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O Tempora, O Mores:

The September Revolt 60 Years Later


By Chris Oakley


based on the "Red Dusk" trilogy by the same author


Part 2



Summary: In Part 1 of this series we began printing one-on-one interviews with Australians on their views about the September Revolt of sixty years ago; in this chapter we’ll continue with those interviews.


GROUP CAPTAIN DANIEL SHEARS, 49/RAAF flight instructor, Perth

Like one of our previous interview subjects, Colonel Edward Staples, Group Capt. Shears is a card-carrying member of the first generation of Australians to be born after the September Revolt. In his capacity as a Royal Australian Air Force flight instructor, he often uses what-if September Revolt scenarios to motivate his cadets to sharpen their tactical thinking skills; he’s also a technical consultant on the popular CD-ROM computer game series Battlefield Australia, a combat simulation game based on the premise of Soviet troops invading Australia in the early 1950s to aid the CPA’s struggle to overthrow the Australian government.

Group Captain Shears was home on leave when we interviewed him; his house is a sort of unofficial museum of the September Revolt era, adorned with artifacts from those years and news clippings from the Menzies assassination. There’s a running joke among his family and his RAAF comrades-in-arms that the house has almost as many exhibits as the actual September Revolt Museum on the outskirts of Canberra and is much less expensive to get into.

I suppose it was more or less inevitable that I’d start collecting September Revolt knick-knacks when I grew up. You can’t get away from it if you live here...it’s sort of like being in England and hearing about the Blitz, or living in America and belonging to one of those Civil War re-enactment clubs. Like it or not the Revolt is now a fundamental part of Australia’s national history; I rather expect that in a hundred years we’ll have Revolt re-enactor societies...(chuckles)

All jesting aside, I do think it’s quite important that we never forget the terrible peril of the September Revolt. It was the closest this country has ever come to civil war....If the CPA uprising had been just a little better coordinated, it could have done some serious lasting damage. Whether or not the Communists could have actually taken over Australia is a question that can never be definitively answered one way or another, but they could have very well plunged this nation into severe, even total, chaos.

One thing that is indisputably true is that the September Revolt sparked a good deal of soul-searching about who we are as individuals and as a country. That process continues today, and will probably go on for generations to come...


IVOR "VORAYSHUS" COLLINSWORTH, 19/Hip-hop musician and left-wing activist, Sydney

Although he’s too young to have personally experienced the rigid security measures enacted by the Menzies government in the wake of the September Revolt, Collinsworth denounces them just as vehemently as any of the Fremantle Eight ever did. Preferring to be addressed by his stage handle ‘Vorayshus’, Collinsworth is descended from a former labor organizer and was raised on stories of the ASIO’s more notorious abuses of power; he uses his music to promote a leftist interpretation of the events of the September Revolt era and the left-wing causes he supports with a passion despite the risk to his entertainment career prospects.1

We interviewed ‘Vorayshus’ at his uncle’s home in one of Sydney’s older residential neighborhoods; when we spoke with the rising hip-hop performer, he’d just finished a mixing session at the recording studio he operates inside what was once his uncle’s storage shed. ‘Vorayshus’ was, as you might expect, eager to give voice to his socialist views. Nor was he particularly shy about venting his displeasure over what he regards as the lamentable state of socialism in modern-day Australia.

Lance Sharkey did more to damage socialism in this country in one day than all the right-wing demagogues put together could in a hundred years. He should have tried to bring progressive government to Australia by political means, not military ones. Any man with half a brain-- no, a quarter of a brain --could have predicted that Sharkey’s stupid goddam September Revolt wasn’t going to work. If we’re ever going to have a progressive government in this country we need to use ballots, not bullets, to bring it about.

But Sharkey was just too damn stubborn to see any other way of turning the rightists out of power. He wanted to be another Lenin, another Castro, and he didn’t care how he did it or who he got killed for it. I take a lot of (deleted) from some of my friends for saying this, because they have this romantic idea of him being some kind of tragic hero, but I personally feel the CPA would have been better off if they’d kicked him out of the party the second he came up with that idiotic September Revolt plan.

I think it’ll be at least another twenty, maybe thirty years before we have a real national socialist or Marxist political party in this country again. Right now, all we’ve got are these paltry little local and regional parties that only represent, say, ten or twelve people out in the desert somewhere. (Shakes his head) It almost makes me want to cry when I think about how Sharkey destroyed the progressive movement in Australia....


JOSEF VAREZEWSKI, 78/Scholar and ex-Warsaw Pact defector, Darwin

Josef Varezewski was born in Poland but has spent most of his adult life on Australian soil, having defected to Australia at the age of 25 when he became disillusioned with the Soviet-imposed Communist regime that took over Poland after the end of World War II. Before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 Varezewski’s family had been part of Warsaw’s upper class; his father in particular had been a respected member of the Polish capital’s academic community as a professor of political science. Upon his arrival in Australia Varezewski pledged to continue his father’s legacy and become a political science professor in his own right. He made good on that pledge in his mid-thirties, taking a job as an instructor at Melbourne University in European political affairs and holding that position for over a quarter of a  century; even in retirement, Varezewski continues to be a respected member of Australia’s academic community, being regularly invited to political science seminars and guest lecturing engagements at all of the country’s major universities and colleges.

Varezewski moved to Darwin ten years ago to be closer to his grandson Kristof, an aspiring oceanographer. He was just returning from a beach trip with Kristof when we spoke to him about his views on the September Revolt and its aftermath; not surprisingly, he takes a dim view of the notion of Australia under Communist rule-- and an even dimmer view of Lance Sharkey.

There is no denying this critical fact: Lance Sharkey was an evil man. If he had gotten his way, all those in this country who did not agree with the Communist philosophy would have wound up either in prison or in the grave. He was a man full of hate and cruelty; the world is better off without him. He would have ruined Australia for years, maybe even decades to come-- in every country where Communism has been tried as a system of government, people are invariably left worse off than they were before it came to power. My own old country, Poland, was a perfect example of this...

Those who criticize the manner in which Prime Minister Menzies dealt with the Australian Communists do not understand the threat they posed to our way of life. The CPA was a fanatically pro-Soviet organization both in its ideology and its character; had he not taken the firmest possible measures in dealing with the Communists, the consequences would have been tragic not only for this country but for the entire world. Yes, what happened to the Fremantle Eight is most unfortunate, but it would have been far more unfortunate to let the CPA succeed in its plans to take over Australia....


JAMES CHESTER, 65/TV newsreader, Melbourne

With the possible exception of Janine Parker2, few faces on Australian TV screens are more familiar to viewers than that of James Chester, who The Age once admiringly dubbed "the archetype of what a television journalist should be". Chester got into the television news business fresh out of college; in fact, when he reported for his first day of work as a news research intern he was immediately assigned to look up the biography of slain former Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, who’d been assassinated the previous day. Since then he’s had a front-row seat to just about every major news event to happen in Australia since the Menzies assassination. For that matter, Chester has covered plenty of important events outside Australia too; when we spoke to him, in fact, he had just returned from a six-week stint in New York covering the US presidential campaign.

Chester has hosted three TV specials related to the September Revolt, the most recent of which was a 2005 documentary remembering the fortieth anniversary of the Menzies assassination. Naturally, talking about the documentary brought back memories for him of his introduction to television journalism and of growing up during the security-obsessed Menzies era.

The first time that I consciously noticed the strict security measures that Mr. Menzies had instituted in this country was when I was about seven years old. I saw a story about ASIO in the newspaper-- I think it might have been The Age, but I can’t be sure --and I asked my mother why Mr. Menzies had Japanese people working for him. I thought ASIO was a Japanese surname...(laughs) It wasn’t until she told me what those initials stood for that I realized something out of the ordinary was going on.

The ASIO had the potential to become another Gestapo or KGB; it was certainly a very intrusive presence in the lives of ordinary Australians. No one would deny the need to safeguard this country against subversion, but from our vantage point today it’s becoming ever more clear that Mr. Menzies was more interested in settling personal scores than in rooting out threats to national security. The best example of this, of course, is the unfortunate case of Stephen Burke...Burke was guilty of nothing more than disagreeing with the Menzies government’s policies, yet to hear Menzies tell it one would have thought Burke was a latter-day Guy Fawkes. I quite honestly believe that if Menzies had gotten half a chance he would have shot Burke himself.

The level of paranoia that existed in the Menzies administration during the era after the September Revolt is absolutely astonishing even by the standards of the Cold War. He saw spies and traitors around every street corner. At times he was even more suspicious of dissenters than the Communists he despised, and in the end that mistrust had devastating consequences for him personally and for Australia as a whole...


WILLIAM O’BRIEN, 80/Retired news photographer, Woomera

William O’Brien took thousands of memorable photographs in a photojournalism career spanning more than five decades, but perhaps the picture for which he is best known is a close-up of William G. McMahon preparing to address his fellow countrymen by radio when he first assumed the prime minister’s office shortly after Robert Menzies was assassinated. That black-and-white portrait, symbolizing McMahon’s coolness under pressure, made the front page of every major newspaper in Australia(and plenty of newspapers outside Australia) the next day; it later garnered O’Brien two of Australia’s most prestigious awards for photojournalism. By the time O’Brien retired in 1999, his portrait of McMahon had been reprinted 10 million times.3

Not surprisingly, that particular picture occupies a prominent spot on the walls of the apartment he’s called home for the past ten years. By his own personal estimate, at least half of the pictures he took in his early years as a news photographer are connected one way  or another with the September Revolt and the Menzies government’s long campaign to crush perceived subversives in the post-Revolt era.

I’m not by nature the kind of lad who usually blows his own trumpet, but I had the first printed photo of the Communists attacking Parliament House on the day of the September Revolt. You could say that was sort of my introduction to the Cold War. For the next oh, I’d say, ten years, I spent half my time on the job snapping pictures of events having to do with PM Menzies or the protests against his internal security laws. I tried to get into Fremantle Prison during the hunger strike a couple of times, but the bastards who ran the place wouldn’t let me in the gate.4

I was at Parliament the day Menzies got his final report from the Special Committee. As he was reading it, he had this sour look on his face like he’d just swallowed a bad piece of fruit...(Chortles) Of all the times to be out of film! I would have loved to have had a picture of that expression on his face, if only to put it in my scrapbook....

All jesting aside, I’m not an overtly political person but as a journalist I was deeply opposed to the internal security laws Menzies instituted after the revolt. To me they constituted a horrendous blow against free speech and an obstacle to doing my job properly, and on a deeper level they made me fear we were turning into exactly the kind of police state Menzies said he despised. After Stephen Burke’s death, I lost what little respect I might have ever had for Menzies as a person or a leader. Not that Lance Sharkey was any great prize, mind you-- the man was a third-rate would-be Lenin who made Leon Trotsky look sedate. I shudder to think what could have happened to this country if he’d succeeded in taking over the government...


To Be Continued


[1] And his personal safety; at least twice during his first nationwide tour of Australia, he was attacked by right-wing extremists.

[2] Readers may be interested to know that when Parker was cast as a newsreader on the ‘90s Australian TV sitcom This Just In, she researched for the part by spending several weeks working alongside Chester while he was preparing for his newscasts.

[3] As of the time this is being published, the figure has grown to 40 million.

[4] In a portion of the Charlie Hudson interview which we were forced to omit due to lack of space, Hudson mentions one of these incidents; he adds that he himself tried five times to persuade Fremantle Prison’s chief warden to allow photographers to see the hunger strikers and was coldly rebuffed every time.


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