Rebellion in The Age of The Individual
Unrestricted individualism is the law of the beast of the jungle.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Gordonvale State High School
It is hard to imagine a more enjoyable environment in which to go to school than Gordonvale State High. The school was two stories high with a large green expanse of playing fields and a picturesque golf course at the rear.
Despite the opportunities that a senior education offered, my time at Gordonvale High was characterised by mediocrity, whether in sport or academic endeavours. Much of my time was spent trying to understand the world and my place in it. Two characteristics of my life at this time were self-doubt and a rebellion against authority. My father Tom was Mayor of the Mulgrave Shire, so a very senior figure in our local community. He attended public meetings with senior business figures, Government ministers and the premier. Looking back, it is hard to say whether with my rebellious nature was against my father’s authority, or a rebellion against the political order of the day. There was plenty to rebel against politically at his time, with a conservative National Party Government calling the shots at state level.
Teenage years are a time of new experiences and a feeling of being alive to all life has to offer. At Gordonvale State High I experienced the excitement of my first love, first beer, first joint and the thrill of risk taking and breaking the rules, often behind the wheel of a car or on a motorbike. The irony of risking life when so much of it lays ahead of you was not lost on me, nor was it unique to me. I lost a number of school friends during year 12 and the next few years, primarily in motor vehicle accidents. While I valued my individuality and my right not to conform or follow orders, I could see that as a society when individuals are left to their own means for survival and advancement, the wealthy who controlled capital would always prosper, while those who had nothing but their labour, would always struggle. It was clear to me that policies whch provided a collective approach, and government provided state services to all according to their need were the solution. Unfortunately, both nationally and globally, the policy agenda was heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
The Age of The Individual
A feature of the entire decade of the 1980s was the almost complete domination of the political landscape by theories associated with neoliberalism. Neoliberal policies can best be summed up as policies that promote the notion of the individual as the main social and economic actor in society. For neoliberals the notion of community and collective action is seen as a negative, while individual choice, as the main driver within a capitalist economy, is seen as delivering superior outcomes.
If communism represented the dominance of one political extreme, neoliberalism was the other. Globally, Reagan and Thatcher were the chief proponents of these policies that would oppress vulnerable and marginalised people on welfare and favour those who had more to invest in the capitalist marketplace.
This notion of promoting individuals at the expense of community was put clearly by Thatcher who said in 1987, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves”.
During the 80s, Australia was governed by the ALP’s Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who implemented similar neo-liberal policies, albeit in a mildly gentler form. Australia saw the sale of national public assets such as Telecom and Qantas while many government agencies such as Social Security were reformed under a corporate guise, resulting in the loss of staff and many services. The language and rhetoric of the government was inclusive, yet the harsh reality was that the 1980s saw a massive increase in inequality in Australia.
The Joh Era
While Queensland would be impacted by the neo-liberal policies introduced nationally and globally, things remained different in Queensland. Life and politics in Queensland at this time cannot be seen outside the purview of the Bjelke-Petersen government. As a young man, the only Premier I knew was Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
This was a time of strong social conservatism in Queensland. Looking back, it is hard to fathom just how conservative things were. Gay relationships were illegal and many men were prosecuted in the criminal Court for having such relationships, abortion was illegal, which meant many women had to proceed with unwanted pregnancies, or risk criminal prosecution. Police powers were expanded and a major consequence of this was widespread corruption within the Queensland Police force.
Sex work and illegal gambling were widely practised. Much of the police corruption was based on income from gambling and prostitution. In return for looking the other way, police were paid handsomely by those who ran brothels and gambling dens. This form of corruption was so widespread in Queensland that police even had their own name for it, they called it, “the joke”.
The social conservatism and widespread corruption in Queensland were both at odds with my political beliefs which, to say the least, were radical for the day. I was opposed to the state government and everything it stood for. I had no respect for their authority.
When many people turned out to support protests against the all-white Springbok rugby tour in 1971, Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency, authorising the use of force against protesters. The protests saw Bjelke-Petersen proclaiming, “The day of political street march is over. Anybody who holds a street march, spontaneous or otherwise, will know they’re acting illegally. Don’t bother applying for a march permit. You won’t get one. That’s government policy now.” 
Some Queenslanders lived in blissful ignorance of the poor state of democracy, some suspected malfeasance but found it easier to look the other way, and others happily walked this path with Joh, totally endorsing what he and his police were doing.” Looking the other way became decidedly more difficult after ABC journalist Chris Masters went to air with the Four Corners episode, “The Moonlight State”, highlighting official and police corruption. This marked the beginning of the end for the man who had become known as Joh and his National Party Government.
The long reign of authoritarianism that operated under Bjelke-Petersen and also predated it, came to an end in 1989 when a Royal Commission was called into the police and official corruption in the state of Queensland. The inquiry led by Ross Fitzgerald became forever known as the Fitzgerald Inquiry.
The Special Branch
Just as the Hanlon Labor government stomped down on political protest and left-wing activists like Fred Paterson, the Bjelke-Petersen government was likewise determined to use the powers of the state to shut down dissidents and silence political opposition. The government employed the services of the Special Branch for these purposes. The Special Branch was a secretive arm of Queensland Police that operated from the 1940s to the 1980s. Early internal reports from the 1940s show the Special Branch was tasked with launching “investigations into subversive organisations and their subsidiary bodies”, and communism was a key concern.
As a young man I recall visiting my sister in Brisbane and attending a political gathering organised by the Democratic Socialist Party. All participants attending the event seemed to be taking every precaution that they had not been followed by undercover ‘Special Branch’ operatives. This was not paranoia, because at the time the Special Branch maintained files on political activists from the left, especially those who supported socialist policies and civil liberties.
Civil libertarian lawyer Terry O’Gorman recalled that the Special Branch was a “thoroughly insidious organisation” that kept files on students, some of whom had never committed any violence, hindering their prospects of obtaining public sector jobs. In an article by the Brisbane times he recalled that, “The Special Branch was used in an overt political manner by the Bjelke-Petersen government … it was used to ruin the careers of young students who did nothing worse than protest against many of the policies of the then Bjelke-Petersen government.”
While many of the paternalistic restrictions on aboriginal people had been lifted by the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen Government was very determined to keep an eye on Aboriginal activists. One of the prominent activists at this time and well-known member of the Birri Gubba people, was Sam Watson. As a socialist and an aboriginal, Sam ticked all the boxes for special attention.
Sam Watson’s lifelong activism began as a teenager organising for the 1967 referendum on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people. He was later involved in the fight to establish and maintain the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in the 1970s, and helped establish indigenous community organisations. The Special Branch¸ kept a close watch on Sam and his comrades.
In an interview, Sam recalled, “In 1970, we were running a very active anti-Vietnam campaign with regular rallies and marches and protest meetings; the Special Branch were always there in the background. They raided our place every couple of weeks.” He also recalled with humour how officers tried to infiltrate some of the leadership groups. “There were clandestine officers dressed in hippy gear”, he laughed.
However, confrontation with the police could have vicious consequences. Sam recalled the mood as protestors marched out of King George Square in Brisbane and into a bank of uniformed police, five men deep in October 1977, “There was this terrible, almost overwhelming terror that we were going to be bashed by the police, and we were. It was a very different environment, the degree of brutality and this terrible feeling of absolute fear. Everything has changed, but then nothing has changed at all.” Yet Sam never wavered from what he saw as his duty to stand up to a brutal regime.
Across a period of more than half a century, Sam Watson made a significant contribution to the advancement of the rights of Indigenous Australians and the wider cause of social justice.
Following his death in 2019, his daughter Nicole said, “Sam had two great loves in his life, his community and his family. His heart would almost burst with pride at each Invasion Day rally, as he witnessed our young people assume the reins of the glorious struggle. But Dad also cherished nothing more than spending time with his precious grandchildren.” Sam Watson is remembered as one of the great leaders of the Aboriginal movement and the wider progressive struggle.
The Public Trustee
After school I worked for periods at the National Australia Bank at Earlville and at the Queerah meatworks, but by late 1985 I managed to find my niche as a clerk at the Public Trust Office.
The old Public Trustee building was in the heart of the city at the corner of Abbott and Spence Streets, bordering on a green oasis known as Anzac Park. The building has long been demolished along with the park, to make way for the Cairns Casino. The casual pace of life inside the Public Trustee building contrasted amazingly with the busy pace of the city, although Cairns in those days was much more relaxed than the Cairns of today. Life was relaxed at the Public Trustee but it was never boring, the characters that worked there saw to that.
When I started work at the Public Trustee in 1985 there were some interesting Cairns characters working there. Allan ‘Dick’ Whittington from Edmonton was a regular at the Hambledon Hotel. Dick was a great mate over many years. We enjoyed more than a couple of beers together at the Cairns Masonic Club. which was located in Abbott Street.
There was a second-generation Greek Australian by the name of Robert Lazarus, who I came to know well. Robert was the Wills Officer and he was quite a character. A former rugby league player for Kangaroos and Cairns, he was still quick on his feet, unless it was after a two-hour lunch across the road. Known as ‘Lazzo’ he was a well-known and liked local character, having been the rugby league half back for Cairns for a number of years, in a town that for years past, had been rugby league mad.
Terry Curtin was another real local. He was a Vietnam veteran and a long-termer at the Public Trust. The thing I remember about him most was his love for his two boys. He would always be meeting them in the office to take them to swimming or to play sport of some kind. Another memory I have of Terry was that he maintained a list of every person employed by the Public Trustee of Queensland. Promotion was based on seniority or length of service. Whenever someone would pass away or retire Terry would put a line through the name and say something like, “Right I am now number 42 in charge of this show.”
The bloke in charge of the Public Trust Office was a former Catholic priest by the name of Peter Mc Eniery. He had committed the Cardinal sin (or perhaps we should call it the carnal sin) of meeting a woman who he loved and left the church to marry.
Keith McElhinney was another good bloke at the Trustee. He worked administering deceased estates and transferring assets to surviving beneficiaries under people’s will. Keith was the son of a bookie and when I knew him he was running a book like his dad.
Greg Brooker was in charge of the conveyancing section and my supervisor. Greg had saltwater in his veins and eventually resigned to take backpackers out to the reef on his boat. Looking back, Greg was a pioneer in the reef tourism industry.
Other staff included Terry Casey, Murray Saint, Graham Cann who trained greyhounds, Beavan Philips, James O’Brien, Karen Jensen, Sharon Anderson, Tasia Hodgkinson, Leanne Leary, Katrina Clarke and Janet Winkworth. I believe Winkworth Street was named after Karen’s family, a prominent local business family. They say 1 in 5 relationships start in the workplace and Janet and Beavan were the glamour couple of the time, marrying in the late 80s.
In those days the two-hour lunch across the road at one of the Barbary Coast pubs was not unheard of. Back then everyone drank, especially on every second Wednesday, which was pay day, or as Dick called it, the day the golden eagle shit. The back bar at the Cairns RSL was another regular watering hole for the crew each Friday night.
I remember one day in the 1980s walking past Bill Lee Long’s Sports Store in Lake Street during my lunch break and dropping in for a look around. There was a beautiful pump action shot gun for sale and I purchased it, thinking nothing of walking the gun back to the office and putting it on the desk. Although the stress it caused one member of staff later became a cause of some mirth. It is interesting to contrast those days to today. These days it would be a major concern and laws that have been passed would probably have the SWAT team called on me.
Eventually the old Public Trustee building in Abbott Street was knocked down to make way for the new casino, marking another step in the transition from rural community to tourist economy. The office was moved to its current location in Sheridan Street and there we saw a whole lot of new characters employed, as others left. New faces included Jodie Farrell and Lauri Bryce, my good mate Liam Nicholas. Through it all the Deputy District Trustee Bill Butler remained. He was the local stayer. Bill had safe hands and carried the institutional knowledge from years past.
Changes in Cairns
Cairns and Far North Queensland felt the local impact of the implementation of government policies, as did everywhere. There was no greater advocate of neoliberalism in Queensland then the then Member for Cairns and Queensland Treasurer, Keith De Lacy. In Cairns during this time the railway yards were sold off, becoming a private shopping mall known as Cairns Central. Anzac Park on Abbott Street was sold off to a foreign investor to be used for a casino.
The Cairns Central School site which James Pyne had donated to the community 100 years earlier was sold off and became a privately-owned hotel. While there was community objection to many of these sell-offs, which many on the left also saw as sell-outs, the greatest public protest of all came when the government sold off the Cairns Yacht Club, which had been widely used by the community for events and get togethers.
The public sector was not immune from these neoliberal reforms. At this time, I was a representative of Cairns public sector workers as a Queensland Public Sector Union (QPSU) delegate. The QPSU had a fairly conservative history. I recall at the time talking to the Deputy Public Trustee in Cairns, Bill Butler and he told me, ‘we don’t want labour to get elected, they don’t look after public sector workers.’ I remember thinking at the time “silly old Bill must not know much about politics.” Much to my delight, in 1989 the ALP Goss Government was elected in a landslide in Queensland. Unfortunately, their actions in government were to largely prove Bill and not me correct.
At the Public Trust we saw workloads increase, while staffing numbers went down. The concept of departmental seniority was ditched in favour of merit-based promotion. We were all to find out that the concept of merit, like beauty was well and truly in the eye of the beholder. Pubs were open longer, Sundays normally a day of rest, became just another shopping day, and poker machines were allowed in Queensland. Looking back, I don’t see how these neo liberal reforms of the Goss Government were in any way beneficial to working people or marginalised groups in society. The poker machines and their consequences went on to cause misery in many communities throughout the state and all but killed the live music industry.
At the end of the 80s I was promoted within the Public Trustee to the position of conveyancing officer. This involved handling the legal documentation for people who were buying and selling land. I loved conveyancing and helping people, many of whom could not afford a solicitor. Alas, Premier Wayne Goss and his Attorney General we’re both solicitors, and I believe this was one of the reasons the Public Trustee was instructed to cease offering conveyancing to the general public, leaving solicitors to provide this important service. I was outraged. I remember later resigning from the ALP and sending a letter to the State Secretary when I use the words “the ALP is dead to me”, words which would come back to haunt me at a later date.
Tied Up in Controversy
Understanding the casual relaxed atmosphere that existed in the Cairns Branch of the Public Trustee, you can imagine the great outrage it caused when we received a memorandum from the Department Head in Brisbane that we were all to wear neckties while at work! I was not happy, but it was probably not a clever move to agree to an interview when I was contacted by local journo Robert Reid who freelanced for that old Aussie icon ‘The Australasian Post’.
Robert was much more used to doing interviews than I was to being interviewed and like the old hand that he was, he proceeded to buy me a beer at Rusty’s pub to make sure I was relaxed enough to mention that the bureaucrats in Brisbane have nothing better to do than come up with ridiculous rules like this. After another beer, a reference to senior staff in Brisbane as ‘pencil necked bureaucrats without balls’ just slipped out. Everyone thought it was hilarious when the next edition of the Australasian Post came out, but in truth I was lucky to keep my job.
Publicly this ‘storm in a teacup’ grew legs, and on the first day of 1990 at around 8am I received a phone call from the former Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett. He had been replaced as Victorian Premier and was doing an early morning radio gig. As I waited on hold on this 1st day of January 1990, I heard him say to listeners, “we are now going to interview a man from North Queensland about the biggest social political and economic issue of this decade!” (which was less than 8 hours old). Apart from his smart-arse intro, the interview went well.
This issue received massive media coverage, much of it light-hearted, but I really felt that Cairns needed an image which offered a point of difference, not to be just like everywhere else – besides, it gets hot up here!
A Far Northern Tragedy
One afternoon in 1990 I saw my mother sitting beside the phone in her living room with a concerned look on her face. She had been watching television and a message had flashed across the screen that a plane carrying Far North Queensland local government officials was missing en route from Airlie Beach to Cairns.
Dad was away doing a presentation on local government management with Cairns Mayor Keith Goodwin at a conference in Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays, so naturally we were concerned. In those days many of the councils in North Qld used to hire private charter planes to take councillors to meetings in areas where there were no regular air services.
No sooner had mum informed me of the news than the phone rang. It was media, asking mum if she had heard from Tom. We both decided to stay by the phone with the television on, to find out whatever news we could, good or bad. We feared the worst.
It emerged that earlier in the day Keith Goodwin and dad had made their presentations. Dad tried to get on the Cessna plane bound for Cairns, but all the seats were taken. He stood envious of Keith and his other colleagues, as he waved them goodbye and made his way to get on a bus thinking, “I’d rather be with them than endure the long drive back to Cairns.” He could not have known that while bus would safely make it to its destination, the Cessna never would.
On that day in May of 1990 the Cessna crashed into Mt Emerald and all aboard lost their lives. They were Keith Goodwin, Rose Blank, Ivan Wilkinson, Harry Rankine, Elwyn Phillips, Bruno Riedweg, Hector Wallace, Sister Nadia Giovanna del Popolo, Joesph Frederick Newman, Graham Gilbert Luxton and pilot Stan Lingren. This tragedy shook the community and robbed the Far North of some of our much loved and most respected leaders.
One Bourbon One Scotch and One Beer
The famous American blues singer George Thorogood had a hit song in my youth called, ‘One Bourbon One Scotch and One Beer’. I was sitting at the bar in the Grafton Hotel one Friday night, reciting this song and singing the verse to the barmaid. She replied, “Do you want anything with the Bourbon and Scotch”, no I replied, and she promptly served me the three drinks I had ordered. Those drinks disappeared into my mouth quicker than you could say George Thorogood. I returned to singing and the same thing happened about 4 or 5 times. I do not know if we had responsible service of alcohol laws back then, but I do recall having some words with the manager on my way out, after she had endured enough of me.
I decided it was time for a big night on the town, so I jumped into my ageing Toyota Celica. Driving into the city I saw a couple of parked cars on the side of the highway. Out of curiosity I turned my vehicle in that direction to shine my lights and see whoever it was. It would be an understatement to say I was surprised when a rather over weight police constable jumped out onto the road and tried to wave me down. It was a stupid thing to do, as I was travelling at around 100km/hr. I managed to swerve back into my lane and miss our brave custodian of justice (but not by much).
As I passed the scene, I turned my head to see our hero quickly making haste to the driver’s seat of his police Commodore. Realising that my 1974 clapped out Toyota Celica offered little chance for a quick getaway, I decided that it might be a bit harder for the policeman to chase me if he couldn’t see me, so I took the ridiculous option of turning off my lights, (that is the sort of decision a drunk person makes). I saw a road to my right and quickly got off the highway. In my drunken stupor, I managed to slide off the bitumen onto a gravel road. I just regained control of the car when I realised the road had turned another corner. Unfortunately, I realised this too late. It’s hard to notice these things with your lights turned off (duh!). I then skidded on wet grass for about twenty meters before crossing a shallow drain and hitting into a dirt embankment with one hell of a thud.
I quickly opened the door and took my seatbelt off, unsure how much time I had before our hero had picked up my trail. I could see some scrub about thirty meters away, however I realised that in my state, I would struggle to cover that distance very quickly. Then I had a brain wave. “These guys are going to think I’ve done a runner anyway, so why not just stay put?” I made sure the door was completely open then I rolled onto the ground and slid under the chasse of my twisted old car. The Celica was now a couple feet shorter, but it was still good for something. It was no trojan horse, but I figured most Queensland police officers were not that clever anyway.
Our hero arrived without delay, screeching to a halt in his new beaut late model Holden Commodore police car, about two meters from where I lay. He shouted to his partner “Quick he’s gone into the bush, call for back up”. Within minutes another police car had arrived and two more of Queensland’s finest has made the thirty-yard dash which I had thought better of. I must confess to feeling extremely clever and remember thinking, even if they do work it out where I am, by the time they find me, I will be sober anyway. Then our hero returned to some of his fellow law enforcers and I heard him say “I’ve had enough of this, let’s call for the tracker dogs”. I lay there for another twenty minutes, feeling like an uninvited guest at the annual policeman’s ball.
Before long a police van pulled up and I heard several dogs being let out. I thought the game was up, but to my astonishment the officer in charge of the tracker dogs brought the lead dog over to the car and escorted him into the driver’s seat and said, “pick up the scent boy, and we’ll track this clown”. With that our brilliant blood hound jumped into the driver’s seat took a sniff, jumped out of the car then ran off into the bush. If that wasn’t remarkable enough, the other three dogs did the same thing. Must have been a good half hour that I lay there I would have made a run for it except two officers had stayed at the car. So I lay there for what seemed an eternity when I heard Queensland’s finest returning with their four-legged friends. One of them commented, “it’s got me buggered where he’s got to, he just vanished”. I was feeling optimistic at this stage when I heard a female voice say, “hey who’s that under the car”. A journalist from the Cairns Post who was with the police to do a story on the dogs had spotted me under the car.
Without delay I was violently dragged from underneath my trojan horse by two burly boys in blue. As I got to my feet, I recognised my pursuer from our previous encounter near the road. As he pushed my face into the car and attached a pair of handcuffs behind my back, I was feeling pretty pissed off and said, “anyhow, did you enjoy your bush walk?”, before I burst out laughing. With that I was promptly pushed to the ground and felt a very heavy knee in the middle of my back. While it was the female journo who found me, I was lucky she was there, as if she had not been, I would have copped one hell of a flogging! Needless to say, I spent the night in the watch-house.
There is no way to defend being a dickhead that night and I would not even try. That said, what happened the following week was concerning. At work I received a call from the Cairns Police and they asked me to come down to the station for an interview. I said okay, but something was nagging at me. I called a family friend and Cairns Solicitor Mal Cleland and he said to me, “you’re not going anywhere!” The matter never went any further.
Apparently, the police intention was to make out that I had driven at the police officer (which was not true). The reason this matter stays with me is because I often wonder, “How many people would have been charged and even gone to prison back then, because they just did what the police told them?”
Decades later in politics I saw many politicians who look down on others and condemn young people in trouble. I have never acted in this holier-than-thou manner and have always been quick to think, ‘There but for the grace of God went I.”
Rebellion and Settling Down
Growing up I had the knowledge and empathy to see how hard life was for many individuals and groups in society. Yet my difficulty with the authorities was a result of a rebellion that lacked any real direction. One of my favourite movies was ‘Cool Hand Luke’ where Paul Newman took on violent prison guards with a determination that could only end in his own demise. Unlike Sam Watson, my rebellion lacked focus and was not directed at the roots of the oppression that existed in Joh’s Queensland. However, by the turn of the decade, at least my personal life was becoming less turbulent.
In 1991, I was invited to a 21st birthday party. At the party I saw a young girl with brown hair. Little did I know she would be my future life partner. Jenny loved music and was running the sound machine. When I was attempting to spin her a line, one of my work colleagues pretended to be married to me to try and put her off. Jenny later confessed she never thought she would see me again. To her surprise the next day I had flowers delivered to her workplace at Australia Post and we have been together ever since.
If I think about how people around the planet lived, my life was a fortunate one. I had a good job, housing, health and meaningful relationships. While I had empathy and an understanding of class struggle, I had never been a member of an oppressed minority. I had never experienced disadvantage and systemic discrimination. Little to my knowledge, all of this was about to change.
 Interview for “Woman’s Own” magazine, 23 Sep 1987.
 ‘Nothing has changed’: why Queensland’s protest battle has raised Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ghost, Ben Smee, 1 Sep 2019.
 ‘Nothing has changed’: why Queensland’s protest battle has raised Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ghost, Ben Smee, 1 Sep 2019.
 Queensland’s Special Bureau, as it was then called, began work in Brisbane in July 1940.
 Inside Queensland’s spy unit, Daniel Hurst, 7 April 2010.
 ‘Nothing has changed’: why Queensland’s protest battle has raised Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ghost, Ben Smee, 1 Sep 2019.
 Aboriginal leader Sam Watson’s farewell draws big numbers, Jim McIlroy, Green Left, 11Dec 2019.