John Singleton, “The real story behind WA’s ‘race riots’,”
The Bulletin, October 9, 1979, pp. 22-24.
Anywhere you go in Western Australia these days, people can’t wait to tell you about the race riots up north.
The stories are all pretty coloured, although “pretty” isn’t the right word (and neither is “coloured” I suppose); but they are substantiated by a whole lot of newspaper reports, which I naturally make a point of reading.
Most of the trouble is written about a place called Fitzroy Crossing, which is stuck up in the top left-hand corner of Australia.
It’s a pretty important town, as you can imagine, with 30-odd whites and 500 to 800 Aborigines, depending on who you talk to, and at what time.
When I get there, I am not too sure what to expect.
Especially because some of the toughest men I know in the whole country won’t even go to the Fitzroy rodeo, because they reckon it’s a town just waiting for a riot to happen.
And they stress they’re not kidding either, which I am quite happy to believe.
Especially when I get there.
For a start, you have to have a mental picture of Fitzroy Crossing.
The centre of the town, and also all there is to the town, is the pub: The Crossing Inn.
It’s a good looking old pub, in an Aussie bush sort of way.
Intelligently, there aren’t any enclosures. Just a centre bar surrounded by verandahs.
When the drinking is finished, the grog gets locked up and the floor gets hosed and everything is ready for the next day.
What’s wrong with that?
All around the pub is miles and miles of flats.
If you’ve ever been to a big game at the Sydney Cricket Ground, you know what it looks like before they clean it up. Nothing but empty cans and worse, as far as your bleary eyes can see.
Well, the flats around the pub at Fitzroy are exactly like that: except no one, as far as I could find out, ever cleans it up.
And there are also trees for the Aborigines to camp under when they’re taking a break from the pub.
And that isn’t being cruel, or even exaggerated a tiny bit; in fact, it happens to be less than even the truth; but as much as I’m game to say otherwise you’ll get all angry and miss the whole point of the exercise.
The rest of the town is made up of a post office five kilometres to the left of the pub, and police, ambulance and hospital three kilometres on the other side. A real genius town plan.
But let’s race back to these race riots.
You have to remember that 30 white people in a town isn’t a lot. And when there is trouble, no one likes it much. No one wants to talk about it much.
If you have want to find anything, you have to sort of hang around and listen and ask and listen some more, and eventually you might get the drift, which is as close as you’re ever going to get and which is as follows:
Until a couple of years ago, Fitzroy is a pretty bad place to be.
Everybody is getting drunk. There is fighting and some other amusements.
And not too many of the local native inhabitants seem all that inclined to work.
So this causes a bit more arguing and a bit more fighting and then one of the station managers gets really dirty about the Aborigines living on his station getting unemployment benefits, especially when he can’t get anyone to work.
So he dobs big mobs in, which doesn’t make those concerned jump up and down with happiness, but they do jump up and down nevertheless.
Then, some of the white hands from the station come into town and decide the Aborigines would be better off if they were white, so they run around throwing self-raising flour over their black brothers.
Naturally, the Aborigines don’t think the flour business all that funny; and when the white station hand are going back to their station, they get stopped in their Toyotas by 14 very angry Aborigines and a massacre occurs.
Except it isn’t the three whites who cop the caning, but the 14 natives.
Well, this is just about the last straw as far as the do-gooders are concerned and the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Community Welfare and everyone else on the still trendy Aboriginal bandwagon decide that this time they are going to take the whites to court and they are going to pay. Boy are they going to pay.
But in any court it is pretty hard for 14 fit men to lay assault charges against only three, no matter who is black or who is white.
And so, as you would expect, the case gets tossed out and that, you would think, is the end of that. But it isn’t.
Because then the Aboriginal Legal Service people etc, ask the West Australian police commissioner, Mr Leitch, to get rid of the local sergeant, Malcolm Cole.
This case, they say, is definite proof that he is a dead-set racist and a bad bastard to boot.
And for good measure the public servants throw in another 20 Aboriginal complaints.
So in June this year two of Western Australia’s top cops go up to Fitzroy Crossing to take a first-hand (never second-hand) look at the complaints in uniformed person.
They can’t find anything to complain about, but probably to save a fuss they recommend that Cole be transferred “for his own safety.”
Whether or not they are influenced by the fact that the aforesaid sergeant’s wife has been attacked and threatened with death by a friendly local witchdoctor is unknown.
What is known is that Cole is none too concerned about his own safety (if you saw his head full of cauliflower ears and jackhammer arms, you wouldn’t be all that concerned if you were him either), but the entire white population and most of the Aboriginal population are very concerned for their safety if Cole does go.
In fact, they are so concerned they call a special meeting and urgently ask the commissioner to come and see for himself what the problem isn’t.
Well, to cut a short story long, the commissioner fronts himself and in person calls a meeting to which everyone is invited, including all the public service Aboriginal hangers-on and the Aborigines themselves and especially their elders and even the whites.
Commissioner Leitch tells me he is pretty surprised that everyone turns up except the Aboriginal Legal Service servant and the Community Welfare servant who are behind the move to get Cole out in the first place.
But anyway everyone else does front and the commissioner finds that both blacks and whites can say nothing but good about the cop in question (which is probably a world record) and so Cole is allowed to stay in his job — which is not the kind of job there is any queue for in any event.
So that’s the story when I get there, as close as I can find out which is pretty close.
I find out most of what the go is by hanging around the pub for a couple of days while no one knows who I am or what I am doing and I am able to see what really goes on, without any bulltoss.
The first shock I get in the pub itself is that there are two bars separated by iron piping.
No shock so far, but the bar nearest the road is full of Aborigines.
The Aborigines drink almost exclusively beer which is served in plastic cups! Shock!
In the other bar are the whites who also drink almost exclusively beer but in glasses made of glass.
There aren’t any signs, and there isn’t any difference in the price of drinks.
And then you notice a couple of well-dressed, well-behaved Aborigines drinking on the glass side.
And a couple of whites drinking on the plastic cup side.
So one way or another you get the drift, which is pretty simple: anyone can really drink anywhere they like.
But the town’s trouble-makers and glass throwers either drink in the plastic cup bar or they don’t drink at all.
Everyone knows the rule.
No one is hassled by it and, even though I know it all sounds a bit rough, you have to remember the joint is even rougher.
It’s just like having a public bar and a saloon bar; except at Fitzroy there is the getting-drunk bar and the having-the-one bar. It’s entirely up to you. Black or white.
The next interesting thing is the way the cops handle the “business.”
They arrive every hour or so. No fuss. No sirens. Just wander in and around:
A white seedy cook from one of the stations has been biffing his Aboriginal wife on the jaw every time she calls him white trash, which is a bit too often for her own health if you ask me.
The cop tells him to treat her with respect, keep his home arguments for home and in fact to go home until he sobers up.
A young, very pretty, Aboriginal woman who unfortunately cannot stand up is asked where her baby is. She has left it out on the flat under a tree.
The Aboriginal police aide (every outback cop in Western Australia has one with him to help bridge the communication gap) knows her personally and asks one of her relatives to carry her back to her baby.
Two young Aborigines who have been having a half-hearted running fight all night are told to “bush it,” which means:
Like, if you want to fight, go and beat hell out of one another in the bush, not in the pub or outside it.
But they don’t want to fight if no one is looking, so they start again outside the pub and get to have bed and breakfast courtesy of Her Majesty.
Everyone else is in good spirits. There’s no threats. No enmity. Everyone calls the police by their first name and vice versa.
In fact, the whole scene is more like the way sheriffs used to act in those old westerns. You know, in those old Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy days.
And believe me, Fitzroy is every bit as wild as those old wild-west towns and that’s on a quiet day.
Mind you, the week I am there is also the biggest week of the year at Fitzroy Crossing.
The annual race week is on and every white and every Aboriginal gathers to the fray.
Actually, a week at Fitzroy races is exactly the same as a week at the pub except that the drinking is interrupted every hour or so by two or three horses trying their best to walk around a dirt track.
Sometimes 10 or 12 people actually leave the bar to watch and the sole, solitary bookmaker was even seen to lay a bet; although I cannot vouch for this myself.
It is probably the last genuine Aussie bush race meeting in the whole Aussie bush. Bloody fantastic.
And the action gets wilder and the horses get tireder every day.
And the police get busier every day, but not one person is arrested without getting a real good “bush it” warning first.
In fact, it is the most sensible behaviour I have ever seen by Australian police and I am singularly impressed, which for me, and especially for police, is very impressed indeed.
And if you think the police know their way around, you ought to meet the magistrates.
Stan Webb is one, Bob Skuthorpe another.
I have met Bob before. He fixes saddles around the stations.
Bob also calls the races in a way that makes even a two-horse race a matter of great confusion as to which horse is winning, or indeed which horse is coming second. Or both, or either, or neither.
In fact, it is my opinion that Bob Skuthorpe is the worst race caller in the history of race calling.
He is also a top bloke.
He also doesn’t have many teeth.
Like, he’s having a chuck out of his Toyota one night and his bloody teeth fall out and the bloody Toyota runs over them, which Bob thinks is hilarious and which probably is.
The next day (Saturday) Bob and Stan Webb are sitting in judgment of everyone who has been arrested at the races on Friday: They want to hear the cases on Saturday morning so they can do the right think and let everyone out for the last day of race week.
Why don’t I come along?
I mean you have to get the message that Bob and Stan are real knockabouts.
They know all the locals, whites and Aboriginals, by their first names because they grew up with them.
They drink with their mates, they work with their mates. They just happen to play magistrate when some of their mates get out of line.
The court sits half an hour late because the Aboriginal Legal Aid servant doesn’t front (like it is a Saturday after all).
The Community Welfare servants have been given permission to represent the Aboriginals in court when Legal Aid isn’t available, but they have given this up as a bad job some time ago.
So on the show goes.
The cases are heard at the rate of about one a minute.
Justice is done. Justice is seen to be done.
So what is all the “race riot” fuss about, really.
I know the Aborigines are drunk most of the time when they’re in town, but as close as I can make out it’s just like if you or me win the lottery.
We take the day off work and go and get plastered, don’t we?
Well, it’s the same with the Aborigines except they win the welfare lottery every day, so they celebrate every day. And take the day off work every day. It is logical.
And unlike you and me, they don’t want or need a flash house or car or colour TV.
They just want to sit down in the sun, have the one and enjoy themselves.
They don’t want to be like us at all. In fact, many of us whites (eg hippies) are actually living all over the sunshine spots of north Australia just like the Aborigines live, only with grass instead of beer.
But the do-gooders who believe that the best thing they can do for the Aborigine is have them emulate our own white European lives are guilty of gross arrogance.
In fact, every time I look at one of those bearded university-trained southern do-gooders, I wonder if they will ever realise that they can never solve the Aboriginal problem because they are the problem.
[Note from Economics.org.au: For more by the same author on the same topic, see here.]
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