as the big day approached. The day itself depended on the wind conditions when it was blowing north-west towards Indonesia (which wasn’t a concern). At 8am on October 3, 1952 officers sent an electronic signal to spark the explosives around the plutonium core.

The 25 kiloton blast disintegrated the Plym and created a seven meter deep crater in the seabed. Witnesses saw a blinding electric blue light and many reported seeing the bones of their hands.  The 4km high cloud formed a Z shape rather than the more familiar mushroom cloud. While the wind initially took it west, it changed direction and took it back towards the mainland. Under the strictest secrecy, Australian and British soldiers were ordered into the blast area to pick up pieces of the Plym and put them into drums. They wore no protective gear and were not tested for radiation.

The bomb was front page news and it was all positive. The West Australian praised Britain’s skill in providing “a reliable shield for the Commonwealth”. Closer to the scene, sailors on the HMAS Macquarie saw thousands of dead fish in the water, many of which were scooped up and cooked. Only a day later did the captain get orders not to eat the fish. Many on the Macquarie later died of cancer and many of their families also had health issues. It was a similar story for crews of other vessels sent to the scene. Confidential documents warned that some degree of risk had to be run to get the full value of the test. Meanwhile fallout spread across northern Australia reaching Cairns and Townsville on the east coast.

Even before Monte Bello, Menzies approved further testing on the mainland. The area chosen was Emu Field, about 650km north-west of Woomera. The date set was 12 months on from the first test on October 15, 1953. RAAF crews were told they have to fly into the mushroom cloud without protective gear to find out what goes on inside. They were told it might affect sterility and were offered the chance to turn it down. None did. When the bomb was detonated on the ground, the RAAF men were in the air 20km away and the explosion nearly tore the planes apart. They turned towards the mushroom cloud and proceeded to take photos. When they went inside the cloud, it was like entering a tornado. They were “entering the gates of hell”, as one airman put it. Under British orders they were told to re-enter the cloud a second time.

When they finally landed, they were greeted by scientists in space suits breathing with oxygen bottles who wouldn’t come near the pilots. Instead they wanted the canisters attached to the planes and flew them direct to England. The pilots realised they were lab rats. They were forced to continue the mission to track the radioactive cloud across Australian which drifted east. One pilot said the cloud stayed over one Queensland town for five days as it rained but would not reveal the town for fear of being jailed.  As at Monte Bello, soldiers were forced to enter the bomb zone without protection to conduct clean-up operations while Geiger counters “went berserk”.

Northern SA is the home of the Yankunytjatjara people. Around 170km north-west of Emu Field, 11-year-old Yami Lester heard a huge bang in the distance. The following morning a big black cloud rolled in like a dust storm. Lester told the 1985 Royal Commission it frightened his people and he could feel sticky dirt from the black mist. People felt sick and had sore and watery eyes. Many died in the following days. Lester became blind but doctors dismissed a link with the bomb. It was an experience repeated across the north of the state. But Aboriginal people did not have a vote in 1953 and no one cared about their plight, nor the plight of Australian military personnel in harm’s way. Menzies hailed the bomb a great success. Progress was too important, as was Australian toadying to Britain.

Survivors of the Hive shipwreck: Irish convicts in Australia

BHC3504 001No wonder Australia is addicted to off-shore jails in Nauru and Manus Island, it too was founded as one, to solve a political problem. British jails were heaving in the 18th century as the state harshly punished crimes against property. Australia was founded to swallow Britain’s criminal class, a “transparent labyrinth” as Robert Hughes called it, with walls 14,000 miles thick. In this gigantic social experiment a special place was reserved for the Irish, different by religion and whose crimes were believed to be especially violent.

This reputation was put down to Ireland’s situation during the half century of the convict era (1790s to 1840s). While the period was bookended by failed rebellions in 1798 and 1848, it was characterised by subdued hatred between the Protestant landholding class and the majority Catholic peasantry which occasionally bubbled to the surface.

Opponents of transportation used these factors to defend the reckless violence of the Irish in Australia. Activists like Carolyn Chisholm not only fought transportation but tried to make life better for those affected by the policy. However, Chisholm’s attitude was rare. The Irish found it hard to shake their status as foreign “Popish” intruders in an outpost of empire. The Castle Hill rebellion of 1804 was a dismal failure but it helped perpetuate the myth of treacherous outsiders.

Their safety was in numbers and one in five convicts arriving in New South Wales were Irish making them a significant minority. Researcher Babette Smith was determined to challenge this view of victimhood in her book “The Luck of the Irish” which concentrates on the period between 1825 and 1845. Smith meticulously researched convict records to see why they had been transported and what they did in Australia.

The centrepiece of her book and Smith’s sub-title is a little-remembered convict shipwreck in 1835: How a shipload of convicts survived the wreck of the Hive to make a new life in Australia. The Hive, with 250 prisoners aboard, was 109 days out from Cork and just one day away from Sydney when she ran into bad weather off the south NSW coast. On a windy night the Hive ran aground on the coast near Jervis Bay. Captain John Nutting was missing in action at the time, drunk and in bed. Crews nervously obeyed his instruction to sail close to the shore. When the ship struck a reef, Nutting’s contradictory instructions made matters worse. The crew wanted to abandon ship but he insisted first they stay aboard and then they all swim to shore. The doctor of the ship pulled rank in the interests of safety and the crew got the longboats ready to ferry the passengers to shore, against the wishes of the peeved captain.

The doctor was right to be worried, the surf was dangerous. One youth tried to swim ashore and got in difficulties before the boatswain dived in to save him. However the boatswain hit his head on the stern and drowned. Incredibly he was the only person to die as a result of the shipwreck of the Hive. The youth survived and heroic chief officer Edward Canney escorted every longboat to shore, up to his neck in water each time. He saved the lives of 300 people without a single accident.

When they got ashore Captain Nutting resumed command as if nothing had happened. No one had any idea where they were other than being “a day’s sail from Sydney”. Aboriginal people approached, offering help to the stranded Europeans. By sign language and broken English they offered to guide someone to the nearest white man who lived “up the hill”.  A junior officer Waldron Kelly volunteered for the task and after two hours arrived at Erowal, the farm of John Lamb. Lamb, alarmed by the prospect of escaped convicts, took Kelly another 12 hours walk north to Shoalhaven, then owned by prominent settler Alexander Berry. Berry immediately wrote to the Colonial Secretary about the incident and set out with Kelly the following morning to the Hive.

The shipwreck news caused a sensation in Sydney. Three ships were dispatched to the scene and rumours of missing treasure caused a buzz in town. After five days the Tamar steam-packet brought back half the crew and passengers. A few days later HM brig Zebra brought the rest of the convicts. The remaining crew and soldiers stayed on to salvage what they could. Captain Nutting was among the last to get to Sydney in time for the official inquiry where Canney contradicted his testimony. The inquiry blamed Nutting for going to bed when the mate told him they were too near land. It also endorsed the doctor’s action in removing his command.

While Nutting fled to England in disgrace (though still in charge of a vessel), the Irish all remained in Australia. After the dramatic circumstances of their arrival, Babette Smith asked the question: why did none attempt escape at Jervis Bay despite 250 convicts outnumbering 29 soldiers? There were certainly enough prisoners who could do the overpowering. Many were transported for violent crimes which Smith divides into four categories of tribal, political, religious and sexual violence.

For example, Maurice Leehy, 37, was transported for his part in a “savage atrocity” between two clans at the Tralee races. Police read the “riot act” which was ignored. Clan members used sticks and stones on each other and 16 people died in the violence. Leehy was one of 18 people charged, and he received transportation for life.

Some violence was political. The British occupation spawned secret societies with colourful names such as the Whiteboys and the Ribbonmen. They carried out arson, assault, cattle-maiming and sent threatening letters. Fanton Delany, 22, ended up on the Hive after his Whiteboy group tried to force farmer Maurice Kelly to give up his land. Fenton posted a threatening letter but someone informed on him. He went on the run but was caught asleep at a farmer’s house. The Kildare Assizes sentenced him to seven years transportation.

Irish Catholics suffered under the Penal Laws which prevented them from owning land and voting in elections. Under the leadership of Daniel O’Connell and a newly energised Catholic Church, emancipation and education reforms were won in 1829. By the time of the Hive, NSW’s governor was Richard Bourke, a liberal protestant Irishman under the influence of his great relative Edmund Bourke. As a magistrate in Ireland Richard Bourke recognised “the lack of basic civil rights such as religious freedom and a fair and impartial system of justice, was the cause of much social unrest”.

Fifteen aboard the Hive were sentenced for murder or manslaughter. Joseph Ryan hit his victim with a hammer for called him a “whitefoot”, another was part of a group who pelted a man with stones, while many, like Leahy were involved in deadly riots. Timothy Cleary, 21, didn’t kill anyone but he pointed out his victim to another man who killed him with a stick. The victim had taken land from the Cleary family. Murder was ecumenical. A Monaghan Protestant, James McCabe, 47, was sentenced for his part in an Orange Day sectarian brawl.

Sexual violence was also prevalent with “abduction” a common crime in Ireland at the time. Bride theft was an ancient Gaelic custom, usually by gangs against female victims who were wealthy, single or who had land. James Dalton had his death sentence commuted to seven years transportation for the crime of “aiding and assisting the abduction of Catherine Hartney”. Dalton’s 60-year-old father-in-law James Ryan was earlier transported for leading a group to force a farmer to relinquish land. Dalton assisted Ryan to kidnap Hartney for his son Daniel Ryan, who also sailed on the Hive with Dalton.

But almost half the offenders aboard were thieves, burglars and robbers. They were little different to the thousands of English thieves sentenced to Australia. They were poor but they missed out on the Famine and also left before the Catholic Church renaissance took full effect. So they, like the English criminals they lived among, were ready to become honest Australians.

Some, such as James Dalton, had family in Ireland, and the Irish made up 60% of those who applied to have their family sent out. Though the British stopped that process to save money in 1840, Caroline Chisholm persuaded the government to change its mind in 1846 to support Irish families who wanted to move to Australia.

By then Dalton was free having served seven years at the pastoral holding of Archibald Campbell near Bathurst. Dalton was a model prisoner and on his release in 1842 went into the carting business. He later became a storekeeper at Blackman’s Swamp (which became Orange in 1846). His wife Ellen had died and Dalton applied for his three children to join him. Elder siblings Thomas and Margaret had already emigrated to Canada leaving youngest son James an orphan in the middle of the Famine.

Dalton’s request was approved and James Dalton Jr arrived in Australia on the Panama in 1849. By then his father had moved into a bigger store in Orange. The father and son ran the business together before James junior took it over in 1853 as James senior became a publican. Their timing was impeccable. In 1851 gold was found near Bathurst and Orange and the Daltons took full advantage of the goldrush as established traders in the region. The family quickly became wealthy. Elder siblings Thomas and Margaret Dalton moved to Australia to join the enterprise in the 1850s and their business expanded to become one of the biggest merchants, retailers, millers and pastoral holdings in NSW.

James the elder died in 1860 having laid the groundwork for a significant family contribution to their adopted country. James junior and Thomas became mayors of Orange. Thomas represented the town in the NSW Legislative Assembly and later became active in the Illawarra where his memory is retained in park and stadium names. The family eventually married into the Redmond political dynasty cementing bonds between Ireland and Australia. Their father, James Dalton Sr was probably the only rags to riches story from the Hive, but their stories show why the Irish did not rebel in Jervis Bay. Australia was offering up something better than the land they left.

That Unhappy Race Part 9 – Queensland adopts Meston’s system

Cherbourg was one of the reserves created by Meston's Proposed System.
Cherbourg was one of the reserves created by Meston’s Proposed System.

Although the Queensland newspapers of 1895 agreed with Archibald Meston’s Proposed System to manage Aboriginal people, Colonial Secretary Horace Tozer initially did nothing. An impatient Meston wrote to Tozer chastising him for lack of action, threatening to run again for parliament at the next election. Tozer was worried it would become a large social welfare system at the government’s expense. Stalling for time, he called for another report. He ordered Meston to survey Aboriginal missions and inquire into the troubles on the Cape York frontier.

Meston was pleased to be finally on the government payroll and set off north in 1896 in a long, slow trawl of Cape York indigenous communities, visiting missions at Yarrabah and Mappoon. He was particularly impressed by Cape Bedford where Lutheran missionaries spoke the local language and gained Indigenous respect. Meston concluded the tribes should stay together in reserves where they could be transformed into Christians. That meant three reserves in Queensland (not the two he originally asked for) in the north, centre and south. He followed Gideon Lang, calling for the abolition of the native police and recommended the end of Aboriginal slave labour in the pearling and trepanning industries.

This earned the ire of northern newspapers but Meston was confident when he presented his report to Tozer in October 1896. However under-secretary and police commissioner William Parry-Okeden took exception to the criticism of the native police. Tozer asked Parry-Okeden to improve police strategy in his own tour of north Queensland. At Normanton Parry-Okeden met the government’s medical officer in the north, Dr Walter Roth. Roth impressed him and he urged Tozer to support Roth’s research.

In Parry-Okeden’s February 1897 report, he called for the continuation of a strong, well-officered native police. He said friendly relations between the races could only be established by “affording equal protection and dealing out even-handed justice.” Tozer took Parry-Okeden’s suggestions to restructure the force to Premier Hugh Nelson though it was only a temporary reprieve. This notorious “machine for murder” as 19th century historian William Rusden called the native police, finally petered out by 1900 replaced by white constables assisted by trackers.

Meanwhile Meston’s system of reserves took shape in 1897. He earmarked Lukin’s Fraser Island site as the southern reserve and 50 blacks were “rounded up” from Maryborough and removed to the island. Meston went west and reported on Aborigines at Charleville, Mitchell and Roma, where many were addicted to opium and destroyed by syphilis. Tozer authorised their removal to a new reserve at Durundur, near Woodford. Meston’s report also proposed a draft bill for parliament based on American precedents for reserves under the authority of the Home Secretary, administered by protectors.

The bill gave control of every area of Aboriginal lives to protectors who could withhold wages and keep them on reserves. There would be strict penalties against alcohol and opium and employers had to give police details of Aboriginal employees. Tozer took Meston’s suggestion to divide the state but also took Parry-Okeden’s advice to give the northern section to the commissioner of police.

The bill passed through parliament without drama, the only debate being a definition of “half-caste”. Tozer told parliament it was “the offspring of an aboriginal mother and other than an aboriginal father” (No one could contemplate a white woman having sex with an aboriginal male). When it was pointed out many half-caste males had important roles of responsibility managing white men and cattle, Tozer made the half-caste rule apply only to females. The Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Bill received Royal Assent on December 10, 1897. It was Tozer’s last major piece of legislation, he retired in 1898.

Tozer appointed Parry-Okeden as Chief Protector for Queensland, with Meston named southern division protector and Roth northern division protector. In 1899 Parry-Okeden was removed from his role with Meston and Roth reporting directly to the Home Secretary. Roth had the extra ethnological task of collecting information about Aborigines in the north. He reported he was being “rushed” by applicants for permits to employ local blacks. Roth’s hope to end slavery in the pearling trade ran into squatter opposition and the commissioner of police told him not to take “too drastic action”.

In the south Meston claimed to have wiped out the opium trade by 1900. He estimated the total number of Aboriginal people below the 22nd parallel (between Sarina and Rockhampton) as 3500 of which 2300 were employed, 800 were dependent on those, and 400 were “finding for themselves”. Meston removed 300 Aboriginal people to reserves at Fraser Island, Durundur and Deebing Creek (near Ipswich). Another 50 “half-caste” girls were placed in institutions like Wooloowin’s Magdalen Asylum and St Vincent’s Catholic orphanage at Nudgee. Removals at the reserves came from every part of Queensland and Meston proudly boasted he had practiced “severe economy”.

Meston and his son Harold managed Fraser Island like a penal colony with discipline sternly applied and inmates “encouraged” to hunt food for themselves. Malnutrition, unsanitary conditions and debilitation brought disease and a high death rate. The government, hearing about violence at the camp, took management from the Mestons and gave it to the Anglican Church. Queensland’s indigenous population was so large, a third protector, Alexander Gordon, was appointed to manage the west from Boulia. However proposals to establish a western reserve were ruled out as too expensive. The furthest settlement west was Taroom in the Upper Dawson, created in 1911 but closed down within 10 years. Barambah (later Cherbourg) established in 1904 became the main reserve in the south after the closure of Durundur and Fraser Island.

Gordon was not particularly active and Meston complained that he never left Boulia. Meston roamed southern and western Queensland arranging to remove local blacks over the protests of local station managers.  He supported an amendment to the 1897 Act introduced in 1901 to prevent Aboriginal marriages without the protector’s permit saying he had a “strong aversion to the admixture of black and white races”.  That act remained on Queensland statutes until 1972.

Meston’s self-appointed role as “expert on Aborigines” had mixed success. In 1907, he stood for election again in the Cape York seat of Cook but was soundly defeated. Three years later he was appointed director of the Queensland Intelligence and Tourist Bureau in Sydney. He applied unsuccessfully for the position of chief protector of Aborigines in the NT. He eventually died of tetanus infection at home in Brisbane in 1924, aged 72.

His legacy was the principle of compulsory segregation which dominated Queensland’s Aboriginal policies in the 20th century. Meston was inspired by a desire to help Aboriginal people. But as Gordon Reid says, his rigid idealisation would not allow him to accept their ability to adapt to new circumstances. Queensland’s inflexible protection system held Aboriginal people in a historical vacuum, “unchanging in a changing world”.

Meston’s Proposal was advanced for its time, though it brought together ingredients brewing in Queensland for half a century. It ended the gruesome reign of the native police and genuinely tried to help Aboriginal people. Its great fault, as Reid said, was it lasted long after its need passed. Queensland would spend more on Aboriginal health and housing than other Australian government. But it also cleared people from their land, provided a cheap labour pool and severely restricted personal freedoms.

These aims of protection, removal and exploitation were too contradictory. Power over concentration camps at Cherbourg, Woorabinda and Palm Island was something premier Bjelke-Petersen was reluctant to concede in the 1970s.  “We want them set aside in black man’s country – we want them to live exactly like we do”. Joh’s paternalism was a direct link to Archibald Meston. It took the threat of an African boycott of Brisbane’s beloved Commonwealth games to scrap the last vestige of legal protection in 1982. Queensland’s Indigenous people were finally free.

See the earlier parts:

Part 1: Historical background

Part 2: Queensland’s violent frontier

Part 3: The squatters’ inquiry

Part 4: the influence of Gideon Lang

Part 5: The Drew and Hale Commissions

Part 6: The empty years (1870s-1880s)

Part 7: Archibald Meston

Part 8: Horace Tozer

Why Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour

I was halfway through writing this post when I saw an article from Paul Daley in the Guardian which expresses my opinion more eloquently than I could hope for. To understand the Adam Goodes booing, you have to understand Australia’s history. The matter did not begin on a football field, but in our attitudes, Daley said and cultural sensitivity was never white Australia’s strong point. Many prefer not to know the problem.

That was brought home to me in a vox pop on ABC’s Brisbane local radio station yesterday. There was a wide mix of opinions but the one that stood out was the lady who said in an exasperated tone she was sick of the subject and wished it would go away. When pressed to say was the booing “racist” she said flatly no, it wasn’t. It is a common view that Australia does not a problem with race and we shouldn’t talk ourselves into it.

But others do want to talk about it. Some defend the booing forcefully. The “whiny, needy, bullshit” as Guy Rundle called it of the arguments of convicted racist Andrew Bolt and others is “usurper’s complex”: victim blaming. Those who take power unlawfully must justify their acts – to themselves and others. It was Cecil the Lion’s fault for ruining the life of the man who killed him and the helicopter’s fault for thrashing Bronwyn Bishop’s reputation. So it is Adam Goodes who must change not the people doing the booing.

Like every great player in every team sport, Goodes was always the subject of “special attention” from opposition fans, little to do with his indigenous background. But the sustained booing he gets now dates to last year when as Australian of the Year status he urged people to see John Pilger’s Utopia. Pilger enrages many on the right because he puts himself into the argument. In my view, Utopia is flawed and does not give enough credence to the problems of de-colonisation. But Pilger’s subject matter deserves a voice and Goodes was right to recommend the film for its confronting approach to Australian history. This action enraged the right which attacked Goodes for his recommendation more than Pilger for his film. John Howard’s wish of a people “relaxed and comfortable” about their history could only exist on the notion of not telling the truth about that history.

The truth is we would be more comfortable with the real history. While Britain’s intervention came at enormous cost to the indigenous people it is a history that pre-dates racism. The British who arrived in 1788 felt superior to the Australians (likely the same was true of the Eora’s feelings of the British). However the newcomers preferred to explain the difference on cultural and environmental grounds. The marine Watkin Tench believed British education and enlightened thinking was all that separated them from the “savages” they saw in Botany Bay. There was no innate difference. “Untaught, unaccommodated man is the same in Pall Mall, as in the wilderness of New South Wales,” Tench wrote.

The Creationist view of the 7000-year-old world underpinned the idea that Aboriginal people had only recently fallen from grace, and could and should be changed. Governor Lachlan Macquarie took this notion to its logical conclusion and formed Australia’s first mission in 1814 to civilise the native population and “render their Habits more domesticated and industrious”. Macquarie’s Native Institution failed but the idea of missionaries took hold from optimistic clergy who used “Gospel motives” to transform Aboriginal people. They all failed. Indigenous people remained disinterested and suspicious. They stayed only as long as they were fed.

The rise of science and European rage for classifying the world led to a new way of explaining human difference. In his 1775 book The Natural Varieties of Mankind, Johann Blumenbach came up with a system of five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American and Malay. The existence of Australia Aboriginal people was an awkward fact that did not fit the classifications. But by the middle of the 19th century, the idea of Caucasian superiority had taken root. Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844) argued the other “races” were vestiges of past forms. Charles Lyell had proved the world was far older than 7000 years, rocking the biblical certainty of Adam and Eve. The pseudo-science of phrenology claimed Native Americans and Africans had no ability for civilisation while Darwin, following Lyell, assumed the Australian Aboriginal “variety of man” was becoming extinct when faced with “stronger” forms.

While books were slow to reach Australia’s frontier, the idea of racial inferiority began to supplement and eventually replace the original notion of Aboriginal “savagery”.  The publicity around the death of Pallawah woman Trugernanna led to inaccurate reports of the “last Tasmanian” and lent credence to the idea Australia’s native population was doomed. Inferiority and inevitable extinction were convenient crutches to explain what otherwise was the theft of an entire continent and wholesale ethnic cleansing.

Racial superiority was a core philosophy of the new nation of Australia in 1901 and dominated its first half-century. As historian Richard Broome said, it took the abominations of the Nazis for the world to formally reject notions of race as wrong and unscientific. Hair, eye and skin colour and the shape of facial features are a tiny component of our genetics and have no biological explanatory function. The 1978 UNESCO declaration on race and racial prejudice reminded the world humans are a “single species and are descended from common stock”.

By 1978, racism was on the wane in Australia. It remained strong in country areas, especially with large mixed populations, but government policy was empowering Aboriginal people. It got to the point that by the 1990s, reactionists like Pauline Hanson could campaign against Aboriginal “privilege”. The Nationals could also find outrage against native title while in the 2000s large populations could be still be painted as full of paedophiles, drug addicts and rapists. Race does not exist any more, but racism remains rife. It must tread carefully but still finds voice in Bolt critiques, Hansonism, “boong” jokes and other forms. Booing is a handy way of publicly being racist while retaining plausible deniability.

Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour by calling it out. Now, as Paul Daley says, Australia must confront the demons of its past and embrace Aboriginal culture. New Zealand’s Waitangi Treaty should be the template. Without a treaty it is hard to imagine the entire cohort of an Australian school doing as a New Zealand school did, and conduct an indigenous war cry to farewell a much-loved indigenous teacher. It will never happen here until we accept the consequences of our history.

Why Labor has to turn back the boats

The First Fleet in 1788 continue in a long tradition of "illegal immigration" by boat to Australia
The First Fleet in 1788 continue in a long tradition of “illegal immigration” by boat to Australia

A left-wing friend talking about Shorten’s boat turnback policy said Labor was making the same mistake when they rolled Kevin Rudd in 2010: not explaining to a bewildered electorate what they were doing and why they were doing it. What is it they feared and why, the person asked rhetorically, suspecting it would never be explained by those who voted with Shorten for the boat turnback policy. Shorten did explain yesterday why Labor was bringing in the policy though he didn’t explain his deepest fear. Were I a delegate it would have been a tough decision – but in the end I would have voted yes too, despite boat turnbacks being part of a vile and inhuman system.

What Shorten and Labor fear most in 2016 is defeat, despite leading the polls for most of the electoral cycle and despite Tony Abbott being our worst prime minister since the shambolic Gorton/MacMahon era. Abbott believes he can win again next year by talking up security and borders and playing to our worst fears. Most Australians believe the current draconian border policy is either fine or not strong enough. The media hysteria of the real or imagined threat of terrorism is giving Australians nightmares while the issue of being “swamped” by Asians is as old as settler Australia itself.

The fear is unconscious and atavistic, and not helped by Australia’s failure to be honest about its own violent history. The country was settled by boat people at least 40,000 years ago and they dominated the continent until more “illegal immigrants” arrived in 1788 to start a new wave of conquest. The unspoken fear is that a third wave of conquest is imminent and “white” Australia will be subsumed in an Asiatic and/or Islamic culture.

The government of the day has played up mightily to those fears as have the Murdoch media. “Turning back the boats” (seeing that even the Abbott government admitted they can’t be stopped) is an acceptable slogan to keep the desperate at bay. Indeed most Australian people see it as necessary regardless of the human consequences. The wars Australia fought in the Middle East have created much of the tide of refugees but as long as they are hidden away overseas and cannot be humanised, they will always be suspects not victims.

The Coalition has won the information war by ending the flow of information. The ludicrous cliché “operational matters” covers a multitude of sins and allows the government to get away with any behaviour to meet its ends. Labor and the Greens are left screeching to an empty gallery. But while the Greens can afford to retain its policy purity, Labor cannot if it hopes to win government.

They need to change the conversation entirely and this policy decision yesterday allows them to do that. The coalition will continue to run hard on borders and generate fear saying to the electorate that Labor can’t be trusted to protect the borders but they will now find it harder to argue on specifics. Abbott will be reduced to touting suspicions not facts. His best hope is that the Labor left sabotages Shorten’s policy.

But Abbott knows this weekend’s debate means it is Labor who can now argue on specifics when it comes to immigration policy. They are in the game, but with points of difference. Oversight of the detention centres, increasing the immigration intake, removing Temporary Protection Visas and releasing children from detention all play to Labor’s “human” side while still allowing them to join the Liberals on the demonisation of “people smugglers”.

They will still be no-go areas of discussion and many ways in which the policy obscures rather than illuminates. What will happen to the people currently rotting away in Nauru and Manus Island? Labor does not say, but crucially neither do the Liberals. So it is not in their interest to open that discussion.

So while the left will appalled by Labor’s decision, it is realpolitik. If you want a coherent and humanitarian policy on immigration then vote for the Greens, however they will not form government in 2016. Labor has potentially neutralised this most damaging of matters and crucially, they did it in an open forum. The issue was far more toxic to them than climate change, despite Abbott’s past victories in that space. Abbott destroyed Rudd and Gillard’s environmental policy by labelling it a tax, but the electorate is slowly aware of a bigger problem coming if carbon emissions are not addressed. It is a problem the government does not wish to acknowledge. Meanwhile, Abbott’s war against the obvious benefits of solar and wind power is looking mean and vindictive.

Labor is looking to fill the space left by Abbott, making another commitment yesterday to move to 50% renewable energy by 2050. Much more needs to be done, including a tangible plan on how to get to that target. Labor should win the next election with the current government looking out of touch, arrogant and untrustworthy. Abbott remains a deeply unpopular prime minister, though Shorten is not much better. The left will dislike him even more on the border backflip. Yet he showed in his carefully crafted borders speech yesterday he is more than just a straw man. He remains the best hope of dragging Australia back to the middle ground, so carelessly voided by his opponent.

That Unhappy Race Part 8 – Horace Tozer accepts Meston’s Proposed System

Horace Tozer, Queensland Colonial Secretary in the 1890s.
Horace Tozer, Queensland Colonial Secretary in the 1890s.

Following his involvement in resolving the “Wild Australia tour”  affair, Horace Tozer was another unlikely key figure in the fate of Queensland Aborigines. Born at Port Macquarie and educated in Newcastle and Sydney, the young Tozer went north to the new colony to become an articled clerk in Brisbane, before being admitted to the bar. At Gympie he became a member of the mining court and began to invest in mines. Though elected as member for Wide Bay in 1871 he immediately stood aside by prior arrangement to allow H.E. King to take the seat in a by-election. Tozer became an authority on mining law and a Gympie alderman. He stood again for Wide Bay in 1888, this time holding the seat for 10 years.

Tozer joined the “Griffilwaith” government as Colonial Secretary in 1890 where Aboriginal affairs came under his remit. Busy putting down the shearers’ strike at Barcaldine, Tozer was slow to react when the manager of Glenormiston west of Boulia complained Purcell had kidnapped blacks from the station. Archibald Meston told Tozer they had let that mob free and instead obtained another group of blacks from NT. With the blacks still stranded in Sydney, Meston vigorously defended his role saying he was left penniless calling it a “sad and disastrous termination of the tour”,

Tozer stepped in, agreeing for the Queensland Government to meet the cost of their return plus their food and accommodation debts in Sydney. When they returned, Meston had changed his story about Purcell not kidnapping blacks. After interviewing them, Meston said the NT mob had been “chained half the way from Boulia to Cloncurry and taken forcibly against their wishes”. Though Tozer turned down Meston’s request for an inquiry, he was becoming embroiled in indigenous issues with the people of Taroom threatening to shoot Aboriginal people over their consumption of opium in the town. Tozer urged the townsfolk to deal with the matter kindly.

Reports of opium addiction were starting to reach Brisbane from all quarters of the colony.  Police and magistrates queried whether they could use the Poisons Act or confiscate pipes to which Tozer said that only fines could be imposed. In the far north, there were reports Aborigines were still being “hunted like dingoes” while in the Wide Bay region the press reported the “abject and miserable condition of the blacks”. Like Meston, Tozer was slowly coming to the conclusion of bringing the blacks together in one spot to house the very old and very young and also those struggling for employment. However he believed local communities should pay for it and the Aborigines should be encouraged to work. “The duty is not upon the government but upon the people,” he wrote.

In 1895 Meston outlined his scheme to Tozer in an address he called “Queensland Aboriginals: Proposed System for their Improvement and Preservation”. Meston’s opening sentence outlined the problem while toadying to Tozer. “To you, Sir, a friend of the aboriginals, I submit this carefully considered plan for the improvement and preservation from extinction of that unhappy race.”  The address gathered all the ideas of the previous 60 years from GA Robinson in the 1830s to George Lukin in 1893 (who revived the idea of a Fraser Island mission). Meston’s one addition was to add the concept of “preservation”. Tozer was impressed enough to print the document and distribute it to parliament.

Meston’s Proposed System said there were 200,000 Aboriginal people in Queensland at white occupation now there was less than 30,000 and they were heading towards “ultimate annihilation”. He noted the treaties of Pennsylvania and New Zealand and the lack of compensation for land in Australia. All religious missions had failed but now Queensland, Meston told Tozer, could preserve the Aboriginal people “in a manner to the eternal honour of herself and our common humanity”.

Meston’s system proposed complete isolation from the whites. The reserves must be at remote places, one in northern Queensland and another in the south, and would eventually provide a pool of ready labour. They would be fed and young blacks would be taught agriculture, horsemanship, blacksmithing and other trades. No whites would be allowed on the reserve without permission.  Up to 5,000 blacks would be brought to each reserve, which would be run by a “protector”, an honorary role to be filled by a “white gentleman”.

If this document seems ludicrous and racist in the extreme today, Gordon Reid said it was a realistic and humanitarian statement when judged against the standards of the 1890s. Tozer and his fellow parliamentarians saw it as a way of solving the “Aboriginal problem” and a way of avoiding the extinction most whites believed was the Aboriginal fate. Meston’s system accepted Aboriginal people as human beings whose customs and beliefs were worth saving, within the framework of the European economic system. The system’s deepest flaw was that it was a solution imposed from above and its authoritarianism would blight Queensland’s indigenous people for much of the 20th century. The reserves they created became Australian concentration camps.