Today’s Courier-Mail has a front page splash that purports to tell the “real story behind a Queensland political myth”. The article is about former premier Peter Beattie’s involvement in the 1971 Springbok tour riot in Brisbane and a vintage picture of the former Premier complete with impressive 70s style moustache adorns the front page. The article is based on a newly released police dossier which the Courier-Mail trumpets as “Forty years on, the facts come out”.
The bland inside headline of “Two sides to every story” hides far more than it reveals. With Beattie among 400 protesters facing off against 500 police there were at least 900 sides to this story, not to mention the important parts played by politicians, the unions and the media, of which the Courier-Mail was the most craven example. Given the subsequent revelations about Queensland’s police corruption and their role in the brutal repression of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era with the complicity of the media, a 64-page police dossier from the time is hardly to be trusted as an independent verification of what happened. Nor is today’s article the first time “the facts” have come out about the 1971 riot.
The best story of what happened when the white South African rugby team came to Brisbane during the Apartheid era was told in 2004 by Raymond Evans' “Springbok Tour Confrontation”, a chapter in Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History (edited by Evans and Carole Ferrier).
Evans began his account with an ABC audio tape of Sounds of the Seventies. Protesters and foreign journalists (the local ones at the Courier-Mail stayed on the police side of the line) recounted events with fear audible in their voices. “[The police] just chased us with a big grin on their faces,” said one. “When people got to the bottom of the hill, they realised they had been trapped. I think that’s when they started to be brutal,” said another.
The voices were describing the events of the cold winter’s night of Thursday, 22 July 1971. The Springbok tour party was staying at the Tower Mill Motel on Brisbane’s Wickham Terrace. They were separated from the 400 protesters by a line of 500 quasi-military style police officers. The protest turnout was poorer than expected partly because of the police intimidation and partly because Brisbanites bought the official line “sport and politics should not mix”.
That this cliché was an easily exposed fiction did not matter - the media did not expose it. Both federal and state political leaders were quick to use the tour to bolster their faltering credentials. Fast-fading Liberal PM Billy McMahon provided RAAF transport after civilian carriers refused to carry the Springboks. He also opened up Enoggera Barracks to house the additional police Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen called in.
But while the Springboks did not save the PM, it amply served the Premier. Joh was in the job less than 2 years and still untested when he began to try out anti-democratic practices which became familiar in the next 16 years. Eight days before the game, he declared a State of Emergency to secure the Exhibition Grounds, suspending civil liberties for a month in the process. The legislation gave police carte blanche to treat protesters as they liked. The day before the Mill protest, 200 students marched to the city centre. 36 were arrested as police applied excessive force. TV cameramen and press photographers were also hassled by police and had their film confiscated.
Trade unionists kept out of the protests believing the convenient lie about sport and politics. But unions had make life awkward for Joh in the lead-up. The game had to be played at the Exhibition Grounds because BWIU unionists blackbanned essential plumbing works at the Ballymore rugby ground. The BWIU also halted the production of police batons and the AMIEU stopped the transport of police horses to the demonstration. But on the night of the protest, most sports-loving unionists stayed away from Tower Mill. It was students like Beattie who filled the police cells that night. It was easier to demonise the students in the media as hippies and long-haired layabouts. The other major protesters were Aboriginals who paralleled South Africa with Queensland. This was a truth the media could also ignore. After all, weren't Queensland's Aboriginals, as Joh said, "living on clover"?
The numbers of students, aboriginals and academics outside the Mill was swollen by plain clothes police who acted as agent provocateurs. With no warning, the line of uniformed police marched forward and ordered the protesters to clear the footpath. The demonstrators were forced to flee down the steep and pitch-dark hill into Wickham Park. The police attacked with fists, batons and boots as plain-clothes colleagues joined in. Some protesters escaped by jumping an eight metre high embankment into the busy traffic of Albert Street below. Some were simply thrown over.
Others still, including Beattie, sought sanctuary in the nearby Trades Hall building near Jacob's Ladder (now demolished to make way for the IBM building). One unionist saw a girl held and punched by police while a youth (later identified as Beattie) was also jumped on and held to the floor. Two of the three police attacking him were forcibly ejected from the building and the third became frightened when he realised he was alone. The last policeman, Lindsay Daniels left the injured Beattie alone and became quiet. He was wearing two different police numbers at least one of which was wrenched off by students who now greatly outnumbered him.
Outside, 50 police attempted to gain entry to the building. When ambulance officers were allowed admission, police followed them in and were restrained only because they were accompanied by an inspector. Beattie was taken under armed guard to the orthopaedic ward of the Royal Brisbane Hospital for observation of suspected spinal injuries. According to the Courier-Mail report, two doctors told police no excessive force was used in the attack.
According to another report years later quoted by Evans, Beattie said he was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest though he was the one assaulted. “I will never forgive or forget what happened next,” Beattie said. “I was verballed by the police who manufactured the most incredible statements about the whole thing.” Beattie was later released on bail and police never pressed charges.
The day after, angry students at the University of Queensland held a political strike. That night protesters significantly outnumbered police at the Mill and officers refrained from repeating their tactics from the night before. The day after was the Saturday of the game. Just 6,000 attended instead of the anticipated 30,000 full house. With the Oval ringed by barbed wire, protesters demonstrated in nearby Victoria Park instead. 2,000 people turned up faced by 900 police. Led by Labor Senator George Georges, marchers went down Fortitude Valley and into the city conducting the first sit-in at Queen Street. Violence was minimal during the day as Labor MP Bill Hayden urged caution. But the peace did not last.
After some outbreaks of violence in the city, a thousand gathered once more at the Mill that evening. Police Commissioner Ray Whitrod commanded his men to drive the protesters down into the park once more. Whitrod, who was inside the motel, claimed the police charge was in response to a rock thrown into a motel window. The offending missile was never produced and glaziers called to fix the window insisted the fall of the glass suggested it was broken from inside. But with country officers present threatening a no confidence motion in Whitrod’s “soft handling" of demonstrators, he was determined to act tough. He was supported by Joh who wanted to “stop all this business of going soft on all these demonstrations” because he could see it “leading to complete anarchy”.
The only anarchy in town that weekend was caused by rampaging police officers sanctioned by the Government while the Courier-Mail looked the other way. 40 years on, the paper is as cowardly as ever, preferring to concentrate on the irrelevant issue of whether Beattie called the police “pigs” rather than question the nature of the assault. The Springbok riot set the template for one and half decades of police brutality and corruption sanctioned by an undemocratic Premier who could hose down a meek press simply by “feeding the chooks”.