Words are not meanings for a tree
– Judith Wright, ‘Gum Trees Stripping' (1955)
Queensland was a great place to grow up in. There were beaches, sunshine and good times. Of course, you had to go to school to learn spelling, vulgar fractions and social studies (what is the capital of Peru?). You got the cuts if your shoes were dirty or you hadn't done your learning homework – or at least you did at the Christian Brothers' school I attended in Brisbane; but there was plenty of handball, cricket and Rugby. And the trams ran on time.
When I was six in 1957, Vince Gair's long-running Labor government divided and fell to be replaced with a Coalition government led by Sunshine Coast pineapple farmer Frank Nicklin. He seemed a nice man, and who didn't like pineapples?
For Queensland's Centenary in 1959, when I was in Grade Four, we trooped off to the Exhibition Ground to greet Princess Alexandra. She was pretty and we got a new hospital out of it.
Poetry loomed large in Grade Five when we had to recite at the school eisteddfod. In those pre-postmodern days, we had to read books not semiotics. I really liked performing ‘The Circus' by C.J. Dennis with rising pitch and volume, but my arch-rival chose Judith Wright's ‘South of My Days'. He told me it was much deeper and the judges would like that sort of thing. Our school reading book had poems from Judith Wright, Kenneth Slessor, William Shakespeare and Val Vallis. We had to learn them or get the cuts. It did us good to learn poems by heart.
In Grade Eight Brother Gagen told us about questioning the fundamentals as a result of the Vatican II Council. There was very exciting talk about this through my high school years, but Brother Charlie (‘Basher') Dillon focused more on Rugby and the cadets.
As a schoolboy I met the famous Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (then known as Kath Walker) walking home from the tram stop. I told her how much I admired her poetry. She said that she was growing dandelions in her garden. I said that was funny because on the weekends my mother got me to pull out the dandelions in our yard. I told her I was reading James Baldwin. She told me to read Malcolm X. In later years she would host wonderful campfire gatherings of those involved with the Indigenous struggle for justice at ‘Moongalba', her place on Stradbroke Island.
Nothing prepared me for 1968 and my first year at university – Vietnam, conscription, student uprisings in Paris, the New Left. At lunchtime forums, radical leaders Brian Laver and Peter Wertheim would demolish the conventional justifications for the war and lay bare the moral bankruptcy of capitalism. Dan O'Neill, a scholarly but feisty English Lit lecturer, used words like exquisitely crafted scalpels to pare off comfortable self-deception from raw young souls. As W.B. Yeats said of the Easter 1916 Dublin uprising, ‘all is changed, changed utterly. / A terrible beauty is born.'
Brisbane in the 1970s was alive with the politics of social protest and government repression – from the Springbok tour and the campaign to remove the racist Aborigines Act, to the mass arrests of the banned street marches. I was knocked unconscious by a policeman's baton in a 1974 demonstration and arrested along with hundreds of others in 1977 for ‘taking part in an unlawful procession' in alleged breach of Traffic Regulation 124(2).
Joh Bjelke-Petersen played us like a violin. We maintained our rage. He maintained power. We were so focused on the blatant civil and political outrages that we overlooked the structural dysfunctions of the Queensland economy, not to mention the police and government corruption right under our noses. This was their joke.
The Whitlam Government did its bit to override specific racist Queensland laws, but after a dozen years of community protests, I came reluctantly to the awful, ugly realisation that, in order to get rid of the Bjelke-Petersen government, we needed to seize the government benches – which meant, argghhh, joining the ALP. I know what Kevin Rudd means when he says he has no desire merely to hold the office of Prime Minister. It's about doing stuff.
In 1985 a dispute in the electricity industry led the Bjelke-Petersen government to introduce drastic emergency laws banning all demonstrations within cooee of an electricity sub-station and compelling persons under pain of criminal penalty to obey directions to carry out work. This amounted to civil conscription in breach of Australia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As the president of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, I publicly protested this human rights breach, to no avail. I spoke on platforms with trade union leaders accustomed to the industrial relations argy-bargy, who were stunned when the government tore up the rule book. The striking workers were sacked and their superannuation taken away. Hundreds were arrested during protests and the celebrated actor and playwright Errol O'Neill was arrested while declaiming a speech from King Lear.
When the Goss Labor government was elected, I had the good fortune to be swept into office as the Member for Yeronga, an inner southern suburbs Brisbane seat we all believed to be safe Liberal. We've held it ever since. The blue-collar Catholic vote that left Labor in 1957 with a distrust of communism trusted Goss's discipline and came back to the fold. The middle class also wanted to give us a chance after the corruption revealed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry. I got to chair an all-party Parliamentary Committee overseeing a commission to clean up the electoral laws as well as introduce judicial review, freedom of information and (this was particularly sweet) a Peaceful Assembly Act to enshrine a statutory right of peaceful protest. It was a golden age of reform.
December 2, 1989 marked the election of the first Queensland Labor government in thirty-two years, the anniversary of Gough's election in 1972 and the anniversary of the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz where, as Gough said, ‘a crushing defeat was administered to a coalition, another ramshackle, reactionary coalition'. It was the end of the good ol' days. It was the start of the good new days. ♦