Nostalgia and loathing in Western Australia
the Operation Gareth debacle I had trouble getting back to what passes
for normal life for a marsupial private eye. I had seen too many dead
bodies in Indonesia, and too much poverty, distress and demagoguery.
I moped around in the café till Joadja banished me. She said
I was starting to scare the customers.
I moped around the office instead. Nobody called, nobody came in, nothing
happened, and nobody seemed to care if I went brain-dead or moved to
was almost a relief when a letter arrived from a firm of Perth solicitors.
They asked whether I would fly over to take charge of some effects of
my missing business partner, Bruce Possum. I caught the next available
had hoped the stuff might give me some clues about Bruce's disappearance
a decade ago. There wasn't much: his chrome-plated .44 Magnum; documents
showing unsecured loans totalling seven million dollars from Laurie
Connell; a small collection of original Van Goghs; an undated note on
the letterhead of the Observation City hotel, signed 'Alan', which just
read "Thanks for everything Bruce"; and a box of files which
would take me some time to analyse.
high and wild Perth that Bruce knew, the Perth of WA Inc., the Perth
that brought Bruce undone, was long gone. Laurie Connell and Robert
Holmes a'Court were dead. Alan Bond was pursuing his art career in gaol,
where the prison authorities had recently given him his own studio.
The former Labor Premier, Brian Burke, was out of gaol and living quietly
next door to his mum in downmarket Balga. Yossie Goldberg was said to
be somewhere in Spain or maybe Canada.
is a surprising and civilised place. In some ways it's like Melbourne,
but with a relentless air of glamour and prosperity. According to CSIRO
research it now has the world's biggest café culture. All over
the city there are magnificently appointed cafés, restaurants
and pubs which stay open long into the hot dry summer nights.
in WA moves to its own peculiar rhythms, not unlike, perhaps, those
of Victoria. Labor Governments come in, get cold-shouldered by the Old
Established Money and cuddle up to the New, Fast, Shonky Money. This
brings them undone and ushers in a decade or two of Liberal rule.
when I read the papers I was astounded by the disaffection between the
ruling Liberal Government of Richard Court and Perth's sole daily paper,
the West Australian, which is a sort of cross between the
Manly Daily and an intelligent version of the Telegraph.
Bob Carr's spindoctors would give it all away, and try to swing jobs
with the Sutherland Shire Leader if Bob got flogged every day
in the Herald and the Tele the way Richard Court gets flogged in the
seemed to be working for Richard. His personal plan to install the historic
bells from London's Church of St Martin's in the Fields in a futuristic
glass and steel tower on the freeway-lined forshores of the Swan River
had outraged nearly everybody. Then there was his plan to supplement
the gaols by housing prisoners in old shipping containers (Bob Carr
must be whipping himself for not having thought of that before he announced
the reopening of Parramatta gaol). Maybe it was the Perth heat wave,
but that particular appeal to the flog-'em-and-hang-'em vote wasn't
doing the popularity trick either.
most of all Court was being flogged about his forest policy.
Australia's forests are a wonderful and precious resource. Real forests
exist only in the small south-west corner of the state, and there, forest
campaigners were blockading a block of old-growth jarrah, south of Manjimup
on the main highway. The blockade had forced the issue to the surface
and the West was outraging the government and the industry with headlines
like 'Greenies and Greedies take off the gloves' and a full page advertisement
paid for by 58 doctors complaining that current logging practices were
unsustainable, unscientific, wasteful, and caused widespread unemployment.
like 87 per cent of West Australians oppose clearfelling in old growth
forests and a report by the Environment Protection Authority had found
that the industry-oriented Department of Conservation and Land Management
hadn't complied with 25 out of 37 ministerial conditions laid down in
the existing forest management plan. The rapacious Wesfarmers and Bunnings
corporations were looting the forests and nobody could understand a
word the environment minister said.
unkindest cut of all was a debate in the West which pitted the former
right-wing Liberal Party powerbroker Senator Noel Crichton-Browne against
federal forests minister Wilson "Ironbar" Tuckey.
his expulsion from the Liberal Party, 'NC-B' had seen the Green light
on the road to Damascus -- or at least the Wattle Forest. The forest
ferals were right he said, and he praised Jack Mundey's Sydney green
bans and the campaigns against whaling.
was a shocking thing. It disoriented hardened political professionals
and galvanised Court's spindoctors into frenzied damage control.
it made no sense to me, so I rang my old friend Alphonse, a veteran
observer of the WA political scene and sometime shrewd political advisor
to the WA Greens.
don't we meet down in Freo? They're parading the Duyfken down
the coffee-strip this morning", he said.
the what?" I asked, intrigued.
Duyfken. It means 'Little Dove'. It's the world's most authentic
replica of an early 17th century Dutch warship. They've been building
it in the forecourt of the Maritime Museum for months".
sounded fascinating. I have long admired the Maritime Museum which has
the world's finest collection of precisely dated 17th century Dutch
artifacts, so I caught the next train down to Fremantle, which is Perth's
port and the nearest thing to a medieval town centre you can find in
was 11 a.m. as the train rolled past North Freo. The police were setting
up a random breath-testing blitz on the nearby highway. Soon the radio
stations would start broadcasting official police announcements about
the location of the RBT. Many things in WA are difficult to explain.
met Alphonse at the Sandrino Café. The streets were already packed
with expectant sightseers.
are you sure this isn't just sour grapes from NC-B?", I asked,
"I mean, before they kicked him out of the Liberals he had the
reputation of being the meanest, hardest, right-wingest political head
kicker and number cruncher outside of the NSW ALP.
fact is, there's incredible public disaffection over the Court Government's
forest policy" Alphonse said, "Nobody really believes they're
logging the forests sustainably and people are just horrified that Jarrah
is being clearfelled for paper. It's such a fabulous timber, they should
only be be using it for construction and furniture. Noel's probably
as horrified as anybody."
what about that stuff he said to that woman, the journalist?"
was all a terrible injustice, Noel was misquoted", Alfonse said.
"He didn't say 'How would you like me to screw your tits off',
he said 'Howard'll screw me but I'll give you a tip-off'. He was about
to warn her the little bastard was plotting to give Wilson Tuckey the
forests portfolio if he won the election, but he was miss-heard".
what next for NC-B?" I asked.
I'm not sure if my colleagues will go for it" Alphonse said, sipping
his latte, "But I've worked out a strategy for recruiting Noel
to the Greens. I reckon we need a mean political animal like him to
run the party machine".
not? I thought. It would take Noel a while to get his head around the
ideology, but maybe -- post Cheryl Kernot -- political cross-pollination
was the wave of the future.
then there was the sound of drums and the Duyfken, three storeys
tall on the back of a low-loader, was edged slowly down Market Street
into South Terrace. The Little Dove was only a small armed scout ship
-- just a frigate in today's terms -- but it loomed large above the
crowd in the narrow street.
this snap of the Duyfken as it was towed round the corner from Market
Street into South Terrace (that's Alphonse in the checked shirt).
funny how things work out. The Dutch weren't impressed by the west coast
of Australia. Yet here we were, four centuries after the original Duyfken
slipped into the water in the Netherlands, celebrating the re-creation
of a ship which took part in the colonial conquest of what's now Indonesia
and made the first authenticated European landfall on the Australian
coast, on Cape York, in 1606.
challenges the anglo-centric slant on Australian history that's so prevalent
on the East coast. In the sixteenth and early seventeeth centuries,
when the Dutch started coming to the Spice Island to challenge Spanish
and Portuguese trading supremacy, one reached Indonesia by heading roughly
East from Cape Town. The general idea was to hit the WA coast -- hopefully
not at night -- and turn left for Batavia.
the Dutch occasionally landed in WA they found dry, infertile heath
or scrubby waterless bushland. Here they found no mace, nutmeg or cloves;
no fabulous cloths, exotic artifacts or exploitable populations, so
they made a note of what they saw and moved on.
unlucky Dutch ships literally hit the coastal reefs and went to the
bottom. They became time capsules containing fabulous collections of
coins, weapons, cargoes and artefacts of everyday life ... and ultimately
made the Freo Maritime Museum into one of the world's great centres
of maritime archaeology.
Duyfken slipped slowly past us and turned into South Terrace,
proceded by clowns and excited schoolkids carrying cardboard sardines
on poles. It came to a halt in front of the celebrated Old Papa's Café
for a little ceremony. There was a gamelan orchestra and a stand-up
comedian who told authentically corny 17th century jokes. The only politician
was the Mayor of Fremantle, and nobody very important spoke, which was
refreshing, and a great relief to everybody. It was the shipwrights'
day, and everyone agreed they had done very well.
flew back to Sydney on Saturday. Perth was being lashed by unseasonal
thunderstorms and we came up to cruising altitude through a dramatic
woman in the seat next to me turned out to be from the Gay & Lesbian
Mardi Gras. The parade had been ambling on on its merits for too long
-- they were looking for a new focus and a no-nonsense back-room organiser
with a solid business background, she said.
not ring Noel Crichton-Browne?", I suggested. "I understand
he's at a loose end at the moment. If you call first thing on Monday,
you might get in ahead of the Greens".
*With apologies to Raymond Chandler.