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Monday, January 24, 2011

Vietnam and Damascus, via Coronation Drive [Final Part]

From Part 1: QU was radical because Queensland had the most repressive and compromised government in the country at the time, with Joh Bjelke-Petersen becoming Premier in that year. Say no more….

There were four notable firebrands on campus in 1968; Brian Laver, Dan O’Neill, Dick Shearman and Jim Prentice.

Ah, so much I could say here about these guys, but let’s stick to the main story. As early as 1968, events in Vietnam were turning from bad to worse for the US and the rest of the partners involved in the Vietnam enterprise. Not that the papers told us that. We were always killing scores of Viet Cong, apparently, and it would only be a matter of time before they would be driven out of Indo-China altogether.

So we were told. Driven out of where? Their own homeland? Dream on…..

There were lunchtime meetings and rallies over the microphone in the Student Union courtyard that you couldn’t avoid if you went to the Refectory for lunch, and usually it was one or more of these four 'radicals' doing the haranguing. There was some fiery debate. I remember Bob Katter, then president of the Young Country Party, doing battle with them, not very successfully. There were plain clothes cops constantly on campus. There were several other activist groups operating simultaneously in favour of women’s lib, legalisation of various drugs, and alternate lifestyle choices of one sort or another. Hippiedom was just around the corner; in fact, for a few, it had already arrived, or some of it had.

Generally I stayed out of these things pretty much, even in 1969, as I had an overloaded course and a great deal of competition. In an Honours year in History, there were only two or three First Class Honours awarded, but in my year there were eight students reckoned worthy of Firsts. They were unlikely to award eight Firsts the next year. The pressure was really on.

I did listen to Brian Laver and Dick Shearman – all of them, in fact. Laver, like my communist Teacher’s College lecturer years before, Ted d’Urso, had passion and conviction and was highly articulate, but not a visible trace of sense of humour. I don’t think I ever saw him smile, not that he had much to smile about, as he was hounded by the police once he left campus and thrown into jail at every opportunity.

Dan O'Neill
Shearman was viciously penalised in his academic career and even barred from his studies for at least two years. O’Neill, the English Literature lecturer and probably the greatest intellect of them all, took a long time to get anywhere in his career. I could tell you why but I’m not going to, as I don’t think there’s a Statute of Limitations on saying what I can’t prove about what happened to Shearman and O’Neill.

Prentice… well, he amused me in one way, in that the first time I saw him, his first day as a university student, he was dressed in a white shirt and tie, with neat short red hair. He was walking across to the Refectory at the Students Union as I was, and Bob Katter was talking about the betrayal being inflicted on humanity by the activities of Laver and Co. Prentice flew for him verbally and the exchange was as fiery as Prentice’s hair.

As an aside to this I have to tell you that this was the first and last time Jim Prentice looked so neat on campus. Over the remainder of the year, his hair grew wilder and longer and his dress standards declined suitably to sloppy jeans and old boots with no laces.

I am actually leading up to something here, not just reminiscing, because it precipitated something of an epiphany for me. But if I were St Paul on any road heading in the direction of Damascus then I wasn’t aware of it at the time. In fact, I was sitting in front of the TV. Here’s what happened.

Political activity on campus was really heating up. No Australian university student since 1975 can have any idea what true student radicalism was like, or the forces increasingly stacked against it, especially in Queensland. There were sit-ins at the QU administration building and marches from the university along Coronation Drive to the centre of Brisbane. And there were cameras all around at the university itself, recording everything that moved - speeches, demos of one sort or another, usually entirely unrelated. Some movie teams were from the TV channels, others weren’t saying, but no doubt a lot of the footage ended up in a large building in Canberra.

So, here I was the evening of a day that Brian Laver, a considerable number of students and an increasing complement of respected academics rallied on campus in preparation for a march the next day. There was a long report on it on one of the TV channel’s news broadcasts. I had seen everything that had gone on that lunchtime though was not a participant.

I could not believe what I saw on the TV presented as news. The opening segment of some five minutes of it purported to be a report on the lunchtime proceedings at the university. What I saw was the clever and deliberate splicing together of several unrelated activities, presented as a unified story. There were the radicals, suddenly there were pro-marijuana people with Laver and Shearman in the middle of them, then there were women’s rights activists like Merle Thornton (yes, the famous Sigrid’s mother, though this isn't fair comment on Merle's achievements,) and all this was presented as a continuum. The reporter's voiceover made sure of that. Dan O’Neill suddenly became a pot-smoking drug promoter, all were advocating revolution and mayhem to bring the city to a standstill.

In my naivety I had assumed that what you saw on the TV news was what happened. I knew of course that any story could be slanted, but I never really expected such a deliberate and crafted piece of deception could or would be thrust upon the public by something going under the banner of a news broadcast. (I know, things haven’t improved, have they? – they’ve got worse, if anything).

In my innocence I really thought all TV stations worth their salt would attempt to report to the public as truthfully as they could. Any member of the public watching the news that night would be expecting a rabble of drug-crazed, violent, mindless orcs to descend on the city centre, and the police force would be doing its duty clearing the area of them and making it safe to walk the streets.

In fact, the only people who would be rallying would be students, most of them looking as much as possible like John Lennon or Janis Joplin, and some utterly normal looking academic staff with boring haircuts and sincere convictions, peacefully trying to make their point in a way democracy was supposed to protect.

I knew that and felt outraged on their behalf. I have to say that I have always thought most demonstrations are pretty pointless unless they involve huge numbers and when public sentiment is on the side of the demonstrators, which, through disinformation via the press, was not happening in the late 60s and early 70s. But then you have to start somewhere.

In that demonstration the day following that news broadcast, it was those innocent protestors who suffered the indignities of jailing and criminalising when none of it was necessary. It was presented as a triumph of law and order over violence and subversion. And that was far from the only time it happened.

It was, in fact, a nasty form of petty Fascism and there was absolutely no excuse for it. None. My father fought in WWII to preserve a system that allowed people the right to freedom of speech, not to get their heads cracked open for defending their rights. He mightn't have agreed with their point of view, but he would have wanted them to have their say. Students joined these demonstrations because it became an issue of free speech as much as one of bad foreign policy.

I took much more careful notice after that of what was going on at the university in terms of student political activity. It’s not my wish to go into this here but I will say that it became more and more obvious that there was coordination of information between hostile student groups, the university administration, the police, the state and federal governments and the commercial press. ‘Run over the bastards’ may have been the NSW Premier Askin’s suggestion to his driver as to what to do to demonstrators in Sydney, but it could just as easily have come from a ministerial car on Coronation Drive in Brisbane in 1969 or the early 70s.

That little clinking sound wasn’t really to do with epiphany; it was the sound of the scales falling off my eyes. If people were to be pushed off the street I wanted it to be because they were dangerous to the public; not because they were trying to make a point, peacefully - and one which, in the case of the Indo-China war, certainly turned out to be totally justified.


Because we were placed in class groups alphabetically, my friends at Teacher's College had names starting mainly with 'W'. Both Neil and Lyn were in my group, and they ended up marrying.

Neil Weekes and Lyn Winter 1966
Neil was one of the Nashos who were called up for military service and stayed on in the Army, eventually becoming Brigadier. This photo was one I took the last time I ever saw him, at the end of our teacher training in 1965.

Brigadier Weekes served with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment in South Vietnam in 1968 as a Platoon Commander, where he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for gallantry.

He lost several men in this action, and I have no doubt he was very cool under fire.

I do sometimes wonder if Ted D'Urso's words came to him when the platoon first was first attacked, but I doubt it very much. I'm afraid that our outlooks these days would be very different to what they were then.

My other friend who was called up for military service at the same time returned from Vietnam a hopeless alcoholic and a broken man.


  1. Didn't you listen to Michael Duffy's series on the Music that Changed the World? In the 4th and final episode, he included an American commentator who said that the protest movements of the 60s were conducted by a bunch of selfish, self centred, greedy, irresponsible, ungrateful middle class kids with too much education (i.e. university). The result was that the poor of the time were excluded and further impoverished, and today we are still suffering the legacy of those days. But the music was good. Not one breath about the Vietnam war and what the selfish kids were protesting against.

    I sent him an email, protesting, but heard nothing in response.

  2. Very poor journalism if there's no attempt to balance the comment with something that a real researcher would have discovered, seeing as he appears to know so little about it personally.
    As you'll have gathered, I didn't see the series. Rather glad I didn't. I've got enough to be cranky about!

    I like this comment from Crikey's Nick Pickard:

    Why Michael Duffy’s wrong about arts in Australia
    CRIKEY / Monday, 19 May 2008
    Sydney Morning Herald columnist Michael Duffy needs to get out more. In Saturday’s op-ed pages Duffy wrote one of the more generalised and least researched pieces I have read from him in quite a while, writes Nick Pickard.

  3. Is it Michael Duffy who hosts 'Counterpoint' on RN? Supposedly a nonpartisan programme :) Are you watching the show about the CIA in Laos tonight in ABC TV?

  4. I don't know much about Duffy and his program probably is not partisan - I just think if something is not reported clearly or gives an impression of partisansip where none was intended, then it could obviously have been handled better. But I am on thin ice here as I really don't know enough personally about the programmes. I expected to be able to watch the CIA one on iView but so far it doesn't appear to be there. I've seen and read so much on the CIA and its role in various countries including Ino-China that I feel I can predict a lot of it and it is likely to make me as cranky as usual. It may still come on and I'll see if it is as infuriating as it always makes me that the fate of countries is in the hands of people who can't be held responsible for their actions.

  5. Michael Duffy hosts Counterpoint at 4:30 on Mondays on ABC Radio National, the time slot taken by Philip Adams during the rest of the week. Duffy was ABC's answer to John Howard's complaints about ABC left-wing bias, so Duffy is supposed to be the right-wing Philip Adams. Duffy used to be a member of the Labor party!!! A bit like Christopher Hitchens.

    I usually cannot listen to him. He does try hard to have guests with the counter-point of view, but the penny hasn't dropped that it's not the left wing that's being countered, but ethical, intelligent, compassionate, informed opinions and behaviours.

    Duffy hosted those "economists" who were paid by Exxon to contradict and undermine the evidence of Global Warming. You can imagine what those interviews were like. So of course, in a program about music from the 60s, the opposite point of view as to what was going on would be the gist of the programs. Pure rubbish, but the music is still good. I only listened for the music.

    The program on Laos was revelation to me. I hadn't realised that the US was bombing and invading Laos before the Gulf of Tonkin and before the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a target. I still couldn't work out why they were there, but it must have had something to do with the French. I'm sure you know all about it, Denis.

  6. The programme on Laos should be viewed by everyone. It is on iView [now that they finally fixed the glitch in the streaming]. Watch it. It is the most damning commentary on a travesty that relates to Indo-China, Afghanistan, Iraq, Central and South America. It shows that the real power in the US has been totally independent of public scrutiny and democratic ideals. The CIA drafted an army of child soldiers. Not even the Congress knew what its soldiers were doing. It was genocide. This was one of the worst war crimes in modern history. It's all right there, on the record and no-one denies its authenticity. It's not a fake as there's no way to fake it. And it achieved nothing but unspeakable human misery.
    They were there as part of a huge deception. I don't know all about it, I'm afraid, but it is about as moral as indisciminate bombing and shooting in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) that's going on today. Business as usual. And most Americans [and Australians] even today know NOTHING about what has been done under those flags of freedom so carefully hidden from them.
    That looks like some sort of lunatic rant. Would that it were. If only.

  7. My oh my, how sedate we must seem to you now! So busy texting no-one has time to demonstrate! Sad but true hey! Sx (Sharon)

  8. Hi again Sharon - lovely to see you here again. And yes, I'm afraid it's true. Students should be doing all those radical, sometimes irrational idealistic things that they could get their passion into. Right now there should have been massive demonstrations in the past 8 years about the mismanagement of middle eastern wars. Students are supposed to be there making a nuisance of themselves in the streets over things that matter. Where's the rage? The only student activity has been when there's a threat to their finances. That's OK, mind in conjunction with other things - but what has happened to the idealism and selflessness that made students fight for things worth getting passionate about? (I must sound like some diehard old lefty raging against the night.... but student politics seems so pathetic these days it doesn't deserve the name!)


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