Lockout & Bastard Boys

Review article
Christopher Sheil

Lockout and Bastard Boys are welcome representations of two of the 20th century's epic Australian industrial confrontations: the 1929 lockout on the northern coalfields of New South Wales and the 1998 lockout on the waterfront. Separated by 70 years, unexpectedly, perhaps, these great clashes share much in common. Most obviously, both were overt attacks on unions that have traditionally been among the strongest and most well led in the country: the miners and waterside workers. Both confrontations also had the support of the conservative governments of the day, led by Stanley Bruce and John Howard respectively.

The epic status of the conflicts follows from the fact that unionism has been a natural feature of the mining and stevedoring industries since the 19th century. Major attacks on the mature foundations of unionism by employers acting in concert with governments inevitably carry connotations of attacks on the labour movement as a whole. Implicitly, if fully-committed stands by workers such as miners and wharfies can be broken, the field falls open to employers at large, at least in the short-term. Moreover, no part of the labour movement can stage a spectacle like an industry union. Because they are defined by place not craft, attacks on workers such as miners and wharfies also invariably amount to attacks on the surrounding communities. In watching these films in sequence, the continuity between how heavily families featured in both 1929 and 1998 is striking. Mass lockouts of these workers automatically meant a much larger mass of distressed families, who suddenly had little else to do than stick together and fight back.

Other continuities tumble. Although the financial position of the employers was central to the public justifications for both lockouts, in neither were their books opened. Both involved the recruitment of scab workforces. Both travelled up to the High Court. Both exhibited extraordinary instances of the deeply moving phenomenon of large-scale working-class solidarity against the nation's rich and powerful. And both are most commonly remembered by particular moments: the 1929 lockout for the Rothbury Incident, when police opened fire on several thousand protesting miners, fatally shooting Norman Brown and wounding dozens more; the 1998 lockout for the way that the wharfies were physically evicted from their posts near midnight in a paramilitary-style operation featuring security personnel with guard dogs.

Of course, there were also big differences. In 1929, some 10,000 miners were locked out for 15 months that ran straight into the Great Depression; in 1998, 2000 wharfies were locked out, and they only stayed that way for one month, during the then spluttering recovery from the 1990-91 recession. The difference in the physical scale and context of the two conflicts in these basic senses is in inverse proportion to their treatment in these two films. Lockout is less than one hour, Bastard Boys almost four.

Labour historians will have little trouble applauding Lockout. It is a superb piece of work. The story of the conflict is exceptionally well told, chiefly through the narration by the actor, Chris Haywood. The snappy script is interspersed with reflections from surviving participants, discrete and stylish re-enactments, and rich documentary reproduction, all mixed together with delightfully inventive graphics and sound accompaniment. The most impressive aspect of the film is the writing and editing. Absent of mawkish sentimentality and heavy-handed politics, the story is realistic and fast-paced, as it moves to its climax in what was known as the 'Battle of Rothbury', but which more closely resembled a massacre. The final three of the twelve parts into which the story is neatly divided are gripping. As with every good film about history, I was left hungry for more. I wondered, for instance, why no-one has written a great Australian novel about the post-Rothbury period, when the northern coalfields virtually lived under an official reign of terror, perhaps unparalleled since the convict period.

Non-laboured representations of labour history are always a surprising buzz. Yet the strength of Lockout lies in the clarity with which it conveys the major contours of the conflict. Presumably this owes much to the unpublished work of Alan Murray, who has closely researched the event and supplied a 40-page synopsis for the production. As one of the producers, Diane Michael, explained in Labour History, this virtue came at the cost of much detail and complexity about the relationships between government, business, unions and communities. By the end, for example, even the extremely attentive will be lucky to recall the name of the leader of the mining union.

Bastard Boys, in stark contrast, is fully focused on the leading figures in the 1998 conflict: the secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), John Coombs; the assistant secretary of the ACTU, Greg Combet; the chief of Patrick Stevedores, Christopher Corrigan; and the main lawyer on the union side, Josh Bornstein. Coombs is the central thread throughout, whereas each of the other three is given his own close treatment within one of the four hour-long parts. The fourth part reaches further down the ranks, but remains the story of a representative union organiser who discovers his capacity for leadership. Whereas Lockout largely relays history in the conventional third person with supporting documentation and illustration, Bastard Boys tells its story through portrayals of the experience of these select individuals at the conflict's apex.

It follows that historians will find Bastard Boys a much more problematic offering, although its achievements must be acknowledged. Even on a second viewing, the four-hour film is compelling. Extended dramatic representation of industrial conflict is such a rare species of Australian television that it comes as a mild shock to find the world of organised labour brought to life on the small screen. The script-writer, Sue Smith, and the ABC are to be congratulated for their courage in the production. Most valuable are the recreations of the Melbourne picket and the early morning confrontation with the police at East Swanson Dock, when Rothbury-like violence loomed until, poetically, the mining union arrived, with its amalgamated construction and forestry divisions, like the cavalry.

Crucially, however, the overriding aims of the two films are very different. Promptly embarrassing almost everyone depicted, Bastard Boys is principally a bid to contextualize the personal development of the leading individuals through their experience, to a degree that historians simply do not have much license, even if they had the talent. At a very early point, the script-writer and the actors cross-over from verifiable sources to purely imaginative recreation, a form more akin to the novel than the history book. In the long-run, historians may find the film most valuable for the way that it documents questions about the era, such as the difficulty in carrying the burdens of leadership while sharing responsibility for the care of a blended family; the tension between a passionate commitment to a working-class cause and middle-class expectations; the discomfort of workers standing on the shifting plates beneath the meaning of solidarity in the late 20th century; the obstinacy of an employer who refuses to 'get' labour history, and declares that he 'never will'. The film works best as social commentary within the context of the 1998 dispute, which is inferred far more than it is explained.

Otherwise, Bastard Boys is tricky fare, for its affiliation to historical truth is a runner-up to its determination to supply good television drama. A few examples will illustrate. 'Daffy Duck' was not the password into the hotel where the 'industrial mercenaries' had gathered to fly to Dubai. Herman Borenstein came up with the brilliant idea of taking the conspiracy action against the anti-MUA forces, not Bornstein. The crucial government document in the Federal Court hearing was not mysteriously faxed to Combet, but published by Pamela Williams in the Australian Financial Review (the featured prime ministerial letter approving the 'interventionist strategy' did not surface until well after the return to work). Corrigan did not offer his company to the union for a dollar, only the lease on Darling Harbour - slotted for closure since 1994 and carrying redundancy obligations that Patrick had refused to meet (the real context for the anachronistically so-called 'nick'). More generally, the representation of a falling-down drunk wharfie driving a giant portainer crane in Australia's most deadly workplace stretches credulity past breaking point; as does the scene where the members of one of the country's most disciplined unions bash the young organiser who politely asks them to stay off the drink.

On the other hand, Bastard Boys also contributes fresh information by having secured Corrigan's co-operation. Apparently the Patrick chief did fall off his motor-bike paying the toll on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, drunk after dinner with his long-time friend and associate at Bankers Trust, Rob Ferguson. Likewise, the conflict's obsessive mastermind really was unable to resist personally inspecting the pickets in a camouflaged vehicle. The depiction of the late Sunday night conference with the banking syndicate that stood behind the operation is also the first source to surface on this moment, and the only time in the film when Corrigan's renowned toughness and impatience are approached.

But wait, it gets trickier. For the first time, John Coombs is accurately credited with coining the term 'industrial mercenaries' to describe the Dubai mission. The heading was not spontaneously inspired at the press conference as represented, but the mission's public exposure was nevertheless one of the two operational masterstrokes in the MUA's resistance. The due credit flits by, which goes to my main quibble within the film's own terms. Overall, the central character is portrayed as even more likeable than he really was; but somehow Coombs's stature in the conflict is also overlooked. Notionally the hero of the whole story, he slides by too easily, underplayed by about as much as he was underestimated by the authorities in the event. Coombs was only the 7th national leader of the waterside workers, following what perhaps most closely resembles a royal labour lineage: Tas Bull, Norm Docker, Charlie Fitzgibbon, Jim Healy, and two from the union who became prime ministers before them. A less folksy approach to the qualities embodied by the MUA's leader may have yielded large gains.

Still, this takes us into zones where historians have barely ventured yet, let alone settled. For all the media and propaganda at the time, none of the major issues associated with 1998 have been closely researched. The accomplishment of Lockout was simply not available to the producers of Bastard Boys. Stranded between the dark alleys and ambiguities that still surround the dispute's contours and details alike, Sue Smith stuck to what she does best; exploring emotional development in a story that is in one way or another all about heroes. Given this theme, incidentally, it is beyond this reviewer how any filmmaker focused 'on the waterfront' could resist an allusion between the solace Combet found in his finches and that which Marlon Brando received from his pigeons.

Finally, in what is perhaps an occupational hazard in the movie business, both films claim to depict events that changed the nation. Certainly the conflicts had many and complex consequences, particularly for those directly involved. But the enduring triumph on both occasions was that, despite the awesome level of pressure that was applied, neither union was busted. The miners negotiated their settlement from a position of weakness outside the gates, whereas the wharfies settled from a much stronger position back on the job. Regardless, both unions quickly resumed their historical tasks of protecting and improving the lives of the workers they so ably represented. Imagine if they had been busted, permanently. Now that would have really changed the nation.


Dr Christopher Sheil, a Fellow in the School of History and Philosophy at the University of New South Wales, is the President of the Evatt Foundation. Lockout, Lockout Productions, DVD, 2007, 50 mins; Bastard Boys, ABC DVD, 2007, 220 mins (two discs). This review is reproduced with permission from Labour History, 94, May 2008, pp. 205-208.


See also:

War on the wharves

Suggested citation
Sheil, Christopher, 'Lockout & Bastard Boys', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, March 2009.<http://evatt.org.au/papers/lockout-bastard-boys.html>