Secondhand Rows 

Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.

Bountiful Possibilities

 - Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Whitlam Venture by Alan Reid. 1976. Hardcover. $30.

'There were bountiful possibilities for Reid to contemplate in the wake of Labor's (1975) defeat. His enthusiasm for the blood sport of politics was undimmed, and he was eager to write a sequel to The Gorton Experiment.' Thus, Alan Reid's biographers Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt on the genesis of their subject's third, most controversial, volume of political reportage.
Indeed, the opening paragraph of his account of the turbulent three year life (1972-1975) of the Labor government, led by Gough Whitlam, created a suitable cloak and dagger atmosphere of secret back room deals so central to Reid's view of Australian politics: In the early hours of December 14 1974, in the dining room of the Lodge... four men signed, unknowingly, the death warrant of the Whitlam ALP government... It was an authority, unprecedented, for one man to borrow on Australia's behalf $4000,000,000 in United states currency from sources left unspecified in the document... precisely a year later the sentence of death was executed when the government, dismissed a month earlier by the governor General Sir John Kerr, suffered the most catastrophic parliamentary defeat in the nation's history... the four men were Gough Whitlam, James Cairns, Reginald Connor and Lionel Murphy.
There followed the by now obligatory (in)famous Reid pen portraits of this quartet of foredoomed individuals, at the head of which: Whitlam (Prime Minister, age 58.): 'Tall, imposing, immaculately groomed...a tongue as sharp as a meat skewer. His political alliances were temporary; his ambition to reach the top and survive there, constant.'
Reid's final chronicle covers the Whitlam Government from its election on 2 December 1972 to the astonishing Dismissal on 11 November 1975 and the election fiasco a month later. Surprisingly, he gives a favourable overview of the new government after its first year in office: By the end of 1973, the Whitlam government had a lengthy list of achievements-imposing, long needed and humanitarian... it had abolished the means test for pensioners over seventy-five. It had improved the status of women and was committed to equal pay. It had plans for setting up a national health scheme-Medibank. It had given the vote to eighteen year olds, checked foreign investment in real estate, closed income tax loopholes and doubled government assistance to the arts.
Yet the praise was brief. Following the example of one of his literary heroes, 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon, Reid framed his story as one of good intentions and great idealism, which were eventually overcome by hubris and corruption followed by decline and fall. His focal point was the Whitlam government's involvement in the so-called Loans Affair-an attempt to borrow $4 billion dollars to fund resource and energy projects.  Intending to bypass both the Treasury and the Loan Council, Connor planned to raise the money from Middle East financiers. The political turmoil created by this tactic engulfed the government through most of 1975 and led to Connor and Cairns both being dismissed by Whitlam. Reid's recounting of this saga contained the explosive allegation that the Prime Minister was involved in continuing attempts to raise a loan three months after May 1975-the date Whitlam claimed in Parliament all negotiations had ceased.
Reid completed his book by mid-1976. Lawyers vetted it and removed 25000 words. Even so, fearful of libel actions, major publishers steered clear. Finally, Michael Zifcak, founder of Hill of Content Publishing in Melbourne agreed to take it on, but not before another 9,000 words were taken out.
Publication date was 25 November 1976. The Sydney Morning Herald broke the embargo two days early and published Reid's allegations. Pre-launch copies were also to be had. As a consequence, Whitlam spent a day reading one and the publisher was greeted on launch day with two $500,000 libel writs from the former Prime Minister. His other targets included the printer and distributor of the offending volume, both the Fairfax and Murdoch Presses, The Bulletin news magazine, a bookstore in Canberra that had sold copies, and, most importantly the author of the offending volume himself, Alan Reid.
The threat of ongoing libel action effectively killed the book's commercial prospects. A first print run sold out, but a planned reprint was abandoned and the book simply disappeared from bookshops. The various libel actions remained legally active until 1984. By then, Whitlam had accepted both apologies and out of court settlements from all parties, except one. Zifcak later claimed that Whitlam had remarked to him 'I have nothing against you-I just hate Alan Reid'.  He refused to settle with Reid, claiming he was 'malicious'. Like  the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens' novel Bleak House,  the legal proceedings dragged on and on, ending only with Reid's death in September 1987.
To conclude, a  final glimpse of the foremost political participant, and journalist, of his times. According to his biographers, on the afternoon of 11 November 1975, Reid was accosted by a group of young reporters, some in tears, who were sympathetic to the just dismissed Labor Prime Minister. The following conversation ensued:
Reporters: What do you think of this?
Reid: It's a great story.
Reporters: You wouldn't have said that if it happened to Menzies.
Reid: I'd say it if it happened to my own mother-it's a great story! Stephen Reid


Where is Dr Leichhardt? The Greatest Mystery in Australian History by Darrell Lewis ($39.95, PB) In April 1848, the Prussian born explorer, scientist and naturalist, Ludwig Leichhardt along with six (or possibly seven) men (including his brother-in-law, August Classen), 20 mules, 50 bullocks, seven horses and a vast amount of equipment set out on a 4500 km trek to cross the Australian continent east to west from Moreton Bay in Queensland to the Swan River settlement in Western Australia. He was last sighted at Mt Abundance on 5 April 1848-and was never seen again.
This was Leichhardt's third overland expedition. His first, between 1844-46, had journeyed from Moreton Bay to Port Essington (Darwin). His second, in 1847, attempting a continent crossing, had been abandoned after 700kms due to illness and poor weather.
There are theories aplenty to explain Leichhardt's disappearance:
He and his party were murdered by natives. There was a mutiny within the group -this recent theory (2011) is advanced by Leichhardt biographer John Bailey. He surmises that several of Leichhardt's company murdered Leichhardt and Classen, buried their bodies and equipment, headed north to a coastal settlement and then secretly left Australia. One explanation says that Leichhardt lived out his days with an Aboriginal tribe deep in the desert. Others thought the entire party starved or they drowned in Lake Eyre, their bodies and all trace of the expedition covered with silt. Leichhardt was eaten by a shark in the Gulf of Carpentaria-this was disclosed in 1881 by a 'Brisbane Spiritualist' who claimed to have contacted the deceased explorer, who fortunately chose to reveal his fate. They perished in a sandstorm or were swallowed up by an earthquake. Perhaps the most bizarre theory, put forward by Darwin academic Dan Baschiera, says Leichhardt died eating poisoned flour supplied by the British authorities, in order to prevent him from embarrassingly pointing out in his writings that Australia was not an empty land ('terra nullius') but was extensively occupied by Indigenous Australians.
Now Dr Darrell Lewis, an archaeologist, bushman and historian, presents his lengthy (416pp) and painstakingly researched study. He notes that Leichhardt was quite clear, in both public lectures and private correspondence, about which route he intended to take: through Central Queensland, following the headwaters of the northern rivers, through the Gulf Country and into the Tanami Desert, Victoria River region and onto Swan River. This seems settled, and is the author's preferred view, however, he also examines the possibility that Leichhardt chose a more southerly path through the Simpson Desert and into Western Australia (see the map on p. 352).
Leichhardt himself thought his expedition might take between two to three (and possibly four) years to complete. Yet in August 1850, the Sydney Morning Herald published a long article entitled, 'Where is Dr Leichhardt?' and stated that if the explorer was in difficulties or lost 'it was the duty of the Colony to do what it could to relieve him'. Numerous search parties were organised throughout the 1850s and 1860s, including ones led by explorers A. C. Gregory in 1858 and John Forrest in 1869. Financial patrons of the various expeditions included naturalist Ferdinand von Mueller and Queen Victoria, who in 1865 contributed £100 to the Melbourne-based 'Ladies Leichhardt Search Committee'. Dr Lewis also introduces us to the varied cast of characters involved in the 'Leichhardt Mystery' drama over the last 160 years. These include frontier squatters, bushrangers, 'wild' Aborigines, prospectors, stockmen, charlatans, scientists, madmen, historians and 'armchair experts'.
This book collects, interprets and evaluates all of the known evidence and possible clues as to Leichhardt's fate. These include 'L' marked trees, horse and dray tracks in unsettled regions, Aboriginal oral narratives of whites dying or being killed beyond the frontier, rock art specimens and skeletal remains. The most intriguing item yet found-and the only one that appears to be authentic-is a metal name-plate inscribed 'Ludwig Leichhardt 1848', taken from a rifle discovered  stuck in a Boab tree in the Tanami Desert region, by a drover Charles Harding in the 1890s. If it was indeed Leichhardt who placed it there as a marker, he chose wisely since Boabs are renowned for their remarkable size, resilience and longevity.
Other modern, significant speculations are also presented. Those by Simon Willey: Leichhardt's party was massacred by natives in the Warrego-Barcoo Rivers region in central Qld; Bruce Simpson: the discovery of the remains of a white man's camp in 1948 at Glenormiston Station suggests the party was wiped out at near the Georgina River in  far western QLD; and Dick Kimber: the expedition was attacked at Wantata Waterhole on the Diamantina River in Central  Australia.
For his own theory, Darrell Lewis finds a trail of evidence which indicates Leichhardt followed the northern route to the Gulf rivers with their known sources of plentiful water, because his 77 animals would (at least initially) require between 3600 to 5500 litres of water per day. Then journeying west from river to river and upon approaching the west coast, the expedition finds a way south west to Swan River. The evidence trail ends south of Lake Gregory in the Tanami-Great Sandy Desert region, one of the most remote and least visited desert areas in Australia.
Did Leichhardt complete nearly two thirds of his planned crossing of the continent? The evidence is suggestive but as Lewis rightly concludes: 'Until the time that some conclusive piece of evidence is discovered ... Leichhardt's journals hidden in a dry cave or perhaps a heap of 1840s period surveying gear, arguments about Leichhardt's final resting place will remain a matter of probabilities rather than certainties'.
Indeed. Yet I think this enthralling book has given us a glimpse of it. Stephen Reid