Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Sunday, May 15, 2011
If it has not already done so, the Gillard Labor Government is reaching that point of no-return in the polls, which, barring a Bligh-esque miracle, inevitably leads to terminal decline.
As it is, Ms Gillard’s government is only surviving due to the possibly surprising good physical health of the Labor side, and the grace of two rural independents whom it would seem harbour a deeper fear and loathing for the National Party than for their own probable political oblivion.
That grab-bag of agrarian socialists - led in waiting by a bar-room brawler straight from the pages of that other Joyce - are ever happy to bellyache about the difficulties of the life their voters have chosen, are the first with the bowl out for public money when it suits them and yet of course are also the first to howl for cuts to welfare for the poorest and most vulnerable in our community, the urban poor, who do not even have the teensiest little farm to hock if things get too hard.
The Liberal leader, and Prime Minister in waiting, is a man whose single and sole purpose - like every Liberal leader - is the wresting and exercise of the power of our highest office. He has no interest in issues such as human-caused global warming, the science about which he, Cardinal Pell, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and other climate experts, profess the deepest scepticism, against the views of the 97% of published climate scientists.
Nor does he believe that Australians should get any more in mining royalties from the once-off gouging of our soils by multinational corporations: no, far better, he feels, to send the profits where they rightly belong, to other corporations, and rich stockholders around the world.
But in all probability, he will become our next prime minister. Why? Is he an especially effective leader? Is he doing something astounding in the job, wrong-footing the government at all times?
No, he has simply isolated a few issues on which he thinks he can win, and bangs on relentlessly about them: asylum seekers, carbon tax and mining tax. Does he have any passionate personal views on these issues? No. None at all. But he is beating the government because he understands the Australian people better than Labor. When did he last mention health, education, in any meaningful way? They are not issues he can win on, and so he has no interest in them. And the people, it seems, have forgotten them too, despite what they will tell pollsters.
While beaten politicians religiously praise the wisdom of the Australian people in ousting them - and Julia Gillard may well be next in mouthing the cliché - Tony Abbott understands that the Australian people are not at all wise, but rather are more herd creatures, easily driven by fear, confusion, suspicion of scientists and intellectuals, and motivated by exactly the same thing he is, which is naked self interest rather than any silly woolly-headed notions like national or global good.
He gets that about the Australian people. And they like it. He also understands that while they are not racists of some KKK-like definition, they don’t like change and different faces, especially the grey electorate, and so can be exploited in a cruel, vicious and cynical campaign against the tiny fraction of people who attempt to reach our shores by boat - war refugees often from wars of invasion we ourselves had a hand in starting.
He knows too that Australians would prefer to keep giving welfare to millionaires than look at any sane dividing line about who is eligible. He knows what is most precious them is their McMansions, private schools and SUVs. He knows they told pollsters some time ago they were deeply worried about the climate change than will impact so terribly on future generations and would pay more to alleviate it, but he knew that was really a lot of bullshit, and that when it came to paying anything at all for it, they’d squeal like stuck pigs and reneg on the whole thing.
He knows the essential self-centredness of contemporary Australians far better than Labor. Which is why, barring a miracle, he will defeat Julia Gillard, and possibly sooner rather than later.
Monday, May 9, 2011
The mystery of Australia’s so-called “Shark Arm Man” began with high drama on Anzac Day, 25 April 1935, when a monster 3.5 metre tiger shark which had been caught a few days before off Sydney and was being displayed to the public at the seaside Coogee Aquarium Baths, disgorged a human arm. The macabre discovery would lead police and detectives on a bizarre ride through Sydney’s underworld, in a tale many have commented would sit more easily in the pages of fiction than of fact.
The arm which the horrified spectators saw leave the shark’s mouth bore a distinctive tattoo, of two boxers shaping up to fight, and banner newspaper headlines followed. When the limb was examined by doctors, it was found not to have been bitten off by any shark, but crudely hacked off with a blade. With public interest in the case mounting unabated, it wasn’t long before a number came forward with information leading police to the conclusion that the tattooed arm belonged to a man called James Smith.
Smith was a known small-time figure in Sydney’s flourishing underworld of the 1930s. A former boxer and illegal SP bookmaker, he had been a familiar sight in the bars of Sydney pubs. He was also known to be a police informer. It’s believed he had been involved in a large-scale attempted maritime insurance scam, but when he unwisely attempted to blackmail his criminal associates over it he signed his own death warrant.
Suspicion settled upon two men: Smith’s employer Reginald Holmes, and a criminal associate of Smith’s, John Patrick Brady. On the basis of circumstantial evidence - such as Brady’s landlord saying that at the time of Smith’s disappearance Brady had scrubbed the walls and floors of his cottage clean, and that a metal trunk and certain heavy objects had gone missing then - Brady was taken into custody, but police were well short of conclusive evidence against him.
The spotlight shifted to Holmes in a sequence of extraordinary events. Holmes ran a successful boat building business in Lavender Bay, and was known as a speedboat enthusiast, but he is now also thought to have used his small fast boats for more nefarious ends, such as smuggling in cigarettes and other contraband, as well as cocaine, from ships standing offshore.
A month after the arm was discovered, water police pursued a speedboat manoeuvring erratically on Sydney Harbour. Holmes was found at the wheel, his head bleeding from a seemingly self-inflicted bullet wound in a failed suicide attempt. Under questioning from police, Holmes revealed that soon after Smith’s disappearance Brady had arrived at his home carrying a bag from which he had produced Smith’s tattooed arm, saying if he didn’t do what he was told he’d end up the same way. Holmes’s wife Inie Parker-Holmes also spoke to police, telling them her husband had told her Brady had said he had murdered Smith, chopped up the body and placed it into a trunk which he had dumped out at sea.
On the night of 11 June 1935, only hours before he was due to appear as the star witness at Smith’s inquest, Holmes was found slumped over dead at the wheel of his car in Sydney’s Dawes Point docklands. The three bullets found in the back of his head had been fired at close range, in an execution-style killing. With Holmes dead and the absence of Smith’s body to help provide conclusive evidence even that a murder had taken place, the Crown case against Brady failed, and he walked away from his subsequent trial a free man. Two well known identities from Sydney’s waterfront were later charged with Smith’s murder, and also acquitted.
While for many years the question remained as to who murdered Holmes, with Brady held in police custody at the time he was shot, prominent law expert Professor Alex Castles later provided the extraordinary opinion that Holmes had arranged the killing himself. “In the afternoon before his death, Holmes went to his bank, took out 500 pounds and arranged for the 500 pounds to be paid to the hitman who was then told he had to kill Holmes that night to make sure that Holmes wouldn’t have to make an appearance at the Coroner’s Court in the morning.” Professor Castles also expressed the view that Smith’s most likely killer was a Sydney criminal called Eddie Weyman, whom Smith in his role as an informer had “dobbed in” to police.
One can only speculate about what Holmes could possibly have feared more than three bullets in the back of the head. As a coda, the last link with the main players in the mystery, Homles’s wife Inie, died in a fire at her home in November 1952, which while not closing the case entirely did effectively end a chapter of Australian criminal history.
From my book Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Doctor Gilbert Bogle and Mrs Margaret Chandler died in circumstances which have remained the topic of speculation and public fascination in Australia for more than four decades. The pair died in an apparent lovers’ tryst on a river bank in Sydney early on New Year’s Day 1963.
The New Zealand-born Bogle was a scientist of international repute, a physicist working on lasers for the government research body, the CSIRO. He was a popular figure in scientific and intellectual circles in Sydney at the time. Not only was he highly successful in his work - he was about to take his wife and family to the United States, where he would be working at the prestigious Bell Telephone Laboratories - he exuded charisma, played the jazz clarinet, and had a reputation as a ladies man.
Margaret Chandler was the young wife of a CSIRO technician, Geoffrey Chandler. She met Bogle at a Christmas party in late December, and he ensured she and her husband were invited to a friends’ home for New Year’s Eve. Bogle offered Mrs Chandler a lift home, and they left the party together as dawn approached. They stopped off at a lovers haunt a few kilometres away, on the bank of the Lane Cove River, but little is known about what happened next.
Their bodies were discovered a few hours later by two boys looking for lost golf balls from the adjoining course, and police rushed to the scene. Almost immediately the police and press realised they were dealing with something major, and very out of the ordinary. Not only was Bogle a well known figure in the more rarified echelons of Sydney society, but he had been found with a married woman, both of them in a state of partial undress suggesting sexual activity. Moreover, no obvious cause of the deaths could be found. They was no sign of any gunshot or stabbing: the bodies were virtually unmarked. Sydney and the entire nation were scandalised by the revelations. The inquest created enormous attention (and newspaper sales), yet at its conclusion the coroner was forced to bring in an open finding. A cast-iron alibi for Mrs Chandler’s husband - the prime suspect - removed him from suspicion, and exhaustive testing failed to detect any toxic substances in either body. There the case rested, over time attaining the status of a mystery.
What did come out during the decades after was that Bogle was doing work which might well have brought him to the attention of various spying agencies such as the CIA or the KGB. The laser he was working on developmentally in 1962 was in use in smart bombs in Vietnam by the end of the decade. There is also the possibility that Bogle was conducting his own inquiries into the death of his friend Cliff Dalton, head of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, whose wife Catherine maintained he had been killed “without hardware”.
There were suggestions too that Bogle might have been involved in the development of laser anti-satellite weaponry, although a veteran reporter, perhaps tellingly for the yellow press of the era, recently claimed that was concocted by newshounds keen to keep the story going. Whatever the case, there remains the suspicion in many quarters that there is more to the story than Sixties free love gone wrong, and that Doctor Bogle and Mrs Chandler may have been victims of Cold War intrigue. There is also an explanation, aired in a 2006 TV documentary, that the pair died from noxious hydrogen sulphide gas exuded by the river, but for some this raised as many questions as it answered. After all, if such lethal gas leaks were occurring from the river bed, why were Bogle and Chandler the only two ever known to be affected, in an area known as a lovers' lane? The case would seem yet to be closed.
From my book Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths.