Who Do You Trust: The Anzacs Or The Unions?

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So it turns out that God loves unions, and hates robots. Wharfies at Botany Bay are going to be replaced by huge robot cranes, but an "act of God", a freak storm at sea, did enough damage to significantly delay their installation. Around 270 workers will be out of a job once the cranes are installed.

One man who won't be happy about the delays is Hal Colebatch, whose new book Australia's Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops In World War II is the subject of this week's book club. I imagine he'll be cheering the cranes all the way. In the lead-up to the Anzac Centenary, Colebatch, a regular Quadrant contributor, has set out to write the ultimate culture war tome: a chronicle of how treasonous wharfies cruelled our war effort, by refusing to load munitions and sabotaging weapons.

Unfortunately for Colebatch, he has inadvertently written an hilarious and one-eyed compilation of sabotage gags and hijinks, bookended with some really vicious culture war content. But even the massive helpings of Quadrant-style patriotic moralising can't spoil the tales of dim soldiers being ripped off by canny wharfies. It's a crack up, because Colebatch's historical account is so thin and ideological that it can't be read as a serious academic work.

The meat of the book is comprised of big block quotes from letters and interviews with soldiers. Here's a great one, from US Army Brigadier-General Elliott R. Thorpe, "a member of MacArthur's Pacific Headquarters":

"…looting got to such a stage that the American Provost-Marshal in Brisbane set up an inspection system when the wharfies left the docks to go home. On one evening as the labour gang left Breakfast Creek docks, an examination of the "dinner bags" resulted in the seizure of over 800 cartons of cigarettes intended for American troops."

If that doesn't bring a smile to your face, what will? But obviously that's the yanks, and we're meant to take a much dimmer view of those who betrayed their own. Nevertheless, here's a great Aussie one from 1941:

"The convoy was not to sail immediately. Oh, no! Nothing was too speedy for the wharfies of Darwin… where in merry Hell these stevedores were culled from will never be known… Valuable stores such as wireless sets were turfed into the hold as if they were lead ingots."

The accounts are framed in a way that's meant to scandalise, but looks ham-fisted. For instance, he blindly speculates that perhaps this was the reason "the [2/2 Independent Company] commandos [in Timor]had no working radio after the Japanese attack". In one of the more neutral accounts, Sapper PJ McInnes recalled some trouble on the docks with wharfies who went on strike in 1942, and wrote:

"We had to load barbed wire which we put on steel posts. Two men carried these, two on each post between us, four at a time. We finished loading the ship about 5 o'clock and the seamen said they had never had their boat loaded so quickly. We loaded bags of cement — men were carrying two bags at a time, timber, sand-bags, etc. etc."

Problem is, Sapper PJ McInnes wrote this when he was Mr McInnes, in 1996, in a letter. It rolls on and on like this; the history of the Secret War is told from the soldiers' side, often at a great historical remove. These accounts aren't treated sceptically, but are quoted verbatim; old buggers' "war-y stories" as spotless historical accounts. What was once the fodder for pub conversations on Anzac Day has now become the basis of (what is presented as) a serious study.

But do we have a political or theoretical reference point to make judgments about these issues any more? As Guy Rundle wrote in NM last month, the left seems to jump whenever the right says boo. Accordingly Colebatch recounts that every major Australian ship "was subjected to strikes, go-slows, sabotage and harassment of crew during World War II, including during critical periods". I'd wager that most people's reaction would be to sympathise with the sailors from 70 years ago, not the strikers, and definitely not the unionists today who these historical phantoms are being deployed against.

Some of the wharfies during the war were Stalinists, backed by Moscow. Others would have been petty thieves or corrupt. And many would have been genuine unionists who wanted the danger pay they were due. These were not voluntary enlisted soldiers, they weren't conscripts — they were workers. Nonetheless, Colebatch doesn't make the effort to treat them fairly. Why would he?

We also lack the cultural memory to deal appropriately with military violence against striking workers, which Colebatch and his mates recall with glee. Here's a few examples. From Darwin, 1940:

"When we arrived in town the only people on the streets were angry troops on the rampage looking for wharfies. Others were busy pulling Trades Hall to bits and stacking doors, windows and furniture in a heap and were about to set fire to the place!"

From Brisbane, prior to Kokoda:

"Wharfies in Melbourne struck because they wanted more pay for handling soldiers' bullets but the AIF stripped them naked and plastered them with molasses."

From Perth, 1942:

"I was in charge of the guard at the gang-plank numbering about 12 men, and I had great pleasure in giving the order to fix bayonets. We all felt the same way. They stopped in their tracks when they heard the sound of the cold steel being drawn. We loaded one round ready, and advanced on them with our rifles…"

As Stuart MacIntyre writes in his history of the Communist Party of Australia, unionists, whether Communists or not, frequently came under attack from off-duty soldiers. By 1940 "attacks on Communist speakers in suburban and rural locations had become ubiquitous". The left became a "conveniently legitimate target for hooliganism", for off-duty soldiers looking for a good time.

He also admits that there was "significant industrial conflict" during the early "phoney war" stage of World War II — but it was often by bosses against workers, under the justification of Total War and the "patriotic duty" to work. What is often left out of accounts like Colebatch's is our poor preparation for war; Menzies notoriously said Australia would be "business as usual" after he pitched our lot in with Britain.

For example, recounts MacIntyre, BHP "took advantage of the [1940] coal shortage", itself brought upon by striking workers whose recently won 40-hour week was being denied by arbitration, "to retrench workers from its Newcastle steelworks, and thus get rid of a list of communist employees provided by the Commonwealth Investigation Branch". Industrial conscription was a real fear for Labor and the ACTU in such a situation, and they opposed Menzies' national register accordingly.

Here's where you'd expect a rigorous statistical analysis to arrive, at the real dispute over how many days were actually lost, how much damage was actually done, how many waterfront bashings were actually justified. Instead Colebatch gives us a mere five pages of patchy stats from "various official Year Books of the Commonwealth of Australia", with little context, beginning with an apology:

"I do not believe these figures to be completely reliable… Most of them were collated under wartime conditions and there is reason to suspect they may have been subject to censorship: publishing the true number of industrial disputes and days lost might well have been taken as giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and the pressure would have been to understate them."

This is just a bare assertion with no supporting evidence, but that's the mode of the new culture war, isnt' it? Colebatch follows Tony Abbott's recent dictum all the way through Australia's Secret War — who do you trust? The Navy or the asylum seekers? The soldier or the wharfie? The Anzacs or the unions? Like the current debacle over the burned hands of refugees, those accused aren't allowed sympathy, or even a fair trial.

In his conclusion, "The Reason Why" (note to Quadrant Press — it should have been titled "The Reason For The Treason"), Colebatch draws a direct line from the striking wharfies to today's identity politics, "concerned with race, gender and other definitions of identity". They produce a "narrow, fanatical and fundamentalist worldview, intellectually and spiritually poverty-stricken", he writes, that breeds "human beings with a defective ethical sense and incomplete conception of the world".

He prefers Rosie the Riveter, who, "though a fictitious character, could be held up convincingly as a worker, a wife, a patriotic American involved in the struggle against Fascism and many other things besides." Fictitious characters will likely be the next big struggle, which returns us to our robot cranes. Organised labour will inevitably have to figure out how to deal with massive structural unemployment as a result of automation in the very near future. Instead Colebatch, Eric Abetz, Piers Akerman, and the rest want us to be arguing about whether Labor should apologise for 70-year-old allegations of wartime industrial sabotage.

Rosie the Riveter robot is coming for your job, and she's backed by a government and commentariat that's fine with military violence against organised workers. We're about to enter into a four-year orgy of wreath-laying and lay-offs. Somehow I doubt the next war will be so secret.

New Matilda

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