Soapbox Speakers

‘Spare a thought for the shorthand writers.’ Intelligence gathering in the Domain.

An article by Steve Maxwell.

Victor Zammit’s article about ASIO reminds me that before ASIO (Australia’s Intelligent Service) came into existence, intelligence gathering depended on police shorthand writers. They were there in the audience to take notes and intimidate the speakers. Of course, it tested the skill of the shorthand writer.

For example, Billy Hughes (Australian Prime Minister 1916-20) spoke on the Domain expounding socialism through Labor education. In Hughes’ memoirs he recalled one bystander asking a speaker, “What is this ‘ere evolution?” The reply was “Evolution is a disintegration of matter and a concomitant definite, incoherent homogeneity to a coherent, definite heterogeneity, and during which the continued motion undergoes a parallel transformation.”

Try writing that in shorthand!

However, the shorthand writer had to taken seriously. During WWI, Donald Grant (later Senator Grant) from the radical labour organisation, ‘Industrial Worker of the World’, was recorded in shorthand by police spies as saying: “For every day Barker is in jail it will cost the capitalists ten thousand pound.” These are fifteen of the most famous words spoken on the Domain. They cost Donald Grant the sentence of one year in jail for each word uttered.

You might be wondering what happened to free speech in the Domain. During World War I Billy Hughes (Australian Prime Minister 1916-20) introduced the War Precaution Act, limiting freedom of speech.

Stan Moran, communist and Treasurer of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia, joined forces in the Domain with Rupert Lockwood, a left-wing intellectual and journalist. Their comic repartee on the platform made them popular. At one meeting Stan Moran was asked why Salvation Army girls were refusing to ride on the Sydney trams on a Sunday. Stan replied that the trams “shook the Christ out of them“. This statement earned him a summons before a Magistrate. Stan would never pay fines on principle, and became a familiar figure in Long Bay jail. He had a considerable score of convictions, 37 altogether. Police used every known by-law of the Domain to get him out of the place.

By the 1990’s police surveillance in the domain was irregular, and shorthand was no longer used. The police only acted on complaints. 

In that same decade the hated Neo-Nazis were reported for using offensive language, and that was the last time Neo-Nazis held a regular meeting on the Domain with their star speaker, “The Skull”. The Skull was a tall, imposing, muscular man who earned his name by having a bald head. He dressed in a Nazi storm trooper uniform.

Hecklers would verbally attack The Skull on the platform, saying things like “Hitler was so brave he had to take cyanide and shoot himself at the same time just to make sure he was dead!” The Skull would swing around and get into an awful rage. But the crowd loved it.

Sometimes speakers would stop visiting the Domain as a kind of self- imposed silence. One such speaker “The Water Man”, Allen Kesser, got into awful trouble, not in the Domain, but by whistleblowing. In 2003 he wrote two reports on Sydney Airport security, which included, among other things, information about drug trafficking and airport security passes which had been given to illegal immigrants and to people with criminal convictions.

The reports were buried, but resurfaced two years later in 2005 when they were leaked to ‘The Australian’ newspaper. Allan Kesser was accused of whistleblowing and sentenced to a nine-month suspended term. The leak led to an inquiry, which resulted in a $220 million upgrade in airport security. To my knowledge Kesser never spoke about his report on the Domain.

Victor Zammit, Billy Hughes, Donald Grant (WWI), Stan Moran, Rupert Lockwood, ‘the Skull’ neo-nazi, Allen Kesser (whistlebower). All of these characters are on the net. Check them out. It makes interesting reading.

Steve Maxwell. plnsteve@gmail.com

For Victor Zammit’s article, click here.

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