Above: Party at Government House, 1912, Administrator Gilruth the tall man with bowtie in the centre (p 173).
By KIERAN FINNANE
Four years without “a negative second”: this is how Ted Egan AO describes his term as 18th Administrator of the Northern Territory, 2003-07. It was, quoting his partner Nerys Evans, “a geriatric fairytale”.
Not so the turbulent seven-year term of the very first Administrator, Dr John Anderson Gilruth, appointed in 1912, the year after the Commonwealth took over the NT from South Australia, and whom Mr Egan has made the subject of his latest book, Gilruth: a complex man. It was the sharp contrast of their experience that pricked Mr Egan’s interest.
When he began researching Gilruth 10 years ago, Mr Egan intended the work to be the subject of a doctoral thesis but his story-telling instincts took over. He realised he preferred to write this book for the general reader, rather than for academia, because he wants Territorians to better understand what their present-day quality of life has been built on.
Left: Ted Egan AO at the launch of his book in the CDU library.
Mr Egan is not an apologist for Gilruth but he argues that he has not been well understood or acknowledged.
“He was a difficult man, a complex man, but he was a huge achiever in the NT.”
His achievements were particularly in the development of the cattle industry: “He set up the stock-routes, the notion of things like windmills, tanks, water whips, he was the first man to talk about Bos Indicus hybrid cattle, probably the first one to say the word ‘Santa Gertrudis cattle’ 100 years ago,” says Mr Egan.
But this did not save Gilruth from a humiliating end to his role as Administrator and a dimmed reputation in Territory history.
In those days the Administrator’s position had real power, unlike the present-day figurehead and rubber-stamping role. He operated as something of a colonial Viceroy, making every major executive and administrative decision for the whole of the NT.
He was answerable only to federal Cabinet, then based in Melbourne, not to the local ballot box as there was none. With the transfer to the Commonwealth, the NT lost political representation and that was part of the problem.
Right: Dr Gilruth at right, with Sir Walter Barttelot, centre, and Minister Josiah Thomas (p 172).
Territorians, and particularly organised white labour, did not take kindly to the autocracy Gilruth represented.
Professor Rolf Gerritsen, who helped launch Mr Egan’s book last week, summed up the picture like this: “Darwin was a bit like Broken Hill in the heyday of the Barrier Industrial Council. The unions were quite strong and the ‘temper was distinctly democratic’, as Henry Lawson [or was it Joseph Furphy?] might say.
“A tall snob is bound to get into a lot of trouble. Give the tall snob a lot of power and there’s bound to be trouble from the other side. Essentially that’s what happened.”
In the end Gilruth “was run out of town”, as Mr Egan puts it. This followed the appointment of a Royal Commission that examined practices and events under his leadership and eventually found that he and others in the administration had failed “to exercise their great powers with firmness, common sense, discretion and justice”.
However, it also pointed a finger at the Commonwealth for failing “to realise the position and grant to the people of the Territory citizenship rights” and its Ministers for not appreciating what was required.
Left: Government House staff, 1912. The employment of “coloured” staff was used to question Gilruth’s support of the White Australia Policy (p 62).
The back story, however, seems to have been less a struggle over democratic and labour rights and more a struggle to preserve privilege – the privilege of white men. The official national policy of the time was to develop and promote Australia as “a country for the White Man”.
This is the point that Mr Egan wants today’s readers to particularly appreciate.
He describes the Territory capital at the time as “sordid little Darwin”. Its population was no more than 5000: of these, Europeans were in the minority, numbering around 1000, mostly men – either “being paid handsome fees to come take up blocks of land, mining leases and so on just because they were white” or on wages that were the best in the world and loving their drink.
There were also about 1000 First Australians – “at all times being exploited by the ongoing influx of white men” (but denied access to drink, “fortunately for them”).
There were another 1000 of different ethnic backgrounds in the pearling industry, while the largest group were the Chinese, some 1500. The remainder were “the new phenomenon” of the NT, the mixed race people born as the result of “totally exploitative miscegenation”’, who were known at that time as half-castes.
Right: First Australian couple, Darwin 1912 (p 229).
It was the Chinese presence that led to the loss of political representation in the NT when the Commonwealth took over, says Mr Egan: “The Federal government could not tolerate the notion of a Chinese person who would have been elected in Darwin” – they weren’t going to have that under the White Australia Policy.
This policy was the evil of the time, he argues, and remains relevant to this day: “Because the smug, safe, luxurious lifestyle that we all enjoy is – we have got to acknowledge – based on the ethnocentrism of our ancestors of 100 years ago, who instated all these wage levels and conditions for white men only.
“Nowadays everybody comes here from different races and backgrounds and enjoys the same sets of conditions but that’s where it all started and that’s why we’re conservative, particularly around things like immigration, to this day.”
Into this mix (and the imminent war) came Gilruth, tall, arrogant, autocratic:”He didn’t suffer fools gladly but he was an esteemed scientist, arguably the best veterinary scientist in the world,” says Mr Egan.
He had left his native Scotland with high credentials, gone to New Zealand first until he was head-hunted for Melbourne University in 1909, establishing a world class veterinary faculty there.
In 1911 he was part of a four-man commission sent to the Territory to report back to the Federal government on its future potential. He focussed on the pastoral industry, which was already strongly established, and reported favourably on it. He accepted his appointment as its first Administrator on a “monumental salary,” with additional generous entertainment and travel allowances.
He immediately began to travel a lot and this incurred the wrath of the local newspaper. He was consistently reported badly in the NT Times and Gazette and this became the basis for the poor account given of him subsequently, argues Mr Egan.
Left: Local opposition to Gilruth reached a crescendo with the so-called Darwin Rebellion on 17 December 1918 (p 310). Mr Egan describes it more as a demonstration. At issue, following the nationalisation of hotels, the price of beer.
“There were no resident historians, no diary keepers of consequence, no letter writers of rogue renown, no television, no radio.
“What we have as so called history is largely the testament of Fred Thompson of the NT Times and Gazette and people like Dr [Harold] Jensen who to this day is quoted favourably as one of the great heroes of the NT and he was an unmitigated liar.”
Mr Egan writes of Jensen as a “capable geologist” but his socialist beliefs “took him constantly into realm of conspiratorial speculation about capitalist exploration and imperialist controls”.
This wasn’t limited to opining: he levelled serious charges against Gilruth that led to a first commission of inquiry, which eventually dismissed those charges for want of evidence.
A socialist government was in power nationally at the time, and it was assumed that Gilruth was anti-socialist and suspect in White Australia Policy matters.
However, Mr Egan says he constantly voiced his support for the White Australia Policy: “He was a strong, fit, active white man, with a strong, fit, active white wife and three quite lovely, white, fit, active children.”
His attitude was “I and my family will demonstrate that we can live here as comfortably as people of any race. If that’s the policy of the nation, we’ll show you how to do it.”
But it didn’t wash with the majority of the rest of the ‘superior’ race.
It’s a complex story with a complex man at the heart of it and Mr Egan weaves it across 400 pages (including a generous selection of archival photographs, many of them of excellent quality and interest).
The story is intricately bound up with many of the enduring strands of Territory history – race and gender relations as well as the grog shaping its economic, social and political development.
Mr Egan believes passionately that it should be taught in the Territory’s secondary schools: today’s young people would be amazed at how different things were prior to World War II and he thinks they should be enlightened.
“This is your 100 year old history, it happened in your regions, your towns, your district, exactly 100 years ago.”
Note: The book is available in bookshops or directly from Mr Egan, here.