A Matter of Choice

Bloody Sunday

Hal Colebatch

The strike and riots on Fremantle Wharf which occurred in 1919 when my father, the late Sir Hal Colebatch, was Premier, have given rise to many legends.

The strike and riots grew out of a labor dispute over the unloading of the cargo ship Dimboola. In Communist Party mythology, they led to the downfall of the Colebatch Government.

In fact, Sir Hal Colebatch resigned the Premiership shortly after because he could not get a Metropolitan seat in the Legislative Assembly and had been Premier from the Legislative Council; as far as I know this is the only time in Australian history this has occurred, even for a short period. He believed it was not practical to continue from the Council. While I do not know if it played a part in his decision to step down (he continued as a Minister in the succeeding Mitchell Government, then as Agent-General, Senator, Agent-General again and finally as MLC again), he was also suffering from diabetes, then untreatable. He was about to die in a Hospital in India on his way to England in the 1920s when he became one of the first people in the world to be treated with Insulin, but that is another story.

In some Tory circles, another myth grew: that a Liberal Premier had once broken up a strike by personally leading a bayonet charge. This is a good story to repeat over the port and cigars, but alas the facts are slightly different.

Mr Bill Latter's version of the Bloody Sunday riots of 1919 also has little relation to truth. Mr Latter, by the way, was a Communist Party of Australia member for twenty years, joining the party in 1948. I think we all remember enough history to recall who was leading it in Moscow at that time. After a party membership that encompassed the heroic days of defeating counter-revolution in Hungary in 1956, and a distinguished trade union career, he was appointed to the University of Western Australia's Senate by the previous State Government. I understand he is up for re-appointment and it will be interesting to see if he continues to be responsible for the shaping of young minds.

He has now taken to historical researches into the Western Australian Trade Union movement, and a major interview with him on this very subject was published in the West Australian as recently as 9 April 1994.

Mr Latter claims the Fremantle lumpers went on strike "to prevent the quarantined ship Dimboola being unloaded:", and that: "The lumpers refused to unload the ship because it was feared passengers on board were infected with influenza."

He further suggests the State Government was the instigator of the trouble by over-reacting to a falsely perceived "Bolshevik" threat. The facts of Bloody Sunday have been documented by a professional historian, Dr Brian de Garis, of the University of Western Australia. I have also researched it independently. They are as follows:

The Lumper's Union called a strike to drive out members of a rival labor organisation, the National Workers. This was simply an effort to preserve a labour monopoly for themselves, though it appears ideologically motived Communist agitators were also involved. Apart from the possible dreams of a few hopeful would-be Stalins and Berias, it had no moral dimension.

The Commonwealth Government had originally guaranteed continued employment to the Nationalist workers, and the Commonwealth Government was also in charge of all shipping matters at the time, through the Commonwealth Controller of Shipping.

Because of strikes and the influenza quarantine, there was an acute shortage of perishable goods in Perth in April 1919. The Dimboola arrived from Melbourne carrying the Premier, Mr Lefroy, passengers, and urgently needed goods including medical supplies for Perth hospitals. Because of the influenza epidemic, the medical situation in Western Australia was critical.

When the Dimboola arrived, the passengers and most of the crew were put into quarantine, but the Federal (not State) authorities said some crew members could berth the ship before they were quarantined. At this stage Harbour Trust officials (not the lumpers) refused to allow the ship to berth and insisted it be fumigated at anchor with the crew removed.

Once the ship had been fumigated the harbour officials arranged for it to be berthed, but the Lumpers' Union then stated that even though it had been fumigated, it would not allow it to be unloaded by the rival organisation, and threatened the government that it would use force to keep the National Workers out.

The State Government tried without avail to waken the Federal authorities to their responsibilities in the matter. The Acting Prime Minister, Watt, simply told the State Government that it was its responsibility to put the National Workers to work and afford them protection. Dr de Garis writes:

Neither the Lumpers' Union nor the National Workers would agree to refer the dispute to the Arbitration Court; when the [State] Government was able to agree with the Lumpers' Union on some principles on which work could continue while the larger issues were settled, the Commonwealth Controller of Shipping ruled them out as infringing on preference to National Workers.
By the end of April the food situation had become serious and hospital patients were reported to be suffering from lack of necessaries which were on the Dimboola.

It was under these circumstances, and after warning the Lumpers' Union, that the State Government reluctantly intervened to have the Dimboola unloaded. Given Mr Latter's political history, I can understand he may be sorry militant revolutionaries did not, in 1919, succeed in establishing a Soviet system in Western Australia, with all the joys and glories that inevitably accompany such great ventures in human perfectibility. Others may feel grateful that the Government nipped such matters in the bud and that it did so with what was, given the temper of the times, rather little force. In any event, much of the agitation seems to have been no more than a fight between rivals over division of the spoils.

While Mr Latter suggests the heroes of the Lumpers' Union were ex-servicemen, it should be pointed out that members of the National Workers were also ex-servicemen, who presumably had an equal right to work, at least in their own eyes. It was because of this and because of the lumpers' record of strikes in the first World War betraying servicemen at the front that the Federal Government had awarded preferences to the National Workers, an intervention on whose morality I make no comment.

It may be thought that these matters are unimportant now and that it is pedantic to call attention to errors of historical fact. However, I believe the proliferation of false mythologies under the guise of history is one of the major factors corrupting Australian intellectual life and discourse today, and one should at least occasionally make a stand against it.

As one might expect, the grossest lies about the matter are the creation of the late unlamented Professor Manning Clark in his A History of Australia. Let us look at Clark's account. Professor Colin Roderick has pointed out that Clark's account of the life of Henry Lawson seems to have been taken in part from an inaccurate work, The Grey Dreamer by one Denton Prout. This account of the wharf riots appears to have been taken in part from a Communist Party of Australia history written by one Justina Williams, who includes among her recreations in the 1979 Western Australian Who's Who, the "social and political significance of witchcraft" and whose literary career included a spell in Moscow when her husband was Tribune's correspondent there, some time before the installation of Mr Gorbachev. Clark wrote:

{For Labor} class war was the central fact of life. On 22 April 1919 two thousand men gathered on the wharf at Fremantle to prevent 'scab' workers getting onto the Dimboola. John Curtin had much to say about the evils of the presence of the police on the wharves, the brazen indifference of the shipping ring and the Government of Western Australia, and their wicked attempts to 'govern by starvation'. The workers and the employers were spoiling for a fight. This time, John Curtin believed, capitalism would not win by forcing hunger to 'gnaw at the vitals of men, women and children'. To ensure victory, to ensure that there was no capitulation because of starvation, the Labor movement must make arrangements to feed the wharf lumpers and their families. The time had come for a redistribution of wealth. The wharf lumpers were a vanguard in the movement for social justice...
Harry (Hal) Colebatch, the Premier of Western Australia, organised a force to achieve by armed might what persuasion and argument failed to achieve. He equipped and trained a squad of police as a military raiding party, complete with rifles, bayonets, ball cartridges, revolvers and other military tools to drive Union workers off the wharves. On Sunday, 4 May, Colebatch attended in person to help his volunteers erect barricades on the wharfs. Enraged by this act of provocation, the lumpers smashed the pick-up bureau and threw the 'scabs' into the Swan River. The Riot Act was read. A crowd of two thousand, composed of men and women armed with pieces of coal and stones, surged towards the police. Women, more desperate, it was said, than the men, insisted on being in the front row of the advancing army. The order was given for the police to charge: the mounted men galloped their horses towards the union crowd. One union man received a bayonet wound in the thigh. The police dispersed the crowd. There were thirty-five casualties. That evening Colebatch declared that the whole point at issue was whether or not law and order and constituted authority were to be maintained. Lawlessness, he said, could not serve the interests of the workers. John Curtin reminded Colebatch that the Czar of Russia had called on law and order to perpetrate a Bloody Sunday, and look what had happened to him. Billy Hughes sent messages from Paris. He told his supporters in Brisbane he was delighted with the attitude of the Brisbane returned soldiers towards the Bolsheviks. He was just as enthusiastic about the rough-house tactics of Hal Colebatch, a man who gave the troops the stuff they needed ... pp 120-121.

This passage is a combination of ideological fantasy, disregard for primary and secondary sources, and a quite scandalous selectivity and omission in the use of facts. The essential facts about the 1919 riot and the role of Mr (later Sir) Hal Colebatch (he was not known as 'Harry') are as follows:

When Manning Clark was alive I challenged him to produce any evidence to support his statement that the police who were sent to the wharf were a 'military raiding party', that they received any special military equipment or had received any training apart from the riot and crowd control that is part of ordinary police training. Further, it is not usual for the organisers of "raiding parties to issue warnings before-hand as the State Government did. He thanked me for my letter but made no further attempt to substantiate his lies. It is unlikely anyone issued 'ball cartridges', a fairly archaic term of military ceremonial dating from black powder and shot days.

The police could, of course, but in the event did not, use guns if the situation demanded it, like police anywhere, though unlike many police forces then and certainly now, only if various formalities and procedures were gone through first.

Clark's ideological polemic aside, the sheer incompetence of an historian making such a statement is emphasised by the following fact: Colebatch had been elected Premier on 15 April, 1919, when the trouble had already begun, and had only sixteen clear days as Premier before the riot (he had previously been Colonial Secretary) with all the business of forming a new government and many other duties to attend to.

How could a 'military raiding party' have been organised, equipped and trained in such time? Who would have provided the training? Even if it had had time, the State Government had no way of giving military training and was Constitutionally prohibited from doing so.

Had Clark cared for facts or the most basic historical methodology, the dates alone should have shown him the nonsensical nature of this statement. Even one who cared more for propaganda and mythologising than for truth would have served his own case better by displaying less professional incompetence and stupidity.

Furthermore, the allegation of 'brazen indifference' by the Government of Western Australia is directly contradicted by readily available sources which one thinks a professional historian would consult. Disdaining these with some brazen indifference of his own, Clark allowed Curtin's alleged rhetoric to stand as the last word on the matter (I have not checked on what Curtin really said, generally a useful exercise when correcting Manning Clark, but it is worth noting in passing that Curtin and Sir Hal Colebatch were on quite cordial terms until Curtin's death).

In fact, as the trouble was brewing Colebatch sent several long telegrams to the Acting Prime Minister, Watt, in which he clearly explained the dangers of the situation, warned of violence if the work was proceeded with, and urged the Commonwealth Government to settle the dispute by negotiation. For example, Colebatch told Watt on 23 April 1919:

Without doubt any effort being made to force the employment of Nationalist workers [would] provoke violence and grave disorder probably followed by widespread industrial trouble.

Watt took no action at all, and insisted it was the responsibility of the State Government to protect the Nationalist volunteers. The State Government then unsuccessfully tried to organise negotiations. Neither the Union nor the Nationalist workers would agree to the dispute being referred to the Industrial Court.

Furthermore, when the State Government was able to agree with the Lumpers' Union on some principles on which work could continue while the larger negotiations were settled, the Commonwealth Controller of Shipping ruled this out as infringing the preference to Nationalist workers.

Clark's account of the riot of 4 May 1919 is another ideologised travesty of the facts, which are as follows: Apart from food and hospital shortages, merchants, shop-keepers and consignees in Perth were in a desperate situation. If there was an attempt being made to'govern by starvation', it was not the work of the government or capitalists, but of labour monopolists. Colebatch finally decided to use police to maintain law and order if necessary while the Dimboola was unloaded.

Colebatch's very consistent philosophy in a public career of fifty years was to minimise government intervention in commercial and private activity, and there is no doubt that he committed the Western Australian Government to intervene in the Dimboola affair with extreme reluctance and only after he believed all other alternatives had been exhausted. However, to have stood aside Pontius Pilate-like would have meant Perth's commerce coming to a halt, bankruptcies, unemployment, loss of food supplies, probable hospital deaths and possibly chaos which could have been catastrophic if it led to the breaking of the Spanish Influenza quarantine. Because of the epidemic, Western Australia was in a virtual state of siege.

On 1 May, Colebatch warned the Union lumpers that he would bring police onto the wharf if they did not either put forward acceptable proposals for settlement or cease picketing the wharf and preventing others from unloading the Dimboola. The Union lumpers refused to do this and the next morning the State Government officially took control of the wharf.

Barricades were erected at the wharf (not by the Government, but by the desperate consignees of the Dimboola's cargo) on the morning of Sunday, 4 May. Two launches full of volunteer workmen went down the river to the harbour.

With considerable personal courage, considering the likelihood of trouble, the Premier went with them on one of the launches. As they passed under the two Fremantle bridges large pieces of stone and scrap-iron were thrown down at them. This could easily have sunk the launches or (as was probably intended) killed the occupants.

The circumstances of the attack on the Premier's party are mentioned in one of the most basic source-books of Australian history, Crowley's Modern Australia in Documents (Wren, 1973 ). In that work the editor comments at page 322:

A launch carrying Premier Colebatch from Perth to the scene of trouble received a heavy bombardment of road metal and old iron as it passed under the two Fremantle bridges, and the Premier came close to being assassinated when masonry hit the deck of his launch...

Australian historical documents were supposed to be Professor Clark's academic speciality. For him to have ignored this was more than the action of an incompetent historian. It was the action of the same liar who, as Dame Leonie Kramer and others have pointed out, fraudulently altered the diaries of Sir Robert Menzies in an attempt to blacken his character.

When the members of the launch party disembarked at Fremantle, the police meeting them were armed only with batons. Bayonets were a figment of Professor Clark's fantasising. The police were attacked by a mob of lumpers armed with stones, iron bars, shovels and pick-handles, and throwing nuts, bolts and scrap-iron missiles. A number of police were injured, some seriously.

The crowd swelled to two or three thousand. Many of these were simply spectators, but others had more sinister motives.

Several shorts were fired at the police. The shooting was possibly the work not merely of labour monopolists but also of real revolutionary terrorists, with standard terrorist objectives. In any event, guns had been brought and concealed with deliberate violence in mind.

In Europe in 1919 the reply from the forces of law and order would probably have featured artillery, as it did in Dublin, Berlin, Munich, Budapest and several other cities about that time. Such was indeed the answer to striking and violent white miners in South Africa three years later.

In fact, the behaviour of the police under this attack, and in the immediate aftermath of what amounted to an attempt to murder the Premier and other officials, speaks for itself and for those who can visualise the scene even a dry academic account paints a picture of not merely great restraint but also quite inspiring bravery on the part of those involved.

It was only after the police had been fired at that the Commissioner of Police ordered cartridges to be brought from the police station and sent for a magistrate so that the Riot Act could be read. There was then a police charge. In the melee one lumper, Thomas Edwards, was injured and later died, although exactly how this occurred is unknown. (It seems Edwards may have been hit by a baton or a flying missile or been pushed over and trampled. He did not receive a bayonet wound. An inquest returned an open finding).

The secretary of the Labor Federation, McCallum, who had come to remonstrate with the official party, accepted that all the shots had been fired at, not by, the police and undertook to quieten the lumpers. The Police Commissioner then told Colebatch that the police could not control the situation without the use of firearms which only then were being issued and loaded.

Colebatch would not authorise this, and a conference was hurriedly convened between the Premier, Police Commissioner and officials of the lumpers' union. To defuse the situation the official party agreed to withdraw.

The barricades were thrown into the harbour some time in the afternoon, but there is no evidence that so-called 'scabs' were thrown into the Swan River. Several attacks on police took place from ambushes in Fremantle over the next few days: a number of police were set upon with iron fence railings and seriously injured and shots were fired at others. These attacks were plainly planned well in advance. One police sergeant, Simpson, who saw some of these later shootings, said the attackers obviously intended to kill.

Dr de Garis has commented:

Apparently the Labor Party felt under no such compulsion [as had the government] to calm down the explosive situation, for Collier, the leader of the Party, shamelessly exploited it for political ends in a way that could have caused tragedy. In a highly inflammatory speech to the lumpers, the Labor leader, normally a moderate man, not only viciously attacked Colebatch, but congratulated the men on a successful riot and exhorted them not to give an inch.

It is amusing that Collier, who swore to hound Colebatch out of Public Life because of this episode, as Premier himself, was to send in far larger and better-armed bodies of police to quell riots which he blamed on Communist agitators at Kalgoorlie. Further, he consulted Colebatch continually and kept him on as Agent General for Western Australia in London for about ten years in the 1920s and 1930s. But that too is another story.

Since the Government was not prepared to crush the Lumpers' Union by armed force, a labour monopoly was preserved, its cost, like most monopolies, being borne by ordinary Australian people, most directly by farmers and exporters and those employed by them, but indirectly by the whole population.

However, it is impossible, Dr de Garis says, to see how Colebatch could have acted very differently at any stage. He continues:

The problem was not of his making---it had sprung from the actions of lumpers, employers, and Commonwealth Government several years before, and it had gradually worsened in the intervening years because no one was prepared to remedy an obviously undesirable arrangement. The problem was a local offshoot of a national disturbance."

Because of Australia's industrial relations system as was in place then, Colebatch found himself under conflicting pressures from within the union and labor movements and from employers and merchants, as well as the urgent social and humanitarian needs to supply food to Perth and necessities to hospitals. Although only a few days into the Premiership, and suffering from a weakening and debilitating condition, he responded to a violent crisis with both political moderation and personal physical and moral courage.

Similar trouble occurred on the Melbourne wharves a month later, when Nationalist workers were again violently assaulted by Unionist lumpers, but the larger police force of Melbourne made it possible for the Nationalists to work on the wharves there under protection. Following this the Commonwealth Government belatedly appointed a Royal Commission, which at least averted further violence. However, since the wharves continued to be worked with notorious inefficiency, criminality and disruption with major strikes at strategic periods during the Second World War, it was by no means a particularly happy outcome for the people of Australia.

The lesson of this episode is, of course, the lesson of H. R. Nicholls---the system of follies and fantasies erected by the political judge, racist, anti-semite and crank Henry Bourne Higgins, have cost Australia dear. Its destruction would be the best and most constructive way possible to commemorate 100 years of Australian federation, an anniversary which otherwise promises little to celebrate and a cause which otherwise---at least to we Western secessionists---arouses little enthusiasm.