Perhaps I was the only person in Oz watching this yesterday…

Pre-Cricket I watched all 225 minutes of the 1984 Australian classic TV drama Waterfront. Well worth the time; indeed I will probably watch it again in the next couple of weeks.


When I mentioned borrowing the DVD from Wollongong Library on 22 November I wrote:

Set in late 1920s Melbourne, WATERFRONT begins with the Waterside Workers’ Union refusing to abide by the award-conditions handed down with the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. The waterfronts of Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne are effectively shut down. Nationalist Party Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce, authorizes legislation permitting the employment of non-union labour on the wharves and the shipping bosses respond by hiring newly arrived Italian immigrants desperate for work. These ‘scabs’ face expected bitter resentment by the Union as well as shameful and overt racial intimidation and abuse…

There is a Wollongong connection in that the screenplay is by Mac Gudgeon; see my June 2015 post The Secret River revisited….

More on Mac Gudgeon from Australia’s audiovisual heritage online:

A fascinating moment in the history of Australia, played by some of Australia’s great actors during the burgeoning film and television drama years of the 1980s. Jack Thompson, Noni Hazlehurst and Greta Scacchi have all continued to make terrific films and television series over the years since, but there’s something really sparkling about how they play off each other in this timeless miniseries. It’s a combination of great performances, tight direction and a terrific script.

Mac Gudgeon knew about the world of the wharfies because he’d worked on the wharves while on the run as a draft resister in the late 1960s. He’d had to keep moving about the country and one of the few places where he could work with no questions asked was the waterfront. The wharfies told him stories about the 1928 strike and he carried the idea of a film around in his head for a decade. He finally returned from the States to write it as a feature film when he heard that the Australian film and television industry was taking off. It was his first script.

And from the same source:

The series cleverly intercuts events in Turin in Mussolini’s Italy, where fascist Blackshirts use violence to intimidate any opposition, with events in Australia where the economic depression is just beginning to bite. The wharfies union is fighting the shipowners who are backed by the conservative Federal government of Stanley Melbourne Bruce.

Chris Thompson, the director of the miniseries, is a Melbourne-based writer, director, teacher and artistic director. He’s written for theatre, film and television. He won AWGIEs in 1997 and again in 2003 with Young Audiences Awards. In Waterfront he cast many of Melbourne’s comedians in straight roles: thus the character Allan, Max’s young wharfie mate is played with élan by the comedian Mark Little.

One aspect of Waterfront that fascinated me was its presentation of the Italian characters  — much dialogue in Italian – and of Australian attitudes towards them, much of which I could recognise even in my own lifetime. It is worth reading the Wikipedia article Italian Australians. One small item counters what I had thought:

By Italian Government estimates, fully two-fifths of its emigrants to Australia were from the Veneto and another two-fifths were drawn from the Piedmont, Lombardy and Tuscany regions. Only one-fifth were from Sicily and Calabria.

I like to think script writer Mac Gudgeon may have picked up some of his undoubtedly deep knowledge of Italian Australians here in The Gong, a great place to have done so in the 60s and 70s. See the Virtual Museum of ITALIAN IMMIGRATION IN THE ILLAWARRA.

The Melbourne Matteotti Club features in the movie. Research on this and so many aspects of the era was clearly first-rate.

Then of course there is the 1928 waterfront dispute, particularly in Melbourne. See Strikes (eMelbourne) and a detailed article, though more focused on Port Adelaide, is Wallace Budd, Australian Police in the Natonal Waterfront Riots 1928-1931. Budd is Chief Superintendent (Ret’d) South Australian Police Force.

The WWF demanded traditional wages to unload ships in the Nation’s ports.  The ship owners offered less.  The Communist Party exploited this situation and offered itself as an alternative political body to govern the country.  Mr Ben Chifley, who became a Labour Prime Minister in 1945, warned Labour men in his Bathurst constituency during 1931: ‘ No more evil force has entered Australian politics and social life than Communism.  It is entirely devoid of spiritual significance, and is calculated to shatter the finest ideals of any country into which its malicious influence enters.’

In September 1928 a new Award handed down earlier by Mr Justice George S. Beeby [later Chief Judge] in the Arbitration Court came into operation.  Under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 – 1928, provision was made for the imposition of heavy penalties in the event of any person or organisation being guilty of any act regarded as contempt of Court, such as not complying with an award.  Shipping circles throughout Australia decided there was every likelihood that the first test of this would be applied following the proclamation of the amended Arbitration Act.  A serious and widespread maritime upheaval was certain once the ‘Beeby Award’, as it was known, became operative.

From a rather different perspective: Paddy Garrity, When police shot Anzacs.

On November 2, 1928, Victorian police shot and wounded four waterfront unionists on Princes Pier. One of these men, Allan Whittaker, died three months later from his wound. No police officer was ever charged over any of these deaths.

Newspaper reports about the 1928 shooting at Princes Pier demonstrate clearly that Melbourne’s press decided to cover up the shooting. One-sided journalism also helped attempts by shipowners and conservative politicians to smash Melbourne’s waterfront union. Similar to the attempt in 1998!

Despite requests from the Australian Council of Trade Unions and concerned organisations, no public inquiry was ever held into the shootings. The only inquiry into this event was an internal police one but the results have never been released to the public.

Police named ringleaders of an alleged riot, which they claimed forced them to shoot. No waterside worker was ever questioned or charged over the mythical riot. The media also never queried this.

Waterfront scabs were praised in the press, while locked-out unionists with starving families were painted as thugs.

The Age claimed 2000 workers attacked 27 police officers on duty at the end of Princes Pier. The Herald only counted 1500 workers. At a coroner’s inquest, Mounted Constable James Alexander Graham stated under oath that no more than 200 to 300 workers “ran around” the police guarding the end of the pier, chasing 200 scabs.

The media did not disclose that three of the four workers shot that day — Jim Nagle, James Williams and Allan Whittaker — were actually ANZAC veterans from WWI.


Victorian Premier at the time was Labor’s Ned Hogan. He also features in the movie.

He came into office on 20 May, holding 28 of 65 seats in the assembly, but supported by Albert Dunstan and the Country Progressive Party. He was known as a (John) ‘Wren man’, and allegedly consulted Wren before finalizing his ministry. As well as premier Hogan was treasurer and minister of markets and did much during his six months term to initiate new policy and legislation, especially in rural matters. Sir Frederic Eggleston said of him that with the economic decline he ‘had to shed the revolutionary and become an Irish peasant’. He supported a compulsory wheat pool and arranged for a growers’ ballot in May 1928; the proposal was narrowly defeated. He represented Victoria at the 1927 Premiers’ Conference in Sydney which agreed to new financial arrangements between the Commonwealth and State governments and the establishment of the Loan Council. In November 1928 his government, having lost the support of the Country Progressive Party by the introduction of a redistribution bill, was defeated on its handling of the Melbourne waterside workers’ strike. However, the McPherson ministry collapsed in October 1929 and at the subsequent election Labor won thirty seats. Hogan carried a no confidence motion and formed a government on 12 December.

Finally, a fascinating news item from the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October 1928, bearing on the violence often against Italians seen as “scabs”, as portrayed in the movie.

Of interest: Chris McConville, Melbourne Crime: From War to Depression, 1919-1929.