Friday, October 10, 2003

Well, It Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time

An embarassing number of weeks ago, and a little over-enthusiastically, I called for bloggers to nominate their Top Ten Bungles of Australian History. Rob Schaap came up with an impressive list in seven categories, which shows how silly the idea probably was. Australia appears to have a lot fewer influential people to choose from than it has bunglers, so I am not surprised if people found it too daunting to sift through our two and a bit centuries of official history for ten truly great stuff-ups. The whole thing has been getting me down too, which is why it's taken longer than the week I originally planned for it.

So here's my final list of ten real corkers, which cannot really claim to be definitive.

1. The Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre

First by popular acclaim, is the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre. Prime Minister Harold Holt was lost at sea in late 1967 while snorkelling at Cheviot beach. A popular conspiracy theory of the time held that he was, in fact, a Chinese spy and had been whisked away aboard a miniature submarine. The general consensus is that he drowned and, given his love of swimming, the construction of a swimming pool in his honour seemed only fitting.

Incidentally, Holt's disappearance wasn't the only maritime disaster to affect his Government in 1967; 1967 also saw the second Voyager Royal Commission which re-opened the scandal of the collision between HMAS Voyager and HMAS Melbourne in 1963.

2. The Fine Cotton Ring In

On Saturday August 18, 1984, thousands of mug punters Australia wide did their dough on Bold Personality, racing at Brisbane's Eagle Farm as Fine Cotton. Both horses were geldings; however Fine Cotton was brown with white socks on its rear legs while Bold Personality was a bay with no socks to its name. John Gillespie, organiser of the ring-in attempted to correct the colour discrepancy with large quantities of Clairol, but to no effect. Before the race, when the time came to put the finishing touches to Bold Personality's colour and highlights, he discovered that he had forgotten the peroxide and resorted to spraying the socks on with white paint. When that didn't work, the horse's hind legs were bandaged to conceal the mess.

By the time of the race there probably wasn't a punter on the course who didn't know that "Fine Cotton" was a ring-in. To this day it isn't known why Andy Tindall, Chairman of Stewards allowed the horse to run. It was disqualified immediately after winning the race and all of the smart money that had been laid on Fine Cotton went to the bookies. Including all the money laid by the horse's "connections".

3. John Kerr

Is there anyone who disagrees with including Gough Whitlam's appointment of Kerr as Governor-General in this list? Tough luck if you do; I think the reasons for its inclusion ought to be pretty obvious.

4. The Introduction of the Queensland Cane Toad

In the 1930s, Queensland's sugar industry was plagued by two species of beetle; French's Cane Beetle and the Greyback Cane Beetle. Thanks perhaps to the success of the cactoblastis moth in dealing with widespread infestations of the prickly pear cactus, the industry looked to biological control to provide a solution and in July 1935 the Australian Bureau of Sugar Experimental Stations released around 3000 toads (species Bufo marinus were released into the canefields. At last those damn beetles were going to get theirs.

It didn't work out that way; the Cane Toad was a complete failure when it came to dealing with the beetle problem. The Cane Toad's main contribution to Australia's ecology has been to poison a lot of native predators (such as the goannas, freshwater crocodiles, various snakes, dingoes and western quolls) who were unlucky enough to mistake it for a much more comestible native frog.

5. The Australian Constitution

Constitutional lawyers and Secretaries of the Senate often talk a lot of guff when it comes to the intentions of our "founding fathers", the men who gave us the Australian Constitution. What the founding fathers most wanted to do was to broker an acceptable compromise which would persuade the governments and electors of six fractious colonies to agree to the creation of a single nation governing the whole continent of Australia (the phrase "one nation" has to be avoided in this context, for obvious reasons).

Given the years of vigorous argument that accompanied the drafting of the Constitution it's perhaps understandable that our founding fathers wearied a little as they got further down the agenda. I've been on committees, I know how they work. By the time everyone's finished nitpicking the secretary and treasurer's reports, half the allotted meeting time is gone and, to make matters worse, the mob who were caucusing before the meeting in the front bar of the John Curtin are all desperate for a piss and such debate as there is, is governed mainly by their desire to get to the urinal sooner, rather than later.

The "leak factor" appears to have played a large part in the framing of the Australian Constitution. It goes a long way to explaining the wording of Section 61 which vests all executive power in the Queen (section 61) to be exercised by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative; Section 62 which provides for a Federal Executive Council which "shall hold office during [the Governor-General's] pleasure"; Section 72 which gives the Governor-General the power to appoint High Court Judges and so on. As far as the black letter law is concerned, Australia is still a monarchy and, when push comes to shove, the Constitution provides (rather paradoxically) that it doesn't have to be a constitutional one.

6. The Leichhardt Expedition - 1848

No listing of the greatest stuff-ups of Australian history would be complete if it did not mention at least one of our doughty explorers, who set out to chart the Australian wilderness to discover its natural riches and open it to European settlement, only to die after they ran out of bully beef and canteen water. The tales of these brave souls are generally counted among Australia's tragedies, which is fair enough; anyone who has read any of the great tragedies of Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks is well aware that while tragedy is a complex thing, it is at least 9 parts pure stupidity. Without it, there would be no opportunity for the tragic hero, and his adherents, to demonstrate the nobility of character and courage in adversity which mark them out from the common ruck.

Ludwig Leichhardt's 1848 attempt to cross Australia from Darling Downs the the Swan River had all the makings of just such a great saga of exploration. Leichhardt's bushcraft was superbly demonstrated on a previous expedition from the Darling Downs to Port Essington near Darwin. This took 15 months, much of which the party spent wandering around lost. Leichhardt had organising and provisioning skills to match his knowledge of the bush.

So, in 1848, seven men and 300 animals left the Condamine River heading west and quite simply vanished. No traces of the party have ever been identified so there is no public record of the manly stoicism they undoubtedly showed in the face of the hardships which preceded their untimely ends. It wasn't until the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860 to 1861 that Australia produced its first adequately documented instance of heroically failed exploration.

7. The Leyland P76

In the mid 1970s, Leyland Australia set out to create its first totally Australian car - designed and built in Australia, for Australian conditions. It's difficult to believe that the P76 came from the same company that manufactured the original Mini Minor.

8. The Queensland Gerrymander

Originally created to favour the electoral dominance of the ALP in Queensland state politics, the Queensland gerrymander became a liability for Labor after the Labor Party split of 1954. It was maintained by the Country Party (later the National Party) which, with the help of the same gerrymander, governed Queensland from 1957 to 1989.

9. The Last Ball of the Last Over of the Third Final of the 1980/81 Benson & Hedges World Series Cup (February 1, 1981)

It was a very sorry day for cricket, and an even sorrier one for lawn bowls.

10. The Boer War

Incited by reports of abominations perpetrated by the Boers on British subjects, Australians were eager to join the defence of the British Empire in South Africa in 1899. After 1900 enthusiasm for the war waned, and opposition to it grew, thanks to reports of British abominations perpetrated on Boer women and children in Kitchener's concentration camps. The Boer War did, of course, give Australia one of its great folk-heroes, Breaker Morant, who like many of our folk-heroes was a bit of a turd.

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