Australia has never run short of sun-struck public figures who have drowned in their own brainwaves for dealing with the “Territory”.

In the early days of the Commonwealth, one fantasy for protecting the north from Asiatic invasion was to build a rail link from Adelaide to Darwin. Critics pointed out that if Australian troops could race up the line, why could the Japanese not come down it just as swiftly? The scheme was shelved, to be revived in the 1990s as the ‘World’s Worst Train Journey’.

In 1914, the Territory’s administrator, Dr Gilruth, pre-empted the PM on prohibition. He began by nationalising the Darwin pub, sacking its unionist barman and raising the price of beer. The workers boycotted the beer, pledging to drink nothing but spirits. Gilruth then banned spirits entirely, even from the hospital. A historian reported that “Three or four old pioneer Territorians, used to drinking a bottle of gin (A.V.H.) a day, took ill and were taken to the hospital, where they died”. The editor of the N.T. Times accused Gilruth of killing them.

By 1919, resentments against the administrator had reached the point where the workers rebeled and put him under house arrest. The then federal government sent HMAS Australia to rescue him. Its commander got out of port as smartly as he could because his sailors were becoming infected with the “Darwin spirit”.

Around that time, the cry went up to develop the north by importing coolies to be kept apart from White Australia by “a well-disciplined native army, officered by Australians”.

Now, the PM’s state of emergency carries forward the tradition of going troppo, this time with a flush of pre-election fever. No doubt, many Australians are surprised at the delay in announcing the appointment of Senior Sergeant Hurley to head the police squads going north to enforce the multiple prohibitions.

Less surprising was that the Government has not taken up the suggestion of black activist Sam Watson, when he stood as a Socialist candidate against Peter Beattie in the last state election. The failure of the AMA to get its members to work in Aboriginal communities led Watson to propose that Queensland ask Fidel for some of the Cuban doctors who had done splendid work in Pakistan after the earthquake.

Long before the latest delirium has passed, its surviving victims will be chorusing what an old blackfella said 50 years ago to that Menzies stalwart, Bill Stanner: “White man, plenty humbug.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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