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Dec 9, 2014

Mike Carlton: the shoddy, anti-union fiction that won the PM's top history award

Australia's Secret War, which won the PM's literary award for history, is a badly written, badly researched work of fiction, opines Mike Carlton, former ABC war correspondent and naval historian.


The infamous culture wars sank to a sorry new low last night. At the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, handed out in Melbourne, the prize for history went to a right-wing rant against Australian trade unions, an ideological tract that includes errors, hearsay, exaggeration and in some cases, sheer fiction and fantasy. History it is not.

The book is Australia’s Secret War, subtitled How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II, by Western Australian writer Hal G.P. Colebatch and published — no surprise here — by the right-wing Quadrant magazine. It was a joint winner of the history award with Broken Nation, Professor Joan Beaumont’s splendid book about Australia in World War I. Prize: $40,000 each.

It’s hard to know where to begin on this travesty, but here are two examples. In his introduction, Colebatch claims that a strike by wharf labourers in Sydney kept soldiers returning from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps away from their families. In October 1945, he says, these men were held penned-up on a British aircraft carrier, HMS Speaker, which had brought them home. The wharfies would not allow them ashore to meet their loved ones for 36 hours.

This is untrue. It simply did not happen. Newspaper accounts of their return report the men were greeted by cheering crowds the day they arrived. The history of HMS Speaker, written by one of the ship’s officers and available online, makes no mention of this supposed scandal. There was no wharfies strike that day. Colebatch gives his only source for this nonsense as a letter from one W.S. Monks, dated 1995, 50 years after the event and 20 years ago. He does not reveal who this Monks might be, but there was no soldier or POW of that name in WWII.

The second example is worse, if anything. Colebatch alleges that a flight of 16 American Vultee Vengeance dive bombers returning from a raid on Rabaul crashed into the sea off New Britain because the radar station at their base on Green Island was not working. He claimed — with no evidence at all — that the valves for the radar had been stolen by wharfies.

This is sheer fiction. The Americans did not fly the Vultee Vengeance in combat, so they made no raid on Rabaul. Significantly, Colebatch doesn’t give a date, but there is no American record, official or unofficial, of 16 of these aircraft and their 32 crew members lost in this way at any time, as there surely would be had it happened. He also gets the number of the Green Island radar unit wrong. Again, he relies on rumour and hearsay for this nonsense. No official documents, nothing, just two individual reminiscences by old soldiers decades ago.

“Colebatch is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. Australia’s Secret War is a farrago.”

The only vaguely comparable incident in the area was the crash of seven Royal New Zealand Air Force Corsair fighters — different air force, different aircraft — in 1945. But that was nothing to do with faulty radar. They simply ran out of fuel when they were caught in a sudden tropical storm.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Page after page, chapter after chapter, the book is an egregious exercise in union-bashing with little or no display of original research or historical scholarship.

Colebatch, a Perth lawyer and self-styled poet, has long been a spear carrier for the hard Right. His publisher, Quadrant magazine, is holy writ for that ever-diminishing band of geriatric self-styled culture warriors still bewailing the departure of the late B.A. Santamaria.

Naturally, when the book came out, it was ballyhooed to the skies by Quadrant’s editor, the ever-contentious Keith Windschuttle, and the usual Tory gaggle of Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine et al. Writing as if she actually knew what she was talking about, Devine banged on in the Sydney Daily Telegraph about “union bastardry”, branding the non-existent HMS Speaker strike as an “obscene act”.

“You will read this book with mounting fury,” she huffed.

Indeed you might, but only because it is so downright awful.

Which might lead you, gentle reader, to ask how on earth it got the gong. No surprises there either. The chief judge of the non-fiction and history awards for this year was none other than our old friend Gerard “Gollum” Henderson, ringmaster of the right-wing Sydney Institute, long-time culture impresario and an Abbott confidante. His right-hand man on the judging panel was a former Quadrant editor and Liberal MP, Peter Coleman. Ho hum. Nuff said.

Naturally I’ll be accused of sour grapes. My book First Victory, about the Australian navy in WWI, was a short-listed finalist in the same category. (In fact, it won this year’s NSW Premier’s Prize for military history.)

But I don’t care. Colebatch is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. Australia’s Secret War is a farrago. Perhaps worst of all, it’s badly written, too. Cliche piled upon cliche. Its selection as a co-winner devalues the Prime Minister’s history award, leaving it a bloodied casualty on this ideological battlefield.


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49 thoughts on “Mike Carlton: the shoddy, anti-union fiction that won the PM’s top history award

  1. Kevin Herbert

    More of the same tosh from an irrelevant old man of the Right…….zzzzzzzzzz.

  2. Edwin York

    I have always wondered about the intellectual depth of the far right.

  3. Venise Alstergren

    Don’t people research books before recommending them? Surely Abbott’s minders knows someone who knows something about the topic? No?

    Someone should scuttle Windschuttle, and Rupert Murdoch probably owns Quadrant.

  4. wayne robinson

    Thanks for reminding me of your book. I’d looked at buying the Kindle version when it was first released, but I seem to remember it was too expensive. Today, the price looks more reasonable. Bought. Should be an interesting read.

  5. MJPC

    Thank you for that, that’s one book I will pass on. There is nothing worse than a badly written book, and that’s one that pupports to tell the truth in fact telling a lie.
    Reference the V. Vengeance, the aircraft was such a dog the US military did not take it up so it went to the RAF and RAAF in the Pacific theatre, now the only one surviving example is in Australia and worth a fortune to collectors.
    Also, who proof reads these books! Surely the radar stations missing valves would have been noticed when the operators tested the radar prior to entering its first use. Sometimes stories in history are so fantastic to be almost unbelievable, this sounds just unbelievable!

  6. John Taylor

    Highly likely you will be accused of sour grapes Mike – the hard right always say ‘sour grapes’ in such circumstances largely because they would not have a have a schmick of an idea what the phrase actually means. This is because none of them would ever have heard of Aesops Fable about the fox and the grapes, much less read it and understood it.

  7. extra

    Given the extent of the Prime Minister’s commitment to truth (at least, to not lying), and his flexibility with facts, why is anyone surprised that this book won his Literature Prize?

  8. thelorikeet

    Poor old Hal, the company he keeps (Keith Windshuttle et al)
    Even his poetry leans right

  9. Heather Macauley

    Clearly, either of those involved in this right wing imbroglio have ever heard of Slander and Libel law suits!

    Clearly redefining history for their own iteration is what passes for membership of the Liberals these days, tawdry at best.

  10. Steven Johnston

    No surprises that an ex employee of the IPA’s predecessor the “Australian Institute for Public Policy” is given an award by the IPA and right wingers

  11. SusieQ

    So how much was Gerald and the committee paid for being part of the judging panel?
    Can the recommendations to the PM from the judging panel be released – to show the judging panel’s reasons for their choice?
    Did the PM accept all of the panel’s recommendations?
    Why were so many of the awards given to two authors – was it because the committee was split, and this was the way the deadlock was broken?
    Will applications for the 2015 award panels be advertised publicly?
    Are there guiding notes for the panel to assist with the judging?

  12. CML

    Good to have you back on Crikey, Mike.
    Takes someone like you to tell us the truth about the rich old white males around Oz who live in fantasyland.
    Suppose we shouldn’t be surprised about a book full of li+s on this occasion. It is the current PM’s literary awards after all.
    Same old, same old!!

  13. Electric Lardyland

    Now that the judging panel have set the standard, I look forward to next year’s finalists.
    1; Tony Abbott’s Glorious First Year, by P. Credlin.
    2; Patriot: The Rupert Murdoch Story, by A. Bolt and M. Devine.
    3; The Aboriginal Mafia, and How They Run Tasmania, by K. Windschuttle.
    4; Menzies At The Western Front, by J. Howard.
    5; The pedants’ Guyed To Hisstory, by G. Henderson.
    6; The End Of History, by F. Fukyutoni.

  14. Larry Martin

    The author and his tory media cheer squad should be called to account for the lies. Has the Author offered any proof of his “facts” Has Ms Devine done any research on the purported facts ? Her mindless regurgitation reminds me of when the “parrot” got caught out using passages from a Frederick Forsyth novel The Negotiator as “fact” Funny if it wasn’t so dangerous

  15. Luke Hellboy

    Toady has repeatedly demonstrated his inability to tell reality from fantasy, so maybe he just mixed up the fiction and non-fiction categories. What won the science prize? “Coal: how it can reduce greenhouse gasses, make you smarter and increase your penis size!”

  16. Electric Lardyland

    It’s also quite a tasty breakfast cereal, too, Luke.

  17. Gerryod

    Good call on this – I hope it gets a wider audience as this needs to be called out.

    Great to hear from you Mike – we need you back in MSM calling these neo-con nutters to account.

  18. sebster

    @Electric Lardyland, I am literally shrieking.

  19. Bill Hilliger

    Mr Colebatch, and the bulk of the cannon fodder, rank and file “unionists” no?

  20. David Stephens

    Shame that (1) Joan Beaumont’s excellent book Broken Nation is coupled with Colebatch’s, though having once done an MA thesis on WWII and knowing a bit about the sometimes rocky industrial relations history of WWII, I’ll reserve some judgement till I’ve read the book (2) Clare Wright’s even better book Forgotten Rebels didn’t get beyond the short list. Having to admit that Eureka happened may be too much for some in the Gerald Henderson clique; giving a role in it to women would make it doubly unacceptable.

  21. Pledge

    There was no such British aircraft carrier called ‘HMS Speaker’. The ship was in fact ‘HMS Striker’. Several newspapers at the time miss-spelled the name!

  22. Neutral

    7; Why Everyone Not On The Hard Right Is Wrong, by B. O’Neill.

  23. Patrick Brosnan

    Nice work Mike. A small saving grace is that this type of thing illustrates perfectly the small mindedness and meanness of spirit that resides in the organ, referred to loosely as a brain, allegedly possessed by the cabal that you mention. So bereft of the capacity for self reflection are they that they don’t even realise that these confected events only serve to diminish them further if indeed that were possible.

  24. GF50

    Thanks MC, No facts to be obtained from a book gonged by the Gollem.

  25. Julie McNeill

    Thanks Mike – but I’m gobsmacked how the publisher wouldn’t get it read by reputable historians before it got printed. Surely the non-fiction award would require the same scrutiny. How can they face the public and take their money knowing they would get found out for their deceit?
    Thanks again for keeping these bastards on their toes, as they deserve to be in the sin bin then publicly flogged(oh you’ve done that).

  26. AR

    Simple category error – it was meant for the fiction prize, along with ‘bop the stoats’ and ‘deficit the balance’.

  27. Craig Regan

    “Colebatch gives his only source for this nonsense as a letter from one W.S. Monks, dated 1995, 50 years after the event and 20 years ago. He does not reveal who this Monks might be, but there was no soldier or POW of that name in WWII.”

    Really? It took me 30 seconds to find this:


  28. wayne robinson


    Agreed. WS Monks as a POW did exist. It doesn’t mean that if he wrote a letter 50 years after the event that the memory of his homecoming is actually true. Memory of past events is notoriously unreliable.

    If he wrote the letter, then its contents have to be confirmed from contemporaneous sources. If he’d written the letter the day after his homecoming, then it would be more reliable, albeit not necessarily true (he might have been mistaken about there being a strike for example).

  29. Paul Rodan

    The best writing Colebatch is Tim;
    The one known as Hal’s rather dim.
    His new book it seems
    Is based on his dreams.
    His grasp of reality’s slim.

  30. My Comment

    Wayne, I think Craig’s comment may have indicated the pot was calling the kettle names.

  31. Norman Hanscombe

    One has only to read the emotive comments on this thread to realise the literary skills of many posters.
    I would, however, ask for the usual suspects to answer a question raised by Heather Macauley’s thoughts re “Slander and Libel law suits!”
    At least that has more meat than the rest of the fare being served up on this thread.

  32. Kevin Herbert

    Paul Rodan:

    nice work.

  33. Kevin Herbert

    Mike Carlton:

    would you like to explain how you overlooked the Monk data which was apparently readily available.

  34. wayne robinson

    My Comment,

    Agreed. But it still doesn’t address my point that if Colebatch was relying solely on a letter written 50 years after the events described (I don’t intend to buy the book to check this point), then it’s sloppy authorship.

    Contemporaneous sources are the only ones that are reasonably reliable.

  35. wayne robinson


    I went looking on the AWM website and found no hits with W.S. Monks, but 3 with Monks, including WS. Perhaps Mike Carlton forgot the Internet search adage about trying with fewer items? And only tried with W.S. Monks?

  36. Craig Regan

    Yes, Wayne, a letter allegedly written 50 years after an event is hardly a strong primary source. If you’re going to take someone apart, however, you need to be beyond reproach.

    Carlton hasn’t even done a simple piece of due diligence which raises questions about anything else he says.

  37. anne simmat

    Thought I would check out those judges colemanhas a piece on political correctness in which he claimsthatthe trouble started when Stalin was allied to hitler .really! End of research life is too short for this rubbish . How many more ways can this govt waste money

  38. Kevin Herbert

    Craig Regan:

    you’re over egging it to the point where your criticism of Carlton’s error may be seen in an altogether different light.

  39. Venise Alstergren

    ELECTRIC LARDYLAND (13) I just love your book titles. Got any more?

  40. Venise Alstergren

    OFF TOPIC: Why does “Australian Democracy at work” consist of renaming an unpopular tax?

    How effing ridiculous can this government get?

  41. wayne robinson

    Craig Regan,

    I agree that it reduces Mike Carlton’s credibility regarding Colebatch’s book. But if Colebatch is just relying on a 50 year old letter, then it’s still a valid criticism. But someone could read the book?

  42. Peter McArdle

    My grandfather was a wharfie in Sydney through the Depression, WWII and into the 1950s. He was a good Catholic and a good Labor man (he saw both as of equal importance). In the 1950s, like many Catholics, he was a member of the Industrial Groups, the predecessor of Santamaria’s NCC and DLP. But he angrily quit the Groups because of Santamaria’s claims that wharfies had sabotaged the war effort. At times he and other wharfies had worked 36 hours without a break in order to load ships with war material. Like other supporters of fascism, Santamaria was anti-union. Such people believe that workers should stay in their place and do as they are told. It appears that some of Santamaria’s fellow travellers continue to clank out of the sewers to peddle the same old garbage.

  43. wayne robinson

    Regarding the HMS Speaker incident – I think Mike Carlton is generally correct and Hal Colebatch is generally wrong.

    I don’t know what Hal Colebatch wrote in his book, but he did write an article in Quadrant giving an account of it:

    quadrant.org.au/magazine/2013/10/war-unions-fought-australia/ in which he writes; “When Speaker arrived at Sydney, watersiders went on strike for thirty-six hours, preventing them being disem­barked”.

    I found several websites, including:


    which refers to the ship docking in Sydney on October 15, unloading and moving to mooring to have painting and sprucing up completed, was due to leave in early November, but a burst pipe required extensive repairs – slowed down by strikes – and finally left in late December. The strikes were ‘ashore’ affecting power and transport, not wharves.Not waterside workers.

    i call it a Colebatch lie.

  44. Craig Regan

    Kevin Herbert – I was answering a comment. Methinks you doth protest too much. If Carlton had a response that might cast a different light. Maybe he’s too busy abusing people on Twitter.

    Wayne Robinson – Relying on a letter written 50 years later IS suss. That’s what I said. I’ve got better things to do than read the book but that seems to make me just like everybody else on this thread.

  45. wayne robinson


    Hal Colebatch might have relied on a letter written 50 years after the event, but he also from what I can find from websites dealing with the HMS Speaker – 2 of them – just completely wrong. There was no waterside strike around the time the HMS Speaker arrived in Sydney.

    There were strikes later (power and transport) delaying repairs when a burst pipe prevented its planned departure in early November (the website noted it also caused inconvenience to the crew because it interfered with their ability to get away from Sydney for R & R) – but not a waterside strike.

    Mike Carlton was generally correct. Hal Colebatch was generally wrong. The fact that there was a WS Monk doesn’t help Colebatch’s credibility.

  46. Daryl...

    These claims have been well and truly refuted. Including the surprise resurrection of a ghost Mr Carlton says doesn’t exist.


    And further comment below…


    Bitter and twisted. What a way to end a writing career.

  47. Dalveen Briggs

    William Sackfield Monks’ obituary appeared In the “West Australian” newspaper last week. He died on Xmas Eve aged 95. According to the notices, he served in the 2/3 Machine Gunners & was a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma Railway. This may be the man that Colebatch is referring to.

  48. wayne robinson

    There’s no record that there was a waterside strike around the time that the HMS Speaker docked in Sydney on October 15, 1945 – which was 2 months after the war ended. The Speaker was being used to carry passengers, including POWs of the Japanese.

    The diaries published on the Internet make it sound as though the voyages of the Speaker after the end of the war were pleasure trips (which for the POWs after captivity by the Japanese they probably were).

    Colebatch’s claim is based on a letter written 50 years after the supposed event – not exactly reliable evidence. Even if the waterside strike happened, it was after the war had ended. Not evidence of war sabotage by unions. The diaries of the ship’s crew indicate that there was a transport and power strike in early November delaying repairs on a burst pipe.

    Anyway. I’ve read Mike Carlton’s ‘First Victory’. It is a fine piece of history writing and would have been a worthy winner of the prize. I’m not certain about Colebatch’s effort.

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