Winking at land rights: the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games


Image: Matilda the kangaroo at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. Credit: Russavia.

By DIBLEY J. HANIFY, 11 February 2016

It was to be the last day of September 1982 when the XII Commonwealth Games, ‘The Friendly Games’, bounded into town in the pouch of a giant plastic marsupial and put Brisbane at last on the proverbial map.

An enormous cartoonish kangaroo, ‘Matilda’, was the official Games mascot; a towering thirteen-metre-high puppet of fibreglass and concealed mechanical inner-workings, wheeling around the crimson tarmac of QEII Stadium and winking on a routine schedule to the pulse of a slavish electronic metronome.

Brisbane at this time was small, growing and self-conscious, sitting at the uncomfortable symbolic crossroads of city versus country. What better way to tip the scales in favour of ‘city’ than an ostentatious winking Kangaroo that challenged the entire town’s skyline for the prize of ‘Tallest Building’?

Queensland’s premier of the day, the late Sir Johannes (‘Joh’) Bjelke-Petersen, was fixated on big things…and maps…and on putting his state’s capital city Brisbane ‘on the map’. And the Commonwealth Games was going to be Brisbane’s big break, an obsession realized; and nothing or nobody was going to get in his way. Or so he thought…

Winking is an interesting human gesture – a carrier of many meanings. But eye-contact between the one winking and the one at the other end is the common denominator. The message regardless of specific connotations is that ‘you and I are in on something that others outside the wink-sphere are not’. Matilda’s wink was Sir Joh’s wink; Sir Joh’s Brisbane’s wink at the world – ‘Here we are! We’ve arrived!’ For Bjelke-Petersen, the Queensland state government and the Brisbane City Council (BCC), the stakes were high. The BCC had spent $19 million and raised another $37 million for upgrading facilities and venues across the city. Altogether a lazy $100 million was spent in preparation for the event – a tidy sum for a sleepy backwater bush town at the time.

But out on the margins far beyond the boundary where the wink-sphere dissolved and invisibility began – where the stakes were higher still – sat Brisbane’s first peoples. The anger, frustration and despair of Indigenous people, in Brisbane and across the nation, had reached fever pitch; desperation for recognition of land rights, desperation for cultural preservation and desperation for opportunities for political and economic self-determination. But most of all desperation to be heard, recognised and respected; fundamental needs that, under the Bjelke-Petersen government, seemed as likely to come to pass as a Brisbane tropical thunderstorm whipping through the Rocklea scrap-metal yard and leaving in its wake a fully-assembled Rolls Royce.

Under a state government that moved back and forth between callous indifference and the heavy-handed deployment of its monopoly on violence, Indigenous peoples recognised that the Commonwealth Games brought with it the eyes of the world. In the lead up to the Games, Indigenous communities ramped up efforts to mobilise and planned a series of peaceful demonstrations surrounding the Games in order to attract international media attention to their plight.

The chain of events in the twelve months leading up to the Games though was stranger than fiction…

The Bjelke-Petersen government made the first move via the late erstwhile Minister for Police, Mr Russ Hinze.

Hinze first introduced the Commonwealth Games Security Bill to state cabinet in September 1981, a little over twelve months prior to the Commonwealth Games official opening ceremony. In a nutshell the object of the Bill was to provide the police immunity from any judicial challenges to its actions for the duration of the Commonwealth Games.

But beneath the nutshell was a longer list of provisions…the provision for 48-hour detainment of any person without charge; an absolute ban on any protest for the duration of the Games; police powers to remove any person from the Games site without explanation; police powers to enter and search the homes of any political protestors. Not to mention a sharp increase in fines and terms-of-imprisonment for any person accused of refusing to obey police direction. On top of all this Hinze called for significant reinforcement from private security contractors in spite a $10M increase to the police budget that same year.

But none of this really mattered much anyway since no police action during the Games would be challengeable in court were the Bill to pass parliament. Put simply, the proposal was that the thin-blue-line would reign supreme from the moment the eyes of the world were to focus on Brisbane until the moment their collective gaze scattered back to the proverbial four corners.

Cabinet requested that Hinze resubmit the Bill at a later date to allow respective ministers, backbenchers and the community-at-large more time to digest its implications. This pattern repeated itself at intervals corresponding roughly to the flooding and ebbing of the tides revealing in turn the government’s determination for the Bill to slip though the net of public scrutiny and pass into law.

The proposal attracted strong criticism; from Queensland Civil Liberties Council President, Mr Terry O’Gorman; from Liberal Party State Director, Mr Steven Litchfield, and from Queensland Young Liberals President, Mr David Davies. How times have changed, if you catch my drift…Mr. Davies stated that if his reading of the proposed legislation was correct, Queenslanders would live without basic democratic rights for the duration of the Games. Critics suggested the proposal provided the foundations for a ‘police state’ and asked for evidence of an imminent risk of violent demonstrations that would call for such a totalitarian extension to police powers. But there was none; if anything, in fact, the opposite…But it wasn’t long before the government found its sacrificial lamb. The police state ‘legitimised’…

In mid-January 1982, six Gunditjmara Indigenous protesters, angry about Alcoa’s plan to build a new aluminium smelter on sacred Indigenous lands at Portland Victoria, stormed onto the track during the running of a men’s 200m sprint at the Alcoa Games in Melbourne’s Olympic Park causing injuries to two African-American competitors. Media reports framed this single isolated incident as a ‘preview of things to come’ in Brisbane and Sir Joh cashed in, ramping up his campaign of fear and loathing. The Commonwealth Games Security Act came to pass soon after.

But the plot was yet to thicken. The real story was just about to unfold…

The growing Indigenous political mobilisation drawing closer to the Games was not only non-violent; it was, well, brilliant. The mobilisation sought to forge connections with other pockets of discontent and victims of injustice across the globe – With Maori land-rights activists in New Zealand. With African Commonwealth nations suffering through the traumas of former colonisation and rapid ham-fisted decolonisation, not to mention the treacherous decolonisation tactics of divide-and-conquer employed by erstwhile colonial masters allowing for a new mutant form of colonial relations to prevail in disguise.

Many African Commonwealth nations were equally outraged by the previous year’s Springboks (South African) Rugby Union tour of New Zealand during ongoing South African apartheid and were rallying for New Zealand to be excluded from participation in the Games. The same African nations were perhaps even more appalled by what they were learning about the plight of Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

Solidarity, empathy and a larger collective action was taking shape internationally; a non-violent political genius collective action that was starting to make Bjelke-Petersen sweat bullets. Sweat that trickled in rivulets down the furrows of Sir Joh’s cheeks, dripping onto the map on his desk, landing on the dot marked ‘Brisbane’ and threatening once again to wipe it away; or perhaps instead to leave a dirty smudge – a dirty smudge on a map recognized around the world for all the wrong reasons…

The movement took things a step further when Aboriginal Development Commission chair, Mr Charles Perkins, appealed directly to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to encourage invited African Commonwealth nations to boycott the Games. At this stage none of the fourteen invited African nations had accepted their invitations. The possibility of a complete African boycott was now well and truly on the cards…and India…and Canada. All the while pressure mounted on New Zealand to withdraw participation. At the same time New Zealand’s own Prime Minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, launched into public tirades against his nation’s own Indigenous activists lending support to their Australian Indigenous counterparts; “Maori Activists are people with psychologies attuned to violence,” said Muldoon speaking to Australian ABC television program This Day Tonight, “They won’t stop until they are stopped.”

With wide-scale boycotts and possible NZ exclusion looming like a not-too-distant thunderhead on a steamy Brisbane summer afternoon, the bean counters too started to sweat. Unless the threat of the African boycott was resolved soon, Games Foundation manager Dan Whitehead said that large spending cuts were unavoidable.

Increasingly the movement was also gaining sympathy from the white population both in Brisbane and around the nation. Indigenous activists turned their attention to this newfound solidarity and urged Brisbane and Australia’s whites to express their discontent through non-attendance. Ticket sales both domestic and abroad were sluggish, $2 million dollars lower than the projected target for this time of the year. And the Games were only a few short months away…the eyes of the world were now indeed watching! Brisbane’s Indigenous people were putting themselves on the map.

But ‘let the games go on’ as they say. And they did – ‘The Friendly Games’. And so too did a series of planned peaceful demonstrations for land rights. And the police were set free from their torture chambers lusting for blood…

Events reached a climax towards the end of the Games on the October 7 1982, when a group of around 500 land-rights activists gathered at Roma Street for a planned peaceful demonstration to City Hall at King George Square…a procession without a permit…a permit that was not available.

Brisbane activist Mr. Ross Watson briefed the crowd urging restraint from violence come-what-may. Even as he addressed the gathering, plain-clothed police were milling amongst the masses and a military helicopter was hovering above like a premonition of a sealed fate. But assembled too were the gateway to the eyes of the world, a sixty-strong crew of international and domestic press. The land-rights activists commenced their march, met head-on by a procession of police, themselves demonstrating for a cause; the cause of Brisbane-on-the-map…Sir Joh’s cause.

The two demonstrations shortly met face-to-face, one with the right to violence, the other without. The land-rights protesters sat down on the street as the police descended and proceeded to pluck rows of seated protesters from the street with surgical precision. Around 200 arrests followed and more than 300 charges were laid. Amongst the arrests included the Governor-General’s own daughter, Miss Ann Stephen. Funnily enough Dad, the GG, had been entertaining the Queen at City Hall only a short time earlier. Miss Stephen at the time was working for the Communist Party-sponsored newspaper, The Tribune. Two ABC news crew were also arrested. As each arrest occurred, the crowd chanted in unison, “The whole world is watching you”…and it was.

Archival footage from the times presents a visually stunning account of events…

Cheering fans at the opening ceremony of the Games, including Queen Elizabeth II…Overly excited commentators and the winking Matilda…

The demonstrations, in particular the demonstration on October 7…The police closing in on the peacefully seated, perhaps the most stirring image of the entire movement…The demonstrators; those nameless demonstrators…Black power salutes…Living people emulating the dead, being dragged limp to police paddy-wagons to face court the next day in the name of what…The visible courage and restraint not to punch back in purposeful contribution to a bigger picture.

And the places – familiar places that remain part of the fabric of this living, breathing, now multicultural city…the University of Queensland; the Victoria Bridge; the origins of the ‘Tent Embassy’ at Musgrave Park, South Brisbane, reclaimed as ‘Aboriginal Land’; demonstrators parading down the stairs of ANZAC Square, past the ‘Eternal Flame of Remembrance’, a flame that, institutionally speaking, remains amnesic regarding the Indigenous peoples that perished in foreign lands alongside their white Australian counterparts.

There is footage too of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, speaking on television about the respective roles of policing in Queensland. His words sail out gently through the television screen, floating on an old-timey charming sailboat in ironic juxtaposition to the words and visible urgency of the activists.

In many ways, the activism around the Games was successful, galvanising the movement and raising public awareness. It is no accident that the origins of Indigenous community in radio, for example, would follow shortly after. Yet the state government crackdown also caused a lot of pain and suffering and protracted the fight.

Sir Joh’s determination to suppress the land-rights movement has been interpreted by many to betray a deep-seated racism towards Indigenous people. In Sir Joh’s authorised biography Jigsaw, close friend and author Derek Townsend comes to Bjelke-Petersen’s defense. But even through Townsend’s own words, Sir Joh’s wishes for Indigenous people at the time are clear and unashamed; namely, that Indigenous people deserve every opportunity to become ‘self-sustaining’ through farming the land in dedicated missions under the paternalistic evangelical gaze of the Lutheran Church.

Journalist Hugh Lunn has written that Sir Joh was arguably the most parochial politician ever to grace Australia. And his parochialism was Queensland, Queensland, Queensland! A hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up, hardworking Queensland. For Sir Joh, ‘Australia’, a suspiciously socialist construct, came a dim, distant second. Australia had a legitimate purpose but its purpose was narrow and needed to be contained. The Federation owed its existence to the states, not the other way around. Any threat to his vision of Queensland state sovereignty – be it from the Federal Government, the ALP, Whitlam, Fraser, trade unionists, students, academics, journalists…or land-rights activists – was attacked head on; and history shows that Sir Joh was skilled at wining these battles.

In an interview with the Courier Mail (January 1, 1983), Bjelke-Petersen provided his personal advice to then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser; “I would stop immediately land rights decisions in Australia. You mark my word, they’ll apply to the United Nations to form a nation within a nation…It is a frightening situation…” In Sir Joh’s world as state Premier, Indigenous people had their place – firstly beneath God, the church and the Queen of England, secondly beneath Queensland, and thirdly, beneath Sir Joh himself. Indigenous land-rights activists were met with the same sharp retaliation as anyone else that sought to disrupt Sir Joh’s natural order…

For more information about these times and events, the Koori Web contains a great archive of newspaper clippings capturing events surrounding the 1982 Commonwealth Games. This provided much of the research input for the production of this story.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. Originally published 2 July 2013 at


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