Crime Scene: MATTHEW CONDON All Fall Down. Reviewed by Annette Hughes
Courage and humanity are at the heart of this final volume about corruption in Queensland.
Matthew Condon’s brilliant final instalment of his Three Crooked Kings trilogy, All Fall Down, was launched at the Queensland State Library. The building is a relatively recent addition, along with GOMA, to Brisbane’s Southbank cultural complex, just about the only untarnished legacy of the Bjelke-Petersen regime. As people arrived, a black helicopter buzzed the forecourt, making several passes, leaving guests to wonder if it was only a coincidence. The gathering comprised ex-cops, politicians, lawyers and journalists, many of whom had risked their lives to blow the whistle on police corruption in Queensland, the ‘Moonlight State’ of Chris Masters’s explosive 1987 ABC Four Corners report, and to give evidence to the subsequent Fitzgerald Inquiry. There was an edge of apprehension in the air.
Six years ago, Matthew Condon, better known as a novelist, began work on the massive project to recall that dark time in Queensland’s psyche and to try to shape it into a coherent narrative.
The trilogy, All Fall Down and its prequels Three Crooked Kings and Jacks and Jokers, is at once a master work of true crime, a significant work of history, and a highly accomplished work of literary narrative non-fiction. With consummate skill, Condon applies all his powers as a novelist to recreate a time and place and animate the people caught up in its events.
All history is imagined through a prism – through the point of view of its author – and that idea is foregrounded in this book. Condon remains completely invisible in the narrative but, as author, is nonetheless omniscient. What he reveals to the reader is selected from thousands of hours of interviews, court evidence, police diaries and the extensive personal journal of Terry Lewis (one-time Commissioner of Police). Condon juxtaposes encounters with bouncers, barmen, hookers and cops, inquiry evidence, newspaper articles, coroners’ reports and charge sheets, and miraculously makes it seem to unfold organically. The timing is measured and beautifully paced to keep the reader totally hooked.
The three volumes, and in particular All Fall Down, offer a kaleidoscopic collage of points of view, and central to them all is that of Terry Lewis, henchman of Bjelke-Petersen’s paternalistic and, as it turns out, corrupt government. There have been other articles and books on the subject, and each selects from the same pool of information for different audiences. Newspapers select for salacious detail; memoirists – both published and unpublished – cherrypick to back up their own versions of events, but now, with distance and the time for reflection and to consider all sides of the story, Condon’s triumph in this work is his capacity to select for the human stories buried under the weight of all that evidence.
All Fall Down pays particular attention to the discredited and demoralised straight cops who were for a long time silenced by the systemic corruption but who risked their careers – and some their lives – to blow the whistle on the Joke, the all-encompassing network that distributed protection money to corrupt officers in the force. Beginning with prostitute Shirley Brifman in volume one and perfected here, Condon’s character studies transform the two-dimensional clichés of hooker, junkie and knock-about cop into individuals with hopes, dreams, hearts and minds and, most of all, agency. These almost tender portraits of heroic, ordinary people give the work its depth and texture and counter Lewis’s own obsessive-compulsive construction of himself in the minutiae of his diary.
The book is also very tightly structured. The timeline of All Fall Down is the core of a steadily intensifying storm. As the screening of Chris Masters’s Four Corners report approaches, tension mounts and the emotional pressure on all the players ramps up as more and more strands are pulled into the vortex of evidence of corruption. All the seemingly disparate stories left hanging in volumes one and two are drawn into the maelstrom. Then, as in the eye of a cyclone, when Tony Fitzgerald hands down his report and Terry Lewis is sent to jail for his sins, everything appears calm; the bad guys are found out, dealt their come-uppance and Queensland can get on with building itself into a sleek modern state and forget about that nasty, silly business. ‘Don’t you worry about that,’ as Joh would have said.
But that is not the end of this story. Corruption did not magically disappear just because one scapegoat was offered up for slaughter.
Condon takes the reader inside, to Boggo Road Prison and the inner life of Terry Lewis. This section of the book is the most remarkable. The sheer banality of prison life is writ large in Lewis’s diaries, which he continues to keep with autistic precision but which now include his dream life. Lewis has been almost an automaton till this point, but now, stripped bare to the bone of all the trappings of power and influence, his story becomes positively Shakespearean. He is Lear – betrayed, isolated and pathetic.
Perhaps it was that so many had so recently crawled out of poverty that they were so readily corruptible. Lewis emerged from a broken family and hardship in Ipswich; disgraced public servant Ian Callaghan, who was caught with his wife spending public funds on himself, had been a poor boy, too. Almost everyone was, back then. Brisbane was a small town frantically engaged in crawling out of the Depression into the post-war reconstruction boom. In 1965, the tallest building in town was still the City Hall clock tower. Ten years later, there were long-haired students on the streets. The city and the way it got things done seemed to change overnight. What had grown out of the clearly demarcated sectarianism – the organising principle for business and government till the mid-1960s – was by the 1970s a complex web of connection.
In one short decade, all that tradition built up over generations of mates doing each other favours, putting in a good word with a nudge here and a secret handshake there, vanished because young people refused to join those clubs. Suddenly Catholic churches were being deserted in droves, the Masons were in decline and their joint grasp of control began to wane. By the time the right to protest became an issue in the wake of the Springbok tour, Lewis’s whole generation was reeling from the times that were a changin’. Punk music blared from the bleak suburbs, women would not stay home and a massive property boom was creating a new social class awash with cash. The white-shoe brigade, with its spectacular lack of respect for ‘tradition’ had no qualms about greasing the right palm for advantage, catching a late show at the World by Night after dropping a few lazy grand at the races or a game or two on Bellino’s casino tables.
Condon makes the brilliant observation that ‘corruption runs like a tank stream’ beneath the state and its police, conjuring the idea that Australia’s particular brand of cronyism and payola began with the Rum Corps and has been in place since the late 18th century, spreading like a cancer from Sydney to the other states. Three Crooked Kings draws clear links between the shadier characters of the Sydney police force and their Brisbane counterparts. Jacks and Jokers further reveals the depth and extent of the entrenched police protection racket operated by senior members of the licensing branch. But vice and prostitution are only the most obvious lucrative tentacles of state regulation, and All Fall Down, twice as long as each of the previous volumes, looks at the corrupt interaction between the judicial and political systems so interlaced with policing. Given that Lewis oversaw all police departments, it is reasonable to wonder if there was a similar Joke (‘drink’ in Sydney parlance) operating in the manner of Neddy Smith’s Green Light to commit armed robs? What about the CIB? Homicide? Fraud? Customs and Excise?
While Lewis records his nightmares and tends the prison store, life on the outside goes on. The Queensland police force remains on the beat and despite the removal of its Commissioner, a dark cloud still shrouds certain of its departments. Perhaps emboldened by the outcome of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, formerly intimidated police emerge from the ranks to voice their evidence as All Fall Down continues its inquiry into the state’s systemic corruption and adds a few of its own terms of reference.
Bagman Jack Herbert’s damning evidence pertained to licensing branch corruption, but that was not the only department in which files went missing, where honest officers were moved on and saw their investigations dropped. One of the most challenging issues to emerge here is the disappearance of sensitive files and the quashing of investigations into paedophilia within the Juvenile Aid Bureau, Terry Lewis’s own department, which he headed under Frank Bischof.
Prostitution, drugs and illicit gambling are not the only income streams available to protection racketeers. Another very lucrative income, especially in a prudish, buttoned-down, bible-bashing place like Queensland, is blackmail. Incriminating, or simply scandalous dirt on influential people can be traded not just for money, but also power and influence. In addition to Bubbles Bath House and the plethora of other similar heterosexual establishments were houses like Brett’s Boys, where a gentleman could satisfy his heart’s desire.
On the day the new Cultural Centre building was opened in 1985, a debate was raging in Parliament about the fate of children’s TV presenter ‘Constable Dave’ Moore, who had allegedly appeared in ‘compromising’ photographs with underage boys. Wild rumours circulated about who else was in the photos and the scandal could not be contained. An embarrassed Glasson, the police minister at the time, was caught on the back foot and was furious with Lewis when he realised that he had not been fully briefed by his Commissioner. Lewis protected Moore. They had appeared together on the children’s television show Wombat talking about stranger danger and Moore had become incredibly popular, generating much kudos for Lewis and positive PR for the force. Lewis’s excuse is that he thought the issue would ‘blow over’, but Opposition Police Spokesman Wayne Goss smelled a rat, accusing Lewis of burying the case. This proved to be the beginning of the end for Lewis.
Did Lewis bury it? If so, why would he risk his career to protect a lowly senior constable like Moore, who was eventually retried and found guilty two years later? What price would a corrupt Commissioner of Police put on such a risk? Or, did someone have more on Lewis than money could buy? Perhaps it is time to dig up the files on all those cold cases and take a close look at them, if indeed they can be found. All Fall Down makes no allegations. It simply lays out the cards as fate deals them. Readers must look for patterns and draw their own conclusions. There are just as many open-ended questions in volume three as there are in one and two, suggesting that vigilance has to be ongoing if we want to prevent corruption from festering again.
But it is a difficult ask. Whistleblowers are still considered enemies of the state. Snowden and Assange and Chelsea Manning are pilloried by the mainstream media for pointing out the criminal excesses of the state, when they should be lauded as heroes of the people. They are our last defence against the dark forces of corruption and cronyism. Queensland, found to be corrupt both vertically (all the way into the cabinet room) and horizontally (right across the public service) was just a close-up iteration of the convergence of interest between the state and big business everywhere, all the time. This book is a tribute to those brave people who withstood the psychopathology of the system. Their courage and humanity is the beating heart of All Fall Down.
Matthew Condon All Fall Down UQP 2015 PB 584pp $32.95
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