O Tempora, O
The September Revolt 60 Years Later
By Chris Oakley
based on the "Red Dusk" trilogy by the same author
Come September of 2008, six decades will have passed since Lance Sharkey’s dream of a Communist Australia died in a torrent of gunfire outside Parliament House. The failed September Revolt, and the harsh internal security laws enacted in its aftermath, have left an enduring scar on the Australian national soul; that scar deepened with the 1965 assassination of Australian prime minister Robert G. Menzies. The era of the September Revolt is a required study subject in Australian school history classes, and Australian SF authors have produced reams of alternate history novels and short stories asking how Australia’s history might have changed if certain events of that era had happened differently-- if, say, the CPA guerrillas had succeeded in taking over Parliament House or Harold Holt had stayed in Australian politics long enough to become prime minister after Menzies’ assassination.
In this series you’ll read interviews with a number of Australians about their views on the September Revolt and its consequences. You’ll also see the reminiscences of two foreign diplomats who were posted to Australia at the time of the uprising, plus the transcript of a 2003 round-table discussion between political scholars from Australia’s top universities on the question of whether such a rebellion could happen again in the foreseeable future.
JANINE PARKER, 47/Actress, Sydney
Name any mini-series, weekly series, or made-for-TV movie that’s appeared on Australian television in the last twenty-five year and chances are fairly good that Janine Parker has at least one scene in it-- often more than one. Breaking into acting at the age of 19 with a stint as an extra in a Sydney University production of Macbeth, Parker has since gone on to build up a resumé of over 80 credits in TV, film, and theater; perhaps her best-known role to date is as Stephen Burke’s wife Miranda in the 1998 television adaptation of the classic what-if book Just A Few More Questions, Mr. Holt.
At the time this interview was taped, Ms. Parker had just finished rehearsals for her new one-woman stage show Centennial Sadie, a play about a 100-year-old Sydney woman offering her take on some of the most important events of 20th century Australian history. Not surprisingly, much of the play’s dialogue is devoted to the September Revolt and the Menzies assassination.
COL. EDWARD STAPLES, 58/Instructor, Royal Military College,
Born just over a year after Lance Sharkey’s execution, Colonel Edward Staples is a specialist in anti-terrorism tactics. He often uses the September Revolt as a case study in putting down nascent insurgencies; on at least one occasion he’s had his cadets re-enact the skirmish between CPA partisans and government troops on the road to Duntroon to give the cadets a first-hand glimpse of what it might have been like on both sides during the Communists’ ill-fated bid to capture Royal Military College. He is the author of a new book, First Shot, which recounts hour by hour both the Duntroon firefight and the CPA attack on Parliament House in downtown Canberra.
We spoke to Staples in his office on the Royal Military College campus; the colonel, himself a cadet at Duntroon back in the 1960s, is well-acquainted with the terrain where the Duntroon engagement took place and the battle plan under which the CPA made its abortive assault on the college. In his estimation, the CPA insurgency was one of the most ill-starred combat operations in human history.
SAMANTHA BURKE, 22/College student, Melbourne
Because of her surname, most people assume at first that Samantha Burke is related to Stephen Burke in one way or another. She does have a family connection with the era of the September Revolt and its aftermath, but not the one you might expect-- her grandfather was a Canberra police officer wounded in the attack on Parliament House. Not surprisingly, that connection has given her motivation to study the politics and cultural conflicts of the Menzies years; Ms. Burke is currently majoring in political history with a minor in political science.
At the time of her interview, Ms. Burke was at Melbourne University’s main library doing research for a term paper on the relationship between the September Revolt and the decline in influence that non-Marxist left wing parties suffered in the wake of the uprising.
To me, the September Revolt represents a failure of imagination not only on the part of the Chifley and Menzies governments, but also on the part of the CPA rebels. There had to be some way the issues could have been settled non-violently....How can it be that people always choose force even when--or especially when--peaceful alternatives are open to them? The human race seems to me to have an incredible and frightening lust for self-destruction, and the Revolt was one of the biggest manifestations of that lust.
It scares me to think what could have happened if one of the MPs in Parliament House, or Mr. Sharkey, had been killed in the fighting in Canberra. This country could have been sucked into a long and bloody civil war that would have left it horribly scarred...My granddad’s brother used to say Sharkey should have been arrested as soon as they found out he was plotting to take over the government from Chifley, and I happen to think he was right. It would’ve saved everybody a lot of trouble if they’d done that, instead of waiting till the CPA was shooting up Parliament House.
CHARLIE HUDSON, 89/Retired prison assistant warden, Fremantle
Charlie Hudson has a unique perspective on the September Revolt era: he’s one of the dwindling group of men who worked at Fremantle Prison during the 1953 hunger strike staged by Stephen Burke and seven of his fellow inmates to protest what they felt (rightly, as it turned out) was unjust incarceration based solely on the fact that were speaking out against the stringent internal security measures enacted by the Menzies government after the Revolt.2 Unlike many of his fellow staffers, who were certain the Fremantle Eight deserved without question to be in jail, Hudson was rather sympathetic to the strikers’ cause and even bonded with Stephen Burke; when Burke eventually died of starvation in mid-March of 1953, it was Hudson who broke the news to Stephen’s father Edward.
Because of declining health, Hudson seldom leaves his apartment these days; nonetheless he agreed to talk to us for this article because he wanted to get his story on the record one last time before he passes away. We met with him at a pub in the heart of Fremantle which he used to visit every day as an employee of Fremantle Prison and still patronizes a few times a year whenever circumstances permit.
It wasn’t right putting those boys in jail...wasn’t right at all. I mean, if they’d been alongside Sharkey firing guns and throwing grenades and all that, there might’ve been a reason to lock ‘em up, but all they did was carry signs and write letters saying as how they didn’t like Mr. Menzies’ amendment. No harm in those sorts of things, now, is there? (Hesitates before speaking again) I used to get into some real knock-down drag-out rows with the other staff over the Fremantle boys, especially this one bloke who was in charge of the guards on the night shift. He was a diehard Menzies man, and he was always going on and on about how they(Stephen Burke and the other hunger strikers) should have been shot....
Anyhow, I got to know Stephen Burke pretty well, and I found out he wasn’t quite as bad as Mr. Menzies made him out to be. It killed me to see him waste away like that-- I suppose that’s one of the reasons I ended up retiring when I did. After Mr. Burke was gone, I just couldn’t do the job anymore; I wasn’t getting along with most of the other wardens by then anyway. I was visiting his grave the day his dad shot Menzies...(coughs)I don’t condone murder under any circumstances, but all the same I could have seen it coming after Stephen passed on.
I remember the day he died...I was standing by his bed in the prison hospital, and he looked just like of those statues you see at the wax museum in Paris. He gave out this long whooshing sigh, just like a bicycle tire does when you let the air out of it, and then he....he just...(At this point Mr. Hudson lost his composure and the interview had to be abruptly terminated. However, one of his granddaughters later told us that Hudson fell into a steep depression shortly after Stephen Burke’s death; she also mentioned that the ex-assistant warden spent the day of Stephen’s funeral getting drunk. Hudson was just 38 years old when he left his job at Fremantle Prison in 1957.)
ALAN MATTHEWS, 35/Police sergeant, Canberra
Alan Matthews III hails from a long line of Canberra police officers whose origins date back to the days of his great-grandpa Ian, who patrolled the streets around Parliament House back in the mid-1900s. Alan himself decided to join the force at the age of 22 after two failed attempts at breaking into the ranks of the Australian Rules football world. As has been standard procedure for all Australian police officers since the September Revolt, Sgt. Matthews has received basic instruction in counterinsurgency techniques at the Royal Military College in Duntroon; in fact, it was Matthews who first put us in contact with one of our other interview subjects, Colonel Edward Staples.
Sergeant Matthews was just finishing a patrol shift in the Civic district of Canberra when we interviewed him. As one might expect, the September Revolt is a topic of personal interest to him; he boasts of having read just about every book ever written about the Revolt and in his off hours happens to be drafting one of his own about the role that his grandfather, a Federal Capital Capital Territory Police3 superintendent, played in thwarting the CPA uprising.
SUSAN WOODS, 48/Aboriginal rights activist, Hobart
Susan Woods’ father holds a quite rare place in Australian history; he was one of the few Aboriginal citizens of Australia ever to have an ASIO file kept on him during the Menzies era. The memory of her father’s humiliation over this fact, combined with her own impatience at the excruciatingly slow pace of progress on aboriginal rights in Australia, would drive her in her late 20s to join the country’s largest aboriginal rights advocacy group; within a few years she would be a widely recognized spokeswoman for the cause in her own right.
In fact, on the very day we interviewed her, Woods was just coming back from a rally in the Tasmanian state capital Hobart calling for tougher prison sentences for those convicted of hate crimes against Australian citizens of Aboriginal descent. Some of her interview had to be censored for reasons of vocabulary; just the same, the transcript of that interview makes it crystal-clear she has no affection whatsoever for the late Lance Sharkey.
JENNY SHORE, 15/Writer and amateur swimmer, Brisbane
As a child, Jenny Shore once aspired to be a great Olympic swimmer; even today she’s fond of taking frequent trips to the pool, to the point where her friends have jokingly dubbed her "Shorpedo"5. However, since the age of twelve her interests have been steadily shifting towards a career in writing and Ms. Shore has traded her onetime Olympic aspirations for a dream of being known as one of Australia’s greatest authors. In fact, she’s got two published short stories to her credit already and at the time we interviewed her had just started the first draft of a novel about a girl growing up during the Whitlam crisis of the 1970s. We caught up with her as she was returning from an afternoon trip to Brisbane’s main library to do research for her book.
MICHAEL SIMMONS, 49/Newspaper political columnist, Victoria
While popular sentiment in Australia today criticizes Robert Menzies for going too far on internal security matters during his tenure as Australian prime minister, Michael Simmons faults him for just the opposite reason-- Simmons feels that, if anything, Menzies didn’t go far enough. Even by Queensland standards the highly controversial political commentator’s views tend to come off as quite reactionary, to the point where one of our other interview subjects, Susan Woods, blasted those views as being a mere hair’s breadth away from outright fascism.8
It would be tempting to say the more outlandish comments in his twice-weekly columns for Queensland’s Courier-Mail newspaper are only a stunt to boost his public profile, except that (A)he was already a well-known figure in Australia long before he got into newspaper writing and (B)even his most provocative written barbs often pale in comparison to his spoken commentary, which at least once has landed Simmons in court on libel charges. The day we interviewed him, he was finishing the first draft of a book in which he argues that ASIO should have been granted a much freer hand in dealing with potential subversives.
To Be Continued
An alternate version of O Tempora, O Mores continues at Today in Alternate History.
1Ms. Parker is referring to the memorial bronze that was unveiled on the revolt’s tenth anniversary in 1958 to honor the police officers killed or wounded assisting the RAA in the defense of Parliament House; until the famous marble army medic sculpture was erected outside Parliament House in 1988, the police statue was the most famous monument to those who died thwarting the September Revolt.
2While ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) was formed on Ben Chifley’s watch two months before the September Revolt, it was during the Menzies administration that this agency truly became notorious for its active surveillance of political dissidents.
3From 1929 until 1957, this was the official designation for what we know today as ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Policing.
4Police units guarding Parliament House had been secretly issued firearms in the days prior to the September Revolt; the ASIO had gotten wind of the CPA’s insurgency plans via a mole within the party’s own ranks as well as electronic surveillance of the Soviet embassy in Canberra and passed the alarm on to Canberra police officials. For further information on how undercover police work played a role in stopping the revolt, read Prof. Steven Payne’s Red Dusk: The 1948 Australian Communist Uprising From Inception to Collapse(copyright 2003 Oxford University Press).
5A play on the nickname of former Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, a.k.a. "Thorpedo".
6Ms. Shore is referring to Ben Chifley, Australia’s prime minister at the time of the September Revolt.
7Prime Minister Chifley died of cardiac arrest just a few months after the Revolt; his death precipitated a fresh political crisis that only abated with the February 1949 special elections which put Robert Menzies into office as new Australian prime minister.
8And that was the nicest thing she had to say about him.