Text of a talk I gave at the Right to the City/Brisbane Free Uni organised ‘More that Steel and Concrete’ event, held at the Bearded Lady on 31 May 2016
I was invited here tonight to give some thoughts on the history of struggles in West End and surrounds against over development. Just by way of introduction, I am a historian of social movements. I did a PhD a few years back at UQ, looking at Australian protest movements of the 1960s/70s and their global imagination and connections. Currently, I am writing a history of human rights discourse in Australia. What we call ‘Urban history’ figures large in my writing. I’m interested in how people imagine their city and construct meaning of it, particularly through what Henri Lefebvre, who coined the term ‘right to the city’, calls ‘producing spaces’ of opposition and contestation.
My comments will revolve around some documents I have looked at recently in the Fryer Library at UQ on opposition to Expo 88. In so doing, I want to explore what this opposition was, who was involved, what they wanted, and whether they can be seen to have succeeded in any meaningful way. But equally, I want to look at the experience of opposing Expo as a case study in how the past informs activism, and draw some general conclusions on what place ‘the past’ has in contemporary social movements – particularly the importance of historical memory but also the danger of what social scientists call ‘over-likeness’.
So, first some context. It is said often that ‘the past is another country – they do things differently there’, and Brisbane in the 1980s was very different indeed. It is well known that Queensland in the 1980s had reached a peak level of corruption, almost unbelievable. Cops took money from gangsters who operated ‘massage’ parlours, underground casinos, illegal bars and numerous other criminal ventures in exchange for protection, which then trickled up the police chain of command into the hands of chief of police, Terry Lewis and – though he was never convicted – almost certainly old Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Premier form 1968 to 1987. The most religiously pious of Australian states – Joh removed condom vending machines from UQ in 1986 – was also, perhaps inevitably, it’s most licentious and corrupt. Another side of this was urban development. There was no such thing as ‘heritage’ in 1980s Queensland – legislation wasn’t passed until 1993 – and the government wouldn’t let a building’s cultural value or who lived in it get in the way of development. Famously, the Bellevue hotel went down in 1979, but lesser buildings and suburbs also met with early morning visits from Joh’s demolition crew, the Deen Brothers, whose memorable slogan was “only the memories are left”.
This is all pretty well known. But what is less known is that a vibrant protest and counter-cultural movement thrived in Brisbane at the same time as all this was going on. Indigenous activists used Brisbane’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 1982 to bring international shame to the Queensland government. In 1985, the government took on workers at the South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB) in an attempt, mirroring Thatcher in the UK’s moves against mining unions, to break a powerful union. The Cane Toad Times, a satirical, anti-government magazine, was published from 1983 until 1990, and really captured the pulse of the city, presenting Brisbane and Queensland to the rest of Australia.
You could say, then, that there were two Brisbane’s – or more concretely, two urban maps of meaning – at play here. One was that of Joh and his cronies – a city for the taking, where corruption ruled, the Deen Brothers knocked down whatever buildings developers wanted rid of, and the QLD police did the same to any person who got in the way. The Cane Toad Times concocted a quote from Joh, disturbingly close to the truth, that captured his government’s agenda for Expo:
Goodness gracious me, there I was looking out my window at Parliament House when I saw South Brisbane and I thought: “What a good place for a land deal!”, and then some bright sparks came up with a way for the government to pay for it. We have got some very free enterprise in Queensland – get yours now.
It was a place, as many cultural and political identities did at the time, you left as soon as you could. But equally, Brisbane was rife with rebellion, artistic and political, with inner suburbs like West End, Toowong, St Lucia and Highgate Hill centres of resistance to Joh’s rule, and a variety of counter-institutions – resident groups, far left political parties, radio stations and magazines – providing a different version of Brisbane’s future. They were demanding, you could say, the right to imagine their city as something different to that of Joh’s dreams (or as some would put it, nightmares).
All of this sets the scene for our exploration of Expo and its opponents. First, what was Expo? Expo, short for exposition, and also known as the World’s Fair, was held for the first time in 1851, in the famous Crystal Palace in London. They were global gatherings to show of capitalism’s best new technologies and innovations, and hosting was considered a badge of international respect. Local Brisbane businesspeople were big supporters, many looking to examples of earlier expos in places like Spokane, USA, where Expo had provided a rationale for large scale “redevelopment of a decaying riverside site”. Queenslanders first heard that Brisbane had been successful in winning the 1988 expo in 1983, and opposition was strong from the get go. A few sites were considered, including the Gold Coast and Beenleigh, however South Brisbane – what was to become the South Bank parklands – was chosen. Following from Spokane’s example, it was hoped that the excuse of Expo could force out unsightly tenants and businesses, and ‘revitalise’ a part of the inner city. South Brisbane was a location brimming with history – before European invasion the south bank of the Brisbane River had been central to the lives of the Jagerra people, whose displacement began in the 1830s.
South Brisbane subsequently became an industrial and working class area, hosting ports, warehouses and the city’s dispossessed. In 1919, Russian immigrants propounding the virtues of bolshevism were attacked by servicemen returned from WWI on Merivale street in the infamous ‘red flag riots’. During WWII, American soldiers flooded Brisbane, and under segregation policies, black American soldiers were quartered on the south side of the river along with indigenous Australians. There, they set up a vibrant if short lived scene of jazz clubs. And of course, indigenous peoples have struggled throughout this period to retain sacred spaces like Musgrave Park against incursions of white society. As The Cane Toad Times put it,
South Brisbane has always been the wrong side of the river. Where the blacks live. Where the migrants go, where the prostitutes and sly grog were sold openly, protected by the Queensland Police force. A warp in the social fabric where different laws apply, a demimonde that affronted everything Joh stands for.
While the Times writers drastically understated Joh’s actual complicity in this very illegality, all of this history was forgotten by the rush for Expo development. The Cane Toad Times made light of Brisbane’s hosting, dubbing the festivities “Wrexpo ‘88”
[C]ome to the banks of the muddy and chemically-tainted Brisbane River and join Queensland, Australia, the World in a no-holds barred, you-pick-up-the-cheque-and-the-Cabinet-picks-up-the-capital-gains celebration of two hundred years of opportunism, shady land deals and sharp accounting practices by doing it one more time. It’s a great little city, Dallas of the South. Johannesburg of the East. Bhopal of the West and Antarctica of the North, with no history, less architecture and a penchant for selling to the highest bidder.
Clearly, the global, cultured pretentions of Expo were ill suited to the subtropical corrupt free market paradise of Brisbane. Choo Dikka Dikka (named for the noise made by traffic lights on the green signal) record their dubious ‘masterpiece’ Cyclone Hits Expo in 1987 in 4ZZZ studios, then still at the University of Queensland, and the song really speaks for itself.
Resident opposition, however, also flourished. An array of forces mobilised in nearby West End to oppose Expo, community groups formed in surrounding suburbs to oppose development there. The Concerned Residents Action Group, or CRAG, formed quickly after Expo was announced, and mounted numerous points of opposition in well researched leaflets and booklets. First was the price tag. No one really knew how much it would cost, with estimates ranging from $100 million to $250 million, public infrastructure was drastically insufficient, and little to no consultation with residents had occurred. The main thrust of their criticism was, however, spiralling rental costs, property speculation, and the damage Expo would do to surrounding communities, overwhelmingly occupied by marginalised groups like indigenous, the elderly, migrants and students. As one leaflet put it – “We think that our community has value beyond that which can be measured in $$$”.
Who was involved in this opposition? In short – lots of people from the diverse communities that make up this area. A petition was circulated to oppose Expo, and was available for signing at the Migrant Resource Centre, headquartered at the Kurilpa Senior Citizens Club, 4EB radio at 249 Montague Road, and a local family day care at 111 Vulture Street. Leaflets advertsing a public meeting to oppose Expo – in the end attended by over 200 people, which surprised even the organisers – were distributed in Italian, Polish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek and Arabic – no mean feat and one which displays a united, multicultural community. Another booklet reported that Resident Action Groups had been formed in Woolloongabba, as well as a Southside Urban Research Group and a Squatters league. A newsletter – titled Expose ’88 – was distributed, highlighting flaws in the government’s reasoning, drawing attention to Expo’s poor reputation overseas, and arguing for better usage of the land.
These groups thought that better use could be made of the land the government – under a special 1984 act of parliament – had acquired at low cost off of a diversity of small business owners. Some 110 were forced out. Calls were made for more parkland, low cost housing and local jobs. All in all, community consultation was what they wanted, and what government was not providing. And, we all know that Expo did go ahead – attracting close to a million visitors and putting Queensland – so the legend goes –on the map. This doesn’t mean, however, that protests were futile. One big victory was the saving of Musgrave Park. Earmarked in the initial plans for incorporation into the Expo site, the Premier commented in 1983 that “derelicts and aboriginals who normally inhabit nearby Musgrave Park will not be allowed to stay there. I’m not interested in that question at all now about aboriginals. We are interested in getting Expo going”. However, after much opposition, the Expo site was greatly cut back to take in only the ‘cultural precinct’ and parklands areas of today, sparing Musgrave Park once again. Indeed, these plans show the scope of the developer’s ambitions – hoping to use the excuse of expo to engage in large scale ‘Urban Renewal’ projects – something only curbed by local opposition and – of course – Sir Joh’s inglorious ousting from government in 1987.
So, in the last few minutes, I want to deal with those two themes I mentioned at the outset – the ‘uses’ of history, and the problem of ‘over-likeness’. For the first, I’ll draw you attention to concurrent plans to build a freeway through west end – quietly shelved but completed in a half smart fashion with the UQ green bridge in the 2000s. Now, like so many other activist causes, this poster/leaflet advertises the showing of a film on a previous ‘right to the city’ struggle in Brisbane – the battle against 1970s freeway development. The accompanying text told potential attendees that this was a “successful” campaign “stopping the Bowen Hills freeway during the 1970s”. And this is where I think we need to be wary. Proposing that this campaign’s ‘success’ makes it something to be replicated, I think, is a misuse of history on a few levels.
Firstly, I think it can easily fall into nostalgia and mis-remembrance. While activists of the 80s might remember the 70s fondly as a radical decade of change, the Bowen Hills freeway project was only really stalled by the global financial crisis of the 1970s, not to discredit the work of the activists on the ground who worked hard squatting buildings and getting bashed by police. Yet, I feel we do a disservice to their memory by romanticising them. Also, participant researchers on the ground conducted extensive research with citizens in the area who, for a diversity of reasons, were not involved in the campaign. Mostly not on grounds of supporting their housing being demolished for a freeway, but because they couldn’t make the meetings, didn’t know the language, or were resigned to their fate – “you can’t fight city hall”. Past struggles were never perfect – despite romantic appeal – and deserve to be critically analysed.
So, this is the danger of over-likeness – trying to make our struggles today resemble those of the past. Whether it’s calling someone you don’t like Hitler, or in the case of Campbell Newman, calling him Sir Joh Reincarnate, you lose much more than you gain in terms of a concrete understanding of the situation on the ground. So what then is the use of history? Why am I here, and why am I a radical historian, if it all has no purpose? Well, obviously, I think it does. Walter Benjamin wrote his ‘theses on the concept of history’ in 1940 – and he captures better than most a radical conception of history. Benjamin presents two types of history, one of the rulers, the other of the ruled or subjugated. That of the rulers is “the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate”. The rulers present their rule as inevitable, and all those who resisted are forgotten, erased from historical memory.
This is captured well in the 25 year remembrance of Expo, with a lovely exhibition at City Hall and waves of caustic nostalgia such as this. Expo is remembered as Brisbane’s cultural birth, as a watershed where we cast aside Joh-era corruption and localism and embraced the world. But this sort of memory ignores those that we are talking about tonight – stories of opposition, displacement and fighting for the right to live in their own city – those whose stories, as Benjamin puts it, only emerge when we “brush history against the grain”. It is our job not to mimic those who have come before us, but to respect and honour them by making our own demands and our own victories in this time, and to unsettle capitalism’s myths of progress and inevitability.