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Australia 2048

By Chris Oakley


If you weren’t consciously searching for it, or didn’t know where it was already, you might have walked right past it. It was one of the smallest buildings in Sydney, a two-story postage stamp of a building located in one of the city’s heritage districts; its boxy concrete shape made it blend in with the plethora of other two- story and one-story buildings with which it shared the district. Yet within its walls was a treasure trove of artifacts from a century ago, when Australia had exploded into full-blown civil war. Once it had housed the official newspaper of the long-defunct Communist Party of Australia; now it was a historical center documenting Sydney’s role in the bitter internal conflict which had ravaged the Australian countryside and many of Australia’s cities for four long years.

There were spent bullet casings from the CPA’s initial attack on the Australia Broadcasting Commission radio studios the day the war began. There was a tattered CPA flag which had flown over Sydney Harbor during the Communist insurgents’ three-week-long occupation of the Garden Island naval base. Under glass were preserved front page headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald that chronicled every major event of the war from start to finish. On both floors there were mannequins dressed in uniforms from both the government forces and the CPA rebel militia; the walls were hung with examples of pro-Communist as well as anti-Communist propaganda.

One of the building’s few concessions to the mid-21st century was a multimedia and computer center tucked into three backrooms on the first floor. At one of those terminals, Jonathan Simmons was trying-- without much success--to access an online biography of Lance Sharkey, the man who’d started the war and led the CPA insurgents until he was killed in an RAAF bombing raid on his headquarters in 1952. The host server for the site where the biography was posted had gone down for what seemed like the tenth time in as many minutes. "Bloody hell!" he snapped at the terminal screen, which was displaying the words every online researcher hates: The page cannot be displayed. He was a chubby son of a gun, with hair clipped down almost to the follicle and blackheads on his nose he would have done anything to get rid of.

For Jonathan, like most other Australians born after 2010, the Australian Civil War-- a.k.a. the Sharkey Rebellion --was largely an abstract event. There were very few people left in Australia who were old enough to have experienced the conflict first-hand, and those people were dropping like flies as age took its toll on them. The last surviving combat veteran of that war had died the day after Jonathan’s most recent birthday, and there were only a handful of civilians left who recalled the era, most of them living in New South Wales, which during the war had been a major CPA stronghold.

He hadn’t originally planned on majoring in history at university; for most of his school years, chemistry had been more his thing. That, however, had started to change around Year 9 when he had happened to  turn on the History Channel on his family’s satellite TV one afternoon and see Peter Watkins’ old black-and-white movie about the Battle of Culloden. From that day on, he had become more and more curious about world history in general and Australian national history specifically; that put him in marked contrast with most of his classmates, who by the time they finished high school were heartily sick of anything to do with history, Australian or otherwise, and had sworn never to open another history book again as long as they lived.

By the time he started his first year at Sydney University, he had long since given up his old childhood ambition to be a chemist and decided to major in history. And that was how he came to be in the multimedia section of Sydney’s Civil War Memorial Center early in his second year, trying to supplement the half-dozen or so books that he’d checked out from the Sydney University main library with some online information about the CPA’s most notorious insurgent leader.

The macabre black and white photos he’d seen on the walls when he first came in the museum hadn’t helped his concentration much. They’d unnerved him something fierce, like those YouTube videos he’d seen as a kid of bodies being carried out of that Oregon fishing lodge after Mount Hood erupted. The black and white photos showed the aftermath of some of the war’s most hard-fought battles; you practically had to be made of titanium not to flinch when you saw them. Corpses stacked up like firewood, city blocks where buildings had literally been burned to ashes, soldiers from both the government army and CPA forces shorn of body parts to the point where they resembled horror movie ghouls. He’d had to fight like mad to suppress the urge to turn and flee from the museum when he first glimpsed those photos...Jonathan could only imagine how much harder it must have been for the unfortunate souls who’d been obliged to snap them.

CANBERRA, September 8th(AP)--In a live radio address to his fellow countrymen, Australian prime minister Ben Chifley announced today that Australia is now in a state of civil war. The shocking news followed attempts by Communist Party of Australia(CPA) armed guerrillas to seize Parliament House in Canberra and the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s main transmission studios in Sydney. Lance Sharkey, the CPA general secretary and suspected instigator of the uprising, is still at large....

While he waited for the site he was trying to access to come back online, he decided to return to the museum’s home page. He’d visited the home page twice already today, and he’d found out some interesting tidbits he hadn’t known before about the Sharkey Rebellion-- like who had actually conceived the plans for the original attack on the Garden Island naval complex. Before his death in an RAAF bombing raid on his headquarters, Sharkey had always claimed it had been his idea to seize the naval base; however, papers recovered after the Australian Civil  War ended would suggest that it had been actually been a member of theCPA women’s auxiliary who conceived the battle plan. Jonathan tapped  the side of the monitor, trying to coax himself to remember who that member was. "What was her name?" he asked himself, racking his brains six ways to Sunday. "McGuinness? Maclynnis? Glennis?"

Excerpt from the book The Multitudinous Seas: The Fight For New South Wales And Its Impact On The Australian Civil War, copyright 1985 Melbourne University Press:

Miranda Glennis has never gotten her due for her contributions to the strategy that enabled Lance Sharkey’s CPA insurgents to occupy Sydney’s Garden Island naval base and hold it for three weeks against numerically superior government troops. Yet were it not for her insights on the tactics that would be needed to overcome Garden Island’s defenses, Sharkey’s rebellion might have ended not with a bang but with a whimper.

Part of the responsibility for Glennis’ obscurity lies with Sharkey himself; he wanted to be seen as the sole architect of the CPA uprising’s "inevitable" victory over the forces of the Canberra government, thus he minimized the importance of her input in the battle plans for the capture of Garden Island. Another key to this obscurity is the loss of many crucial papers related to the Garden Island campaign in the RAAF bombing raid on Sharkey’s headquarters that killed Sharkey and most of his senior military aides in the summer of 1952.…

Jonathan had visited the Garden Island Memorial Center on his way to this museum, and while they’d been considerably more informative on the subject of Miranda Glennis than the official archives of the long-defunct CPA, they hadn’t been able to fill in all the gaps about her role in the Garden Island siege either. Probably nobody ever would, he mused ruefully as he checked the timer on the terminal screen to see how much longer he could remain there. He remembered something one of his Year 10 teachers had once said about "the fog of war" and figured it probably applied to her one way or another.

To his relief, the homepage for Sharkey’s online bio finally came up on the screen. He just hoped he could keep it there long enough to download the PDF file of Sharkey’s diaries from the final months of his life. The last thing he needed was to have the site crash on him yet again while he was trying to access that PDF file....

Excerpt from the introduction to The Sharkey Diaries: Portrait of a Guerrilla Leader, copyright 1998 Sydney University Press:

The journals which Lance Sharkey kept prior to his death in an RAAF tactical bombing raid on his field headquarters in June of 1952 are a fascinating-- and at times disturbing --exercise in the study of a zealot’s mentality. Sharkey’s desire to install a Communist regime in Australia grew into an obsession with personally destroying prime minister Ben Chifley as the civil war intensified, and he would later transfer that obsession to Chifley’s successor Robert G. Menzies; Menzies in particular would become the Moby Dick to Sharkey’s Captain Ahab, and like that ill-fated fictional mariner the CPA rebel chief would fall victim to his fixation. His grudge against Menzies clouded his tactical and strategic judgment, and may  have in the end cost him any realistic chance of winning the war-- it assuredly cost him his life.…

It was in Jonathan’s estimation the longest PDF file he’d ever set eyes on. The first chapter alone easily took up fifteen pages. He was frankly surprised the computer hadn’t crashed like an overloaded hover bike. He could remember one time when he was a kid and his father had  cursed a blue streak because a PDF file that was a measly three pages long had made his family’s computer go down for a week; he also had a disturbing recollection of a six-page PDF file infecting his laptop with a virus that effectively erased everything on his hard drive up to and including the laptop’s operating system.

He was up to the April 7th, 1952 entry in Sharkey’s war journals when-- sure enough --the Sharkey bio site went down again. It took a great deal of Jonathan’s self-control to keep himself from bashing the terminal to pieces at that point; as it was, he glowered at it with a seething hate one normally reserves for mass murderers, war criminals, or Adam Sandler movies.

CANBERRA, June 17th(AP)--The Australian Ministry of Defence issued a statement today reporting that Lance Sharkey, leader of the Communist Party of Australia and the ongoing CPA guerrilla war against the government of prime minister Robert G. Menzies since 1948, was killed early this morning in an RAAF bombing raid against his command post in New South Wales...

Jonathan remembered hearing about that bombing attack during one of his Year 11 history courses at school; as his teacher related it, the RAAF planes had timed their attack to hit Sharkey’s base camp just before sunrise, when the alertness of its defenders would be at its lowest ebb. The RAAF plan had worked to near-perfection; figuratively caught asleep at the switch, the CPA insurgents hardly even had time to pick up their guns before the bombs started falling. One of those bombs had landed only a foot from Sharkey’s quarters and had literally blown him to pieces.

From that point on, the starch had more or less gone out of the CPA uprising. With Sharkey no longer available to unify the various factions within the CPA’s ranks, the rebels had turned on each other like hungry sharks and the government forces had been able to pick off the remnants of the insurgent army one by one, until by the time of the four-year anniversary of the outbreak of the war, there were only memories left of what had once been a fearsome guerrilla force. Barely a month after the fourth anniversary of the start of the Australian Civil War, the last ragtag squad of CPA insurgents surrendered to an Australian army infantry major in a farmhouse north of Adelaide...

Excerpt from Chapter 12 of Retreat: The Collapse Of The CPA Insurgency, copyright 2003 Sydney University Press:

Fifty-five years after the Australian Civil War began, it seems difficult for us in the twenty-first century to believe it could have ended with a simple visit to a farmhouse north of Adelaide. But for the remains of what had once been the Australian People’s Liberation Army, there was no other choice: if they did not surrender, they would be in all likelihood wiped out by the Australian government army or succumb to starvation. Even if there had been alternatives open to them, it’s likely they would have capitulated anyway; the death of Lance Sharkey crushed the hopes of many CPA partisans. More to the point, his demise shattered the fragile unity that had existed between the CPA’s myriad factions during the war-- without him serving as the glue that held these factions together, the divisions that had long existed within the insurgents’ ranks and Sharkey had struggled mightily to suppress resurfaced with a vengeance.

After Sharkey’s death, the APLA essentially started eating its own as the rebels became more interested in fighting each other than in waging war on the forces of the Menzies government. The regular Australian army, which Sharkey had briefly managed to put on the defensive before he was killed in the now-famous June 1952 bombing raid on his headquarters, regained the initiative and kept it for good, easily neutralizing the insurgent cells in a series of lightning-swift tactical raids specifically designed to capitalize on the disorganization that beset the CPA rebels after Sharkey died.

If, as many modern historians suggest, Sharkey’s demise marked the death of the Communist Party of Australia, one could say that the surrender of the last remaining insurgent cell in October of 1952 constituted the CPA’s funeral. When that lone band of guerrillas laid down its arms, the last nail was hammered into the coffin of Sharkey’s dream of bringing Marxist rule to Australia....

Jonathan was abruptly jolted back to the present by a disembodied feminine voice from the museum’s PA system: "Attention patrons: it is now 5:00 PM and the Memorial Center will be closing in thirty minutes. Be sure that you return your admissions pass to the main desk before you leave and that you check to be sure you have all of your personal effects with you...." There was also a reminder about paying carpark  fees, but Jonathan didn’t pay much attention to it; he just knew that he had to get things wrapped up in a hurry.

He fished around in his pockets for his printer card and found it buried under six ATM slips and his museum admissions ticket. With one deft motion he pulled the card from his pocket and slid it into a thin slot in the front of his terminal’s CPU housing; he then clicked the "Print" icon on the web page he was surfing, and from there he chose "Print All" from the list of options for the printer menu. Once the computer had deducted the appropriate amount of cash from the card the printer began to softly whirr and churn out pages of Sharkey’s biography and war diaries. The whole job took less than five minutes,  and to Jonathan it seemed to fly by in an even shorter time.

Once the print job was finished, he took the printouts and slid them into his book bag. He then clicked the ‘Log Out’ icon down in the lower right corner of his terminal screen and walked out of the museum multimedia center to the first floor exits. As he left the museum and started walking down the street towards the nearest bus stop, he began to reflect on what he’d seen while he was at the museum. Until today, he’d had little idea of just how much Australia had lost during those long and grim years when the country was at war with itself; now that  he had time to think about the horrific images he’d been confronted with and the tragic stories he’d read while at the museum, he found himself starting to feel a melancholy he hadn’t thought he was capable of. Back when he was eight, he’d heard a newsreader from Channel 9 say that Australia’s heart had been torn out by the civil war, and he’d wondered for years afterward what that meant. Now he knew, and it made him sad beyond words.

Excerpts from Beneath The Southern Cross: The Australian Civil War 70 Years Later, copyright 2018 Simon & Schuster:

When the Australian Civil War finally ended in October 1952, a once-vibrant nation whose people were famous for their joie de vivre had been reduced to a battle-torn patchwork of ruined cities and isolated farming settlements where merely surviving from one day to the next was an epic challenge in itself and anything more ambitious or refined than that was at best a pipe dream or a dim memory of better days long since past.

One event that drove home the terrible emotional and psychic wounds the war had inflicted on the Australian people was the shocking 1958 suicide of Harold Holt, a promising and gifted politician who many historians feel might one day have made an outstanding prime minister. Holt had been severely traumatized by the war, and despite his best efforts to overcome that trauma, he was in the end too gravely injured emotionally to be able to heal from his experiences in that tragic time.

It is believed that the incident which finally pushed him over the edge and induced him to drown himself on that fateful November morning sixty years ago was the October ’58 discovery of a mass grave near Perth filled with the bodies of over two hundred civilians, mostly women and children, alleged to have been executed by the CPA; Holt was among the MPs who toured the grave as part of the Parliament special committee investigating the Perth atrocities and witnessed the exhumation of the bodies. For Holt, who had already seen and heard far too much during the Australian Civil War, this must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Since Holt’s suicide the beach where the Higgins Liberal Party MP drowned himself has become the site of a granite monument denoting the spot where he threw himself into the waters of the Pacific; this monument is a focal point for Australians seeking to pay homage to Holt’s all-too-short life and political career.


Another casualty of the Sharkey Rebellion: the city of Melbourne’s bid to host the 1956 Summer Olympics. Before the CPA uprising, Melbourne had been seen as having a good chance to become the first Southern Hemisphere city ever to host an Olympic Games; however, by the time that the International Olympic Committee made its final choice in April of 1949 the Victoria state capital had been forced to withdraw its application due to the bloodshed still gripping most of Australia at that point. The death of Melbourne’s Olympic dreams cast a pall over the city that would still haunt its residents more than a generation later.

Even today, when the Sharkey Rebellion is now a distant (and for some, fading) memory, a feeling of melancholy seems to linger in the very air Melbourne’s  citizens breathe. By the downcast mood prevalent in many of its districts one can hardly tell that seven minutes have elapsed since the start of the Rebellion, let alone seven decades. Between the general horror of the civil war and the specific trauma of losing the opportunity to host an international event of the magnitude of the Summer Olympics, much of the city’s vitality was drained out of its soul; only time will tell whether the efforts of the present generation of civic and business leaders in Melbourne to recover that vitality will bear fruit...

Depression hung over Jonathan like a fog on his bus ride back to Sydney University. He wished he’d never set foot in the Sydney Civil War Memorial Center; visiting that museum was like reading a suicide note from a friend, he thought, except in this case the suicide note had been written by an entire generation of his fellow countrymen. It could drive you insane to dwell too long on the contrast between how things were in Australia now and how they could have been if the civil war had never happened. Because of the Sharkey Rebellion, Australia had spent decades playing catch-up with the rest of the Western world world in a bid to recover the fruits of post-World War II prosperity which had suddenly been yanked from its grasp by the CPA revolt. Bile rose in Jonathan’s throat as he was getting off the bus...

"Why didn’t you stupid bastards arrest Sharkey when you had the chance?!" he abruptly burst out to a passing Sydney policeman, causing the policeman to blink in understandable bafflement.

The End


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