Tagged: Matt Condon

By Joh, it could be Trump!

For Queenslanders of a certain age, there is so much about the rise of Donald Trump that seems eerily familiar. For 19 years, his prehistoric ancestor ruled the swamps of Australia’s deep north – a hillbilly dictator who beat up protesters and confounded the media with complete gibberish while a dark web of corruption flourished behind him. Thankfully, Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn’t have the codes, or a Twitter account.

At the time, the sheer lunacy of Bjelke-Petersen seemed beyond the reach of satirists, despite there being numerous comedic imitators of Joh’s folksy, stammering idiosyncrasies. These days, it’s getting harder to convince people who weren’t there that certain things actually happened, such as police being sent to university campuses on pre-dawn raids to rip condom-vending machines from toilet walls in 1987.

When he was eventually rolled by his own party, Joh locked himself in his parliamentary annex for days, phoning Buckingham Palace seeking Her Majesty’s intervention. If that’s not enough, imagine the corpulent figure of Russ Hinze – the minister for everything – bent at the waist, peering through the keyhole with tears streaming down his cheeks, beseeching his master: “Joh! Maaaate! It’s over!”

For many of those who lived through it, though, Bjelke-Petersen’s iron-fisted rule was no laughing matter. Apologists for his regime occasionally wave away the vast and vicious corruption uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ignominiously ended his career as a victimless crime. Those people need to read Matt Condon’s extraordinary Three Crooked Kings trilogy and count the bodies.

The truly nasty, brutish side of Joh’s regime is mostly sidestepped in Joh For PM (yes, that really happened too), a musical comedy by playwright Stephen Carleton and composer Paul Hodge. What’s striking about it, 30 years after his downfall, is how prescient it is, as though this utterly reactionary figure was some kind of seer. References and parallels to the present day are deliberate, frequent and often uncanny.

Southern journalists, for example, are described thus: “They come up here and write fake news. We need someone to build a wall between us and them!” There’s also his press secretary Allen Callaghan (a show-stealing turn by Kurt Phelan), who describes himself to his boss as “Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle”. Callaghan teaches him to “feed the chooks”, telling him “It’s good TV to try to keep them confused.”

It’s as if the satire has somehow had time to catch up. Some of these songs seem to have written themselves – The White Shoe Shuffle, for example, which skewers the so-called white shoe brigade of Gold Coast developers, and which cleverly riffs on the jitterbug of Wham!’s contemporary hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Don’t You Worry About That, similarly, nods to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

It’s campy, glorious fun, and if it has a weakness, it makes Joh, who’s well played by Colin Lane, look dumber than he was. As one song points out, much of his rise, from local member to minister to deputy to premier – thanks to his predecessor Jack Pizzey dropping dead of a heart attack – seemed accidental, if not divine intervention. But you don’t stay premier for 19 years without ruthlessness and rat cunning.

Joh had both in spades. Like Trump, it’s easy to make him look like a bumptious fool, but it’s perfectly possible to be a bumptious fool and a dangerous megalomaniac at the same time. To suggest that Joh was largely directed by those around him – his wife Flo (Barb Lowing, whose song Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy is a highlight); Callaghan; his pilot Beryl – is a mistake.

But Joh For PM also gets one thing right: his progeny are all around us. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter (who described the aforementioned condom-vending machines as “despicable things that would do nothing to help prevent the spread of AIDS, but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon”), Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, and even Kevin Rudd have all taken a lead from Joh’s dinosaur footprints.

The show was greeted with a standing ovation at The Powerhouse. Among them was Mike Ahern, who briefly replaced Bjelke-Petersen as National Party premier and whom Queenslanders can thank, along with the late police minister Bill Gunn, for having the political and moral courage to institute the Fitzgerald Inquiry that resulted in their party being cast into the wilderness for decades.

Famously, Ahern promised to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”. He didn’t survive long enough as premier to fulfil his pledge, and is an almost forgotten figure today. Described as a “sneaky Roman Catholic” by his devout Lutheran adversary – a line that had him visibly shaking with laughter – he had every right to feel vindicated, both by history and by this highly enjoyable play.

First published in The Guardian, 8 July 2017

Police IQ shocker in Pig City

In episode three of the classic British comedy The Young Ones, there’s a scene where one cop tells another he’s had a “heavy bust up this morning with m’lady” because he insulted the Pope. “That’s a bit stupid, you know she’s Catholic,” the other says. “Yeah, I know she’s Catholic. I didn’t know the Pope was,” comes the reply. The scene then cuts away to a photograph of the pair above a Guardian headline: “Police IQ Shocker”.

But in an age where real life is becoming impossible to satirise, you couldn’t have made the following confrontation from last weekend up. A Queensland cop who identifies himself as senior constable Richard Power approaches a man minding his own business in a car park outside a hardware store. The man, who is suffering from a heavy cold, just happens to be the local police reporter for the ABC, Josh Bavas.

“Mate, the fact that you’ve got pinpoint eyes and you’re looking directly into the sun and they’re not dilating due to the sunlight, I believe you to be under the influence of a dangerous drug,” he says, before detaining him. When Bavas protests, the officer’s colleague replies “Oh fucking mate, if we hadn’t have hung onto you mate, you’d float off into fucking outer space.”

Bavas records and posts the exchange on Twitter, where it immediately goes viral – #dickpower trending nationally – and makes headlines. He is soon released without charge and goes back to building a retaining wall at home. The Queensland Police Service says it is investigating the behaviour of the officers concerned. Bavas then deletes the footage (you can still see it here) and declines to pursue the matter.

That is a matter for him. But there are a number of points to be made here, beyond jokes and stereotypes about Queensland police, about whom many songs have been written, a legacy of the vicious corruption that hung over the Bjelke-Petersen years (for more on that, read Matt Condon’s breathtakingly detailed Three Crooked Kings trilogy, and watch the bodies pile up over three decades).

The first reaction, beyond the “IQ shocker” of a narc who believes pupils should dilate when looking at the sun, is fascination at what happens when the surveillance state is turned upon itself. When the second officer swears, Power reminds him he is being recorded – not only by Bavas but Power, too, who has a camera planted on his uniform. We hear a grunted apology.

The lesson here is a reminder of your legal right to record any untoward interaction you may have with law enforcement. It’s not often we see such naked police hostility, and ineptitude, itself being policed by someone with the presence of mind to record, challenge and disseminate it, let alone by someone who reports on police and court proceedings for a living.

The second reaction is more troubling, and has been pointed out by the ABC’s Mark Colvin. It’s not that the wallopers picked on the “wrong guy” – a white police journalist who knows his rights. How does any member of the force think it’s appropriate to behave in such a contemptuous manner towards any member of the public?

To detain Bavas, the police needed a “reasonable suspicion” that Bavas had committed a crime, or was about to. Reasonable suspicions can be difficult to define, but it’s doubtful presuming a man to be “pinned” because his pupils failed to dilate in direct sunlight would impress any magistrate.

What has been said of the situation’s broader context only makes it worse. Allegations have been made that the officers’ suspicions were aroused because Bavas was seated close to a group of young Indigenous people. Power apparently asked Bavas if he was with them, before turning his attention to the youths and questioning whether the car they were travelling in was stolen.

Two dumb officers, or a wider problem? The “bad apples” theory is unlikely to fly with the Indigenous community, for whom such low-level harassment is a disproportionately high reality. Twenty-five years after the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the risk of Indigenous Australians being imprisoned remains 13 times higher than for the general population.

Of course, that is a national problem, not limited to Queensland. In the wake of the announcement of another royal commission into the abuse of youths at Don Dale Detention Centre in Darwin – which had been reported on for years before the image of Dylan Voller in a spit hood sparked national revulsion – there have been many calls for its remit to be widened beyond the Northern Territory’s borders.

The QPS has looked into its own culture in a series of reviews in the last 12 months after widespread allegations of excessive force, bullying and inappropriate behaviour centred on the Gold Coast, unfortunately bucking an overall statewide reduction in complaints. Another review looked at how to de-escalate violent confrontations, following a series of fatal police shootings between 2013 and 2014.

What happened to Bavas by contrast was petty, even ridiculous, and made the officers concerned look like fools. Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk expressed her concerns and reminded the force of its obligation to treat all members of the public with respect, before acknowledging that officers had a difficult job to do – sentiments quickly echoed by Bavas.

No one doubts policing is a tough gig. But in a culture where “tough on crime” talkback rhetoric rules, civil liberties have been steadily eroded, surveillance is endorsed by both major parties as the price we pay for security, and racial profiling is officially frowned upon but unofficially viewed as cautionary, the security apparatus of the state can only be emboldened.

What happened at Don Dale shows where that can end. What happened to Josh Bavas gives the rest of us a glimpse into where it begins.

First published in The Guardian, 16 August 2016

Brisbane will go on without you, Bridie

It was Tex Perkins who put it best – and most bluntly. “Brisbane you have to leave,” the singer known to his mum as Greg told the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. “You come out of your mother, you go to school, and then you think, oh shit – what am I doing here?” That was 20 years ago.

Young people have been leaving Brisbane for as long as they’ve been coming out of their mothers, to use Tex’s ever so delicate vernacular. It was almost compulsory during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years – a musician friend of mine remembers the police telling him, point blank, that people like him weren’t welcome in Queensland.

That sort of harassment goes back a long way. Matt Condon’s book Three Crooked Kings, which describes how corruption was allowed to take root in pre-Fitzgerald Queensland, remembers how police commissioner Frank Bischof used to hand out starched and collared shirts and ties to the local bodgies and widgies in the 1950s.

Now, apparently, the writers, musicians and (gasp) hospitality workers are all leaving again, according to the recently decamped Bridie Jabour. I can’t blame her: after all, I too left Brisbane for Sydney when I was 25. I used to walk to work from Paddington to William Street thinking I’d made it. That was my first mistake.

It wasn’t until I accepted a $30,000 salary to be a staff writer on a well-regarded national publication, commuting a couple of hours a day from Bondi to the North Shore for the privilege, that my tempestuous love affair with the Emerald City turned toxic. I’d had her, she’d had me, and I returned to Brisbane, my tail between my legs.

It was a city in the middle of a metamorphosis. And at this point I should point out that I wasn’t originally a Brisbane native: I’d moved up from Melbourne with my parents as a teenager in 1987, the year of Joh for PM; The Moonlight State (as exposed by Four Corners) and the Fitzgerald Inquiry that tore the whole rotten system down.

It’s fair to say that moving from Melbourne to Pig City back then was more like being beamed down onto another planet. At the time, the local wallopers were busy ripping condom vending machines from the walls of university campuses on Bjelke-Petersen’s orders.

The premier had an ally in Bob Katter, then the state minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Condoms, Katter thundered, were despicable things that would do nothing to prevent the spread of AIDS but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon. Yes. He really said that.

I had been humbled by my Sydney experience and needed a reason to be back in Brisbane, so I decided to write a book about my adopted home town and its music scene – the same one depleted years earlier by harassment at the hands of Joh’s shock troopers; the same one that had, incredibly, given us the Saints and the Go-Betweens.

By the time of my return in 2000, Powderfinger was the biggest band in the country; Regurgitator (whose singer I’d been to school with) were local legends and Savage Garden – remember them? – had just sold 20 million records in America. From the Saints to Savage Garden: it sort of had a ring to it. How on earth did that happen?

It sure wasn’t by leaving for Sydney: if Bridie wants to find a local scene there, she’s going to have to dig way underground, into the city’s warehouses and house parties, especially now the Annandale Hotel has closed its doors. Once, Sydney was one of the world’s great music cities – in the decade between 1977 to 1987. Not any more.

Sure, others including writers, hospitality workers and maybe even a few tradies, as well as professionals, have moved – to Melbourne. But more have returned, or simply decided to stay, seeing not a responsibility to “take out the trash”, but the opportunities afforded by a growing city.

As a journalist who’s been there, I sympathise with Jabour’s need to leave a medium-sized town in search of new career challenges. But she seems stuck in the “slatternly, ugly” view of Brisbane so poetically described by David Malouf in Johnno. That was in 1975, and he was talking about Brisbane in the decades-past tense even then.

It’s simply not true to say that all the young artists are leaving anyway, as Jabour claims, citing as evidence an ABC story that, in fact, reports the exact opposite. Even if it was, the assumption that only people in their 20s can contribute to a city’s creative life is especially grating.

The truth is that lots of people have used Brisbane as a “professional stepping stone” before Bridie, and plenty more will in the future. The ones who choose to stay, or return, have taken the time to explore the river, and its mangrove-lined creeks and tributaries. They’re teeming with life – if only you have an idea where to look.