Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Memoir - Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia

At the moment the memoir consists of a series of leaves or postcards that slip between time periods without following a chronology or trying to tell a structured story.
 Appreciate feedback, reactions and suggestions.
Cover art: with kind permission of Rachel-Ireland-Meyers (see
 Blue Echo

 The Memoir - a work in progress

Background see Working on a Memoir
Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia
Leaves 7-9 Hooning, Teaching & Presenting
Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career
Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken

Leaf 2 “Returning to Erin” Ireland April 1999

I stood at the podium in St Patrick’s Hall deep inside Dublin Castle. Towering gilt covered columns and large mirrors lined the walls. Thin, long banners floated down the walls in between the mirrors and columns.  Many of the banners bore cattle motifs belonging to the Anglo-Irish nobility who gathered here century after century at the beck and call of their English monarchs. Above me, three massive painted panels by Vincenzo Valdre covered high and sweeping ceilings. The first depicted the coronation of King George III, the second, Saint Patrick introducing Christianity to Ireland, and the final painting was of King Henry II receiving the submission of the Irish Chieftains. This hall had, for centuries, sent a sharp message to the Irish, from nobility to peasant, about power and dominion.

The Irish Government/University of Cork sponsored FOI Conference was a rare opportunity for a junior lecturer to speak at such a venue in another country. I faced a sea of Irish faces, many bearing a striking resemblance to those I saw every day in Tasmania, including my cousins on the Cody and Gleeson sides of the family. I was extremely nervous despite repeated rehearsals in the morning shower, I had not yet found the right opening. Finding the start of a talk or lecture is always the difficult moment for me. 

If I can get an interesting opening or one that I can use as a hook, the rest of the talk flows naturally. Yet until I see the venue, and get a feel for the audience and the atmosphere, it is hard to crystallise the opening. Looking out on the assembled Irish public servants, journalists and academics, finally inspiration came to me as I waited on stage to be introduced.  I found the ‘hook’:  a link between my theme of government transparency, the history made within the confines of Dublin Castle  and  my mother’s ancestors being transported from Ireland in the 1840s. My talk had found its beginning:
“I find it strange to be standing here today- at the heart of colonial British administration from the place where my ancestors, male and female in chains, were transported as criminals to the other end of the world – talking about access to government information. I’m the first of their descendants to return to this country and after three months of living with ‘soft days’ I know why my ancestors never returned home.” 

Over the next 12 months I revisited parts of my Irish ancestors’ long, slow route to Australia. I gave invited talks in Cape Town, where their leaky old transport ships would have rested at anchor, and later at the Rocks in Sydney where they were likely to have berthed before being consigned like trade goods or human cattle to Van Diemen’s Land. In all three places my talks were given in the converted buildings of the British colonial regime – in Dublin Castle, a converted prison in Cape Town and the old government buildings in Sydney.

The invitation to Dublin was achieved through networking, a skill few academics or public servants seem to master despite the fortune spent on business cards and the piles of cards collected and distributed at conferences.  An email from people given one of my cards is rare. On the other hand within a week of returning from a trip, I’ve emailed everyone whose details I collected. If no reply is forthcoming, they are allowed to drift out of my networks. If someone replies, they go into one of my contact lists (administrative law teachers, FOI contacts, personal, by location or some other category). Only 5% of those I contact ever keep in touch. Yet in 20 years, this 5% has turned into a significant network. Networks are like gardens requiring regular attention where seeds germinate, bloom and often fade away over time.

 In early December 1998, I received an email from Maeve McDonagh, a striking red-haired academic from University College Cork. Maeve was an Irish expert on FOI who had worked in Australia. We met via the FoI Review, a publication I edited for a decade, and Maeve had visited Tasmania a few years previously for a seminar and stayed with my family. She had arrived in late November (late Spring) only to encounter snow falling on the mountain where we live. Maeve is one of those vibrant Galway women with a lilting voice and flashing eyes which give enough warning signs to know you would want to avoid her ire.  Maeve’s email  asked if I could help Cork Law School with a problem. Each year in January they invited a US academic to Ireland who would teach a legal writing class in return for an airfare and a small stipend. All that was required was a few hours of lectures, some one-on-one feedback with a hundred or more Irish, Spanish and German students over a four month period and marking two sets of essays. An American legal writing teacher (a position yet to gain a significant foothold in Australia) had cancelled at the very last moment and they needed someone within three weeks.

Frantic consultations with family, the Dean of the Law School and the deployment of my annual and long service leave found me committed to living for four months in Ireland whilst my family remained in Tasmania.  My return to ‘home soil’ after a 40 hour journey was almost thwarted as the Garda (Police) insisted on a work permit and seemed unmoved by my explanations that the people at Cork Law School had said it would be okay to complete the details (which only they had) on the form after arriving, an arrangement not cleared with the authorities.  It was Cork, late Saturday night and I was an Australian, so I was allowed in with a passport stamp saying  “report to the nearest Garda Station in 10 days,” a deadline my Irish colleagues kept insisting could blissfully be ignored. Meanwhile, on the same night in Dublin, a Japanese student with a fully completed permit, but in their luggage, was refused entry and held in custody for four days. Maybe a few ancestral spirits had removed the ‘barriers’ for my return ‘home’.

Leaf 3 “Words and Pictures” Elphin Road Launceston 1965 or early 1966

Two memories battle for a precise location in my early history. One is where I’m aged about six, checking letterboxes because I have conflated the sending out of pamphlets about the introduction of decimal currency with the idea that actual money was being delivered.  I have a strong impression that the struggle to find money was a constant part of my mother’s waking hours. My venture into postal theft reaped poor dividends as the Government simply sent out cards showing the likeness of the coins and banknotes to come. The second memory is heading to the newsagent to buy a copy of Smash, a British comic, with a penny or ha’penny with a coin that may have been given to me by an old man who lived in the same group of flats as our family.  Maybe this was the old man who taught me draughts and a few basic card games.  

The struggle to read the borrowed Dick and Jane books from East Launceston Primary School still lingers with me today, especially the frantic efforts I made to avoid the terror of trying to read aloud in class before my stuttering and mangled pronunciation ended in tears.  Yet those struggles and terror quickly disappeared with my private and mental devouring of the pictures, actions and words of Smash comics. Comics remain a treasured part of my reading material, and like Clive James in Unreliable Memoirs, some of them rank equally to Arundhati Roy, Kerouac or Shakespeare. As I type this, the latest 5 issues of The Phantom are sitting on the table waiting to be read with sweet pleasure and anticipation. Comics taught me I could master words and language, even if I had little talent or capacity to show that mastery with my voice.

When I first started writing these vignettes I would visualise a scene or recall a photograph and then develop the story around the image.  Image - my mother and I in our best outfits on the steps of a public building and the camera catching her beauty. Another image – a late Friday night almost two decades later and I am in the backseat of a speeding car, packed with local youth, as beer cans are being hurled at a pursuing police car.
For several years I have urged law book publishers to add colour and images to their text books or to produce a “Rough Guide” series to the law where cases and principles are supplemented by the back story, pictures and other information in drop boxes and other devices. Many of my academic colleagues would almost sneer at the ‘dumbing down’ of the delivery of ‘the law’ in this way.  For me, it is making the law accessible and interesting. A few years ago Lynden Griggs, my colleague at UTAS, and I wrote an article advocating teaching property law using just six cases. The idea was that we would trace the story, including the legal and the social aspects, from the beginning to the aftermath of the case. The idea was that this ‘six pack” of cases could put law cases and principles not only in their context, but also make them come alive with their characters, dramas and intriguing stories of hope, despair and chaos. This method would provide a way to immerse students in the detail of the law as well as into the drama and struggle behind the dry cases set out in the textbooks and case law. 

Leaf 4 “Freedom Fighter” Cape Town July 1999

The words “Freedom Fighter…”  were splashed across a large picture of me in the Argus newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa: an honour in the land of Nelson Mandela and the inspiring jurist Albie Sachs.  I was halfway through a rapid 3 day trip (including return travel that started with a lecture in Introduction to Law in Hobart on a Wednesday morning - a hurried filming in my office of a Lateline segment on FOI (that never went to air), a taxi to Hobart International Airport, a series of flights, – Melbourne - Kuala Lumpur –Mauritius – Johannesburg  - Cape Town, 48 hours at a conference then a return set of flights – Cape Town - Johannesburg – Sydney – Hobart, followed by another Introduction to Law lecture on the Monday morning, just to give a presentation to a conference about FOI in South Africa.  When I asked an organisier for the South African Human Rights Commission why I was there, he simply said, “after what you have to say about the experience elsewhere and what best practice is in relation to cabinet information then our proposals will look moderate.” Deep in the text of the Argus article is possibly the only use by an academic in a media interview using the term “ratshit”.

Three very different encounters have stayed in my mind from that trip. The first was being confronted by the slums on the way from the airport in Cape Town. It was my first near but still fleeting and remote encounter with mass poverty. It was intriguing to see the range of housing even within the slums. In one location, a large two storey concrete building lorded it over the rest of the buildings. Stretching out in almost prefect concentric, regulated zones were different types of housing: nearest to the two storey building were those constructed of better tin; as the zones went out the tin quality dropped quickly; and finally, tin was soon replaced by cardboard. On the edges of stagnant water pools (large puddles) were the most improvised dwellings. It seemed that poverty clearly had its own levels.  The second encounter occurred at a reception during a conversation with a white male who was a former member of the South African Defence Forces.  He was telling a story from the apartheid years about Armoured Personnel Carriers and the ANC. Another person, a black female left the group at the same time as I did.  She made a phone call where she related the man’s story and seemed to be urging some kind of action or response from the person on the other end of the line. Whilst the gathering was multi-racial, it was clear the scars, wounds and enmities from an earlier period were not buried, instead, they still lingered just under the surface of collective memory.

The final encounter was a lesson in the difference between necessary accommodation at work and separate lives after hours. A very mixed group from the conference, in terms of race, gender and countries went to an elegant wharf side restaurant. As we walked in, the conversation slowed to a stop. The absence of non-white faces among the diners was a stark contrast to our multi-ethnic group. During the course of our meal several ‘coloured’ passers-by stopped and looked into the restaurant. A couple appeared to make a spur of the moment decision and came in for a meal. One of my companions remarked the next day that there were very distinct worlds for most South Africans, nearly uncrossable divisions between their multi-racial working lives and their very race-centered non-work existence.

Leaf 5 “An inferno on the edge of town” Whyalla, South Australia  December 1977 – February 1978

A magnificent sight, driving on the edge of the South Australian desert with Dad at the wheel. Great forks of lightening rippled towards the earth from all locations around a perfectly flat horizon.  I felt like I was at the epicentre. Every few seconds another series of dazzling bright streaks, a fresh lightening bolt would appear, often before the previous one had faded. The blue sky disappearing into night wore a blanket of dark cloud and the flashes highlighted the redness of the soil. I was on my summer holidays before starting my second year of University. We were driving towards a complex of steel and iron rising out of the landscape: BHP’s Whyalla Steel Mill

Dad had moved to work at Whyalla after being retrenched in the massive lay offs of over 700 workers, almost half the workforce, at Mt Lyell, Tasmania in 1976. The retrenchments ripped apart Queenstown, a small isolated town of about 8,000 people. Many families were forced to do the unthinkable and leave town, an unimaginable moment for many in that town, including for my family. Untill that moment, an attitude had prevailed that the history of Queenstown, despite all the experiences of mining towns everywhere else, would be eternal. I had completed a social sciences assignment in matriculation college in 1975 which attempted to explain this attitude based on the evidence of surviving the economic crunch of the 1890s, the Mt Lyell Disaster of 1912, two World Wars, the Depression and hard times in the early 1960s. There was a feeling and an optimism that the town would be there for centuries.

At the same time as the retrenchments, two retiring Directors of Consolidated Goldfields, the then owners of Mt Lyell, received golden parachutes of several hundred thousand dollars each. The events of the Whitlam Dismissal, the invasion of East Timor, the Mt Lyell retrenchments and the golden parachute for the directors added sharp dimensions to my thinking and attitudes. The lonesome outsider started to form a critical and sharp political view of the world.  The accidental discovery of Bob Dylan (I was attracted by the cover and the poetic liner notes) via his Desire album and Bruce Springsteen’s tributes to the working/struggling classes of small towns finished the forging of a radical edge to my politics and social views.
After a long period of trying to find work with hundreds of others on the West Coast, even trying for jobs on Groote Eylandt, the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Dad eventually scored a job at Whyalla in South Australia and the family pulled up its roots and went with him. For a family that considered a once a year trip to Burnie (100 miles) as a major and largely joyless adventure, this appeared like a journey of no return. I stayed behind in Tasmania to continue my first year at the University.

Whilst my TESS (Tertiary Education Student Support) allowance was minimal (calculated on Dad’s previous wage at Mt Lyell and not on his unemployment benefit or much lower new wage), it did entitle me to 3 return trips to my home (the definition of home  now incorporated my family’s new home in South Australia) each year. No more money could be found for me to live on but I could spend more than double my monthly TESS cheque on each trip home three times a year if I wanted.

Bored and keen for money, during my first summer in Whyalla, I rocked up to the employment office at the steel mill. I lied about my educational background claiming that I had just finished college and had no intent of going on to university. My long hair and shaggy beard seemed to do little to undermine the creditability of my story. I was hired. Thus began my short but intense career as a shift-work mill labourer in the hot desert sun. There were a number of Tasmanian employment refugees like my father at the mill. We identified ourselves by drawing a rough triangle (the general shape of the island state of Tasmania) on our helmets with the year of our arrival in the middle of the triangle. My red helmet had a yellow triangle and a ‘77’.
 The main, and never ending, shift task was using a special metal ‘key’, a metal rod about a metre in length with a ‘V’ at one end. The labourer would approach a 6 metre long steel girder laying on its side push the ‘V’ at the top of the bar into an edge of the girder and with the right degree of force and timing ‘flick’ the bar over. It was a simple task that anyone could do and the degree of instruction matched its complexity – a handful of minutes on the first day. But it was, in fact, a simple task that sometimes went horribly wrong. Errors in estimating the force, timing and/or getting the flick wrong would result in the 6 metre several tonne  girder whipping back suddenly. When this happened you had to do two things: first, let go of the bar – or have your arm wrenched from its socket; and second, step back, duck and dive backwards as your bar spun would often spin back towards you. The turning procedure needed to be done every few minutes. If you failed to turn a girder the whole section of the rolling mill would be on hold until you recovered your turning bar, tested your arm and successfully flipped the girder.

There were three shifts, morning from 8am - 4pm, afternoon from 4pm - midnight and night shift from midnight - 8am. You rotated through these shifts over three weeks. Labourers, desperate for money like me, could also volunteer for overtime.  Sometimes, overtime was an extra three hour shift or a rare but enriching double shift with full meal allowances. The only drawback of overtime was having to rock up at the start of the next normal shift – a killer after a double shift. For a very good reason there were few volunteers for overtime.– the overtime job that awaited you. Few people volunteered for a second lot of overtime. After eight hours of flicking steel girders, with little access to water, your stamina and concentration was fairly low.  The overtime job was ‘bundling’.  Bundling is such a simple phrase that described something Dante would have struggled to depict. Girders would emerge from the furnaces glowing red hot, twisted and warped. They needed to be straightened between massive heavy-duty rollers. After the rolling, the girders would be collected in bundles of 8-10 by massive forklifts and taken out into the desert to cool off. The cooling took several days. The cooled girders were then returned to the rollers to be further straightened.

Bundling required the labourer to twist a thick wire around both ends of the bundle and a third wire in the middle. Donning a full face mask, thick leather gloves and a thick leather apron with your trusty flip bar in one hand and the wire in the other you dashed from the shelter towards this massive pile of glowing red steel with two other work mates. There you stood like a leather clad medieval knight on the edge of a dessert in the middle of summer to undergo your ordeal.  Step 1, twist the long wire in half forming a small loop at one end. Step 2, tap the new double strand wire one third along and about halfway along which allowed the wire to be folded at these ‘joints’. Step 3 walk quickly up to the mass of steel, surrounded by heat, burning dust, choking air and slide the wire underneath and up behind the bundle. Step 4,  reach across the red hot steel – avoiding contact - insert bar in loop twist until wire is super tight. Step 5, ignore the honking forklift drivers right behind you (on a bonus for each bundle collected – whilst the bundlers were on a flat minimum wage).

Five quick steps.  25 seconds in total if done flawlessly.  My maximum limit was about 40 seconds of exposure to the heat, choking fumes and horn blasts. Stuff up the bundling and the second attempt would generally take another 40 -50 seconds. Third attempts were simply suicidal. On second attempts you started to forget things like why there needed to be a loop, you would neglect to put in the ‘joints’ and struggle with trying to fit a straight thick iron wire around a stack of red hot steel. This was often followed by the ultimate moment of induced forgetfulness. Thick leather offered some protection from heat but it was not a very fireproof barrier against direct contact with red hot steel. A quick lapse of concentration would be immediately accompanied by the smell of fresh burning and the necessity to quickly retreat. I never got burnt but several times I exchanged my smoking holey gloves or apron for new ones. Once the girders were bundled, you retreated to the shelter taking off helmet, gloves and knocking back endless quantities of water. If the bundling was completed in the first attempt and in minimal time you had the luxury of fresh air, water and time to refocus on the next foray. When you staggered through a second or third attempt you had no time for any recovery.  Labourers who failed to complete overtime tasks never got a second opportunity.

Stand stills were frequent at the mill. Rolling the warped red hot steel between the straightening wheels required attention to speed, the weight to be applied and the positioning of the girder. The rolling operators seemed to be a hot-bed collection of dope smoking and white horse riding (heroin) cowboys and inattention and therefore hold ups were common. During the day and early afternoon shifts when these stoppages occurred,  labourers, like me, had to grab tins of yellow paint and  repaint all the safety rails, just in case a ‘boss’ was walking around. ‘Bosses’ had to suffer big pieces of machinery not working but would not tolerate a free loading labourer. Over several weeks, I painted the same safety railings at least 15 times. When stoppages occurred after the afternoon shift  meal beak (7.30pm) or on nightshift, when no Bosses were on the job,  you could curl up in a corner and try and sleep or read under the lights. Generally I was the only reader in the rolling mill area. Reading Kerouac, Salinger, Tom Robbins or political philosophy in the strange twilight and backdrop of a night time steel mill on the edge of the desert added a special atmosphere to the task.
A few weeks of enduring an antipodean version of Dante’s Inferno led to the fateful decision to forgo a few extra weeks of wages and head back to Tasmania to enrol in a special 2 week intensive Introduction to Law course. A series of letters exchanged with my friend Sally (met in my very first Political Science tutorial and my first ever private school friend) persuaded me to give law a go. At that point I had no realisation of the role played by law in creating and preserving the status quo that I had started to rub against.

Leaf 6 “Talking to the Generals” Phnom Penh, Cambodia August 2007

We had just driven across Phnom Penh in a small convoy, small flags fluttering at the front of the vehicle.  Negotiations for this meeting had been going on for a couple of days. We were waved into the Headquarters of the Cambodian Defence Ministry. Car doors were opened smoothly by officers in smart dress uniforms. On the circular creamy marble stairs at each turn, there were pairs of silent and still guards. As we climbed the levels, the amount of insignia, colour cords and braiding on the statute like guards increased. The seven of us (including our interpreter, four Ministry of National Assembly officials and my Cambodian off-sider) were ushered into a massive room.  We were seated at two long polished wooden tables separated by a wide gap in the middle. At each seat was a microphone. It was like a photo from the Paris Peace Talks of the late 1960s or early 1970s. Opposite sat eight men in full dress uniform, adorned with medals and overflowing braid, and one lone civilian. Behind each officer, and a few paces back, fully armed sentries stood at attention. I wanted to whip out my camera to catch the scene but decided that this would probably be a deal breaker.

At one point in the meeting, I referred to a section in the Cambodian Constitution. The translation was followed by looks of concern and the hands of the Generals started to move towards their jackets. My immediate thought was that I had derailed the talks with a stupid comment. It was both a relief and surprise when all of them drew out their pocket constitutions to confirm the accuracy of my Cambodian constitutional knowledge. At that point, I reflected that reaching for their constitutions rather than their guns may have been a sign of progress in Cambodia’s long and very troubled history. 
Later, in the course of a few terse exchanges, it was apparent that the Generals were deeply concerned, but it was hard to fathom the cause.  Then, enlightenment: the Generals thought the ‘right to information’ was also the ‘right of every soldier’, regardless of rank,  to release information. They had been reeling from the thought of Cambodian privates exercising constitutionally guaranteed rights to hand out information to anyone who wanted it. A quick clarification that FOI officers, authorisied to make decisions about release of information, ought to be senior officers operating in a firm line of command placed negotiations back on a smooth path.

As we left the compound I reflected on how a shy, tongue-tied boy from a small mountain mining town had found himself dealing directly with generals and Ministers in a far away land (Eespecially after a childhood of imagining being a solider in Vietnam). Yet the stories of those I worked with and my visit to S21 quickly evaporated any sentimentality or light heartedness. S21 was the former school where over 14,000 Cambodians and a handful of non-Cambodians were systematically tortured, interrogated, photographed (often in their torture chair) and then killed, Most of the people I worked with had been young children or young adults during the Khmer years.

Throughout my work in Cambodia there would be times when these 40-55 year old survivors would gently recall some aspect of these troubled years. It might be a comment about how my local 45 year old consultant was the family ‘elder’ for his extended family.  Or the NGO activist, who acted as a go-between with government officials, recounting how as a young teenager he walked across Cambodia, eluding the Khmer Rouge and then swum underwater sucking through a reed to get across the Thai border before becoming for a period a teenage gunrunner. 

Next -

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Memoir - 1st story Mexico 2008

The first of the pieces from my memoir project. For a backgrounder on this project see earlier post 
 The Memoir - a work in progress

Background see Working on a Memoir
Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia
Leaves 7-9 Hooning, Teaching & Presenting
Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career
Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken
 At the moment the memoir consists of a series of leaves or postcards that slip between time periods without following a chronology or trying to tell a structured story.
 Appreciate feedback, reactions and suggestions.

Cover art: with kind permission of Rachel-Ireland-Meyers (see
 Blue Echo

Leaves of My Past – Snapshots from an unfinished journey
Leaf 1 “Happy Birthday” November 2008 Mexico
It’s an early November evening and I’m walking down a colonial cobblestone street towards our hotel in Puebla, Mexico. The Camino Real is a grand 16th century building converted from a monastery where the bodies of nuns, many rumoured to be pregnant, are in the walls.  The building has a large open air courtyard ideal for recreating a scene where Zorro would be ducking from second storey stone archway to archway dodging sword thrusts and bullets fired from the courtyard below. On the eve of my 50th birthday, I am a hemisphere, ocean and continent away from home, wife, children, and seemingly, several worlds away from my birth in a small coal mining village nestled in the hills of the east coast of Tasmania. I am in Mexico as an invited guest of two warring factions involved in Freedom of Information and Freedom of Expression. Though unsure of the causes or history of the rift, I can sense the deep animosity between the two groups and the problems caused by my close and personal links to key people in both groups. In the luxurious foyer of the Mexico City Sheraton, my first host, a Mexican City Information Commissioner, hands me over to the representative (a future postgrad student of mine) of her sworn enemy. Like a scene from a black and white cold war movie, I am made to walk from one to the other in a silent handover between antagonists. The Commissioner is a beautiful, feisty, flamboyant, long haired woman who seems to have high level contacts everywhere. She is cool, urbane and bejewelled. My future postgrad carries with her the revolutionary spirit and proud gait of Pancho Villas.
I am in Mexico as part of a travelling troupe of speakers from Canada, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Spain and Mexico. In return for our expenses, we are required to speak at a  number of  conferences and events in Mexico City, Puebla and Cuernavaca. At each town, we roll from our small min-bus, set up camp at a new hotel and then wait to be told where and when we are performing our freedom of expression show-pieces. In sharp contrast to the much smaller and more subdued gatherings I encounter in many counties including my own, the audiences often number several hundred passionate and interested people. 
As we navigate, through Puebla, on time worn cobblestones, I start to relate my story to the Spanish academic alongside me. Rumours at breakfast  suggest she is an Opus Dei associate.  Yet against the backdrop of the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuat, it is more the catholic grace of her smile that draws me into conversation rather than the form or depths of her beliefs.  My story is one I never wanted to tell before but now it seems eager for airing, even if only as a collection of poorly recalled fragments. Maybe I am prompted by the pending milestone of my 50th birthday or maybe it is the surrounding and deep layers of Aztec, Spanish and Mexican history that encourages me to approach my own heritage.  In this gathering of foreigners – to Mexico and each other – maybe I feel safe to hesitantly retrace experiences and stories I had thought long dismissed from my life.
My story begins with a young and beautiful woman with flaming red hair. She is holding the hand of a small boy on the steps of the Launceston post office in the early 1960s. In photos and my earliest memories, she could have easily graced the salons of Paris or the Bohemian bookstores of 1950’s San Francisco but it was her fate (and maybe my birth), which restricted her to a much shorter journey from the back blocks of Elizabeth Town to the socially constrained streets of early 1960’s Launceston. In that era of Tasmania’s history, she was out of place: a young woman with two young children and no husband. The missing husband, my birth father, was someone I only encountered in limited ways. This stranger’s name appears on my original birth certificate. My middle name is his but I have rarely drawn attention to it. The first seven years of my life are bookmarked by a surname I no longer wear or identify with and one I freely surrendered at first opportunity. The replacement of the name also seemed to close the door on my early years. 
As the memories faded, I made no attempt to hold on or to test my mother’s silence on the past.  My birth father has remained a stranger who appears in a couple of black and white photos in my mother’s old tin box. My only other encounter with this man was a couple of years previously, date forgotten, when reading the death notices in The Mercury, a newspaper often flimsy and unsatisfying in its content but accurate in its lucrative death announcements. I had cut the notice out, intrigued by the mention of other children, and other unknown family members but that clipping was quickly neglected and is now lost. The rough landmarks I have in my memory would place my parent’s breakup around the early months of my little sister’s life when I was 3 or 4 years old.
No questions were asked about this stranger because my mother never seemed to want to talk. For many years I didn’t realise he was missing. When I was around eight years of age my mother met the only man I have ever called dad, and whose surname I embraced eagerly and still wear with pride. For many years I didn’t feel fully entitled or worthy to wear the name. Only as my reputation as an academic, teacher and law reformer grew, did I feel I had repaid a very large gift.
In the 1960s, ‘broken families’ were not uncommon but were treated as failures and rarely spoken of and then, only in whispers. In contrast, when my own children were in school, Esther and I belonged to a minority of married couples still in their first marriage and or family grouping. I bore my background as a secret, although well known by everyone in our small town, whereas my children knew automatically which week or day their friends would shift from one family setting to their alternative, and even at times their third or fourth alternative household.
My broken story, teased out by some gentle questioning and encouragement, only took a few blocks to tell.  It was like opening my own old photo tin but my pictures were more fragmentary and less complete, than my mother’s. They were like old deteriorating film off cuts, without a narrator or scriptwriter to provide the storyline. 
As I listened to my companion talk about her recent travels across Europe, facts, impressions, glimpses and other half recalled scenes of my past floated like bubbles struggling to the surface of a thick and opaque liquid. In one scene, I am looking after my young sister, who was less than 4, while my mother worked in a low paid job in some nearby factory. The other fragments are of constantly moving between houses, cities, towns and states so that no place ever anchored itself as ‘my home’. Within these scenes, are encounters in different places with a set of relatives and friends who seemed as unsettled and transient as we were. We constituted a group of people descended from the wandering and drifting poor, who James Boyce writes about near the end of his Van Diemen’s Land. These early arrivals were men and women (and children)  forced to the periphery of both the landscape and society of Tasmania in the late 1840s and 1850s. By the 1960s, their descendants were still poor and drifting. We remained locked into an educational, economic and social periphery, living in small towns, the poorer streets of Launceston or on a circuit between friends and relatives, employed as labourers or semi-skilled workers in forestry, farming and mining while supplementing periods of unemployment with roo and possum shooting. I remember looking at the missing fingers, and finger joints, of an older relative who seemed to have fortuitous workplace accidents when drinking funds started to dry up. It took a long while for my interpretation of his ‘accidents’ to change from a tale of besting the system to one of hopelessness.
That brief period of openness in a warm Mexican evening started to release over time other stories. In particular, I recalled stories of walking to and from different primary schools, constantly alone, conjuring up mythical visions of my past and connections.  In those long walks, a remoteness and a stubborn self reliance was forged that still erodes at all my bonds. The photographs of this period show a serious young boy, not unhappy, but wary, alert – taking all around him in, just in case it is whisked away.
As we approached The Camino Real, the ghosts of entombed pregnant nuns and the darkness of the night  filled the colonial streets. In that darkness, and surrounded by the thick walls, I hid my story away again surprised by what I had brought out to share with this stranger in the early evening light of this beautiful but foreign country.
 My story stopped before getting to the little boy with a severe speech impediment, an impediment that added a deeper and more complicated layer to his feeling of being an outsider. It’s an impediment, that still lingers in the background and determines many of the things I do. The King’s Speech reminded me of the lingering sensitivity, indeed the rawness of this legacy. Now in late middle age, or early old age, I struggle  to stretch my vocabulary to new areas or multi-syllable words and I am unwilling to try to learn new languages. The stuttering and word mangling were compounded by a tendency, still a feature, of speaking at a million miles an hour when excited or engaged. A constant wonder for me is how a stuttering, syllable stumbling motor mouth has forged a career and reputation that relies heavily on public communication. Maybe my art of keeping things concise and simple – to accommodate my own limitations – has reaped unexpected benefits.
The unreliable tongue and voice led the young boy, with no books at home, to endless hours sitting in the small school library devouring every book from non-fiction series on World War II battleships to an entire twenty-five plus collection of books about a wandering young cowboy with his trusty palomino who signed off every story with ‘hasta la vista’. Hours spent in isolation where my tongue could not betray me and the magic of word combinations seemed achievable via the written word.  Its a legacy that dogged my every step through high school even to the leaver’s dinner, where I arrived full of dreams and bravado dressed in a purple flared suit, floral shirt and tie brought during a rare family trip to Burnie, in those days and in my family’s eyes a distant 113 miles away.  On the tables at the Leavers Dinner were nameplates and a caricature for each person drawn by a talented and perceptive classmate. Despite being a House Captain, school representative in cricket, basketball, badminton, athletics, proud under age drinker and feared fast bowler, my image was a picture of a cute bookworm with glasses. Forty years later I can appreciate the foresight and accuracy of that drawing, but throughout that special night and for many years later, I felt it was a denial of a large part of who I was. Books were constant and close companions but there were other stories, other parts of what was or who was ‘me’.  In a mining town, the translation was simple – being into books was simply ‘weird’ and undermined your creditability. Only the pace of my cricket deliveries and my drinking capacity rescued me from being treated as a total pariah.

to be continued  - Leaf 2 “Returning to Erin” Ireland April 1999

Leaves 2-6 -  Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Video of Sue Butterworth's Funeral 14th September 2012

As promised, below is a recording of Susan's funeral for those who were unable to attend.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Eulogy for Sue Butterworth 14 Sep 2012

Eulogy for Sue Butterworth


14th September 2012

Sue was the Law School Secretary at University of Tasmania from 1989-2003 and a very close friend. I was asked to deliver a eulogy by her family.

This is the text on which the eulogy was based - delivered most of it as is - glare from the lights, a few near tears and a bit of ab lib changed some of it.  - Will be posting a video of full funeral service in near future.  The entire service was a wonderful celebration of Sue's life. I think it was able to convey to Sue's closest family and friends a very different picture of a Sue they only had a slight knowledge about - The Law School Sue.

Dear family and friends of Sue Butterworth. I have been asked by Alison to talk about Sue’s involvement with the Law School – a special place in her life and a place made special by her presence there for almost 15 years.

My task, and honour, today is to pay tribute to an outstanding and wonderful woman. A tribute not only on behalf of myself and my family, but on behalf of literally hundreds of lawyers, government officials and graduates whose lives and attitudes were shaped and transformed by becoming part of Sue’s world.

Many, who only knew that Sue worked at the Law School, might be surprised by the strength, degree and source of the outpouring of fond memories that has been shared with Sue’s family in the last week from those connected with the Law School. Hundreds of graduates have expressed a sense of loss but also gratitude for having Sue around at a critical point in their lives and careers.

We all know that Sue was not very tolerant of fools nor could she stand being praised or recognisied for her achievements.  I am sure she is mad with me at this very moment - on both accounts. But I loved to annoy and stir her – and for my sins received twice as much grief back.

The woeful grammar and punctuation in this speech would be annoying the hell out of her. I was never allowed to publish a paper, give a speech or write a newspaper article without being subjected to her scathing but always useful corrections. She continued to perform this role for me from time to time even after she retired due to ill-health.

 Yet despite Sue’s likely objections we can’t and shouldn’t ignore what a lasting legacy she has left. No one else, in the period that Sue worked at the Law School, touched so many people, so deeply and so profoundly. She went from being simply “a law school secretary” to a person who has been described in the following terms :–

Marcus Fowler (a graduate) wrote to me -

 “Sue was such an integral, wonderful part of the law school in the years that I was studying (1991-1996). Her cutting wit, knowledge, patience, and ultimate affection for her role and the students was indispensable.”

Another graduate Paul Garth said –

Through the long years at law school, Sue was a constant presence in the Aquarium that was somehow reassuring to me. At times of self-doubt, wondering what the hell I was doing there, she always had a smile and a chat and would make me feel as if I was one of the law school family, a feeling of belonging. She must have seen countless students and staff flow through that faculty, but I suspect she had a special gift of making thousands of other students feel the same way.”

In particular Sue served as an invaluable and friendly face for international students – a group of students who were not only attempting the hardships of a law degree but facing those hardships away from family and friends in another culture. Her care and support for international students (many of them now occupying powerful positions in their home countries) remains deeply appreciated.

Suka Mangisi Acting Sectretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  in Tonga wrote –

As an international student, her kind and warm demeanor made me feel comfortable and free to ask anything and everything of her regarding school work with the oft mention of other non-school matters which made the relationship more personal. She was always well dressed and kind with great social skills which made me as an international student more at home, whilst away from home.”

Suka’s comments were endorsed last night by Samuel Manetoali, Minister for Tourism in the Solomons – and one of Sue’s much loved international students.

This elegant, beautiful and eloquent woman worked her magic day in and day out, from the very first day of starting her job at the law school.

Year after year Sue did her job in full public view at the Aquarium. An open plan office opened on one side with a long counter that could allow a dozen or more people to stand at it. And they often did.

She did her job with little control over when or for how long busy periods would last, or those long periods of solitude when staff and students were working or the endless stretches of boredom during university breaks.

And she did it with no control over what jobs staff needed to have done urgently by yesterday (with often minimal and/or indecipherable instructions in my case).

And despite these trying and challenging work conditions it was indeed magic that Sue worked.

In the 1989 Advocatus, the Law School magazine, it was clear that Sue made an immediate impact on her first group of students. They wrote:

“Of course, our special, special, special – eternally grateful thanks go to Sue Butterworth, for just being wonderful. She corrected our grammatical and spelling errors, reminded us of meetings, bent over backwards to help us (or so she alleged) and danced the legs off us at the Law Ball.”

Year in and year out – when her own life was going through its ups and downs, even when her health was not great – she managed to continue to work her professional magic every working day. We know Sue loved to party and outside work hours was a wild child – her performances on the dance floors at Law Balls were indeed legendary including one episode of crowd surfing.

Yet in work hours she turned the position of typist and collector and dispenser of student assignments into a very special role. She terrified first year students – a terror that completely ‘house trained” generations of UTAS lawyers. Thousands of secretaries around the world who have received special treatment from UTAS graduates never realised the great debt that they owed Sue Butterworth.

First year students very quickly learnt their place or proper station in life.
As Alison so eloquently put it – “Mum had no time for first year students until they learnt some respect and pulled the stick out of their arses”.

Our current Premier Lara Giddings wrote to me from overseas and said:

I seem to recall being a little intimidated by her in my early years at uni, but soon came to understand her passion for her work and for all of us.

Yet this terrifying person later became a key person in students’ ability to cope at Law School.

Will Hodgman, Leader of the Opposition noted “Sue certainly played a pivotal role in helping get me through to graduation.”

For many students the most wonderful moment in their law degree was not passing their first exam, or scoring 80% in contract law or even graduation but that moment when after what seemed an eternity they were greeted by a smile for the first time from Sue and she addressed them by name.

Rena Bean told me -

“I remember the first time I had to approach the "gatekeeper" of the aquarium. She was so stern & intimidating. By the end of first semester contract law I realised she was an absolute gem & a softy, a caring, amazing woman once you earnt her respect. I loved the start of a new year watching terrified students approach Sue to submit work. We would stand back & snigger...for me Sue was the law school. Greatly loved mentor & wise woman who restored our faith after our ordeals with a strong belief of "of course you can do it."

At some critical moment in their  lives many students found in Sue a friend, a counsellor or simply someone who was there for them when needed most.

Year after year Sue watched, engaged with and helped students go from fresh faced first years to confident graduates. She always desperately hunted up a ticket to each graduation to look proudly down, from near the back rows, on “her” students graduating.

Even after ill-health forced her from the Law School she still dragged herself to each law graduation until the last of “her” students had finally graduated.

Just a few final reflections about Sue -

Tom Baxter wrote:
 As one of the countless students Sue helped over the years, my enduring memories are her warm, friendly face across the counter of her “Aquarium”: 
·         always willing to make time for a chat; 
·         genuinely interested;
·         making you feel so much more than just another student number;
·         ever-ready to calm and assist panicked students submitting overdue assignments!
Nothing ever seemed too much trouble for her.
Sue was so much more than the Law Faculty Receptionist. She was part of the heart and soul of the place. Thousands of former students will fondly remember her.

For Caroline Cannock Walsh

“She was always the perfect mix of scary, smiling charm in the aquarium. Every law school needs a Sue.”

Ursula Hogben (nee Crowley) captures Sue’s special impact so well –

“Sue was an amazing influence in the Law Faculty - there's a saying "your dream job doesn't exist, you have to create it" and she did! Sue was equal parts administrator, office manager, gatekeeper, confidante and friend. She was a dose of realism, strength and warmth and we all grew up under her influence. I hope Sue's funeral is a wonderful celebration of her life.”

It was my pleasure and privilege to share a key part of my working life and the early years of my children’s lives with such a wonderful lady.

The Law School has been around for almost 120 years but I think no other era, to date, has had as much heart or been so closely linked to its student body as the “Sue Butterworth” era.

Thank you Sue for a wonderful and lasting legacy.

Re-discovering King O'Malley and the spirit of place

Rick Snell
Senior Lecturer in Law
University of Tasmania
Speaker Notes 19 October 2004

Disclaimer and post talk reflections

What follows is a rough extract of my talk given at the Mine Manager’s Offices at Queenstown on the night of the 19th October 2004. Some parts of the talk have been dropped, other parts that were skipped in the delivery have been included.  The morning after the talk I visited the freshly brushed-cut Pioneer Cemetery and later that morning walked to Nelson Falls.  The cemetery reminded me of how fortunate we have been to have reclaimed an important part of our history. I have been to many cemeteries around the world but few as magical as this one.  Yet there was only a single  small sign. Whereas at Nelson Falls, your path is guided, in an unobtrusive way by informative signs and you walk away not only experiencing natural beauty but with a better understanding. It reminded me of the last part of my talk the night before about how much of the King O’Malley story is missing from the West Coast..

I would like to thank Megan Cavanagh-Russell and her team, especially Rachael Hogge, from the Cradle Coast Campus of UTAS for the organization, flowers, great catering and  incredible support to make this talk a reality.  Finally to the audience thank you for your support and the great atmosphere.  I am sure that this is only one of many such joint efforts between the University of Tasmania and the people of the West Coast that will continue to happen.

A second disclaimer and note September 2012

It was always my intention to go back and properly edit this document, tidy it up, add full references and maybe build on some of the themes. However it sunk down into my pile of “Things I might get around to.” I still might get around to it but in the meantime I would like to share it with family and friends ad others interested in history, Tasmania and radical politics.

The following sources were used to compile the talk (many flagged in the talk) but some still to be accurately acknowledged:

·      Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, The Legend of King O’Malley (1974).
·      Dorothy Catts, King O’Malley: Man and Statesman (1957).
·      Max Colwell & Alan Naylor, Adelaide an Illustrated History. Landsdowne Press 1974 (O'Malley biography Pgs 86 - 91).
·      Arthur Hoyle “King O’Malley (1858-1953) Australian Dictionary of Biography at
·      Arthur Hoyle, King O’Malley: The American Bounder (1981).
·      Larry Noye King O’Malley MHR (1985 Neptune Press) a reprinted version  available form

This wonderful exhibition and tribute to King O’Malley is available at

Opening comments

In the past few years I have had the pleasure and privilege of speaking at venues all around the world from Dublin Castle  - where my Irish ancestors were sent in shackles to Van Diemen’s Land  - to inside the Indonesian parliament to a gathering of generals, bureaucrats,  activists and journalists. I have given over 100 public talks and over 200 media interviews – nevertheless I regard this as my toughest and most difficult speaking engagement.

Made more difficult by having my Mum and Dad in the audience. This is the first time they have had the opportunity to hear me speak in person in public.  I would like to take this moment to publicly thank them for making all this possible. Almost 30 years ago they gave me the opportunity to leave this valley on a journey I am still on. Their support and sacrifice made that journey possible and I would like to say thank you to two wonderful people.

To return home – is always a challenge  - to confront and engage with your past and the futures you never followed. Never followed  because you journeyed upon a path that lead away from the valley and the West Coast both in terms of geography and mental exploration.

Those now few and distant years growing up in this valley and on the West Coast shaped, contoured and gave  a special quality to my imagination and spirit.

I have engaged in my activities as an academic, teacher, commentator  and with my audiences in a way determined by my interpretation of the history of the West Coast,  by the spirit of this place and this landscape and by a radical political legacy. 

A political legacy that in part can be traced to King O’Malley and the West Coast.  In the words of Christopher Binks  at page 156, in his book Pioneers of Tasmania’s West Coast it is a legacy that focuses on long “running campaigns for better conditions,  better services, better legislation and better representation.”

I would like to weave 4 threads together in this talk tonight –

First -To rediscover some of the key elements of that larger than life figure King O’Malley who inspired and was inspired by what he encountered on the West Coast. To look at how this legend took West Coast ideas, ideals and values to a wider audience.

Secondly, to explore some of the themes that sparked the idea for this talk in the CD Rom  “Mining the Imagination: Queenstown Spirit of the Place”.

Thirdly to try and understand why King O’Malley was right about the contributions of the West Coast to the beginnings of Australian democracy

Fourthly, if time permits I want to see what place there is for  King O’Malley in the Queenstown, and West Coast of the 21st Century.

A prelude

My interest in King O’Malley began one dark winters night when I and a handful of others attended a talk by the leading Australian historian Manning Clark in the Murray High School library.

 Professor Clark, like some great character from his own books,  swept into the room dressed in a flowing black shoulder cape, wide rimmed black felt hat – dripping with rain – long flowing wispy  grey locks and with a burning enthusiasm for history, King O’Malley and the West Coast. You could see that he was overflowing with the excitement of treading on the same rocks and rain swept hills as King O’Malley had.

For the next hour he transfixed me with the story of King O’Malley – how this one man side show had went from selling insurance to selling a political vision, how he had entertained crowds of miners from the balconies of places like Hunter’s Hotel or from inside the Queenstown Academy of Music.

 How because of the voters of Queenstown and the West Coast – Australia was exposed to, and eventually implemented, ideas like a national bank, aged pensions, the transcontinental railroad, Australia House in London and a purpose designed capital city – Canberra.

Not necessarily all O’Malley’s ideas but few advocated them as loudly and as long as King O’Malley. Few worked as hard to see them transformed from pipe dreams to reality – sometimes diminished in size, capacity and perfection compared to the dreams but nevertheless given life.

Professor Clark left little doubt that the people of the West Coast had done a great service to Australia by pining their political hopes onto this exotic character.

Exotic -whether in his medicine show, spread eagle rhetoric, his eloquent but eccentric dress or his ability to match inherently volatile mixtures in the same mind -
  • A passionate temperance (non-drinking) Christian man who loved to hold hard drinking miners spell bound in smokey pubs and loved to gamble
  • A representative of the working class who made a fortunate as a landlord and speculator
  • A plain speaking honest man who hid his past in confounding layers of fact, fiction and hard to believe myth.
  • A man who did much to advance and support women in politics and life, and left a considerable amount of his estate to a trust to support female home economics students but found it difficult to be in the company of all but a small number of women.

As I engaged with the wider world first as a student and then later as an academic I did so with a mindset inspired by the landscape and people of the West Coast – and armed with the knowledge that despite the isolation of the West Coast, the ugliness of the Queen river we had – in the form of King O’Malley given much to this country (along with a gravel football oval) – and would always have much to offer.

Turning to the main character – King O’Malley

I always think that King O’Malley was like a piece of conglomerate – a highly compacted collection of distinct bits and pieces woven together in a fine but tough matrix.

The life of this amazing, eccentric character can be roughly put into four periods.

  1. His life in America until the late 1880s
  2. His wanderings and life  in Australia prior to 1899
  3. His period as a member of the Federal House of Representatives from 1901-1917
  4. A twilight, but far from uneventful, period until his death in 1954. The last of the first federal members  to die.

This talk, you will be grateful to know, touches only briefly on the first 2 of those stages and concentrates on the third the period 1901-1917. And neglects the last 37 years of King O’Malley’s life.

The first period – The birth of the myth, the construction of the basic elements of the legend of King O’Malley

This is the period most shrouded in myth and endless variations of King O’ Malley’s capacity for story-telling. King O’Malley was born either in Canada or the US. If his birthplace was America it meant that he was illegally a member of the South Australian Parliament for 3 years  and Federal Parliament for 17 years.

Born either in 1854 or 1858 (so either he was near to 100 and waiting or the Queen’s telegram when he died – or he just lived to a very ripe old age).

Brought up by an uncle – began working life at the age of 14 in a small family bank.

Then moved to New York to continue his banking education – a point of pride for O’Malley later in federal parliament as the only trained banker in the whole parliament. Important in respect of his  creditability in his later push to create the Commonwealth Bank.

O’Malley left his career in banking around 1880 to spend the next few years of his life selling insurance, land, temperance  (and even religion) throughout the mid west and west coasts of America . It was in this wandering period that he constructed the elements of the legend ”King O’Malley” –

-       Cowboy persona– clothes, manner, speech - “King O’Malley is a tall man, whose appearance suggests a compromise between a desperado from the cattle ranges, a spruiker from Barnum’s Circus and a Western American statesman wrote journalist George Cockerill ( See  Noye at  page 83).
-       Larger than life story telling (events he was involved in,  people met – claims that he sold  insurance to the Kings of England, Germany and Tsar of Russia).

Two stories about King O’Malley from this period demonstrate his capacity for salesmanship.  The first involved the selling of real estate.  He would come into a new town and put up a sign  “The Whole Earth for Sale by King O’Malley – Come Inside” King O’Malley didn’t do things by half – so he was always selling the best, the biggest, the brightest – whether it be insurance, land, politics, religion or himself.

The second story involved both real estate and religion. At one stage King O’Malley created the  “Waterlily Rockbound Church – Redskin Church of the Cayuse Nation”. King O’Malley learnt that in Texas religious organizations were eligible for substantial land grants if they had a minimum sized congregation. So needed a church and a congregation and miracles.  King O’Malley preferred night time miracles.  O’Malley would stand on back of a wagon, in front of a  hill.  At certain moments there would be sounds of trumpets from the hills or blazing bushes of god would appear on a mountain top. King O’Malley would ascend to the top of the hil and  come back with stone tablets and the word of God. His charade was finally exposed when he fired his Angel, an American Indian who got drunk and told a local newspaper about King O’Malley’s scam.

Stage 2  Arrival and early years in Australia 1888-1899

Shrouded in myth –  O’Malley claimed he arrived with tuberculosis, cured by an aboriginal elder in Rockhampton (see the start of Nancy Catts’s biography) and that he subsequently walked on foot to Melbourne.

Whatever the truth there appeared in Australia a young man – 29 – in cowboy dress,  more accurately  wearing the elegant  American  rancher  eye catching style – prepared to wear  lavender  suits or do whatever it took to be noticed. He had a lexicon of outlandish speech using phrases like “stagger juice”  for alcohol. Some described it as a “wild and woolly style”  speaking style. O’Malley described one opponent as “our lop-eared, lop-shouldered, knock-kneed, slob-sided, ramshackle, bald-headed, poverty stricken, cross-eyed, toothless old contemporary…” ( see Hoyle at  page 12).

He also arrived with money for investment and an eye for politics. The rest of decade of the 1890s was a search to build investments and find a political role.  A short stint in Melbourne was followed by his arrival in Hobart in 1890.  In this period he sold  insurance, gave  a  talk on Irish politics at New Norfolk and became a freemason.

He then travelled to the Zeehan mining fields and later to Launceston to sell insurance.  This period clearly was a time in finding his feet in Australia and looking for opportunities. There is a missing period of 18 months - most likely spent speculating on the Kalgoorlie mining fields – he returned to Melbourne and brought a number of small cottages. For the rest of his life he used these rental properties as the main basis of his income and fortune.

In the mid 1890s he arrived in Adelaide. In many ways a dress rehearsal of his later campaigns on the West Coast of Tasmania. He spent 3 years of getting noticed and selling insurance in South Australia. He was elected to state parliament in South Australia on a weird platform that included advocating for lavatories in railway carriages,  seats for female shop assistants and support for  the Married Women’s Protection League.

O’Malley lost his seat in the South Australian parliament  –  a close election - to a well financed campaign from the hoteliers association – described by O’Malley  as  “These heroic artistic nose-painters, the orphan makers, the goal fillers, the lunatic generators, are the blight of the colony.” He left South Australia in search of another seat  in some other parliament.

Stage 3 in King O’Malley’s life (and final for purposes of tonight’s talk) The West Coast and federal politics

As I wrote in the newspaper article (attached to the end of this talk) King O’Malley arrived in full blown style on the West Coast– the aim was to be noticed.

Whilst he lost his first attempt to gain election to the Tasmanian parliament  in 1899 he had:
·      Picked up on key issues
·      Became better known
·      Decided to concentrate (but not exclusively) on West Coast
·      Saw the need to add miners to the Electoral Rolls
·      Made entertainment one of the key features of his future electoral campaigns

But it was also clear that he found a more radical tune to sing to – Better services, fair treatment,  a societal obligation to support individual effort.

It was on this platform he was elected to the first Federal Parliament.

For the next 17 years represented the interests of the West Coast in federal politics but just as importantly the West Coast kept a political maverick and firebrand on the national stage. During that period whether from opposition, the government backbenches or from the frontbenches of 2 Labor governments King O’Malley mixed his showmanship, buffoonery and love of comedy with a zest for hard work.

When he became Minister for Home Affairs in 1910 – he arrived at the office on his first day at 8 am and had to get the caretaker to open the door – he then wrote in large sized letters on the staff timebook – “King O’Malley 8am.” From that moment on there was always a rush by his public servants to be above O’Malley’s famous sign in line.

He agitated for aged pensions –

“The miner who goes to the West Coast of Tasmania and lives there in a hut, after years of struggling, accumulates nothing. There are thousands and thousands of them but the rich merchant, who does nothing but sends goods over there, accumulates a good fortune out of the miner….Miners find themselves in their old age absolute beggars in the midst of plenty.” (See Hoyle)

He was also an early advocate for universal health care and;
-       Construction of national capital
-       National bank
-       Transcontinental railroad
-       Australia House – Designed to show the Australian flag in the heart of the old country

He was a favourite of Trades Hall but deeply despised by leading members of the parliamentary ALP – especially Billy Hughes – who regarded him as mad, dangerous, a fool or all three.

He was a reformist who pushed for large nation building projects while looking out for the interests of those who fell by the wayside. Sharp-eyed journalists noted the difference in his public clowning and the way he attacked his work and the serious issues of governing. In 1917 he lost the election because his non-conscription/anti-militarism position put a wedge between  him and the voters of the West Coast.

The Spirit of the West Coast

In this part of the talk I want to explore some factors which I feel shaped O’Malley’s politics and vision. Most writers on O’Malley look at his politics and his career as largely being derived internally – and treat the West Coast as simply a stage with a more receptive audience than he had previously found.

My view is different. The coming of King O’Malley to the West Coast saw the merging or partnership of O’Malley’s reformist politics with a particular West Coast vision. Anyone who has tarried for more than a few seconds on the West Coast knows how dangerous it is to speak in generalisations about the West Coast – there have been and will always be very vocal and often very fiery critics who will let you know the world of difference between Queenie and Strahan, Gormie or Zeehan and vast the differences of the first 4 from Rosebery goes without question.

Yet like Binks – in his Pioneers of the West Coast I believe there are many things which support a view about a unique placed called the West Coast.

For decades – till very recent times – the main focus of settlement has been mining or related activities (very few other regions had such a focused activity at the heart of the whole region). So whilst there may be wide gulfs between those who supped at Penghana and those who lived in South Queenstown, or between the miners of tin and those of copper, or the shopkeeper and the widow created by a mining disaster – they shared more in common than those living elsewhere.

The landscape
-       Natural beauty
-       And the man blasted moonscape

Better talkers and writers than me have described the magic of the West Coast. I just know that when I am heading down Mt Arrowsmith on my way to Queenstown I have entered a landscape that swells and lifts my spirits to heights I pine for when I am away from the coast.

Patsy Crawford in her book on the King River and the quotations on the handout express the dramatic  contrast of rainforest and  snow topped peaks with the stripped hills and pollution of the Queen River valley.

The weather and the challenges like snow, bushfires, economic swings all forge a bond of common identity regardless of town, football team, workplace or duration spent on the West Coast. The rain forges new brotherhoods and the threat of job losses new kinships across other lines of separation.

The need for West Coast solidarity to gain access to essential infrastructure or services whether it be:
·      Railroads,
·      Roads
·      Schooling
·      Hospitals
·      Political representation
·      or the dredging of the sand bar at Hell’s Gates

There developed, and I think still remains, a strong degree of distinctiveness between those who work and live on the West Coast to other Tasmanians. I used to introduce myself first as a West Coaster, then Tasmanian – not sure if the same applies today – I suspect it does.

In this unique natural, employment, emotional and political landscape arose a sense of unity, separate identity and a desire for a full community life. The ideal that hard work – whether by forging through horizontal jungle like the prospectors,  building railroads, dams or the hard life of an underground miner - merited access to good services whether communication, education or recreational. And the women also did it tough – from a poem by Peter Hay about a friend who lived at Williamsford –

The house was freezing, the heater broken.
I’d put the kids in the old Valiant
And all day we’d drive Rosebery to Tullah,
Back an forth,
So the car would be warm when my husband knocked off….

Or a lyric from folk singer Phyl Lobl called “West Coast Litany” (also borrowed from Pete Hay’s book Vandemonium Essays):

Beauty lies within the eyes
Of those who choose to see,
Drawing in my head I hear
The West Coast Litany
That taught me how to listen to the rain
And how to be contented
Even though I know I’ve lost my liberty.

This was a region, that recognised the necessity to look beyond individual gain and interest from time to time towards community and regional interest. Whilst the individual, working shifts and playing footy in the winter and cricket in the summer, saving a fortune - might have little need of good roads to Hobart or Burnie an injured neighbour might.

Whilst Hobart based bureaucrats and politicians may underestimate the hurdles from primary school to further education – generations of West Coasters from King O’Malley on have not.

So King O’Malley came across a place he called the Rock of democracy – a place where political representatives of all political persuasions and at all levels of government put community service and community interest first.

It was from that political milieu he forged his thoughts about a people’s bank, a nation binding railway of a civic capital to represent all Australians from Cape York and Albury to Gormanston. Whilst, in King O’Malley’s words living in hell was preferable to living in Linda – the people in Linda still deserved pensions, banking services and to have the opportunity to make their contributions to Australia.

So whilst King O’Malley articulated the vision and sold it like an old time insurance salesman, showman and real estate seller it was a vision transformed by the West Coast.

The final steps in this journey

In the time remaining I just want to reflect on the relevance – if any that King O’Malley has for the West Coast of the 21st century – for the West Coast and King O’Malley a number of centenary marks have already passed and many others will pass in the next months and next few years. King O’Malley has travelled less well than many in the history books – such as Deakin, Fisher, Watson and  Billy Hughes.

He would have rolled several times in his grave with the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and even with the sale of Telstra.  A bank that pays little recognition to its founder either in terms of history or legacies like scholarships.

Books on or about the West Coast whether it be Patsy Crawford’s – God Bless Little Sister or Blainey’s Peaks of Lyell often only give a brief mention or cameo role to the King.

Canberra has a suburb name O’Malley and the irony of all ironies a prize winning pub called King O’Malley’s Irish Pub – for a temperance fighter and hater of the “stagger juice”

Queenstown has little except “O’Malley’s Restaurant “– now closed and a half torn and burnt sign (about 6 cm by 4 cm) – a size designed for easy reading by O’Malley’s favourite retort to heckler’s that there minds were the size of a Zeehan flea. The Zeehan and Queenstown  Museums  have  minimal displays about this significant national figure.

In other places I would expect to encounter a statute or two, actors wandering the street greeting “Brothers and Sisters” dressed in their Yankee finest or performing from balconies,  or a interactive interpretation centre. The CD “Mining the Imagination : Spirit of Place” comes the closest.

King O’Malley was not the only, or greatest or most worthy of West Coast legends but his national impact is one worthy of claiming for the West Coast.

The following article appeared in The Queenstowner,  Friday 15th October 2004 at page 8

In late January 1900, a one- man political movement stepped off the Queenstown train. It was one of those glorious Queenstown summer days when the ultra sharp blue of the cloudless sky is reflected by the bright white of the exposed quartz on the hillsides. “Tall, with golden beard and moustache,” noted one observer,  dressed like a rich Yankee in a 10- galleon hat, King O’Malley had arrived. This man, whose past would remain a mystery, had arrived fresh from political defeat in South Australia. He came to preach a radical political gospel to a working class still focussed on day- to- day survival rather than stories of a promised land. He was a politician in search of a constituency.

This was a new mining town of buildings and tents, less than 10 years old. Unhesitatingly, King O’Malley strode the main street greeting the locals with “good day brother.” He admired new- born babes and their mothers admired him. He organised and attended political meetings where he set out his demands for old age pensions, miners’ disability pensions and better conditions for workers, free education from primary school to university, construction of government railways, a Queenstown hospital, and a Queenstown branch of the Supreme Court. He moved around the camps and made his way to the little towns of Gormanston, Strahan, North Lyell and Zeehan.

 King O’Malley’s initial goal was a seat in the Tasmanian House of Assembly but even at this stage he was thinking more about laying the groundwork to become a member of the first Federal Parliament.  After two months of hard campaigning, this brash, strutting fashion peacock, who used to advise hecklers to take a good dose of Epsom Salts (or to suggest that their intellects failed to rival those of a Zeehan flea), lost the election to a better- known local candidate by a few hundred votes.

O’Malley had noticed that many of the miners failed to vote because they weren’t on the electoral rolls. So over the next few months he wandered through the hills and small valleys of the West Coast helping to create a new constituency. Miners who had been underground for long hours would stumble out of their mineshafts to be greeted by a tall, immaculately dressed American, although he always claimed he had been born in Canada. Even in the pouring rain he would greet them with “Good evening brothers. Are you on the Roll yet?” Over the campfire at night weary miners would be entertained by the O’Malley’s oratory, a mixture of gospel, history, politics which embodied a radical vision of a working man’s paradise. In fact he had for many years had sold insurance, and he found the switch to politics just required a simple alteration in the sales pitch.  In a region often starved of entertainment, a King O’Malley talk in a hall, from the balcony of Hunter’s Hotel or in a strategic storefront position on a Saturday morning was a highlight of the week.

He worked the West Coast and the North West Coast (including King Island) like a Southern Baptist preacher in the deep south of the USA. When the first Federal election was held, he outpolled Braddon (the former Premier of Tasmania) on the West Coast by over 1,000 votes out of the few thousand cast.  King O’Malley became a member of the first Federal Parliament of Australia.

Over the next 17 years King O’Malley continued to be the West Coast’s member in the Federal Parliament. He was a larger- than- life figure amongst the other political leading figures of that time, who included Barton, Deakin and Billy Hughes. Hughes detested O’Malley with great and bitter passion – which was returned ten-fold by O’Malley, who joined Hughes in the federal Labor Party.

During those 17 years O’Malley was a major driving force behind proposals for aged pensions, the transcontinental railroad, the building of Canberra and the creation of the people’s bank; the Commonwealth Bank. His contribution to these major aspects of nation building were often bitterly resisted or derided, but O’Malley would tirelessly campaign for his ideas. History, bitter rivals like Billy Hughes and time itself have removed most traces of his contributions to these major facets of Australian life. When he died in December 1952 he was the last surviving member of the first Australian Federal parliament.

King O’Malley and his life were full of paradoxes. Often his eccentric speech, clothing and behaviour led people to treat and think of him as a fool rather than a legend.  Yet he had a vision for fair access to services and infrastructure by West Coasters, and it seems strange that there is so little left here that bears his name.