Australia in the First World War: Gallipoli

Australian Light Horse troopers defend Quinn's Post at Gallipoli.
Australian Light Horse troopers defend Quinn’s Post at Gallipoli.

The death of an Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo in the northern hemisphere summer of 1914 must have seemed an impossibly distant and unimportant event to people in faraway Australia. Yet within weeks Britain declared war on Germany and its Allies and Australia was committed too.

As in Europe there was a wild wave of enthusiasm and patriotism. A new volunteer army of 20,000 soldiers sprung into being, called the Australian Imperial Force. The AIF assembled on 26 troopships at Albany, WA joined by ten troopships from New Zealand. They set sail on November 1, 1914 but not to Europe as most aboard assumed. Turkey had entered the war on Germany’s side and the troops were needed to defend the vital Suez Canal.

In Egypt the Anzacs (as they quickly became known) were placed under Englishman Sir William Birdwood who trained them in the shadow of the pyramids for First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s ambitious plan to knock Turkey out of the war. It involved an invasion of Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula which guarded the Dardanelle Straits and the approaches to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul).  The invasion would start at dawn on Sunday, April 25, 1915.

That morning, the men left the convoy of big ships and were towed in boats and rowed ashore. In the confusion of darkness the boats landed at the wrong spot on a beach facing high cliff and ravines. By 8am 8000 men were ashore despite heavy fire from Turkish defenders but the thick prickly scrub of the hills prevented easy advance. Some Anzacs penetrated high in the hills only to be cut off, surrounded or forced back. Their frustration was matched by British failures landing at Cape Helles on Gallipoli’s southern tip.

By mid-morning Turkish reinforcements arrived with orders to fight to the death. In fierce hand-to-hand combat they held the commanding heights while the Anzacs dug in on the strip of hills overlooking the beach they called Anzac Cove. British commander Sir Ian Hamilton refused a dismayed Birdwood permission to withdraw. Birdwood told his men to “dig, dig, dig” and the Anzac line was formed. It would hardly change for eight months.

At least 650 Australians died that first day with 2000 wounded. The weeks that followed took a further bloody toll. The Turkish assault of May 19 was so brutal both sides agreed on an armistice to allow burial of the decomposing dead in no-mans-land. The newspaper reports to Australia spoke of a great success and the number of casualties was hushed up. Slowly but surely the scale of the slaughter made it across the world. In a country of five million people, there were few communities not touched by tragedy.

British commanders refused to acknowledge failure. They launched a fresh offensive in August to capture the high ground and landed an invasion force north at Suvla Bay. This operation failed like all the others. Australians began to hear the names of places such as Lone Pine, the Nek and Chunuk Bair as sites where thousands died.

The August failure doomed the rest of the mission and Hamilton was sacked in October. His replacement General Munro recommended the peninsula be abandoned. When war secretary Lord Kitchener finally visited Gallipoli he accepted Munro’s advice and by early December the War Cabinet ordered immediate withdrawal ahead of winter. This was the one successful aspect of the campaign with thousands evacuating under the noses of the unsuspecting Turks. The last boats departed before dawn on December 20.

The Australians suffered 28,000 casualties including 8700 dead. They returned to Egypt and were joined in early 1916 by reinforcements from Australia. This huge force doubled the AIF size from two to four divisions. By March 1916 they were on their way to the Western Front. Many more years of bloody battles awaited before those that survived would see home again.

James Dalton: a tale of Green, White and Orange

Seeing as it is St Patrick’s Day I thought I would tell a whitefella story about a Green albeit one with a strong Orange taint. The green and white is an emigrant Irishman in Australia named James Dalton and the Orange is the beautiful and prosperous city in NSW three hours west of Sydney. I had passed through this city once before, but last week was the first time I’ve stopped to check it out properly.

The view of Summer St Orange from inside the Hotel Orange
The view of Summer St Orange from inside the Hotel Orange
James Dalton, the merchant of Orange.
James Dalton, the merchant of Orange.

The purpose of my visit was to research this chap on the right, James Dalton. Dalton was an Irishman who lived between 1834 and 1919 and made his fame and fortune in Orange, opening several stores, generally making a mint and becoming a leading light of the town as well as Sydney. I’d never heard of him until last year but then a friend of mine who the editor of the Irish Dictionary of Biography asked me would I do an entry on Dalton for the biography. I agreed and I have until September this year to do it.

Dalton already had an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography so I guess if nothing else I could simply have copied that. Written 40 years ago ADB’s Martha Rutledge (who sadly died last year) covers the key moments of his life. Dalton was born on a farm at Duntryleague, Co Limerick near Tipperary. His life course was set as a one year old when his father, also James, was transported to Australia for the crime of kidnapping a widow for the purpose of marrying his brother-in-law. James’s mother died young and his two elder siblings went to America leaving James orphaned in Limerick. Finally when his father obtained his ticket-of-leave, he called for his youngest son to join him in Australia. James senior had served his sentence in Bathurst and was now a storekeeper further west. James junior arrived in 1849, aged 15 and joined his father who was now at Summerhill, outside what would become the town of Orange. The pair were in the right place at the right. Nearby at Ophir and then at Lucknow, miners would find gold in large commercial quantities in the next two years, the first such finds in Australia.

The gold mine at Lucknow, just outside Orange.
The gold mine at Lucknow, just outside Orange.

The Dalton’s business did well as prospectors poured into the region. A township grew up at nearby Blackman’s Swamp (named for a Constable Blackman of Bathurst not the Aboriginal people who had been displaced from the district by white settlers). The burghers preferred to give it a name that Thomas Mitchell called the area when he came through exploring in 1830. Mitchell honoured the name of a Dutchman William, Prince of Orange, he served with in the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon in 1812. This was a descendant of the famous William of Orange, the scourge of Catholics in the glorious revolution in the 1690s, an irony surely not lost on the Irishman Dalton. Not that young James had too much time to ponder. He set himself up in business alone in a small shop near the post office. It would become the grandest department store in all of western NSW.

Now the site of Myer department store in Orange, the only sign this was once James Dalton's store is the text "founded in 1849" above the main entrance.
Now the site of Myer department store in Orange, the only sign this was once James Dalton’s store is the text “founded in 1849″ above the main entrance.
Dalton's mill (now demolished) on Summer St, Orange.
Dalton’s mill (now demolished) on Summer St, Orange.

At his store Dalton would accept gold and other items in barter. Much of the gold mined at Ophir ended up in the pockets of Orange merchants. Dalton had a particularly good reputation for being able to source anything miners needed and he established a good import network from Britain and America. By the late 1850s he was secure enough to court another merchant’s daughter and his wealth attracted his elder brother Thomas from America. Together they called their stores the Dalton Bros and they expanded to create Orange’s first flour mill. They shipped flour to England where it fetched a premium price and they also handled wool.

The magnificent Duntryleague home was built in 1876 and now houses Orange Golf Club
Dalton and his wife Margaret had 12 children and he set about becoming a patriarch to the town as well as his family. He became a local magistrate and councillor. In 1865 he was the deputy captain of Orange’s first volunteer fire service and in 1869 he became mayor of Orange. He built several lavish town and country houses, most like Emly, Knocklong and Bruff named for places in Limerick and Tipperary of his youth. The most impressive Duntryleague, (in 1876) was named for his birthplace in Limerick, just a townland near Galbally, and now its namesake the home of the Orange golf club.

It was here in 1883 where Dalton hosted the Irish political figures, the brothers John and Willie Redmond. The Redmonds were Westminster MPs and Parnellites on a world tour to drum up support for home rule for Ireland. This is was controversial in Empire-supporting Australia, especially in the wake of the Phoenix Park murder of Ireland’s top British official a year earlier. When the Redmonds came to Orange, they spoke at Duntryleague because the town’s Protestant establishment would not supply a hall for them. Dalton gave the welcome speech to the Redmonds and he was attacked in the Sydney press for disloyalty and sedition. Dalton was forced to resign his magistracy as were several other prominent Catholic businessmen in Orange. Dalton was unabashed and built the Australian Hall in Orange so never again would officials stop them from hosting a public meeting. Though the Redmonds moved on, the link was permanent with John Redmond marrying the brothers’ half-sister Johanna and Willie Redmond marrying James’ daughter Eleanor. The young emigrant Dalton was now part of Ireland’s political royalty.

St Joseph's Catholic Church, Orange where Dalton was a prominent member. One of his houses was just across the road.
St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Orange where Dalton was a prominent member. One of his houses was just across the road.

James and Thomas Dalton would later split their business with Thomas looking after its Sydney interests. He also followed James as Mayor of Orange and served as an MP for New South Wales. James preferred to stay in Orange where he was a leading light in the Catholic community. James’s proudest moment was to be a mitre bearer as Sydney’s Irish Cardinal Patrick Moran unveiled the foundation stone on the extensions to St Joseph’s Church. His beloved wife died in 1904 aged 64 and James died on St Patrick’s Day 1919 aged 84. The value of his estate was £73,154. Eldest son Thomas Garrett (Gatty) married an Irish girl and succeeded his father managing the store, and becoming mayor of Orange 1903-06.  The Dalton family were feted in 2013 with an exhibition at Duntryleague marking 160 years of contribution to the town.The 2013 Dalton exhibition at Duntryleague, Orange (photo courtesy Euan Greer)

The 2013 Dalton exhibition at Duntryleague, Orange (photo courtesy Euan Greer, Orange Historical Society)

Australia: a country in desperate need of a climate change policy

Before someone puts Tony Abbott out of our misery, the Liberal Party should take a long moment to think about climate change and what its next leader should do about it. It is a process it needs to complete by December because its government will be representing Australia at the time of the Paris Climate Change conference. That conference has the express goal of containing “climate disruption” within a two degree upper limit and the adoption of an international agreement to move the world towards a low-carbon economy by 2020. And Australia hasn’t the slightest hope of meeting any such commitment based on its current policies.

The working document for this conference is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 Synthesis Report (or whatever will supersede it this year).The climate change science in this report is  telling us we are in bad shape. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than any decade since 1850. The last 30 years are likely to be the warmest 30 years of the last 1400 years. The upper ocean temperature is warming and ocean acidification has increased by a quarter in the industrial era. Arctic sea ice is decreasingly by 4% a decade and the sea level rose 0.2% in the 20th century. All this has resulted in large increases in carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, particularly in the last 40 years.

The future the report is predicting is of more rising sea levels, more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and more extreme weather events including cyclones, droughts and floods across the world. This is a dire scenario and if inter-generational theft means anything at all, then surely this is it. What then, is the government of the day in Australia doing about it?

Well, It’s actually hard to tell it is doing anything at all about it. While it is unsurprising to note that Tony Abbott hasn’t mentioned climate change in a speech in over three months, it’s more surprising to note that a search of the Liberal Party policies page has no official policy on climate change. That is, unless you think scrapping the carbon price, removing government oversight mechanisms, building highways and tunnels, and supporting the coal industry amount to addressing climate disruption.

The closest thing the Liberals have to an official environment policy is a $2 billion green army aimed at as much as heritage and agriculture protection as the environment. The Green Army is a John Howard-style militia inspired by the motherhood vision for Australia where “individually and collectively, we can more often be our best selves” so they can “do the right things by those around them.” But this army lacks the artillery to deal with the bigger environmental problems especially in two industries Australia is vulnerable in: manufacturing and mining.

Then there’s “direct action”.  Seen by almost everyone outside the government as a hopelessly ineffective solution, it does not even merit its own policy page on the Liberal website.  There is blurb on the Emissions Reduction Fund (the centrepiece of the policy) on the environment department website but that is severely lacking in detail.  It’s reliance on big government intervention to meet targets is also stark contrast to the laissez-faire attitude the Coalition has to other areas of the economy. A market-based cap-and-trade approach seems a more logical approach but that would admit that it’s opposition to Labor policy for the last four years was wrong.

This extraordinary inaction to the world’s biggest problem can only be explained one way. This government has been captured by those who simply do not believe the climate change science. When the government repealed the carbon price legislation last July, Liberal Senator Ian McDonald said what many in his party room would agree with. “If there is global warming, notwithstanding that in Brisbane on Saturday morning we had the coldest day in 113 years – but I have always indicated,” McDonald said, “I have an open mind on this.”  What McDonald really meant is that he has a closed mind on this. Climate change is bunkum, he believes, or “crap” as his party leader once offered. Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, who was instrumental in wrecking bi-partisan agreement on carbon pricing, takes a similar view.

Joyce doesn’t have a vote on who should be the next party leader but it is safe to say he will be active behind the scenes. He continues to be a fan of Tony Abbott because he knows Abbott will continue the ‘do nothing’ approach. But even Abbott’s one and only speech on climate change in the last three months admits that is no longer an option. On December 14, 2014, Abbott was dragged kicking and screaming into pledging $200m over four years to UN’s Green Climate Fund, despite it being what he called “socialism masquerading as environmentalism”.  Abbott did this not only because he was friendless on the issue but because he knows Paris is looming. In the same release Abbott admitted he needed a taskforce “to propose possible new post-2020 targets for Australia to take to the Paris Conference of the UNCCC in December 2015.”

That taskforce is yet to materialise leaving Australia no closer to effective action. “Direct Action” may or may not fluke its way to achieving Australia’s miserly 2020 target but is utterly useless beyond that.  Abbott and his supporters can doubt the science all they like, but the world is moving on anyway. Australia needs a climate change policy before December. This is the problem Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and anyone else who would be prime minister needs to grapple with urgently.

How Isaac Isaacs pipped Baron Birdwood to Australia’s Governor-General

james scullin
James Scullin (Australian Prime Minister 1929-1932)

As the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli approaches, Baron William Birdwood will be one of many names feted. It was General Birdwood’s decision as the head of the A and NZ Army Corps to approve the acronym Anzac. Though not Australian he became known as the ‘Soul of Anzac’ and he risked shelling in his own headquarters at Gallipoli. This Indian-born officer was a true servant of Empire and served king and country in the Boer War, Turkey and France in the First World War, before returning to his native India where he was army commander in chief in difficult pre-independence times.

He was also an aide-de-camp to King George V and was still a favourite of His Majesty when he visited Sandringham in 1930. An important sinecure was becoming available and George had Birdwood in mind for the job. The British conservative politician Viscount Stonehaven’s term as Governor-General of Australia was expiring that year and George thought Birdwood would be a perfect fit. Not only was there the Anzac link but Birdwood’s daughter had married a WA grazier.

But the newly elected Labor prime minister of Australia James Scullin had other ideas. The working class son of Irish emigrants from Derry, Scullin was feted by the leaders of the Irish Free State on a visit to Europe that same year of 1930. Having emerged from civil war, Ireland was trying to distinguish itself from the British Commonwealth and Scullin supported her right to govern itself. It mirrored, he said, what was happening in Australia where they “were building up their own national ideals and to place Australia as the first nation in their hearts.”

Birdwood would pay for Scullin’s ideals and the prime minister advised King George to appoint Australian-born Isaac Isaacs as the next governor-general. The Jewish Isaacs had the calibre for the role as the chief justice of the High Court, but Scullin’s recommendation was an affront to the King who normally picked from a list of choices, of which Birdwood would surely have made the short list. Instead Scullin was presenting a take-it-or-leave it choice. The idea of an Australian born king’s representative was most unwelcome.

The unhappy King cut short Scullin’s visit to Ireland with a summons to the palace. Scullin told George he was determined to appoint Isaacs and would hold an election on issue of an Australian governor-general. There was also recent precedents of native-born Governors-General in Scullin’s own Ireland. The King was appalled but not prepared to risk a constitutional crisis. Isaacs, then aged 75, was appointed despite Australian opposition leader John Latham saying the appointment would diminish the “sentiment of attachment and loyalty to the Crown”.  The socialist newspaper Labor Call had no such worries. Scullin, they said, had shown the world “Australians are equal, if not superior, to any imported pooh-bah.”

Whether Labor Call had Birdwood in mind with their insult is not known, but the “soul of Anzac” had to make do with becoming the master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Meanwhile, with the depression in full swing, Isaacs was a frugal Governor-General and agreed to a pay cut. He was also the first to live permanently at Yarralumla. On his retirement in 1936, the new conservative government went back to appointing members of the British aristocracy in the Earl of Gowrie. Only one of the next six was Australian, William McKell, appointed by another Irish-heritage prime minister Ben Chifley. Since 1965 all Governors-General have been Australian born. It shouldn’t be a necessity – as the birthplace of two of the last three prime ministers can attest -but the idea that an Australian-born leader should be inferior to a foreigner is now a laughable oddity. Birdwood, the hero of Anzac, would probably have made a good governor-general but Scullin was right to stand firm.

Faith, hope and charity: Blackbirding Bandler

faith bandlerThe death of Faith Bandler last week has thrown light on two reasons how Australia got wealthy and why it is selective about remembering its past.

Bandler was a key figure in the 1967 referendum which allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be counted in the census and also gave the Commonwealth power to legislate over Indigenous issues. These items seem small but the referendum passed with around 90% support. Bandler and others tapped into white guilt to get a rare successful change to the Australian constitution.

The fact that Australia had stolen the land, killed the natives, used the survivors as sex slaves and cheap labour and then stole even those meagre wages was not openly spoken of by those promoting the change. But it was an undercurrent to Australia’s sense of self-satisfaction behind the white picket fences of the 1960s.

Bandler’s own non-whiteness added to her stature as a spokesperson but she was not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. She got her skin colour from her Melanesian dad but her feistiness was in no small part due to her Scottish-Indian mother. This pot-pourri of cultures made Bandler a true Australian of the later part of the 20th century. It was a time Australia “unforgot” its Indigenous people and quietly cast away the White Australia Policy, a policy capital and labour supported for 60 years.

Bandler’s Melanesian background was a reminder of another shameful part of Australian colonial capitalist history, ironically blown away by the White Australian Policy. Her father Wacvie Mussingkon was from Ambrym Island in Vanuatu, an island chain affected by its brush with British and French colonial history.

After “claiming” New South Wales for Britain, Captain Cook was on his second tour of the South Pacific when he arrived at Vanuatu and named it New Hebrides. France also had designs on the region but it was the venture capitalism unleashed by the American Civil War that saw a carpetbagging Irishman named J.C. Byrne think of sending indentured labour to the farms of Peru.

In 1862 Byrne convinced one group of desperate and hungry New Hebridean farmers to go to South America. His success gave profiteers from other settler parts of the world the incentive to “convince” islanders to sign up to such ventures, and coercion and trickery became common.

By the 1870s northern Australian canegrowers, unable to attract southern white labour, got in on the act. The practice was called blackbirding, from the “blackbirds” Europeans agents caught in the wild. The growers eagerly took these blackbirds from many islands across the western Pacific, including New Hebrides, as indentured labour. Indenturing was a contract for three years and despite several laws designed to clean up the industry, the labourers were housed in primitive conditions, forced to work long hours and received little or no pay. One in five died during their contract.

About 60,000 south sea islanders came to Australia during 40 years of blackbirding, tricked into slavery to keep the Queensland economy pumping. The 1880 Pacific island Labourers Act (Queensland) gave some improvement by licensing the process but restricted Melanesians to menial jobs. The end of the century was dominated by the Federation debate and the need to create a white Australia. The sugar industry fought to continue to import cheap labour but were thwarted by one of the first laws passed by the new Commonwealth, the 1901 Pacific Island Labourers Act. The 10,000 islanders in Australia were ordered to leave and 70% were deported. About 10% were granted residency on compassionate grounds and another 20% stayed on illegally.

Wacvie Mussingkon was among that latter group, who like Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, grew to love Australia despite its inhumane ways. The Federal Government stopped blackbirding not because of the humanitarian need of Ambrym Islanders but because they didn’t want people from Ambrym in the country at all.

Yet people like Mussingkon survived and his offspring thrived. Faith’s politics were shaped by injustice. She married another outsider, Jewish refugee Hans Bandler. Hans left Vienna to escape the Nazis and shared Faith’s radical ideas about society. Faith suffered discrimination of her own due to her darker skin. Together they fought for civil rights and economic justice. Faith Bandler’s fight ended when she died last week aged 97.  Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Bandler had spent her life “pointing the way to a better and fairer Australia”. It’s something Abbott himself should aspire to.

A long road to freedom: How the Freedom Ride for Aborigines changed Australia forever

safaAustralia was awakening from its long self-satisfied slumber in the 1960s. While Robert Menzies’ slavish pro-Empire views still reigned in Canberra, young educated citizens tapped into the worldwide zeitgeist of student protest. The imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were the spark for a civil rights demonstration outside the US consulate in Sydney in 1964. Students garnered great publicity by burning a Ku Klux Klan cross and clashing with police.

But some people asked the disturbing question: why weren’t these students campaigning against racism in Australia? Overseas newspapers pointed out the hypocrisy of student riots against US issues while their country still held dear to the White Australia Policy and denied Aboriginal rights. The Ceylon Observer noted “we coloured folk” could settle in the US but not in Australia. The Observer called on the students to probe their own lack of “coloured neighbours”.

Aboriginal rights groups were also active in pointing out Australia’s failure to adhere to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. International censure was embarrassing to Canberra but was immaterial to state governments who “managed” Aboriginal affairs. This disconnect led Aboriginal organisations to seek constitutional change.

Student interest was muted by the lack of Aboriginal people on campus. That changed when Charles Perkins and Gary William won scholarships to the University of Sydney in 1963.  Williams was part Bundjalung, part Gumbaynggirr from northern NSW with a family history of activism while Perkins was an Arrernte-Kalkadoon man. He was an experienced public speaker and political leader as vice president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines (FCAA).

The idea for a freedom ride came with a committee for action on Aboriginal rights at the university on National Aborigines Day, July 8, 1964. A leaflet with the inscription “Poor bloody Abos!” showed the students had much to learn about Indigenous affairs. A meeting heard children were being locked up in Walgett for trivial offences and a constitutional change campaign had started. There was a protest of 500 students outside parliament house the following day.

Perkins took on the leadership to look at options, one of which was a freedom rider bus through NSW and Queensland. Perkins knew a freedom ride would be good for television with its short grabs and dramatic visuals. Freedom rides began in Jamaica in 1957 as a tool to remove the tax on cycling but were better known from the rides in southern US in 1961. The publicity around the arrest of 300 American freedom riders trying to desegregate buses had immediate success and made the news across the world including Australia. Perkins wanted to bring non-violent direct action home to shine a light on discrimination in NSW country towns.

It took another six months to organise and on February 12, 1965 a white touring bus arrived at the university. Twenty-nine students boarded with a banner of Student Action for Aborigines which led to it being known as the SAFA bus tour. Perkins was aboard and Williams would join later, and there was one other Aboriginal man, lay preacher Gerry Mason. A key rider was Darce Cassidy a student who recorded everything for the ABC until he was ordered to disembark at Moree when his leave expired.

The students decided to conduct a social survey of Indigenous people along the way. The questions asked about attitudes as well as housing conditions, water, sewerage and electricity and it helped SAFA when they sought permission from the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board to enter their stations and reserves. These boards were tasked with assimilation of Aborigines into the wider community, though white townsfolk wanted to keep Aborigines out and public utilities like schools, cinemas and pools segregated. Other Aborigines lived in squalid shanty-towns or ‘yumbas’ next to the town.

nn Curthoys was one of the riders and she wrote a memoir called “Freedom Ride: A Freedom Rider remembers”. Curthoys was a left-wing student, influenced by her mother’s student activism, and she had already written on Indigenous issues. The bus planned to visit ten towns: Wellington, Gulargambone, Walgett, Moree, Boggabilla, Tabulam, Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree, a trip of 2300km. A

After an overnight stop in Orange, the students did their first survey in the shantytown at Wellington. The dusty shacks were a shock for the wealthy middle-class students. Employment was scarce and social services non-existent. Perkins went into a pub he heard discriminated against Aborigines. Bar staff were reluctant to serve him but eventually did after a conference with the manager. The bus left for Dubbo that evening with no consensus for further action in Wellington.

The first stop in the morning after was Gulargambone where whites and Aboriginal homes were separated by the Castlereagh River. Curthoys said the Gulargambone reserve was a “sobering experience” with poor housing too close to sewerage outlets and the rubbish dump. Diarrhoea, eye sores and skin sores were common. Aboriginal people said police ran the reserve and whenever there was trouble they would arrest the usual suspects before beating them up at the station. Despite the problems, the students felt Gulargambone was not the place to demonstrate.

They moved north to Walgett in Gamilaraay and Yuwaaliyaay country. Cheap Indigenous labour kept Walgett profitable but whites were alarmed at the black population moving into their town, and there was rigorous segregation. Dimly aware of the town’s history, the students settled in at the Anglican hall. They decided their target would be the RSL club, which refused to admit Indigenous people, including Aboriginal ex-servicemen.

The following morning radio reported the planned picket of the RSL at noon. The Anglican Minister was unhappy and reluctantly agreed to let them stay another night. The students drew up a banner saying “Good Enough for Tobruk. Why not Walgett?” One RSL bystander cried out “Who the hell do you think you are?” while others jeered. Perkins spoke and a public debate broke out. The picket last seven hours with a crowd of 350 people. The locals were angry at city boys with long hair and girls with short skirts telling them how to run their town. But it ended peacefully and the group returned to the hall around 9pm.

The church minister, claiming to be shocked they were a mixed sex group with alcohol, decided to fire them out. His real reason was in a letter he wrote a month later: “our dark friends are just not like Europeans” he wrote. At 10pm the students reluctantly boarded the bus and were followed out of town by 200 local black and white people. About 10km out of town a grazier’s son named Joey Marshall tried to run the bus off the road. They went back to Walgett to report the incident and confronted a mob of drunks outside the police station at midnight. With the situation turning ugly, a remarkable black woman named Pat Walford harangued the white men. “There’s a lot of white fellas that go looking for gins here at night,” she said. “It hurts you white people in Walgett to see the whites from Sydney up here and do that to  you, doesn’t it?” Walford’s threat to name the “gin jockeys” worked. The white women turned on their men and the crowd disappeared. Shaken and excited, the students moved on to Moree.

When people look back on the Freedom Ride today it is Moree they remember. Moree was in Gamilaraay country and its rich soil made it prosperous for sheep, cattle and wheat. Tourism was important and a council decree made the artesian thermal baths, adjacent swimming pool and memorial hall off-limits to “full blooded or half-caste aboriginal natives”, a decision council defended as “vital to the town’s prosperity”. The segregation spread to cafes, cinema, hotels and the hospital, and the town was known as Australia’s Little Rock, for the Arkansas symbol of small-town racism in the US.

The students arrived in Moree after a long overnighter. They met businessman and ex-councillor Bob Brown, who opposed segregation and lost office, but found most locals reluctant to talk. The Sydney media arrived to cover the confrontation when the students picketed the pool. The students were not allowed to take six Aboriginal kids inside. After a crowd gathered, the mayor and police agreed they should be let in.

There was 300 people at the public meeting that followed. The atmosphere was hostile with some shouting ‘Aborigines are dirty and lazy people’ and the students shouting back locals were ignorant and prejudiced. At the end the meeting surprisingly voted in favour of desegregating the pool though most abstained. The students left Moree but promised to return if there was any trouble.

The Sydney papers reported the students had cracked the colour bar in Moree but the local press said racial discrimination was exaggerated. The students conducted a survey in Boggabilla where they found police harassment and the need for better housing and sanitation. They went on to Warwick in Queensland to avoid a bureaucratic £250 road tax for an intra-state journey.

They were heading to Tabulam near Lismore when they heard news from Moree. The pool manager decided the ban would not be lifted on Aboriginal people for hygiene reasons. The bus returned to Moree despite the Mayor warning they would only cause harm. They gathered kids from the mission and went to the pool. Perkins sought tickets but was refused. The Mayor arrived as a hostile gathered around the students. Under orders from the Labor state government, police refused to remove the students. The abuse was turning physical with whites throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes. Police asked for the pool to be closed before the Mayor finally offered to rescind the colour bar. The delighted students agreed to leave but needed a police escort to the bus and they escaped to Inverell.

The media response was huge. Moree’s North West Champion called the students “misguided juveniles” and “troublemakers” but the Sydney press hailed Perkins as the articulate leader of the Freedom Riders. The Canberra Times said the students had made everyone think and talk about the “way we treat our Aborigines and half-castes”.

The Ride still had one week to go. They stirred more hornets’ nests in Lismore, Bowraville, Kempsey and Taree but weariness was setting in among the students.  They continued the surveys, there were pickets at segregated venues, there was rural hostility, there was urban interest in the media but nothing matched the Moree touchstone. The bus driver quit at Grafton after the Moree dangers but another was found.

Lismore was surprisingly positive. Perkins was now a celebrity and the Riders were a media event. Locals were at pains to show Lismore was not racist. Bowraville, however, was a different matter. The area was riddled with sullen discrimination and they found it a “nasty, brutal place”. The survey results were shocking and the students decided to challenge the segregation at the cinema. But when the bus arrived, the cinema owner hastily put up a sign saying “No Pictures Tonight”.

The media was again mixed with praise in Sydney and local hostility but the students felt they had failed as the segregation continued after they left. It was the same in Kempsey where they were not welcome. The Macleay Argus called them “a busload of half-baked young men and women, probably unparalleled in their own conceit and impudence”. No Aboriginal leader would meet them and the students did their surveys in the rain. The Kempsey pool also practised discrimination but when the students repeated their Moree tactic they failed and left the town. The Freedom Ride was ending in disappointment.

The last day of the Ride took them to the Aboriginal settlement at Purfleet near Taree. There they spoke with people at the reserve for a half hour and pushed on to Sydney. They expected a big media reception on their return but there was nothing. However Perkins made the front page of the SMH the following day. “This small group of students has created a new dawn of hope for my people,” he said. He was right, the reverberations of the Freedom Ride carried on through the years.

Relatives and survivors followed in their footsteps on the 50th anniversary of the Ride. It was appropriate Charles’s daughter Rachel Perkins was part of this year’s tour. Unlike in 1965, the Mayor of Moree is welcoming the new visit. The Riders tapped into deep and unspoken racism that affected not just the small towns but all of Australia. In no small way it paved the way for the success of the referendum two years later that allowed the Commonwealth to override State inaction.

Towns like Moree and Walgett didn’t change overnight but they could no longer openly flaunt racist attitudes. The Freedom Ride was a stinging challenge to Australia and bigger than those who participated in it. As Curthoys said, it stimulated a new kind of Aboriginal politics with far-reaching consequences. The Freedom Ride, she concluded, held out the promise nothing could be quite the same again.

Plenty of blame to go around with Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan

I’m sorry for the families of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan as they deal with the protracted agony of the judicial killing of their sons in Indonesia. It must be bitter to them to see their sons hang for heroin while jurisdictions across the world loosen laws on marijuana.

But that is the law of Indonesia and has not changed in recent times. It was something Sukumaran and Chan knew when they committed the crime. The other seven in the Bali Nine identified themselves as mules and Sukumaran and Chan as the ringleaders. As ringleaders they knew would likely lose their lives if they were caught. Despite the tragedy of their reform, the position they now find themselves is almost entirely their own fault.

Neither Australia nor Indonesia are coming out of their likely deaths with any degree of glory. Lee Rush, the father of one of the mules, knew the consequences of what his son Scott was about to do and warned the Australian Federal Police 10 weeks before the Nine left the country. The Bali Nine drugs were for the Australian market, so the men had no contraband on them as they left the country. An AFP suit told the media Indonesia’s death sentence was not a consideration.”You’ve got to realise this is what the AFP does,” the suit said. I wonder what Lee Rush thinks about AFP’s processes.

If this is what the AFP does, why hasn’t the Australian Government offered to change it as a way of dealing with a justice system it does not like? The lack of action undermines Julie Bishop’s call for people to boycott Indonesia (not Bali – that was the media’s addition). Indonesia is well aware of Australia’s double standards and is right to ignore it in its calculations.

But Indonesia is not spotless either. The law has been in place for decades but the execution chambers were empty for six years before new President Jokowi decided being strong on the death penalty would be popular electorally. He did not have the gravitas of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to intervene and grant clemency in the absence of sound law.

There is a political problem for Jokowi, however. The electorate that wants the foreigners hanged, wants its own people repatriated from death sentences on foreign shores. Last week the Jakarta Post said Indonesia vowed to secure the release of 229 Indonesian on death row across the world. This, only a few weeks after Indonesia hanged a Brazilian, a Malawian, a Vietnamese and a Dutch citizen as well as some of their own.

Australian communications minister Malcolm Turnbull called on Jokowi last night to show “strength” by not killing the Australians. But if he really wants to communicate he needs to acknowledge his government’s hypocrisy before pointing out others.