On a wet and unusually warm Easter Saturday afternoon in 1979 a small group of hippies gathered in Kohinur Hall. Jim Nutter had put the word out that Bob Hawke wanted to speak to locals about the counterculture as research for his impending Boyer Lecture entitled The Resolution of Conflict.
Hawke was a gifted peacemaker, a vocation that requires great strength and the ability to listen. A small man, he had a powerful presence; he was a great listener and genuinely interested in people. And there he was, resplendent in shorts, a t-shirt and thongs, lying on the floor smoking a cigar, beer in hand while his daughter Ros rolled us joints from an ounce of black hash.
Light rain drummed the tin roof while we talked and he listened, asking the occasional question. He wanted to know the political attitudes of the hippies. But the more we tried a concise explanation of what we were doing, the more obvious was our lack of a plan. In retrospect perhaps we were trying to create an alternative society based on anarchist collectives, hippy communes where everyone was equal, everything was shared and the environment was protected.
Lots of people were dirt poor – few could get the dole and survived in poverty supplemented by growing marijuana. The people who arrived first to live in abandoned banana sheds and rundown farms were political refugees from the cities, who had grown up amid the popular uprising that ended the Vietnam War and the sacking of Whitlam.
Many had fled the tyranny of Joh Bjelke Petersen’s Queensland, a police state where a pound of marijuana could get you life in prison. Few non-Indigenous people live where they want; most are tied to work and family or dwell in a place out of habit, but the hippies thought this area a paradise and came by choice to the Rainbow Region to build a new world of peace and happiness. Widely regarded as drug-fucked bludgers, we were targeted by police as enemies of the state.
When Bob Hawke came to listen to us we didn’t have a realistic plan, but he was astute enough to see the start of a movement that wasn’t going away; he saw these people weren’t ignorant fools – they were bright disillusioned kids who wanted to change the world.
No-one in authority had listened to the freaks before and a mainstream politician wanting to talk seriously to us about our aspirations was the first stirring of the winds of change.
But time passes, the dream faded some, and life went on. People had kids and found work; for some drugs became a way of life. Properties were purchased and hippy communes evolved into multiple-occupancy properties.
The kids who had arrived here in kombis clutching warm copies of Lord of the Rings are now old and greying, many have died. The revolution didn’t happen and the new age didn’t materialise – but it did have an effect on Australian society that happened so slowly it was imperceptible. The changes are there and we are still here.
As dusk fell and we began to stir, Bob (then boss of the ACTU), asked a surprising question: did we think he should run for parliament?
Fuck yeah! You couldn’t lie on the floor smoking a joint with Malcolm Fraser. (Although when Jim Nutter offered him the joint, Bob politely declined pointing out that while he was sympathetic, he wasn’t in a position to join us.) He was so natural and unassuming with us it was hard to believe.
That afternoon I had a camera but it seemed that taking a photo would break the spell of casual intimacy. So I didn’t. I know that a photograph of Bob Hawke lying on the floor of Kohinur Hall, half-cut and jovial in a cloud of hashish smoke could be worth thousands. But I don’t regret it; it seemed important at the time.
That was Saturday; on the Monday he announced he would stand in the next federal election. The rest is history. And we even got a mention in the Boyer Lecture of 1979.
Vale, Bob Hawke, and thanks.