How does the song go?
Watch the butcher shine his knives
And this town is full of battered wives
They shut it down
They pulled it down
They shut it down
They pulled it down
Round and round, up and down
Through the streets of your town
Everyday I make my way
Through the streets of your town
— Brisbane rock band the Go-Betweens
commentary of Brisbane in the 1970s.
Nowadays Brisbane’s Channel 7 (or is it Prime TV?) play the lyrics of the song quoted above as a station jingle … if only station managers would listen to the words.
The book was well researched as regards the music scene; the author made the effort to seek out a lot of people around Brisbane at the time of his inquiry (1970s – 2000s). However he did fail to speak to political musos of that era confining himself to what was a narrow group loosely attached to the social scene at alternative radio station, 4ZZZ.
At the outset, the author claims that the book, while originally about rock bands like ‘The Go Betweens‘, in the end became an analysis of the JOH years. The author says he could not ignore the ‘music scene’ as a product of the politics of the time. This is not to say that there was much, if any, political music to be mentioned or analysed in the book.
However there was a central problem with the author’s approach.
Stafford failed to critically analyze the political situation carefully; he relied far too much on mainstream media and the ‘social left’ i.e. people not part of any political organization but part of a social scene that attached themselves to the political movements of the time. For example, 4ZZZ often sought ‘Left cover’ by giving opportunist support to one campaign or another.
The political analysis of Stafford’s book is biased to the personal rather than the political.
Unfortunately, as the alternative rock station 4ZZZ demonstrated time and again, the personal was not political.
Worse still, those on the Left that Stafford did speak to played almost no part in any ongoing organisational response to the Bjelke-Petersen regime in the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee (CLCC) or its successor, the Civil Liberties Campaign Group (CLCG). Sure, there were comments by people from 4ZZZ who may have attended one or two meetings. There were others who drifted in and out of political organisation, some stacking meetings, others more interested in taking drugs.
It is a fact that 4ZZZ banned democratic rights activists and feminists from using its facilities because of its elusive search for popular acceptance and a higher power FM broadcasting licence. Both MegaHerz and the Civil Liberties Coordinating Committee had shows banned.
Pig City ended up being a shallow popular book in the vein of fictional works like “Last Drinks” and “He died with a Felafel in his Hand” all lacking in critical analysis.
What politics there are in the book, Stafford still fails to recognise that ordinary people, their political organizations and unions, conducted (arguably) the longest sustained period of popular revolt (the Street Marches 1977-1979) in Australia’s history (with the exception of the Aboriginal Resistance which has lasted over 200 years).
Chapter One of Pig City, titled ‘A Million People Staying Low‘, misses that fact completely.
Pig City claims: “The radical movement found a natural haven in the sprawling, leafy surrounds of the University of Queensland in the inner western suburb of St Lucia. In 1967 two groups were formed on campus: the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee and the Society for Democratic Action. From these two groups came the nucleus of students that would establish community radio station 4ZZZ in the ’70s.”
Whilst Stafford’s claim that “The radical movement found a natural haven in the sprawling, leafy surrounds of the University of Queensland” may have been superficially true of the period of the New Left in 1967-1973, it was certainly not true of the democratic rights movements of the period 1977-1985. This latter movement had a greater impact on the stuggle for democratic rights than the earlier struggle in the 1960s – it was larger, more sustained and focused on the overthrow of the conservative National Party government.
Organisations like CLCC and CLCG in 1977 were not headquartered at UQ as claimed in Stafford’s book. The CLCC and SDS in the late 1960s may have been partly. Students played an important part in the first few weeks of the right to march campaign in 1977 but were outnumbered in years that followed by workers outside the university. The arrest lists attest to this.
Whereas the New Left had gone for breadth and the ‘long march through the university’, the democratic rights movement went to the streets of Brisbane in the late 1970s. That is not to say it is Stafford’s fault that he came away with this false impression. There are many still who prefer to think of the Left in terms of a student centrist middle class movement drawing strength from the university.
So it is unsurprising that an author so removed from either period of the New Left of the late 1960s or the Democratic Rights movement of the late 1970s spoke to so few political and Murri activists, unemployed workers and trade unionists of the period. These people are still to be found, often engaged in the unheralded campaigning that is the lot of the political activist now as then.
Stafford confined himself to people on the social scene — often more focussed on rock music and drugs. See the interview with Alan Knight, formerly one of the founders of 4ZZZ but more recently one of Stafford’s Professors at QUT:
Alan Knight (4ZZZ): There were two things that influenced us. We were culturally influenced by the whole rock music explosion; the Beatles and things like that. But we were also to an extent influenced by the hippies. So you had this mixture of rock music, psychedelic drugs and ultra-leftist politics, which led to a lot of very strange demonstrations.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the book subscribes to the stereotypic view of Queensland as being led by a country buffoon in the interests of religious fundamentalism.
When it is closer to the truth to say Bjelke-Petersen was more the corrupt, savvy henchman of the transnational mining companies. It is naive to assume that Bjelke-Petersen stood alone. Many sectional interests of capital were served by creating this illusion of the hillbilly dictator. Bjelke-Petersen was happy to be their gun dog, not held in high esteem by the board rooms of Pitt and Swanston Streets down south, but useful nonetheless.
Pig City follows (dare I say it) the social left’s swallowing of the stereotype, none more than the aspiring journos and business men at 4ZZZ . The one-time station coordinator, Denis Reinhardt, went on to make a million in gold mining companies, pouring acid into the water table of rainforests, ignoring the interests of first nations peoples in PNG and Queensland, an opportunist and speculator like any other capitalist, until the stock market crash of 1987 brought him down.
The constant fear at 4ZZZ was that the station was not professional enough — this led to a kow towing to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT). For example, a public hearing of ABT to determine FM licences in Brisbane demonstrated that 4ZZZ representatives were happy to gain left cover from a pirate radio station of the time 4PR. The Voice of the People had been largely confined to direct sound broadcasts at University and the odd FM transmission from Mt Cootha using a car battery and an home made transmitter.
The same myth persists today.
If not, why is it possible that the author of a book on Bjelke Petersen and the current QUT’s vice chancellor, Peter Coaldrake, claims that Creative Industries to be the new Humanities.
As the critical failings of Pig City demonstrate, there is no substitute for an active, informed, systematic, and organized approach to the real world of capitalism we face.
The truth is they may have pulled much of Pig City down, but they never shut it down…completely.
As Sam Watson, an activist from that time and this time, said at the ceremony after the recent passing of one of our comrades, Phil Perrier:
We have come together as Phil’s family, in blood, in dreaming and in the great struggles that he fought. We have come together to honour our brother and acknowledge the importance of his contribution to our onward march. We have come together to stand with his loved ones and to share their Sorry Time, so we can share their pain and anguish. We have come together in his name – to say farewell.
A beautiful farewell to ordinary activists like Phil.
Hopefully, a farewell to times past where we lost our way in the social haze of 4ZZZ and like organisations.
Excerpts from Pig City can be found at http://espace.library.uq.edu.au/eserv/UQ:8981/Stafford_Chapter.pdf