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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 3



Summary: In the first two parts of this series, we heard the reflections of a number of Australian citizens about the effects of the September Revolt on their country; in this chapter we’ll look at the Revolt and its aftermath from the viewpoint of two retired foreign diplomats who were in Australia when the Revolt happened.


IVAN DURETNIKOV, 88/Former cultural attaché for the Soviet embassy in Canberra

Ivan Duretnikov enjoys an increasingly rare distinction; he is one of the few remaining ex-diplomats left in the world who has had experience representing a Warsaw Pact country on Australian soil. As a young attaché in the service of the Soviet foreign ministry, he was assigned to the cultural affairs section of the Soviet embassy in Canberra in August of 1947. He had been at the Canberra post slightly over a year when Lance Sharkey and the CPA made their infamous, ill-fated grab for power, and as he recalls it today he was thunderstruck by the news of the CPA’s armed revolt against the Chifley government.

Duretnikov retired from the diplomatic corps right before the Berlin Wall came down and is currently living in St. Petersburg-- not to mention giving the Putin-Medvedev government in Moscow headaches by posting scathing online critiques of current Russian foreign policy. As you might expect, he wasn’t shy about turning his rhetorical guns on the September Revolt’s organizers or their defenders.

Lance Sharkey and his men were idiots. (Slaps his palm down on a table) Idiots! If they had just been more patient and used their heads instead of their guns, they could have created a peaceful socialist government in Australia as soon as Ben Chifley was out of office...Instead they behaved like hooligans and nearly destroyed the cause of socialism in the English-speaking world. They were more interested in creating mayhem than they were in doing anything to advance socialist interests.

I remember quite well the day Sharkey and his men tried to take over the government in Australia...I was cultural attaché at the USSR embassy in Canberra back then. I was sorting through my mail for that day when one of my assistants, looking quite out of breath and pale as a ghost, rushed into my office and told me there had been gunfire in the streets near Parliament House. At first I thought he was playing some sort of odd practical joke on me; I didn’t realize the truth about what was happening until I turned on my radio and heard one of your Australian Broadcasting Corporation newsreaders saying that Communists had tried to take over the government and some of them had been killed. As they say in the West, you could have knocked me over with a feather; I had never in my wildest dreams thought such a thing could ever happen in Australia. In Latin America, yes. In Africa or the Middle East, certainly. Possibly even in one of the NATO countries or in the United States. But Australia? That’s the last place on earth I would have expected this kind of uprising. I was absolutely dumbstruck, I tell you! For a minute or two I thought might actually faint dead away from the shock-- and there are times when I almost wish I had.

Once the uprising was over and Sharkey and his men had all been arrested, things got very bad for us here in Australia. They(the Australian government) treated us as if we were little more than common criminals...Even though most of the people who worked at our embassy had nothing whatsoever to do with Sharkey’s idiotic revolt, we had to put up with all kinds of rude questions from your security forces about whether or not we knew anything about the CPA’s plans before the uprising happened. A great many of my colleagues on the embassy staff chose to quit the Foreign Ministry altogether rather than put up with such abuse.

No sane person can have any respect for Lance Sharkey or his associates. Their actions irreparably damaged the cause of socialism in the Pacific region and soured diplomatic relations between Russia and Australia-- to say nothing of how the Americans reacted to the CPA’s misguided attempt to overthrow the Chifley government. You know, there are times when I think that your President Johnson sent all those troops to Vietnam just to spite the socialists in Australia...


HORACE BAINES-WIGHT, 93/Former deputy trade attaché at the British High Commissioner’s office in Canberra

Like Ivan Duretnikov, Horace Baines-Wight represents a breed of diplomat that is becoming increasingly rare. Baines-Wight is among the last surviving members of the British diplomatic contingent that was representing His Majesty’s Government in Canberra when the September Revolt occurred. In fact, he’s one of the only foreigners still alive who can lay claim to being an eyewitness to the gun battle that raged outside Parliament House at the peak of the CPA’s insurrection.

When we interviewed him, Baines-Wight was living in a country estate in Sussex. Descended from a family who trace their legacy of service to the Crown back to the reign of King Charles II, Baines-White became an instant public sensation in Britain when his first- hand account of the Parliament House attack was printed in the Daily Mail just days after the revolt. In fact, he’s become the go-to man for just about every major media outlet in Great Britain looking for first-hand anecdotes about the Parliament House attack. And plenty of news correspondents outside of Britain have taken an interest in his story too...


I expect I’ve talked about the Parliament House affair to nearly everyone except the Archbishop of Canterbury-- and I expect he’ll want to hear about it next. But all jesting aside, I do recall quite vividly what happened that day near Parliament House....I was enjoying a rather splendid walk outdoors when I heard the rebels’ first gunshots. Out of habit from my days as an officer with the 8th Army in North Africa, I took cover until I could ascertain where the shots were coming from. When I finally managed to get to my feet again, I saw that ACT1 police officers were closing in on what looked like a makeshift barricade in the street….I later learned that the rebels built it in great haste when their initial attack on Parliament House was repulsed. Where the CPA guerrillas got the material for their barrier, I can hardly begin to imagine....

When I returned to the High Commissioner’s office I found almost everyone there in a state of high agitation. Apparently they’d been listening to the ABC’s2 radio broadcasts of the uprising and they were greatly concerned not only for my safety but also for their own. The High Commissioner could barely believe his eyes when he saw me; he’d heard a rumor that I had been shot by the rebels during the uprising. And frankly, old chap, I had a moment or two during the battle when I feared I might very soon be meeting my maker....

It wasn’t until I chanced to listen to the news on the radio that I learned of Sharkey’s attempt to seize the ABC broadcast facilities. I remember very little of that part of the uprising, but I do recall quite vividly the High Commissioner’s reaction when he heard of the radio station incident. His face was as white as a ghost-- like me, he recalled how the Russian Bolsheviks had seized Moscow’s telegraph offices during their 1917 October Revolution and suspected Sharkey and his mob were trying a similar tactic with their attempt to occupy the ABC broadcast studios in Canberra....


To Be Continued



[1] Australian Capital Territory.

[2] Australian Broadcasting Corporation.


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