Category Archives: History, current affairs

Sort of political, too

The Discordant Life of Paul Robeson

I’m one of a dwindling band who can say, “I heard Paul Robeson sing.” These days most people under sixty would respond, “Paul who?”

To answer that question briefly, Robeson (1898–1976) was the son of a former slave. He took up the cause of Negro liberation (like most of his race in the US at the time, he referred to himself as a Negro) from the 1930s, while achieving greatness in sport, acting, and especially singing folk and protest songs in his magnificent bass. He was also a militant Stalinist.

I was twenty when Robeson ended his 1960 tour of Australia at Perth. At 2 a.m. on Friday, December 2 he accepted a railways union invitation to sing at the Midland Railway Workshops at lunchtime. By noon, in a remarkable feat of logistics, the unions had mobilised a throng of 2000, including me. Robeson was a big black man wearing a curious black beret, delivering beautiful deep music from the back of a truck outside the workshop gates.

It was just coincidence, but my mother Joan the following year was with an Australian communist delegation to China and Russia, and in Moscow she was lodged at a dacha for the elite outside the city. She discovered that Robeson was secreted away in the same dacha complex. The unlikely explanation she was given was that he was being hidden from potential CIA evil-doers; he was actually hidden to conceal from the world the mental breakdown that began in the wake of his Australian tour.

When my mother died in 2008, my jobs included selecting the funeral music. After batting away numerous well-meant suggestions from third parties, I settled on Robeson singing “Deep River”. (I didn’t know then that “Deep River” had also been among the music for Robeson’s own funeral.) I gave the funeral director a CD including that track, and it played fine. But the funeral director let the CD run on to the next track, which to my horror was Robeson singing “The Killing Song”, from his 1935 movie Sanders of the River. Given that my mother had spent her life as a peace activist and stalwart of the Australian Peace Council, the lyrics were awful:

On, on, into battle, 

Mow them down like cattle! 

Stamp them into the dust! 

Kill, shoot, spear, smash, smite, slash, fight and sla-a-ay!

I flinched as the verses rolled on, but no one was paying attention, they were too busy chatting.

The favourite CD in my collection is Paul Robeson, The Legendary Moscow Concert. It was “legendary” in half a dozen different ways, some to Robeson’s credit, some not. That concert evening encapsulates many of the paradoxes of Robeson as a great man, a great talent, a great fighter, and a great hypocrite.

Angered by the toxic racism of the pre- and post-war US, Robeson made himself a champion for the thousand times more toxic regime of Joseph Stalin. Robeson’s lifelong principle was always to laud and never to criticise the Soviets. This was not the self-delusion of other “political pilgrims”; Robeson knew first-hand of the reality and lied through his teeth about it for the good of the cause.

The story of that concert in Moscow on June 14, 1949, is dramatic enough, but the back-story twists and turns like an over-plotted work of fiction.

Robeson was invited to perform at the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, as part of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Pushkin. Meanwhile Stalin, in his final spasm of butchery, was working up the “doctors’ plot” as a presage to a holocaust of Russia’s remaining Jews. The “plot” was that Jewish doctors were poisoning high-ranking party patients. The doctors were, unsurprisingly, confessing under torture. When a couple of them held out, Stalin commanded the interrogators to “Beat, beat, and again beat!”—a rare instance of the Lubyanka’s thugs being criticised for half-measures.

Robeson was friends with the Moscow theatre director Solomon Mikhoels and the poet Itzik Feffer, both Jews. He met them, in company with Albert Einstein, when they were fund-raising in the US in 1943 for the Soviet war effort.

In Moscow he was troubled by evidence of anti-Semitic purges, and asked his Soviet minders to arrange for him to meet Mikhoels. Robeson knew Mikhoels had mysteriously died—he had taken part in a memorial service for Mikhoels in New York. His minder said that Mikhoels, sadly, had died of a heart attack. The reality was that eighteen months previously, the MGB in Minsk had set up Mikhoels one evening via an agent, jabbed him with a poisoned needle, then bashed his temple in, shot him, and ran over him with a truck, leaving his body in the snow by the road, along with the body of their own unlucky agent. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana overheard Stalin on the phone directing that “car accident” be cited as the cause of death, although Robeson’s minders cited heart attack.

Robeson then insisted on meeting Feffer, who in fact was in the Lubyanka awaiting execution. Feffer was roused from his cell bed, tidied up, sent home to be dressed, then brought to Robeson’s hotel room. The room was bugged and, in any case, Feffer’s family were hostages for his good behaviour.

Feffer alerted Robeson—who spoke fluent Russian—to the facts by gestures and notes on scraps of paper, while conversing about innocuous matters. On one scrap of paper Feffer wrote, “Mikhoels murdered on Stalin’s order”. As for his own future, he drew his hand across his throat.

Robeson had to work out a discreet way to save his friend’s life. He had a powerful position—his farewell concert the next night was being broadcast live throughout the Soviet Union, and he had untouchable stature as a US friend of the regime.

His solution was to use the concert to send a coded message to Stalin himself, endorsing Mikhoels and Feffer by name, and the Jewish community in general. He could get away with it because the purge had not yet become explicitly anti-Semitic and he couldn’t be expected to know all the secret rules governing public behaviour.

The capacity audience included party bigwigs and Jewish intellectuals, both groups now living in fear of the midnight arrival of MGB vans. (The point of Stalin’s terror was its arbitrariness.)

Late in his concert, Robeson, in Russian, said he would dedicate a special encore, the song of the Vilna Jewish partisans, to his dear friend Solomon Mikhoels, “whose tragic and premature death has saddened me deeply”. He added to the shock by speaking of his pleasure at meeting Feffer, who he said was well and hard at work on his memoirs. There were gasps of astonishment—many there would have known Feffer was on death row. Robeson then said he would sing in Yiddish the song of the Vilna partisans, first translating into Russian a verse, “When leaden skies a bitter future may portend” that ends, “We survive!”

The audience was in an unbearable emotional state. Their very lives were on the line and here was Robeson fearlessly albeit indirectly deploring the purge.

After his unexpected encore, one brave woman stood up and applauded; the whole hall then erupted in waves of frantic applause. People broke down, weeping, or flung themselves tearfully into the arms of strangers.

Stalin waited three years, then executed Feffer anyway. The censors locked away the tape of the concert for half a century; it was released only in 1995, after the demise of the Soviet Union, minus Robeson’s provocative comments. The tape generated the CD, and with the CD I can now read the cover notes about Mikhoels and Feffer written by Paul’s son Paul Jr (1927–2014), and hear Robeson’s Yiddish song. I can also hear the first seconds of the fifteen-minute storm of applause, the rest of it snipped by the original censors.

But this rounded story, which so impressed me initially, unravels. First, Feffer had in fact been an NKVD/MGB informer since 1943, but got caught in the meat-grinder himself. Under interrogation, he falsely accused a hundred other Jews, but at his trial he had the courage to express pride in his Jewish identity.

Second, how was Robeson going to handle his knowledge of Stalin’s murderous ways, while remaining an advocate for the socialist paradise? He chose to lie about it, to deny the undeniable. On his return to the US, he told a reporter from Soviet Russia Today that allegations of Soviet anti-Semitism were wrong: “I met Jewish people all over the place … I heard no word about it.” He said the Soviets “had done everything” for their national minorities. “Everything” in reality included genocides of Cossacks, Ukrainian peasants, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Volga Germans and many other minorities.

In his book published in 1950, a year after his Moscow concert, Robeson wrote:

The Soviet Union’s very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality, its fight in every arena of world conflict for genuine democracy and for peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation.

He never again publicly mentioned Mikhoels and Feffer, nor criticised Stalin, whom he saw as safeguarding the interests of the downtrodden, especially Robeson’s “own people”.

Shortly after his Moscow concert, Robeson told Paul Jr the truth, but swore him to secrecy about it during his (Paul Sr’s) lifetime. An account of the Moscow hotel meeting with Feffer leaked, via the widow of film director Sergei Eisenstein. Paul Jr vehemently denied the account as “wholly false according to my father’s personal recounting of these events to me”. Paul Jr was also lying, but he recanted and told the truth in 1981.

Robeson viewed the Soviet Union as his “second motherland”, and even thought “first” might be more accurate. He began his visits to Russia in 1934, getting dizzying  veneration and opportunities, contrasting with the America of Jim Crow. He was even inspired to place Paul Jr in a Moscow school.

Paul Jr admitted that his father knew of the Ukrainian famine during his visit, but told him in 1937 that he couldn’t undermine the anti-fascist Soviet Union. Paul Robeson didn’t just ignore the Stalin-created Ukrainian famine, he lied his head off, telling the Daily Worker:

I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow. I was aware that there was no starvation here, but I was not prepared for the bounding life; the feeling of safety and abundance and freedom that I find here, wherever I turn.

Robeson’s position on the purges in the late 1930s was ambiguous. At the height of the terror he sided against the victims of the regime:

I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot! It is the government’s duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand and I hope they will always do it … It is obvious that there is no terror here …

In 1952, when he’d become a pariah in the US, Robeson received the USSR’s highest honour—the Stalin Prize, worth US$25,000, an enormous sum in those days.

Even after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, Robeson never criticised the dead vozhd (boss). When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, Robeson supported them.

Robeson’s pro-Soviet advocacy turned US blacks against him, often in ways harrowing and humiliating for Robeson. In one 1951 incident in a Harlem bar, he told a famous black pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Don Newcombe, that Newcombe was one of his heroes. Newcombe responded, “I joined the army to fight people like you.” They nearly came to blows. One account has Newcombe being led out of the bar by one of Robeson’s quasi-bodyguards with a switchblade.

The nadir of Robeson’s career was his April 1949 speech at the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in Paris, involving 2000 delegates, Picasso and luminaries such as Nobel-winner Frederic Joliot-Curie. The repercussions included the US government withdrawing his passport, trapping him in America from 1950 to 1958 and encouraging his blacklisting as a concert performer, which cut his income from US$100,000 a year to barely $5000. (Robeson did his 1960 Australian tour because he was offered a fee of US$100,000.)

So what did Robeson say in Paris? Immediately after the speech Associated Press reporter Joseph Dynan filed his report, which was picked up throughout the US press. It had Robeson purporting to speak on behalf of the 14 million US Negroes to the effect that they wouldn’t fight for the US against Russia in the event of a war. Mainstream Negro organisations disowned Robeson and protested their loyalty to the US. Robeson found himself isolated from both black and white America.

Dynan’s report quoted Robeson thus:

I bring you a message from the Negro people of America that they do not want a war which would send them back into a new kind of slavery … It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.

Robeson’s supporters claimed he had been stitched up by Dynan’s false report. They cite other, less damaging versions of his impromptu speech, such as the following, after translation into French and then back again into English:

We shall not put up with any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong. We shall not make war on anyone. We shall not make war on the Soviet Union.

There were half a dozen reports of the speech, all different. The closest to Dynan’s, in the UK’s Daily Worker, read:

It was unthinkable for himself and for the Negro people at home, that they should go to war in the interests of those who have oppressed them for generations, against a country which had shown there was no such thing as a backward people.

To me, as a reporter who has done hundreds of similar conference reports, the Dynan version is the most plausible. The role of a wire-service reporter is to get an accurate report filed as soon as possible. Dynan went straight from the hall after Robeson spoke, to write and despatch his copy. Dynan was an experienced professional and recent war correspondent in Italy. It’s a silly idea that he would delay to concoct a version to damage Robeson. The phrases in Dynan’s version are authentic Robeson. I’ve heard some of them on a tape of a private speech he gave in Perth eleven years later. Dynan couldn’t invent this Robeson-speak; he must have heard it.

Call it coincidence, but communist leaders elsewhere were expressing similar or more aggressive sentiments than Robeson. In Australia, for example, a month before the Paris conference, CPA general secretary Lance Sharkey said that “if Soviet Forces in pursuit of aggressors entered Australia, Australian workers would welcome them”. Sharkey got a three-year sentence for sedition.

Robeson provided only a muted denial of the AP report, saying that he was referring to Negro people globally as war-averse, not just to US Negroes.

The major controversy for half a century was whether Robeson was a Communist Party member or merely a supporter. He lost his US passport from 1950 to 1958 because he refused on principle to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the USA?” Witnesses who testified that he was a member were attacked by Robeson supporters as government shills. Robeson’s sympathetic biographer Martin Duberman concluded in 1988, “On the most obvious level, he was never a member of the CP-USA, never a functionary, never a participant in its daily bureaucratic operation …”

But in reality Robeson was a CP-USA member for decades. The party had decided he would be more effective for the cause if his membership remained secret—disclose the fact and you’d be expelled. When CP-USA general secretary Gus Hall was serving an eight-year sentence in the 1950s on McCarthy-era charges of conspiracy to advocate the violent overthrow of the US government, Robeson campaigned for his release on civil liberties grounds, without of course disclosing his own party membership.

But in 1998, on the hundredth anniversary of Robeson’s birth, Gus Hall announced, “We can now say that Paul Robeson was a member of the Communist Party.” Robeson’s membership was, he said, “an indelible fact of Paul’s life, [in] every way, every day of his adult life”. Robeson’s most precious moment, Hall said, occurred:

when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CP-USA. I and other Communist leaders like Henry Winston, the Party’s late, beloved national chair, met with Paul to brief him on politics and Party policies and to discuss his work and struggles.

Paul Jr, himself a CP-USA member from about 1948 to 1962, was a practitioner of dissembling. But when his father was outed—along with himself—he put it succinctly: “If people want a politically correct hero, then Paul Robeson’s not the man.”

Robeson’s reputation has come full circle, from guarded respect up to 1945, vilification for most of the Cold War as a Soviet stooge, and now respect again, especially from the liberal media. A recent profile on America’s PBS television gave him a twenty-one-gun salute, managing to make no mention of either communism or the Soviet Union. I must say the contradictions involved with any assessment of Robeson make him a tough subject to handle.

Forty of Tony Thomas’s Quadrant essays have recently been published by Connor Court as That’s Debatable—60 Years in Print

Memories of a Bolshevik Baritone

The world didn’t know it and neither did I, but Paul Robeson’s free concert at the Perth’s Midland Railway Workshops was one of his last performances. Today, all these years later, even his affection for Stalin cannot diminish my affection for that rich, deep and wonderful voice

robesonPaul Robeson’s Australasian concert tour in late 1960 was not a high point of his career. He didn’t want to come – he preferred Ghana. He came only because concert promoters promised him $US100,000-plus for about 15 concerts over two months, equivalent to about $A1.3 million  today. His wife, Essie, wrote that they could “clean up some fast money, and then he can retire, and do only what he wants to do.”

For youngsters under 60 and unfamiliar with Robeson, he was the son of a one-time slave, an All-American football player, actor, singer, orator and activist for Negro emancipation. He was also a Communist love-struck for the Soviet Union. For many people, his  adulation of Russia and Stalin took the gloss off his prodigious voice (“carpeted magnificence”) and talent.

Robeson’s finances had been wrecked when the US government withdrew his passport from 1950-58, confining him to the US and blacklisting him as a performer. Before the ban he’d been earning a princely $US100,000 a year; after the ban he was lucky to make $US5000.

I heard Robeson sing on the last leg of his tour, on December 2, 1960 at the Midland Railway Workshops, 18 km north-east  of  Perth. I think this was the second-last concert of his long career, the last being his formal concert at the Capitol, Perth next evening.

My only other Robeson involvement was a month ago, when I found in Perth’s Battye Library a tape of Robeson giving a long private talk to the Perth branch of the Australian Peace Council.   I spent a few hours transcribing it for other researchers.

Listening, I got a real feel for his personality and philosophies, especially as he wasn’t self-censoring. Even in prose, his voice was full of music and he had an actor’s ability to make his anecdotes about his punch-ups on the football field come alive.  Sometimes, to illustrate a point, he’d break into snatches of song. These qualities disappeared as I reduced his performance to mere text on a page.

He told the Peace Council, “I was asked to go out at lunchtime to see the railway workers, sing to them, I said I would, it would be pretty rough to be in WA  and not go to the workers. I came from toiling laboring people. On the backs of my forebears was built the primary wealth of America, from which everything else had to flow.”

The chair of the Peace Council reception seemed to be a  church minister, judging by his Biblical allusions .[1] At least three ASIO agents were present to file reports. One table comprised Communist stalwarts, such as author Katharine Susannah Prichard, CPA (WA) secretary Sam Aarons and wharf leader Paddy Troy. Robeson joined their table briefly to chat with Aarons, whom he first met in pre-war Spain during the civil war.

Former Tasmanian Labor Senator Bill Morrow (1888-1980) had invited Robeson to Australia when they met at top-level soiree in Moscow of the World Peace Council in 1959. At least one of the two — Robeson — was a secret Communist Party member. Morrow, originally a railways worker,  faithfully followed the Communist line, but membership was never proved.  A 1951 speech of Senator Morrow against Western intervention in the Korean war was re-broadcast by Radio Moscow. As with Robeson, the government withdrew his passport. A bio-essay for the Senate by Audrey Johnson says Morrow met “outstanding figures in the peace movement” including  Zhou Enlai (peace-loving Mao’s offsider) and in 1961 Morrow won the   Lenin Peace Prize. Morrow also helped organize Robeson’s concert for construction workers at the embryo Sydney Opera House, where “huge, burly men on the working site were reduced to tears by his presence and his inspiration”. A high-quality film of the event is available on youtube.

Robeson came to Australia fresh from being lionized in East Berlin. He told the press there,  “The very basic thing to consider is what forces want peace and who the people are that say, ‘Get your bases out of here, you folks from the Pentagon…Let’s sit down with Khrushchev, we know that he is honest when he says, ‘We want disarmament in the world.’ Two years later, Khrushchev was deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba.

robeson germanThe  GDR gave him the German Peace Medal , an honorary doctorate,   honorary membership of the Academy of Arts, and the Robeson-only Order of the Star of International Friendship.  When the GDR’s top man, Walter Ulbricht, pinned it on his chest (left), “a mighty storm of applause broke out” and the  5000 in the hall joined in singing, “One great vision unites us.”[2]

Robeson’s Australian tour, in contrast, started badly when he got into verbal stoushes with eastern states reporters who queried his support for the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolt. He replied that the revolt was by ‘fascists’:

The Russians would ‘hammer out the brains’ of any country, including America, which took arms against them,  he said. In such a conflict, he would side with Russia. Wife Essie lamented that Paul ‘is angrier than ever  and it makes me shudder, because he is so often angry at the wrong people, and so often unnecessarily angry.’ He told an Australian friend that he was afraid to walk the streets in Australia – “He didn’t believe that the people here loved him”.  Essie gave her own interviews, taking pains to be gracious and friendly. But she wrote, “He resents everything I do, no matter what. So, I’m up to here. Period.”

A concert in Hobart was cancelled by sponsors. His promoters were in a panic that his interviews could alienate  wealthy concert goers and jeopardise returns. However, the NZ leg of the tour went smoothly after promoters asked the NZ press to avoid politics. The rest of the Australian tour, especially Adelaide and Perth, also went well.

By the tour’s end in Perth he was exhausted, though he pledged to return to Australia to take up the cause of his black brothers, the Aborigines, subjected to discrimination “in its most loathsome form” and even “extermination”. Arriving back in London from Perth he was so depressed that he took to lying on the bed in a darkened room with the curtains drawn. At one point the phone rang, with Fidel Castro on the line, and Robeson said he couldn’t come to the phone. A few weeks later Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In March, 1961, Robeson abruptly departed London for Moscow — and slashed his wrists about 3am after a rowdy party in his hotel room. There were indications that some young people at the party had begged him to intercede for loved ones in the Lubyanka Prison, requests which could have put him into insoluble conflict. Other accounts reject that he was disillusioned with the Soviets. His son, Paul Jr (1927-2014), rushed to his bedside, but after 12 days  in Moscow, Paul Jr had a nervous breakdown of his own, hurling a big chair through the hotel window and nearly throwing himself after it. Paul Jr blamed CIA poisoners for the father-and-son breakdowns.

Robeson returned to London, where psychiatrists subjected him –  inexplicably –  to no less than 54 electric-shock treatments. Alarmed friends moved him to East Berlin, where he improved under a more humane treatment regime –  rather the reverse of  UK/East German stereotypes. He died of a stroke in his US home in 1976.

The above account provides some context for his Midland, Perth, concert. (The non-public-record intimacies are drawn from Martin Duberman’s  excellent but somewhat uncritical 1995 biography[3]).

The Midland workshops floor conditions were Dickensian, such as absence of safety gear amid the noise, smoke and dirt.  Key union reps were Communists, elected for their professionalism rather than their politics. Despite the odd fracas, management-union relations were not too bad, both sides doing a bit of play-acting.

My schoolmate from Perth Modern School, Mick Thornber, was a cadet there in the chemistry labs.  He says there was an attractive culture of good fun mingled with a can-do approach to difficult tasks — the tradies could do jobs, from making a split pin to reconditioning of a Crossley diesel loco’s 10-metre crankshaft.

“When the engine drivers marched through 100-strong to stop-work meeting, we in the lab would go outside and cheer,” he says.

A senior design clerk roasted his troops for unauthorized use of the photocopier to print sheet music. He blamed an accordion player because the paper that had jammed the machine emerged in concertina pleats. Similarly, a turner called Ron filled out a form to borrow a two-wheel trolley, reason “Moving house on weekend”. He got a rejection back: “A two-wheeled trolley would not be large enough for such a task.”

When Robeson came, Mick was working with fellow chemistry cadet Bruce Laffer, also from my school year. I was a third-year cadet at The West Australian (and CPA member 1958-62).  We were all 20.

Mick says, “Bruce was looking out the window of the lab which overlooked the entrance where Robeson arrived. He recognized Robeson there at the gate and said ‘Wow’ and was jumping around  stirring up everyone in the lab. We hurried out to see what was going on, and my first surprise was to see my friend  Tony Thomas in the crowd, probably with his notebook out [actually, I was off-duty that day]. There were only about 20 present initially, mostly management types who’d been forewarned about Robeson’s arrival.

“Then he cupped his hand to his right ear to get his pitch right and started to sing. That’s what I won’t forget, his voice was so powerful and it carried over the fence right into the workshops. The guys inside heard this singing and downed robeson midlandtools and poured out of the workshops.   Some of the Dockers’ barrackers can let go with the decibels but nothing like the power of Robeson’s voice.

“I do seem to remember he started by standing on a wooden box . The move to a truck tray must have followed that. (right)

“We thought it was funny as hell, Robeson mocking the management, who were actually reasonable fellows.”

Bruce Laffer adds, “We were too young and immature to get any sense of the workplace politics.”

So why wasn’t Robeson allowed inside?  The order came from the chief mechanical engineer, Bill Britter. He was within his rights, as the government had laid down that visitors could only speak inside if they were candidates for an imminent election. The unions had recently been taking liberties by inviting ad hoc Communist speakers, and Britter seems to have banned Robeson to re-assert his authority.[4]

We three all got some key memories wrong. Robeson did have a loudspeaker set up on the truck and he did have a pianist – although his contract specifically forbade accompaniment to ensure concert ticket sales weren’t undermined. Robeson told the crowd that they would get for free what wealthier Perth people would be paying high prices for at the concert at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday night. He may have reasoned that the tour was virtually over and the contract restrictions didn’t matter.

The key organizer of the meeting was unions rep Colin Hollett. I don’t  know what his politics were, but he was a long-time Robeson fan. He knew of Robeson’s penchant for worksite concerts and was angling for management approval for a fortnight before Robeson’s arrival. Hollett went to the Robeson’s hotel the day they arrived, but Paul was out and he asked his wife Essie, whose formal name was Eslanda, if Paul could sing for the Midland workers. She said, “He’s busy now, but I’ll mention it to him later.” Colin went home, and at 2 am he rang Colin and said he’d love to sing that day.”

In a splendid feat of organization, Hollett immediately got a telephone ring-around under way. But Britter maintained his ban, so Hollett had to launch a second ring-around  at 9am for the noon event.

They lined up a truck, public address system and facilities for the massive turnout, and the Mayor of Midland, Wal Doney, agreed to join Robeson on the truck and take him to a civic reception afterwards, a rare example on the tour of official endorsement. Robeson, in turn, must have organized his illicit piano and pianist, Larry Brown. “Half of Midland came and there were thousands there,” Hollett said.

Perth was still a sleepy city – the Pilbara boom was still five years from inception. Visitors of Robeson’s global stature were not frequent, and it seemed to me newsworthy that he gave his Midland concert from the back of a truck to an audience of about 2000. Maybe half were the workshop workers.  (The whole population of Midland was then 9000, now 4000 – the Workshops shut in 1994). However, my employer The West Australian, chose to give red-ragger Robeson only a pic and five bland paragraphs on page 14 next day. Sixteen years later, The West ran a respectful US-sourced, 25-paragraph Robeson obituary across three columns, saying his career “was virtually destroyed in anti-communist witchhunts of the 1940s and 1950s.” Today he is an icon for the liberal media, which airbrushes out his Stalinist pieties.[5]

As I write this, I have a Robeson CD playing, to remind me of what really counts about Robeson – his glorious voice celebrating the sufferings of his people.

Tony Thomas’s new book of Quadrant essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here. 


[1] The Australian Peace Council had invited Robeson to Australia in 1950 but the passport ban made it impossible. The parent World Peace Council, of which Robeson was a member, was outed in the Mitrokhin archives in 1999 as an anti-Western disinformation vehicle  90% financed by the Soviet Union

[2] “Days with Paul Robeson” – GDR booklet, 1960, in  Battye Library’s Robeson box.

[3] Duberman, Martin, Paul RobesonThe New Press, 1995

[4] The visit is outlined in a 2006 history of the workshops. The history drew in turn on Fremantle Labor MLA Simone McGurk’s radio interviews of the key participants when she was a media student at Murdoch University in 2002.

[5] On Stalin’s death in 1953, Robeson obituarised, in To You Beloved Comrade: “Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin — the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future.  Yes, through his   deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. … How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom.”


  1. Geoffrey Luck

    Tony continues to surprise us with his important contributions to the historical record. Journalists of today: Note the detail, the lack of “unnamed sources.”

  2. Richard H

    Perhaps it is because I am from a younger generation (born after the events described in this article), but I find there is something quite distasteful about this kind of misty-eyed reminiscence of a celebrity apologist for a mass-killer.

    As the article mentions, Robeson was the son of a one-time slave. This makes all the more repellent Robeson’s praise for Stalin and a system dedicated to the enslavement of all humanity.

    • Jody

      The singing of Robeson seemed to become a clarion call for the oppressed. Not for him the sonorous choirs of the Welch mining valleys or the plaintive chants of country and western; he blended music with politics but, in so doing, revealed his profoundly reckless naivete.

  3. johnhenry

    “I said I would, it would be pretty rough to be in WA and not go to the workers”

    Just wondering: Might that tape of Robeson speaking with the Australian Peace Council have been a bit scratchy? Could he have been referring to the WPA, the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) established by the Roosevelt government c.1935?

  4. a propos

    Paul Robeson’s rendition of the”ol’ man river” from the “Showboat” was sublime.His political naïveté was something else entirely. Just to illustrate – here’s an anecdote from one of his visits to the then USSR, where he agreed to perform. He presented a program , including Negro spirituals as well as some Hebrew songs. The latter were declined with some alacrity by the organisers, people with “clean hands and warm hearts” as KGB was described at the time. Robeson was suprised at the ban and, after asking for the reason, was explained, in the best traditions of the Soviet obfuscation that there are no Jews in The USSR. “How many negroes do you have?” – Robeson wanted to know. THe answer is unknown.

  5. en passant

    Excellent article that balances Robeson’s talents with his failings.
    By all means condemn the bad, but celebrate the good.
    After all, Heydrich had a very dark side but was quite a virtuoso on the violin …


    Without wanting to be too pedantic, Bolshevik bass would be more accurate than Bolshevik baritone because Paul Robeson had a bass voice rather than a baritone voice. He voice was magnificent, but his politics were as base as his voice was bass.

Summers in Winter

How could an online magazine featuring adulatory cover stories on Julia Gillard, David Morrison, Tim Flannery, Elizabeth Broderick and lots of the modern left’s politically correct pinups fail so dismally? It’s a mystery, especially after the free publicity lavished by the ABC

anne summers gillard coverPoor Left luvvie Anne Summers AO. Her luvvies have Left her, and she’s $180,000 in the red. She writes to me, as one of her 576 financial supporters[1],  that her irregularly-published Anne Summers Reports (13 issues) and her Anne Summers Conversations (eight) have folded. Even her cover story on failed prophet Tim Flannery[2] failed to profit. Imagine that!

That’s after we donors provided close to $100,000 all-up.[3] Anne says she achieved a lot, “especially considering the size of our team and how little money we had”. She goes on, “Regrettably, my search for a partner has not been successful and we do not have the funds to be able to continue … One final ask. Sadly we are in debt. I have an overdraft and other debts of $180,000 which I need to get rid of. If you feel able to help me reduce this I will be extremely grateful.”

Anne (we’re on first-name terms) has also canned her Illuminate project, “our proposed investigative series of high-quality writing about important subjects in Australian society. This series had been part-funded by the Cultural Fund of the Copyright Agency for which we thank them. (Sadly, we had to return the grant).”

Our call to the Copyright Agency to discover how much authors kicked in unwittingly to Anne’s project has so far not been returned. (The Copyright Agency has form in backing Leftist dud publications. It has lavished at least $146,500 on Meanjin, for example, including a whopping $64,000 donation in 2010. Recent grant recipients are listed here).

Source of Anne’s financial downfall was paying her writers, artists and photographers, and a part-time salaried assistant. “If we could not afford to pay for these, we could not afford to publish,” she says. “We had hoped the events might subsidise the magazine, but that turned out to be unrealistic.”

Anne launched Anne Summers Reports in 2012 with the help of a fawning interview by Richard Aedy on ABC Radio National soliciting donations of $10,000 from high net worth individuals. The ABC provided her venture with a special waiver from its guidelines forbidding commercial advertising. [4]

Aedy and Summers – whose partner, Chip Rolley, is editor of the ABC’s The Drum — were very persuasive. As a high net worth individual myself,  I emailed Summers, hinting at one of those $10,000-plus personal donations in exchange for a position on her advisory board. Within minutes Summers was in touch about my “most welcome offer”.  We never consummated our liaison and a frustrated Anne gave me an unflattering  pen-portrait in the March, 2013, issue.

The magazine attracted 16,500 subscribers. “I am touched to report, new people are signing up even as I write this. It is clear that many people crave the sane, factual, relevant magazine we were proud to produce,” she says. But subscribers’ cravings, obviously, haven’t extended to paying anything.

Advertisers were less attracted, indeed almost invisible. One of the three advertisers she thanks is the taxpayer-funded Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

Anne says modestly that her ticketed Conversations “will live forever as testament to our vision”. Apart from Gillard and Flannery, Anne’s “Conversation” partners included General David Morrison, now “guy”-bashing Australian of the Year, and almost certain winner of the Daily Telegraph’s blogger Tim Blair’s Frightbat of the Year 2016 contest.

Another conversationalist was Elizabeth Broderick, ex-Human Rights Commissioner and author of loopy but neverthe-less-implemented proposals to feminize the Australian Defence Forces, hitherto afflicted, Broderick reported, by a “warrior culture”.

The magazine has had such emetic cover stories as beauteously-photographed Julia Gillard; ‘“General Morrison’s revelation – ‘This was not the Army that I loved and thought I knew’”; “Seriously, Cate Blanchett”; and the University of Queensland’s number-tickling smiter of climate deniers John Cook.

Anne’s literary suicide note yesterday did not mention her three-day conference about herself last September, tickets going for $330. That event celebrated her authorship 40 years ago of, as I recall, Damned Whores and God’s Police.  The list of engrossing sessions included “Viva La Vulva”,  “Sex workers, sluts and deviant women” and the epochal “Feminism Today: From Suffragettes to SlutWalkers and beyond”.

Actually, there were 14, not 13 issues, of the magazine, which featured, Anne said, “meticulous editing”. The  bumper 90-page Issue No 13 last August 20, “our strongest yet”  had to be e-pulped  because of mysterious “errors”. It was re-published four days later as “we hope! – an error-free copy”, Anne apologised.

Vale Anne Summers Reports. Vale Anne Summers Conversations. And vale Anne’s $180,000.

[1] $3

[2] Flannery 2004: “Sydney could glimpse its future by looking at the devastating impact that global warming had already had on Perth, which he said was likely to become a ‘ghost metropolis’.” Warragamba Dam is currently 98% full and Sydney is on flood alert.

[3]  Anne also had 21 “angels” giving her monthly stipends. They were led by ex-governor-general and Bill Shorten’s mother-in-law Quentin Bryce.

[4] 15.2.2  Publicity for individuals, organisations or products should not be given, and the presentation of identifiable or clearly labelled brand products or services should be avoided. For example, contact details or repeated references to the trading name must not be broadcast or published, nor the place where goods or services may be purchased. 


  1. Mr Johnson

    For years, the Left have been demanding more and more free stuff. Just damned frustrating and awkward, when it extends to their own product.

  2. Augustusoz

    “.. subscribers’ cravings, obviously, haven’t extended to paying anything.” Exactly. If Anne et al didn’t think about the fact that “Why should I pay for it? Someone else should pay for it” is the standard leftist position, then she/ze/they/it deserve everything they ended up getting. Or not getting.

  3. Jody

    Poor old Anne; somehow she’s mentally never left Deniliquin. She always gives me the impression she’s just arrived from there into the big city and recently discovered what ‘feminism’ means – and she’s having some of it. All the while she’s a country girl with tarts on her mind.

    Well, I won’t be having what she’s having!!

  4. en passant

    Surely, just surely she could get a $60K ‘Arts’ grant by promising to stack shelves somewhere until she has paid back the remaining $120K?
    To pay off the rest she could promise never to publish or be heard again in public. With that promise in writing the debt would be gone in a flash.

Nauru’s Case Study in Corruption

The phosphate deposits that for a few brief and gloriously mis-managed years made the island nation one of the richest plots of real estate in the world are all but gone. That’s a pity, as you will find more decency and honesty in a pile of bird droppings than amongst the basket-case state’s larcenous elite

nauru IIIn the Fawlty Towers episode featuring the German guests, Sybil warns Basil, “Don’t mention the war”. Similarly,  all parties in Australia’s federal election campaign whisper, “Don’t mention the corrupt and vicious governance of Nauru”. Focusing on how corruptly Nauruans govern Nauru  would detract from the Coalition’s success story of stopping the boats.

Labor’s Bill Shorten, meanwhile, is trying to persuade Australians that he would continue stopping the boats, likewise by quarantining the boat people on Nauru (and, if legally permitted, PNG’s Manus Island).

The Greens, along with starry-eyed clerics and do-gooders, hate the Pacific Solution. They want us to welcome boat people regardless of numbers, whether 50,000 or five million. Their arguments focus not on the Nauru regime but on the cruelty of Australia’s offshore internment camps. (The occupants nonetheless seem to enjoy high-standard education, medicine, internet access, diet, leisure activities etc., all at vast cost per head to Australian taxpayers).

Personally, I agree that the Pacific Solution  stops the boats and related drownings. I just don’t like the unintended side-effect of bankrolling Nauru’s local elite.

This essay covers Nauru, not Manus. But for the record, 466 detainees (including about 50 children) were on Nauru last May 31, and  847 were on Manus.  Combined costs for the two centres are about $1b this year.  Assuming the next Australian government continues to stop the boats, the detention costs will fall to a projected $400m over the next few years.

The history of Nauru’s roller-coaster to 2012 of rags, riches, rags and riches again is covered in my book That’s Debatable (May 2016)[1]. Further inspection of the past four years’ Nauruan politics doesn’t suggest the appearance of any broad sunlit uplands. For example, Nauru’s Minister for Justice, Border Control and Finance is Mr David Adeang. In April, 2013, in the garden of their home, Adeang’s wife Madelyn burnt to death.   A brief police statement said she was carrying a bucket of petrol that ignited. But there has never been a coronial inquiry. The island’s resident magistrate and coroner, nicely-named Australian expat Peter Law, considered the police statement “woefully inadequate” [2]  and began preparing a coronial inquiry.  Adeang in January, 2014, ordered Law’s arrest and deportation.  Law told the ABC that there were no crime scene photographs or witness statements. Local police investigating the death were “scared of Mr Adeang”, Law said, and unwilling to interview the powerful politician.

Nauru’s chief justice was another Australian expat, Geoffrey Eames QC. “I was proposing to fly to Nauru and the government simply told the airline company not to give me a ticket as my visa had been cancelled,” Mr Eames said, naming Adeang as the visa canceller. Eames then resigned his post, telling the media:  “The police obviously did not have the enthusiasm to conduct an inquiry. That’s a pretty alarming state of affairs.”

Adeang’s PR agent, Lyall Mercer, threw a hissy-fit when asked by the ABC for comment, and Adeang himself failed to respond.[3]

How Adeang and his cronies came to power is a story in itself. The island nation’s president to 2010 was Marcus Stephen. But the hidden force in Nauru politics has long been Gold Coast-based conglomerate Getax Australia, the main purchaser of Nauru’s remaining phosphate. Like any business, it prefers to buy cheap and sell dear. In 2008, when then world phosphate price was near $400 a tonne, Getax was paying as little as $43 a tonne. In its early years with Nauru phosphate, it was reportedly turning over $150-200m year trading the phosphate to India for fertiliser.

Marcus Stephen would not play ball with Getax. The company’s response was to dangle an $25 million loan to the semi-broke government at 15% interest, allegedly in the expectation of a defaulton some onerous clauses. Default would enable Getax to take over the phosphate industry, putting it commercially in what you might call a dream scenario. President Stephen rejected the loan offer.

The leaked emails show Getax in January, 2010, financed a lavish 14-day overseas junket for half the members of Parliament. Three of Stephen’s MPs from the junket then voted against him, creating a 9-9 Parliamentary tie and crises involving new elections. Quite a few MPs on pay of $150 a week somehow managed to buy upmarket boats and cars and roll out handsome sums to heads of voting families, according to  Stephen.  Adeang’s forces finally brought down the Stephen government in mid-2013.

New President Baron Waqa was fingered in the leaked emails  as getting $60,000 in Getax cash in 2010, with various other MPs accepting $30,000, allegedly as campaigning assistance for the impending elections.[4] Adeang, according to the alleged email trail, was getting $10,000 a month from Getax in 2009 and 2010. Adeang complained in a July, 2010, email that those who received the payments were “not focused enough on the work at hand”, being more interested in “shopping, horse-betting, the national airline refusing to transport all their cargo to Nauru, and other rubbish.”

The ABC claimed that the emails show Mr Adeang soliciting an additional $665,000 in Getax payments for himself and other Nauruan politicians.

The emails also reveal a plot to overthrow the Nauru government in 2010. Adeang, in the opposition in 2009, allegedly told former Getax director Ashok Gupta[5]: “We can create a new business relationship that can take this country to a higher level of development and, of course, taking also your business to even more success”. He continued that he had the support of a number of other MPs prepared to desert the government.

“We give you full authority to mobilise or lubricate the MPs to secure the vote and win the battle,” Ashok Gupta allegedly replied.

Adeang also allegedly suggested Getax could take over the island’s phosphate business entirely: “It will not be easy. But as a business in the long term it may be ideal.”

Getax director Gupta[6], asked Mr Adeang to prepare a “full business proposal” but was stymied by the Nauru government.

Former president Sprent Dabwido – recently locked up for a month — views any selling out of the island’s only national asset as “close to treason”. It  would cripple the island, merely so that Adeang could get $60,000 or so for campaigning, he charged.

Nauru’s police commissioner at the time was expat and  former Australian Federal Police officer Richard Britten. He began an investigation into the alleged bribes and was promptly dismissed by the Waqa government. Both the NZ and the Rudd Australian governments expressed concerns about the alleged bribery.

Waqa, Adeang and Getax have denied they did anything wrong, describing the bribe allegations variously as a slur, ridiculous and offensive.  The allegations involved Nauruan domestic affairs and were of no interest to the people of Australia, a Nauru spokesman said. The Justice Minister does not like the Australian press. He said last year, “The Australian media approaches us with great arrogance and an air of racial superiority, which is highly offensive to us. They do not show us the respect of a sovereign nation and, in return, we have little respect for them.”

Expats – mostly Australasian – have filled most of the difficult official positions on Nauru. If they annoy the politicians, they get sacked and deported. It’s happened to dozens of them.

The Waqa government has now Soviet-style laws involving  seven years goal for ‘stirring up political hatred’. Five opposition MPs are banned from attending the previously 19-member Parliament (because they had “criticized the government”). The Waqa government now enjoys quasi-dictatorial power.

All this was too much for New Zealand, which had been providing $NZ1.1 million a year for the Nauru justice sector, largely to support independent expat investigators and judiciary. Last September, with unanimous Parliamentary support, it stopped its funding because it didn’t want to be tainted by association with Nauru’s disregard for human and political rights. In contrast, Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop, mindful of our detention centre’s needs, issued only mild criticism.[7]

So far, the Waqa government has

  • Arrested   former Nauru president and current MP Sprent Dabwido at a rally[8] and held him and another opposition member in custody for a month. Dabwido was released after suffering a heart attack.
  • Cancelled the passport of opposition MP Roland Kun, who is already banned from Parliament. The passport ban means he can’t see his family in NZ, where he is the breadwinner. Nor can his family return from NZ to Nauru (Kun’s wife Katy Le Roy, was legal counsel to the Parliament).
  • Raised the fees for election candidates by 2000%, deterring   low-income people from standing.
  • Imposed a prohibitive $8000 non-refundable Visa application fee for journalists, effectively keeping them off the island. The Australian’s Chris Kenny did get to the island last October, the first journalist to be accredited to visit since 18 months previously, and achieved some good scoops. [9] In February this year the Nauruan government claimed an ABC  journalist had  misdescribed himself as eligible for a tourist visa. It then booted tourist-visa passengers off a Nauru Airlines flight from Brisbane but refunded their fares. The ABC denied it had ever sent a journalist in tourist-mufti to Nauru.
  • Raised business visa fees to $8000,   deterring Nauruans wanting expat legal help. Some visa applications from lawyers have been rejected outright.
  • Appointed three new judges whom Waqa claims will vigilantly investigate past corruption.
  • Told its internet provider, Digicel, a year ago  to shut off access to Facebook and prevented Digicel’s general manager returning to  the country. The US protested but Australia didn’t. The Nauru government claimed to be combating Facebook pornography but the ban also stifles political comments.

The New Zealand Law Society’s rule of law committee president Austin Forbes QC described the Nauru situation as totally unsatisfactory:  “MPs being held in prison, not allowed to leave the country, chief justice sacked, not allowed to have a lawyer come into the country to defend anyone charged with an offence — you have to do something.”

Just how much detention-centre cash Nauru politicians are now acquiring for themselves and their country is hard to say. Joanna Olsson, the Nauru Information Office director, emailed Quadrantyesterday (16/6/16) that she doesn’t yet have e-copies of the Nauru budget papers “and will take a while to get (them) from parliament. Will let you know when we have them.” Australia’s Foreign Affairs Department has disclosed that total Nauruan revenue this fiscal year is about $115m, including detention centre windfalls.

Nauru has supposedly set up, or plans to set up, a trust fund to “bank” profits from the centre to spend in future lean  years. I’ll believe that when I see it. (Nauru once had a trust fund of phosphate profits that, strangely, simply disappeared).[10]

Our billion-a-year on detention centres is nearly all “boomerang money”, going back to Australian suppliers – e.g. Transfield, contractors and staff, and well-remunerated public servants.    (All costs per capita of detainees  are rising because we’re trying to give them comparable medical and education as in Australia).[11]

Last year our big-ticket  items on Nauru were garrison and welfare, $320m; charters, $25m; escorts $9m; healthcare $25m; family and child support $26m; and visas $15m. Plus $35m for departmental staff and supplies. Australia also pays for  side deals involving Nauruan administration, police and infrastructure. Nauru charges Australia extortionate visa fees  of  $1000 a month per detainee.  That would be $6m collected this year and a higher amount in previous years. The business visas at $8000 a pop are another nice earner.[12]

Nauruans have about 600 jobs thanks to the centre.  That’s more than one job per detainee. Until last October, Nauruans paid no income tax, but now top earners pay (or are supposed to pay) a flat 10% rate. On the other hand, the Australian cash bonanza is causing inflation and  eroding welfare and fixed incomes.

Nauru’s debt  from the squander-era has become a surprisingly low figure, largely because a lot of debt from the failed Bank of Nauru has been written off. An official study recently put debt at under $30 million, and it could be fully paid off in a year or two. However, there is also more than $50m in Yen debt that is subject to litigation. So worst case is debt in the range $50-100 million.

Nauru does not have political parties. Instead, the population of 11,000 is governed by “elders” of the dozen clans represented by the 12 points of the star on the Nauru flag.  Traditional culture involves unlimited respect and obedience to these elders. Not one has ever been held to account for the waste and corruption of the island’s previous multi-billion-dollar windfall.[13] The elders’ concern for clan welfare is suggested by the fact that a decade ago, a quarter of kids were stunted from malnutrition and half the kids under five were anaemic. Next to nothing had been spent on local health, education, infrastructure, and development. Social conditions continue to be appalling, with low education levels and  health, heavy smoking, obesity (80% of Nauruans – possibly a world top proportion), diabetes (40% of adults) and booze-fuelled wife-bashing. At election time, poor families are suddenly given wads of cash, so I suppose that’s trickle-down welfare.

It’s significant that Australia’s aid program even now is targeted to what DFAT calls “poverty reduction” and training of Nauruans for proper jobs  still being done by expats.

The Nauruans are cavalier about their high birth rates (3.70 children per mother, one of the highest in Oceania[14], despite living on a micro-island where even drinking water has to be shipped in. Their best asset is their ridiculous status as an independent republic, ninth smallest by population (11,000, one-tenth the number of my Mooney Valley shire here in suburban Melbourne) and sixth-smallest  by area (a Rottnest-sized 21 squ km). This enables them to trade their vote in the corruptUnited Nations and international agencies such as AOSIS — 43 small island states acquiring First World guilt funds by pretending they are drowning from climate change.[15]

Our official aid to Nauru runs at about $25m a year, equal to nearly a quarter of the Nauru government budget. That aid for infrastructure and services is supposed to be quarantined from Australian spending on detainees.

The aid comes with a warning that programs will stop if it’s mismanaged, with DFAT insisting that “the Governments of Nauru and Australia will maintain a zero-tolerance approach to fraudulent and corrupt actions against Australia’s development program with Nauru.”

Good luck with that!

[1] “The Naughty Nation of Nauru”, pp229-238

[2]  Law said of the petrol-bucket theory, “It was about three or four paragraphs of a description about what they [police] say had happened, and what they say had happened was dependant on what they had been told by people they’d spoken to.

ABC reporter: Which was the Justice Minister?

Law: That was the Minister for Justice, yes.”

[3] The ABC, including ABC Fact Check, deserves full marks for its sustained and aggressive coverage of Nauruan internal affairs.

[4] “Documents obtained under freedom-of-information laws by Fairfax Media reveal that in 2013, AFP investigators running an Operation codenamed Zurzach uncovered strong evidence that senior Nauruan politicians had been bribed by a Gold Coast mining company, Getax.” SMH 8/6/15

[5] Ashok Gupta is listed by ASIC as director of Getax Australia Pty Ltd , registered at Bundall Qld., from 1997 to 2001.

[6] Amit Gupta is listed by ASIC as current director and secretary of Getax Australia Pty Ltd. He became director in 1997 and secretary in 2001.

[7] Incredibly, a federal government agency issued a report a year ago on outcomes of financing the  training of lawyers and court administrators on Nauru. It did at least admit that one course never finished because of “in-country circumstances”.

[8] According to the Nauru government, it was an illegal ‘riot’.

[9] Kenny this week told the ABC “(Nauruans) are offended when people criticize their island. I understand that. They love their island…they are very proud of it, they  choose to live their lives there. We should be fair to the Nauruans and not run down their country” [at 23.30mins].

[10] A big waster of the original Nauru fortune was Air Nauru, that used to lose $40-80m a year. It was relaunched as Nauru Airlines, now with five Boeing 737-300s and nine destinations – Brisbane plus Fiji and seven tiny islands.  This is becoming comparable with the old Air Nauru, which at its peak had seven planes and 19 destinations.

[11] Note the brouhaha by demonstrators and staff at Brisbane Children’s Hospital last February when a detainee’s toddler with burns was taken there.

[12] There is some poetic justice in Nauru screwing Australia. We administered Nauru from 1920 as part of a “sacred trust” handed down by the League of Nations. The “sacred trust” in practice involved creating a British Phosphate Commission (BPC) to sell phosphate to Australia, Britain and New Zealand at a third of the world price, with royalties to Nauruans at a halfpenny a ton.

[13] For example, a police chief bought himself a yellow Lamborghini to traverse the island’s 24 kilometres of paved road, but he was too fat to get into the car.

[14] The Nauru Bureau of Statistics estimates the population will increase to 20,000 in 2038

[15] Her Excellency UN Ambassador Marlene Moses of Nauru was previous AOSIS chair to 2014, current chair is   the  disreputable state of Maldives.


  1. en passant

    It is many years since I had dealings with Nauru through Air Nauru, and it was a difficult relationship. What you are exposing is nothing new, but let me add: in the 1980′s the Oz government (as well as the UK) paid $m’s in compensation for the environmental damage that had resulted from the ‘guano’ phosphate mining. I believe that part of this money was used to buy Nauru House in Collins St in Melbourne, the rest was appropriated by deserving souls or squandered. So, on a regular basis since then the Nauran government has thrown insults at Oz and demanded endless compensation for what is apparently (from your expose) the result of political malfeasance and a purely commercial transaction.

Brand-New Timeless Traditions

It seems no public event can begin without a Welcome to Country, quite possibly involving an ochre-daubed performer with a smoking bark pot and lots of ethno-gibberish neither star nor audience understand. Let us hope the quest for ‘authenticity’ does not embrace penis-touching and cannibalism

indigenous smokoWelcome to Country and smoking ceremonies involve professional mock-ups of supposed thousand-year Aboriginal traditions. Someone hires a local troupe to dance in body paint and laplaps to didgeridoo and clapstick music. The leader says a few words in the traditional language and self- translates it into New Age platitudes about peace and goodwill. Everyone goes home smug.

Matilda House-Williams, an elder of the Ngambri Clan, went home particularly happy with an undisclosed sum  for a welcome-to-country speech of six minutes for Kevin Rudd at the opening of the 42nd Parliament in 2008.[1]  She was back (as plain Matilda “House”) in 2010 for Gillard’s 43rd Parliament (fee undisclosed), and again for the 44th Parliament, led by Tony Abbott. This time her fee was disclosed: $10,500, for “entertainment services”. With stakes like that, it’s not surprising that the Ngunnawal clan, led by Aunty Agnes Shea , themselves claimed to be Canberra’s traditional owners. Parliament has now squared the circle by naming both clans as owners.[2]

In Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Abbotsford, the Wurundjeri Tribe Land & Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Inc.   quotes (below) $570  for a Welcome to Country (Community not for profit clients, $470); $300 for a Smoking /Cleansing Ceremony ($300); $820 for a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony ($720); $1700 for Jindyworabak Dancers ($1700) and $250 for didgeridoo player ($250). Travel and parking are included; 10% GST to be added.

welcome rates

Sydney’s Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council quotes Welcome to Country speeches at $385-450, with a 20% surcharge after 5pm and weekends.  Dancers, didgeridoo players and smoking-ceremony handlers are not supplied by this council and come at extra expense. The council warns that its three “uncles” providing welcomes “are in high demand”, unsurprising given that welcomes are becoming mandatory.

Even the CSIRO, an organisation nominally pledged to rational inquiry and scientific rigour (OK, there is that climate-change hysteria), has bought in to the ‘welcome’ business, having issued guidelines for pay rates and accommodations when its laboratories need to be cleansed of “evil spirits” by an ochred contractor waving fiery foliage. Exposed and widely ridiculed, those guidelines were quietly removed for the internet. They remain available via Wayback Machine’s web archive, however, and can be read in full here.

The supposedly ancient ‘welcome’ tradition goes back 30-40 years, whereas the House of Commons goes back  nearly 700 years. Indigenous entertainers Ernie Dingo and Richard Whalley, of the Middar Aboriginal Theatre, claim to have invented the “welcome to country” in 1976 because two pairs of Maori visitors from NZ and the Cook Islands wanted an equivalent of their own traditional ceremony before they would dance at the Perth International Arts Festival.[3]  Another version is that activists shrewdly created the ceremony at about the same time to buttress land-rights claims. And Aboriginal Rhoda Roberts, head of indigenous programming at the Sydney Opera House, says the ceremonies were developed in the 1980s by members of the Aboriginal National Theatre Trustwhich she co-founded. Her speaker-for-hire profile claims she personally invented the term “welcome to country” along with the protocols involved.  She would like welcomes to include marking guests with ochre and Aboriginal sweat. Eccch.

Not to be outdone, current ABC chair and then NSW Chief Justice, Jim Spigelman, said in 2011 that he created first official use of the ceremony for the Court’s 175th anniversary in 1999, and that ceremony inspired the NSW Parliament to take it up too. Spigelman, with all respect, erred. Governor-General Sir William Deane did the deed in his annual Vincent Lingiari Lecture in 1996.[4]

Whatever the motives, the welcome meme fitted perfectly into the zeitgeist. Welcomes To and/or Acknowledgements Of Country  are now mandated by Parliaments, governments, departments,  the military, shires, corporates, educators and right-thinking groups all around the country. The mandating is normally done by Labor powerbrokers, while conservatives drag their feet but are too intimidated to resist.

Anthropologists and early settlers failed to record anything much resembling “welcome to country” ceremonies. Bess Price, CLP Aboriginal member of the Northern Territory Parliament and Minister for Community Services, has described “welcomes” as  “not particularly meaningful to traditional people anyway. We don’t do that in communities. It’s just a recent thing. It’s just people who are trying to grapple at something that they believe should be traditional.”

Tony Thomas’s new book of essays, That’s Debatable, will be launched at 6.30pm Thursday, May 19, at Il Gamberos Restaurant, 166 Lygon St, Carlton.
Order your copy here

Anthropologist Ron Brunton found in WA some evidence for permissions being required to enter neighbouring clans’ land (although more honoured in the breach these days) but saw no evidence of any welcome-to-countries  in the state where the ceremonies were (probably) first invented.

Adelaide archival researcher and geologist Alistair Crooks says,

“During years of geological site inspections, I have never seen or heard of a welcome ceremony being performed when entering tribal land (invited), nor have I seen the ceremony performed when transporting Aborigines into or across various tribal boundaries. Nor is any such ceremony described by any of the early explorers or anthropologists that I am aware of.”

Except, of course, the rather simple penis-touching ceremony around Oodnadatta described by Berndt and Berndt and Roheim.[5]

The Berndts recorded,

“When a man with a subincised penis enters a strange camp, he takes up the hand of each local man in turn, pressing his penis flatly on the palm.[6] This gesture, of offering and acceptance in a close physical contact, signifies the establishment of friendly relations, and is associated with the settling of grievances.”[7]

Explorer Edward John Eyre also describes the permissions of one group wanting to enter the land of a neighbouring group for ceremonial reasons, and what the process involved. There didn’t appear to be any “welcome” ceremony.

Crooks says,

“Central to Eyre’s notes is the aboriginal belief that only the old and young can die of natural causes. All adults only die as the result of contact with sickness country, by the action of malignant spirits, or by the intervention of sorcery by neighboring tribes.

Thus when two tribes meet at one tribal boundary, they first settle accounts for all the tribal deaths attributable to sorcery by each tribe since they last met. After a discussion a group of men would be selected out and would allow themselves to be speared by the other tribe. After this settling of accounts, normal relations were established and they could get on with the business.” [8]

One early observer, a certain Mrs Smith, wife of a Mt Gambier missionary, noted that welcomes don’t always end well: “The tribes, like most savage peoples, were in continual dread of each other; and although they occasionally met up on friendly terms to hold a murapena (corroboree), it usually eventuated in a fight, in which one or two were killed and afterwards eaten.”[9]

A typical modern “welcome” was the 2014 ceremonial year-opening for the Australian Command & Staff College in Canberra.  About 170 middle-ranking officers took part, preparatory to a year’s “intensive course which includes strategic policy, leadership and ethics, joint operations, single service studies and capability development components”. Nearly all officers wore ribbons signifying their valor and active service.

The welcome ceremony was by Canberra’s popular Wiradjuri Echoes Dance Troupe (or “troop”, as the ADF  misprinted it). It comprises Wiradjuri man Duncan Smith and his four teenagers, who’ve performed for Denmark’s Prince Frederik and Princess Mary and three of our Prime Ministers. As Duncan explains his career, “Having five kids, it isn’t easy to raise them, I’ll start a business up in culture. But I had no idea about doing it, I sat in business seminar after seminar [laughs]. ‘Yes, I can do this!’ I got the ABN and stuff and started building a business and reputation.”  His much-awarded Echoes are the go-to group for high-level  performances.

Good luck to the  Echoes as a thriving small business catering to whites’ liking for color, movement and exotica. But it was the reverential behaviour of the 170 military officers that intrigued me.  After the dance, Duncan stood on the pathway into the lecture theatre with a bark holder containing smoking gum leaves. Every one of the officers filed past and mimed pushing the smoke into their faces. Their expressions were as solemn as at church-going. Inside,  Ngunnawal elder Aunty Agnes Shea (Matilda House’s rival claimant to Canberra land) presented the commander, Brigadier Peter Gates, with a nicely-painted message stick. Any officer raising an eyebrow at possible inauthenticity, would kiss his/her career goodbye.[10]

Lisa Phelps, head of the ADF’s Directorate of Indigenous Affairs, joined the speakers. Like those responsible for the  national school curriculum, the ADF wants “a cultural awareness piece in every training package continuum that is developed.” The ADF has also committed to more than double its intake of Indigenous recruits, to 2.7% of the force. This quest is seriously chewing up resources that could otherwise be recruiting more successfully elsewhere to help eventually push back ISIS and other bad guys. I sometimes wonder if the ADF has any inclination for combat after all this cultural correctness. See also here.

These days, Indigenous ceremonies are everyone’s feel-good exercise, but not long ago, with Indigenes more stroppy, there were glitches. The greatest was the Pageant of Australian History organized by the National Trust at Old Government House at Parramatta to celebrate the Federation Centenary in 2001.  The audience included the mayor, state and federal parliamentarians, and local Indigenes.

As recounted by anthropologist Kristina Everett, the Trust’s plan was to round up some local Darug to welcome attendees and display pre-contact Australian life.[11]  White actors were lined up to orate as Governor Philip, the MacArthurs, the Macquaries, Marsden, Greenway, the Rum Corps etc. The Indigenes were to do their picturesque things and then conveniently disappear after  dispersal by Red Coats firing muskets.

The Darugs, embittered by failed attempts to establish land-claim title to the end on which Sydney is built,  played along with the script at rehearsals. But for the performance, they dispersed only temporarily at the musket fire and re-instated themselves in the shrubbery, shouting at the Governor Philip actor in their ersatz Darug tongue and then re-emerging, Everett said, “moaning, groaning, clutching their stomachs, their heads, their hearts, and then ‘dying’ on the lawn of Old Government House.”

 “I became increasingly concerned that the theatrical ‘Governor Philip’ would retaliate by calling the Red Coats. ‘Governor Philip’ began to lose his concentration when delivering his speech concerning his mission to establish a new British colony and to treat Aboriginal inhabitants according to British justice and fairness. His words became labored as dancers began to ‘die’ at his feet.”

The audience, both black and white, got queasy, unused to disrespectful interruptions of theatrical performances. Plus it was obvious that the Darug had a  point.

“Stifled giggles, soft murmurs, and puzzled expressions emanated from the audience as many shifted in their seats.  As ‘Governor Philip’ exited back into Old Government House, I, for one, felt relieved when the Darug performers ‘rose from the dead’ and disappeared into the shrubs followed by spirited applause.”

The actor playing Francis Greenway came out on the portico  clad in powdered wig, velvet knickerbockers, ruffled blouse and buckled shoes, and the painted-up Darug in loin-cloths returned in force to writhe, moan and expire once more “on the grass at his feet.” Each time colonial worthies came out for inspired oratory, the Darug repeated their counterpoint.

“The pageant became for me, almost impossible to watch. It was programmed to take only one hour, but seemed interminable. It was clear from the tension, comments and restlessness of other audience members that I was not alone in my distress. One Aboriginal man near me complained to a woman beside him,  ‘Gawd Lornie, I dunno if I can take much more o’ this. It’s embarrassin’.”

The actors playing   founding white mothers and fathers stuttered awkwardly, whether at being interrupted or feeling their roles had been subverted by the bodies littering the lawn.

One of the female dancers later explained to Everett, “Feelin’ uncomfortable in our own country is what bein’ Aboriginal is all about. It don’t do no harm for whitefellas to get a taste o’ it.” She writes:

“’Dead’ bodies remained on the lawn until some National Trust organisers discreetly escorted them out of sight. The audience did not know how to respond. A few people began to applaud but it was not taken up by everybody.  It was not until a ‘thank you and good night’ speech was made by a National Trust representative that the audience broke into applause.”

Everett in her preamble explains that “the Darug” as a group only emerged in the 1980s after genealogical research by a biologist Dr James Kohen identifying 6000 suburbanites as Darug.  The “vast majority” didn’t identify even as Aboriginal before or after Kohen’s research. But between 200 and 300 took up the cause of being Darug and began creating a Darug identity, putting in three unsuccessful land rights claims to Sydney. She wrote, “The process of becoming an Aboriginal community has not, however, been without its share of sweat, blood and tears. Over the last thirty years Darug people have been experimenting with various ideas about how to be Aboriginal.” Over time they convinced themselves:

“It seems that the expressions of group identity they have developed over some decades have now become such values in themselves that they cannot and will not be relinquished. Welcome to country ceremonies are one of these articulations.” (author’s emphasis).

Facets include learning from academics about original Darug ancestors, “to some people actually behaving in ways that they imagine Darug ancestors behaved.” Those facets include forms of ‘primitive’ dancing, ceremonies and speaking a claimed version of Darug language.

One group leaned towards the academic knowledge, the other group towards “more cultural and behavioral forms of expression”, causing the original group to split, sometimes with acrimony. Notwithstanding, local councils, governments and schools have fallen over themselves to invite Darugs to give welcome to country ceremonies, even to massively-attended shows like the 2000 Olympics, the 2006 Commonwealth Games torch relay and the 2001 Federation shows, along with numerous minor shows, flag-raisings and conferences. About the only group that does not invite Darugs to do welcome-to-country shows are rival Aborigines.

Everett gets particularly interesting on the re-creation of Aboriginal languages for use at such ceremonies. This is symbolically important in claiming pre-contact ancestry — although, at best, only a few vestiges of the language remain in urban settings. Everett says current Darugs have virtually no knowledge of the old Darug spoken language, other than a few words.

“There is no Darug language community. Nor are there any records in full and very little in part of Darug language…The Darug descendants…use what they insist is a version of Darug language that they have developed with the help of word lists from a white supporter in the early days and then by themselves over the last thirty years to conduct welcome to country ceremonies.”

When they use it, “it is not understood either by the audience or the speakers themselves” – since it is  “a recently invented verbal ritual affirming Darug identity…and is hence more of a dramatic ritual performance than a language”.  Everett cites the following example of Darug “language” as spoken by a senior woman in the 2001 Federation pageant:

Tiati murra Daruga pemel,
Koi murra ya pemel ngalaringi bubbuna.
Ban nye yenma wurra nang.
Ney dice gai dyi ya nangami dyarralang.
Ngalaringi tiati nglararingi gai.
Gu-ya willy angara gu-nu-gal dag u-nu-gal
Da la-loey gnia tarimi gi-mi-gal.
Jam ya tiati nglararingi eorah jumna.
Mittigar gurrung burruk gneene da Daruga pemel.[12]

Make of all that what you will. Everett says this speech was received with great audience enthusiasm, spirited applause, head-nodding and warm smiles at this ‘authentic’ display.

Meanwhile, state education departments are handing authority over Aboriginal teaching and curriculum to local Aboriginal groups. This is seen as being culturally sensitive, but in reality endows the Aboriginal lobby with classroom control. As last year’s Victorian official guideline on the courses puts it, “Any education materials produced must be developed directly by or in partnership with Koorie community representatives — at the local level this work must be in consultation with LAECGs [Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Groups].

As Ronald Berndt noted 30 years ago,  “Aboriginality is sought in an Aboriginal past. Not in the reality of traditional Aboriginal life, contemporary or otherwise, but in their idea of what it was (or is) like…in re-creation of what they think Aboriginal life should be…

“A great deal of interesting myth-making is going on.”[13]

Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope


[1]  She concluded the speech: “With this renewed hope and our pride, our strength is refreshed. Like our ancestors, we can reach new heights soaring on the wings of the eagles. Thank you very much, and welcome to the land of my ancestors.”

[2] The President now says, “I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia’s Indigenous peoples.”

[3] The Middar Theatre was actually founded in 1978, hence the invention date may be 1978 rather than 1976.

[4] “We acknowledge that we are meeting on country for which they and their forbears have been custodians for many centuries and on which Aboriginal people have performed age-old ceremonies of celebration, initiation and renewal. We acknowledge their living culture and unique role in the life of this region”

[5] The author studied under the Berndts in 1961 at UWA

[6] In the Western Desert a boy becomes a man by having an upper central incisor pounded out of his head with a rock, without anaesthetic, without permission to express pain or terror; by having his foreskin cut off in little pieces with a stone knife and seeing it eaten by certain of his male relatives, and as a climax of agony, by having his penis slit through to the urethra from the scrotum to the meatus, like a hot dog… Professor of Anthropology John Greenway, Down Among the Wild Men. Little, Brown, 1972. p3

[7] Berndt R. and Berndt C., The World of the First Australians. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra 1999. p176

[8] To be whimsical, such ritual spearings   of white leaders by Aboriginal performers at Welcome ceremonies could lend an authentic touch and generate some literal healing of past wounds.

[9]  Mrs. James Smith, 1880. The Booandik Tribe of South Australia. South Australian Government Printer. 1965 facsimile produced by the SA Libraries Board.

[10] To some extent, the ADF was providing some local culture for the 25 or so foreign officers taking the course, as occurs on a reciprocal basis in defence circles. But the ADF is suffusing this culture through its total systems.

[11] Kristina Everett, Welcome to Country…Not. Oceania, Vol 1/79,  March 2009, pp53-64.

[12] Coincidentally, I assisted noted linguist Dr Carl Georg Von Brandenstein on his work translating Pilbara song-poetry from four dialects (Taruru, by Brandenstein and Thomas, Rigby, 1974). To give the flavor of some authentic Aboriginal language, however remote from NSW,  here’s a sample,  “Air Raid on Broome”, Karierra dialect, by Billy Thomas-Wombi:

palanamu jiaanimalgu wajangaarnu
savan nulikadaer jiaanimalgu
palanamu jiaanimalgu wajangaarnu


They’re coming in from the east
– terrifying!
Seven they are – coming in from the east.
Coming in from the east
– terrifying!
Those chaps with the protruding eyes.

(We’re not sure if “protruding eyes” refers to the pilots’ goggles).


[13] In Johns, G. 2011. Aboriginal Self-Determination, The Whiteman’s Dream. Connor Court Publishing.



  1. Tig

    I would have thought the ADF would be much too practical to be blindsided by Left political correctness and falderal but they seem to be out there leading the way of late.

  2. Richard H

    As potent a sign of how degenerate our governing institutions have become is what how happens in our parliaments.

    Since the seventeenth century, parliaments in the Westminster tradition have refused to allow the Sovereign or the Sovereign’s representative to enter the popularly-elected chamber, such as the House of Representatives. The symbolism is stark: even the most mighty power in the land cannot intrude into the solemn precincts of the people’s representatives.

    Now we have an inversion whereby the location of those solemn precincts is deemed to be the traditional home of some tiny band of painted frauds, and our elected representatives allow themselves to be “welcomed” there.

  3. Geoffrey Luck

    The Darug racket has been shrewdly advanced by picking the soft targets. The official website of Macquarie University, built on what were market gardens as recently as the 1950s, acknowledges that the university is on the land of the Darug people. Not – what was once the land of the Darug people, mind you. In a presentational video featuring one Jacinta Tobin, she adopts an arrogantly proprietorial attitude: “Our family has learnt in this country for forty, fifty thousand years. We ask you to come here and learn again.” Tobin concludes with a song which she has cleverly copyrighted – as if many would want to borrow it. It’s not exactly a “Happy Birthday!” Welcome to country and/or smoking ceremonies are now part of all graduation ceremonies and official conferences on the Macquarie campus; the University boasts its own resident “elder”. Uncle Lexodious (Is that poking fun at white man’s law?) Dodd has his own office and telephone (02 9850 8653) and when not welcoming people to his country, “informs our teaching and research practice within the discipline of Indigenous Studies.” In 1974 when the University hosted a high tea for foundation alumni to celebrate its jubilee, Dodd and one of his mates gave not merely a welcome but also a ten minute historical harangue. When I wrote a lettr of protest about this nonsense to the new Vice Chancellor, I received a peremptory rebuke about my cultural insensitivity, with the implication that he would have taken away my MBA if he could have. Sentimentality, guilt and childish fascination with ersatz cultural performances have gripped the nation. Tony has done well to expose what is really a surreptitious part of the campaign to establish a two-nation Australia.

  4. Davidovich

    Given that we are now being forced to accept that white men invaded Australia, it seems incongruous that there would have been any welcome to country ceremonies back then.

  5. Alistair

    Nice article Tony.
    I noticed in your translation in the footnotes “seven they are coming”. This surprised me as I know of no aboriginal language which has a word for a numeral higher than three. The word “seven” though is presumably a translation of that ancient indigenous word “savan”. Perhaps this proves a link between aboriginal languages and proto-indo-european languages. From the time of first settlement they been considered to part of the Caucasian family.

    • padraic

      I just about puke when I am at a function where this patronising “Welcome to Country” is trotted out. To me it is saying we native born Australians of the paler variety are not real citizens of our own country. Well, sorry guys. I’ve got news for you.

Brezhnev: My Part in His Downfall

I once found myself being courted by an oily Soviet diplomat, who somewhat ineptly pursued what he mistakenly hoped would be a valuable intelligence source by plying my children with storybooks featuring anatomically correct puppy dogs. No need for me to worry, ASIO was on the case

leonidOn a limpid autumn day in 1977, my phone rang in the Age’s office in the Canberra press gallery. We were in the rabbit warren of second-floor rooms in what is now the Old Parliament House. A heavily accented voice said, “Good afternoon, Mr Thomas. My name is Oleg Petrovich Tsitsarkin. I am with the Soviet embassy.”

“Well, hi, Oleg Petrovich! What can I do for you?”

“I would say first, that at the embassy we think highly of your economics writing.”

That was nice, I love compliments. I had been Economics Writer for the Age for seven years.

“Thanks. I do my best.”

Mr Tsitsarkin continued, “I must tell you I have a problem. My boss Mr Shilin sends a monthly briefing on economic policy back to Moscow, and he has gone on leave and these briefings I now have to write. But I do not know much about your economics and my reports will be criticised. Perhaps you can help me with advice?”

“Sure! CPI, GDP, SRDs, whatever. I’m a walking encyclopaedia.”

“Mr Thomas, let us have lunch and a talk. You can explain about Mr Howard’s Treasury policies perhaps. May I suggest next Monday, the 19th Hole at the golf club?”

I don’t know about other journalists but I would sell my grandmother for a swanky lunch. Plus I had been angling unsuccessfully for an exclusive interview with the reclusive Soviet Ambassador Mr A.V. Basov, and Mr Tsitsarkin could be a useful lever.

The Royal Canberra Golf Club’s restaurant is no longer called the 19th Hole, but it’s still a ritzy joint for “a memorable and enjoyable experience”. That’s what I got, four decades ago.

I gathered for Mr Tsitsarkin some economic bumph that cascaded across my Age desk, and a speech or two by the Treasurer.

He was a slim and nervous chap about my age (then thirty-seven). The restaurant had glossy panels and pretty views of the links. I ordered a rare steak and breezily selected a shiraz. Mr Tsitsarkin gallantly approved my choice. He was full of bonhomie and seized upon my “Treasury Round-Ups” with gratitude. I impressed him with the finer points of fiscal and monetary settings.

I mentioned my desire to interview the ambassador. A great idea! He would talk to the first secretary, Mr Pavlov, this very afternoon on my behalf.

By the end of the bottle I was full of goodwill. Poor Mr Tsitsarkin, he didn’t get out much, literally, holed up in the Soviet residential compound. His wife Ekaterina would get out even less. He was a guy just trying to do a difficult job. We had things in common.

“Tell you what, Oleg,” I said brightly. “Grab your wife and have dinner at our place in Empire Circuit. What about next Thursday?”

That was only a few days ahead. I was taking a real risk here, not because I was dealing with sinister Russians but because my then wife did not like being sprung with dinner guests at short notice.

Oleg gave a startled response. Sure, thank you, he said, he would ring me back to confirm. He seemed to have come by taxi so I offered to drop him back at his office in my Cortina. As we neared the embassy in Canberra Avenue, he suddenly remembered some dry-cleaning to collect at the local shops. I dropped him off there and returned to Parliament.

I waited for his acceptance to dine with Mr and Mrs Thomas. Days passed, Thursday came and went. I was curious about this breach of good manners, but spared a row with Mrs Thomas, so I didn’t think much more about it.

A couple of months passed and the phone rang again. It was Oleg, as if he’d never stood me up. How about lunch? Well, why not.

His new choice of restaurant was a budget-priced Chinese at Belconnen about fifteen kilometres out. When we met, he was at a table at the edge of the room. (Interjection from John le Carré—“So he can check out anyone else entering!”) Oleg had a few things to discuss and I was happy to enlighten him: the press secretary to the Minister for Resources was so-and-so, the private secretary was so-and-so, to get an appointment you would go through the chief-of-staff.

My interview with the ambassador? Oh, he’s been travelling, no opportunity. Expect an invitation any day now.

We parted amicably. He didn’t need a lift home.

He would ring now and then with inane questions. All my calls back to the embassy, I later realised, were three-way, with ASIO listening in and keeping an eye (ear?) on things.

The embassy now seemed lukewarm about my value. The next Oleg invitation, in early 1979, was for lunch—at McDonald’s!—to talk more economics. I liked getting tidbits about the diplomatic circuit. This time I showed up with my three-year-old daughter, who loved Maccas and chips, and I again handed over a few economics bulletins in an A4 envelope.

He looked a bit surprised to find we had a threesome. In fact it was a fivesome. ASIO, I later learned, had assigned a young man and woman, ostensibly courting or skirting domesticity, to join us at Maccas. Sadly, the racket in the store made conversation too hard to record.

Oleg accepted my envelope somewhat nervously. The ASIO couple took careful note. Technically it was a “live drop”, much interior to the favoured “dead drop” in the espionage world.

Oleg fobbed me off again on the ambassadorial interview. I still thought it would be nice to meet the friendly couple at home over dinner, and this time he accepted for lunch. But Mrs Tsitsarkin didn’t speak good English and he would come solo, he said.

Mrs Thomas was far from pleased but turned on some chicken and salad. Oleg arrived bearing children’s books for our three-year-old. They were dowdy but nice and the Russian illustrators ignored the Western convention (to this day) that puppy dogs lack an anus. All the rear views of the Russian puppy dogs included a small black dot.

At the table, the awkward atmosphere got worse when Mrs Thomas, who had never wanted this socialising, abruptly turned the conversation to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, now in the USA. Why was the Soviet Union bad-mouthing him? she demanded.

Poor Oleg. Whatever he replied would have repercussions. He would give the party line on Solzhenitsyn, even if it meant hostilities with Mrs Thomas and loss of best-buddy status with me.

Solzhenitsyn was a dishonest person who had cheated in his high school exams, he said, and became an army coward and was now in someone’s pay to blacken the good name of Soviet society. Mrs Thomas revved up the dispute.

The rest of the lunch was frosty. Oleg decided he had little to lose, and made an announcement: “I wish to speak to Mr Thomas—alone!”

Mrs Thomas’s face changed colour at being ordered out of her own dining room. She exited with bad grace. I sensed I was going to hear more about this later.

With her out of the way, Oleg came close and lowered his voice. “I want to ask you, will China invade North Vietnam?”

I was dumbstruck. Why ask me? I had an inspiration. “You know, the Far East Economic Review had a piece on this topic only yesterday. I’ll find it.”

I rummaged through the pile on the coffee table, found the magazine, flicked to the article, ripped it out, and handed it to him with a pleased expression. He took it, unimpressed, and soon after he departed. I never heard from him again. A month later, China invaded Vietnam.

Alert readers may wonder how I know ASIO was on my case. Here’s how. A couple of years later I stayed the weekend in London with a friend, Ken, in the Australian public service. Also staying was another chap, Maurice. Ken mentioned that Maurice was with ASIO. I got chatting privately with Maurice and related my trysts with Tsitsarkin. We were interrupted and I never got to finish the story. We all went our separate ways.

Months later, back in Melbourne, Maurice phoned me and suggested lunch. Nothing loath, I agreed and over steak and shiraz, this time ASIO-financed, I gave him the full saga.

Maurice had done his homework and probed my inconsistencies. He seemed less interested in Oleg than in the Soviet embassy’s press attaché, Mr Lev Koshliakov. “Tell me about your contacts with him,” Maurice said.

I racked my brains. He was the chap I originally phoned for an interview with the ambassador. But I denied any other contact. Maurice kept at me. Eventually he disclosed his hand: they had logged me making a couple of calls I had forgotten about. Maybe Maurice was concerned I was using innocuous lines as code to Koshliakov. I hope I straightened him out. I also explained what was in the A4 envelopes I was handing over to the Soviets.

“Why so concerned about Koshliakov?” I asked.

“It’s like this. Koshliakov was the senior KGB man in the embassy. The press attaché bit was his cover. Some of his stuff was illegal and we hoped to expel him back to Moscow.

“Now about Oleg. He wasn’t that important but we like to know what they want to know. He was low-level GRU, that’s the military intelligence. He was called third secretary. I don’t know why he was cultivating you. Sometimes it’s cloak-and-dagger but sometimes these guys are genuinely at sea and need a local’s advice.” I was relieved. I usually take people, even Russians, at face value.

What about that first dinner invitation to Oleg and his wife, that he ignored? Maurice laughed. “To him, entrapment. Same as you trying to drive him back to the embassy. Everyone knows that we have photographers across the road.”

My economics help to Oleg? Useless, said Maurice. “Anything published, they already had. That’s why you got downgraded to McDonald’s.” I flinched.

In Canberra a few years later, a Labor Party apparatchik, David Combe, formed a friendship with a Russian diplomat and KGB man, Valery Ivanov. It blew up, Bob Hawke expelled Ivanov, and Combe was severely punished—by being sent to Western Canada as senior trade commissioner. Why am I never punished like that?

I was stupid to have any truck with Russians. Or, and this is delicious, I should have rung ASIO to be “wired” for my meetings with Oleg. But how would this fit with my day job? Technically, I should also have asked my Age editor Greg Taylor if he wanted an agent on the payroll. (Probably not!)

As for my hopes of an interview with Ambassador Alexander Vasilievich Basov, he was most unlikely to have been beguiled into giving me a colorful, potentially Walkley-winning scoop. I now know from John Blaxland’s Vol 11 ASIO history that Basov was a full member of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee (most unusual for an ambassador),  and freshly arrived here from ministering to the ill-fated Marxist President of Chile, Salvador Allende, who shot himself while literally besieged by the CIA’s  minions. ASIO found Basov ‘dogmatic, thrusting and difficult to deal with’. During his tenure in Canberra he flooded ASIO with work, from his ‘political interference in local affairs’ and ‘recruitment of agents of influence’ (ouch!).

The other day I acquired my ASIO file. It showed me tick-tacking with Tsitsarkin about a lunch at the Lotus restaurant (sounds plausible) on October 19, 1977. Then there were many pages about Tony Thomas doing rabid agitprop for the Palestinians against the Israelis—mistaken identity by ASIO, as that was a different “Tony Thomas”.

Then nothing (time-travelling backwards) until December 1972, when I attended evening cocktails at the Soviet embassy in my capacity as National Press Club treasurer. This evening appeared uneventful to me but a Soviet official, Lazovic, kept calling in as Duty Officer to see if everything was “in order”. It wasn’t. Soviet official Morosov “was reported to be ‘very drunk’ at 2225 hours and was collected from the residence and taken home”.

Geronty Lazovic, it emerged last year, went on to recruit a top agent inside ASIO or Defence and earned a medal for it. More satisfying than carting drunk Russians home from cocktail parties.

As for Koshliakov, he was rated Moscow’s most dangerous agent in Australia, with more than 115 press contacts. I could have been number 116. He became KGB station chief in Norway, was busted for spying, and got handed a top job at Aeroflot where he remained until at least 2010, about his retirement age of sixty-five.

On the excitements of my briefings of Oleg Tsitsarkin, ASIO files were blank. Not blacked out, but blank. Yet according to my chats with Maurice, ASIO was seriously interested. A little mystery there!

As to my part in Brezhnev’s downfall, well, sticking him for my steak and shiraz at the 19th Hole was another straw on the camel’s back.

Kerry O’Brien Keeps Himself Busy

When not singing the praises of Paul Keating, the ex-ABCer is deriding John Howard and, of course, Tony Abbott. As to Australia’s future, the richly remunerated ABC veteran goes weak at the knees at the thought of the wondrous Malcolm Turnbull

kerry o'brienPoor Kerry O’Brien, lately, and doubtless in future, an ABC employee. He appears happy as he gets about promoting his Keating book, but he’s writhing and crying on the inside.

Why so? Not because he’s finally quit of the not-quite-arduous role of Four Corners “host”, which according to the Sydney Tele’s Tim Blair, involved him in less than four hours of TV face-time in five years. And he’s not agonizing because he was too hard-up at the national broadcaster to save for groceries in his retirement. Who knows what we taxpayers paid to watch him for those four hours? In his previous role as 7.30Report editor and host, he was paid $365,000 in 2009-10. I wonder if his total pay for the Four Corners stint added up to the high six-figures, or might it even have broken the seven-figure barrier? There is no way to know because the ABC, citing “commerce in confidence” won’t say how much it pays its favourite sons.

Not that anyone should begrudge Kerry’s a fair return for his exacting role. I mean, here’s what his job entailed on the November 16 production of Four Corners: two minutes’ work reading 225 words off the AutoCue:

KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: Tonight on Four Corners, we take you into the lives of Australia’s kids and their journey through adolescence and ask: why are they feeling so stressed?

You might think Australian kids have never had it so good. On average, they’re probably healthier, wealthier and better educated than better before.

They’re also more exposed to the world. In this global village there are very few secrets; very few filters. How, for instance, are children supposed to process an event like the weekend’s Paris attacks?

That’s just one factor contributing to the anxiety and depression now at very high levels amongst our kids. One in four say they worry about the future all the time.

In this quite special Four Corners program we ask a wide range of young Australians from 12 to 19 why they feel so much pressure. Their responses are frank, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, always illuminating.

The reporter is Quentin McDermott.

[Program follows, with no further reference to Kerry]

[Program ends, Kerry returns to the screen]

KERRY O’BRIEN: There’s another message in this for all those kids caught in the intensity and loneliness of a problem they feel they can’t share: you’re not alone. And these issues can be managed.

Next week on Four Corners: our final program for the year. We look at the making of Australia’s youngest ever terrorist and the men who are influencing the next generation of home-grown jihadists.

Until then, good night.

And Kerry’s not traumatised by retirement doldrums. As he told ABC colleagues, “I also have other ideas, which may offer the opportunity to work again with the ABC …”

It’s a plot-spoiler, but I know why Kerry’s so sad, so internally gut-wrenched. I was at his Melbourne Press Club book launch on November 27, when he delivered a polished and enjoyable spiel about Paul Keating’s triumphs and peccadillos. I failed to take proper notes but the video is now up at the Melbourne Press Club site.

In concluding, he veered off at a tangent (38 minutes in). He gave several examples of Keating’s “good and effective leadership” and then contrasted those with the alleged “great failure of modern leadership” in regard to boat people flowing south through Indonesia. Actually, after 50,000 chaotic arrivals and detentions, and some 1200 drownings, ex-PM Tony Abbott stopped the boats. But O’Brien views that as a “great failure”. Not just that but also

  • “deeply troubling, and already has been burnt into this nation’s history and tarnished its spirit”
  • “excruciating and shameful”
  •  repugnant to “any ethical or moral conscience at all”
  •  a poor example of what Australia and Australians stands for
  •  antipathetic to “fundamental decency”
  • “…bogged down in emotive and at times despicable politics”
  • retrograde to our “self respect”
  • cheap exploitation of fear and emotion
  • involving “inflammatory and now discredited claims of the so-called ‘kids overboard affair’”
  • not “morally and ethically acceptable”
  • causing us “to look in the mirror and (to be) ashamed of what we see”
  • the image we are putting out to the world and living with ourselves “is an appalling one and there has got to be a better way.”

O’Brien’s virtue-signalling and personal angst drew sympathetic applause from the Press Club audience. His main hope, he told them, rested with Abbott’s nemesis, Malcolm Turnbull, who has been “working his way through some very interesting decisions, displaying a standard of calm, considered leadership we all probably feel we have been starved of for a long time.” O’Brien’s use of the royal “We all” suggests he needs to get out more, although he was pretty safe in the Press Club context. O’Brien has also failed to understand that the “children overboard” issue involved real cases.[i]

O’Brien seemed to be channeling Human Rights stalwart Gillian Triggs (salary $408,000), who waxed indignant about kids in detention, but only after Abbott solved the problem. Triggs deferred her indignation during the Labor era when scores of kids went into detention.

Indeed, O’Brien’s Keating book, which he researched partly during the Rudd/Gillard years, mentions the boat people only as an afterthought — something “not discussed but  would be remiss to leave out”, as he wrote. It turns out that Keating’s immigration minister, Gerry Hand, in 1992 proposed “mandatory detention in remote Australia” to keep better track of arrivals, and Keating and his cabinet waved it through undiscussed. Why? Because Hand was the leader of the Victorian Left faction, as Keating explains,

And the Left had the most libertarian views in the party about immigration and settlement… If Hand was advising the cabinet to set up detention centres for the orderly processing of asylum seekers, always within the framework of the philosophical Left, then he would have the human rights issues covered.   The remedy coming from the leader of the Left, we accepted it.

Keating said Labor’s detention centres were fine, but the evil John Howard turned them into “quasi penal settlements”. With the benefit of  hindsight and his assertion unquestioned by O’Brien, Keating would have solved the Rudd-era boat-people flood by letting in (via the cooperative Indonesia and Malaysia) only “genuine” refugees. As for the fake asylum-shoppers, “that was a different question”, he said, without any attempt to provide an answer, except to say that he would have solved the crisis diplomatically. Instead, bad Howard “set off a virus in the bloodstream of the Australian polity that has never abated.”

To paraphrase these few paras in a book of 450 pages, about an issue of supreme importance to the ABC’s ex-presenter, if Hand and his Victoria’s Socialist Left team wanted something, cabinet said yes. If Hand had additionally requested that detention guards be fitted out with jackboots and truncheons, he’d probably have got that an OK for that too. While Rudd/Gillard/Rudd created the 50,000 boat people invasion by putting the sugar on the table, Keating would have generated a compassionate, effective solution by…well  O’Brien didn’t ask for  the   details.

I decided O’Brien was having too much of an easy ride at the press club, and   I finally got the microphone   (at 55.45 on the video). I asked O’Brien, in my 30-year, ex-Fairfax-reporter capacity, “How many unauthorized asylum seekers would you like Australia to take per annum. Could you please put a number on it?”

I expected him to say 5000, or 50,000, or 500,000 or 5 million, since he had “thought a lot about it”. But O’Brien suddenly swung from asylum-seeker moral crusader to impartial (ex)ABC presenter mode.

“No!” he said emphatically. “I am not a policy maker! I am not a policy maker and I have thought about this a lot and I think the solution has to be one that involves Indonesia and Malaysia but in a genuine tripartite effort . The reason I have looked at the way Keating dealt with his Asian neighbours as effectively as he did and saw the outcomes he achieved. I wondered, ‘Iif you had a Keating with the brain and resolve and the touch and the  determination to get an outcome that is both humane and at the same time also effective in maintaining  some kind of control…”

He canvassed the issues, saying how tough they were, and concluded,

My job as a journalist is primarily  putting light on the problems and looking at the  people who are charged with the responsibility of coming up with answers. If a brilliant answer occurred to me I would tell you, but what I am interested in is the fact that I think the image we are putting out to the world on this issue and the image we are being asked to live with ourselves, is an appalling one and there has got to be a better way.

More applause from the audience, who had been warmed up anyway by O’Brien’s dissing of the Howard government and the star guest’s gushing and fawning over Malcolm Turnbull.

O’Brien’s performance could be summed up as

  • Moral frothing about a now-non-existent boat-people problem created by Labor which the conservatives have fixed
  • Genuflection to the great one-term statesman (1991-96) Paul Keating as a hypothetical solver of the non-existent problem, and
  • Total unwillingness/inability to posit any alternative policy course to the Coalition’s policy which he excoriates.

Apart from that, O’Brien told some good stories. And if/when he reverts to a six-figure taxpayer-funded job at the ABC, we can rest assured that he will be every bit as politically impartial as the ABC Charter demands.

Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope


[i] The facts, however inconvenient, are that one child was thrown overboard (Vessel Siev 7, 24 October, 2001), and another asylum-seeker made such determined efforts to throw a child overboard that he had to be handcuffed (Siev 9, 31 October, 2001).
In the case of the notorious Siev 4, asylum-seekers wrecked the steering and engine on 7 October, 2001 and next day, unsurprisingly, the ship sank.
Navy people rescued 76 children from the sea. If the ship had sunk during darkness, children may well have drowned.
Distinctions between thrown overboard and dumped in the water are hardly material.



  1. Jody

    I’m guilty as charged on all counts for not supporting “boat people” coming unchecked into this country. Why, then, do I feel so good about it??!! I guess that’s part of being bad!!

    And O’Brien has to keep looking beyond “retirement” as he was a ‘geri-dad’ and still has (at least one) school age children to educate. Sad to say.

  2. en passant

    Thanks for the brief. It now means that there is no chance I will buy the book …
    I thought you would have recognised O’B-1′s job application when you saw it ..

  3. PT

    I keep thinking of the fatuous claim that “Australians have an inbuilt BS detector”. There are a number of “leaders” who produced little else:


    There are a number of others who were incredibly arrogant:


    Although they at least had something to be arrogant about (unlike the above) and Menzies could run an efficient Government and didn’t try to profit from it.

    Hawke was essentially good natured, but was really Australia’s answer to Toad of Toad Hall.

    Fraser was both inept and arrogant in the extreme.

    So much for the BS Detector rubbish, and the claim we hate arrogance etc. Menzies apart, none of the above would have got a Guernsey if that were true.

  4. Simon

    Am I allowed to burn the book in the public if I get it?

  5. Geoff Sherrington

    Time passes. Some people age better than others in body and mind. KO’B is ageing well in body, keeping his features recognisable.
    He looks similar to his mid-80 time when he came to our mining leases at Jabiru, NT. To be fair, his mind has not changed much either as he helps to make episode after episode of Four Corners.
    I asked him, in the bush near Jabiru, if he liked this particular project. His immediate answer was ” Not very much.” I developed this a little and concluded that his problem was preparing to say nasty things about people who were being gracious to him, but liked the uranium that he did not.
    So his methodology evolved. We began filming an area near where there had been new uranium discovered in drill holes. He did not want another mine. We did. Repeatedly I asked him not to use footage of a better looking spot nearby that was outside mining plans and over barren geology. Sure enough, this place featured in the broadcast version. It was plainly knowingly deceptive.
    If I had wanted to express an opinion on uranium mining for Four Corners, I would have to compose it with others, like my board, the boards of our joint venturers etc. Kerry did not have this procedure. He could, he felt, compose his journalistic monologue as if this should set uranium policy for all Australians, as if he and ABC were managers of national affairs.
    That contemptuous arrogance now permeates the ABC. Propaganda, even with known errors, is now a dominant ABC mode.
    I do not need an ABC that operates dishonestly as I have shown with a small, old example. Nor, I suspect, do most Australians.