That’s Debatable: 60 Years in Print
by Tony Thomas
Connor Court, 2016, 246 pages, $29.95
Tony Thomas is either a born journalist or has worked to make himself a consummate master of the craft, or, as I suspect, both. One way or another he has a master’s touch seen too rarely nowadays.
Not only does his investigative work burrow far deeper than that rewriting of press handouts which often passes for journalism today, but like all masters of difficult skills, he makes it look easy. Further, he has a heavy battery of that often overlooked weapon, common sense.
He is, in fact, near the ideal of what a journalist ought to be and, perhaps, more often used to be. What has struck me most about his writing over the years, apart from the knowledge and research behind his work, is his gift for packing an enormous amount of information into the absolute minimum of words, while making the piece witty and entertaining (my mother used to paste some of his best features in a scrapbook). His piece on Biggles, unfortunately not included here, was one of many that could be called a classic of its kind.
Thus his great strengths are a rapier-like flashing wit, a professional’s taut style, and, backing up all his pieces when necessary, assembled heavy legions of facts—a great combination that we see far too rarely today. I cannot recommend the pieces in this book too highly as models for any aspiring journalist.
I first met Tony when I was a cadet reporter on the West Australian, and he, in addition to reporting assignments, was turning out a stream of feature pieces almost it seemed daily, all entertaining, all written with consummate skill. It is a pity that some more of these West Australian pieces, such as an interview with gorilla-like wrestlers and one on the kangaroo-paw souvenirs sold at the airport—both kangaroo-paw flowers and the chopped-off paws of kangaroos made into bottle-openers—have not been included.
He was always ready to share tricks of the trade with us cadets (we never saw the editor, Griff Richards, and probably wouldn’t have recognised him if we had). When I had my first major assignment—interviewing a senior visiting admiral—Tony went through my prepared list of questions with me, rephrasing them so as to encourage the most newsworthy answers (unfortunately, when the time came the admiral was incapably drunk).
Although now a thorn in the side of the Left, and particularly the greenies and eco-nuts, with his savage and unanswerable pieces in Quadrant and Quadrant Online, Tony came from a communist family and was a Young Communist in adolescence. I used to see his mother, still a red-hot red, at the West Australian Writers’ Fellowship, and though we were poles apart politically I respected her seriousness of purpose and her readiness to help young writers.
We were surprised when he left the West Australian to be an economics writer for the Age. The job seemed too dry and uncreative for his talents.
This book is a collection of pieces he has written over many years but of course the most topical are those he has written since his retirement for Quadrant and Quadrant Online. However, the earlier pieces on growing up red and of the Australian communist world of the time are of real historical interest.
He recalls from his Age days attending one lecture by Jim Cairns, who was then the federal Treasurer. With Junie Morosi squatting at his feet, gazing adoringly up at him, the Treasurer seriously proposed abolishing money, which would be replaced with love as the medium of exchange between human beings. The story was never filed because, Tony thought—probably correctly—no one would believe it.
A major theme of seven of the later pieces is the debunking of climate doom-mongers, with their panoply of scare-tactics and bad science. There are four pieces on the mythologising of Aboriginal life and especially the ghastly reality that Aboriginal women have endured. There is a probing investigation into “The Naughty Nation of Nauru” with its kleptocratic leadership, and the squandering of both its phosphate-derived wealth and Australian aid.
Tony’s years as an economics writer may have been valuable in tackling the anti-mining, anti-growth freaks and the bizarre energy-less utopias they prescribe, though it is truly alarming that, fake Nobel Prizes and all, many are taken seriously not merely in the media but in academe. “The Joy of Yurts and Jam-Jar Glassware” is truly Swiftian in its slashing demolition of pseudo-academic Luddite lunacy. As one who loves the Barrier Reef I was pleased to read his article putting its many predicted deaths in their place.
A quite alarming piece is on the feminisation of the military, and the feminist push to have women in front-line combat roles, so they can come home to their children in body-bags. Tony is, of course, able to quote a list of cases where this has already happened. Since women do not, as a rule, have the upper-body strength required for serving heavy guns or lifting wounded in a hurry out of burning tanks and aircraft, with 100 per cent failure-rate on some tests, required standards of strength are being lowered so women can pass. One British officer has described modern unisex infantry training as “aggressive camping”. I don’t think we have reached the point reported from Britain, where recruits are given cards to produce if their delicate nerves are jangled by drill-instructors bawling at them.
Mentioned briefly is the 2016 Australian of the Year, General David Morrison, with his transsexual aide, who seems more interested in promoting “diversity” than combat efficiency in the armed forces (Wikipedia indicates that this “hard-as-nails warrior”, who joined the army several years after Vietnam, may not have heard a shot fired in anger in his entire career). This essay goes with George Orwell’s observation that civilised men can only be civilised as long as rough uncivilised men guard them.
Thomas casts an informed, dispassionate eye on his own youth, growing up in a committed communist household, and the now-available documents of ASIO and the Communist Party (one ASIO agent infiltrated a party branch of just three members). It complements the memoirs of some disillusioned ex-ASIO agents as to the Keystone Cops element, hopefully now left behind, of the early days of the organisation. Yet one also gets the impression, reading this insider’s account, that the Communist Party, despite elements of farce and Carry On bedroom antics, at times had more real power and influence than any except perhaps its natural enemies on the Right gave it credit for.
What might be called the far Right gets a hammering too, with his account of covering police behaviour at a demonstration in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. The collection concludes with a nicely balanced and objective piece on his travels in America and the American conservative showman Glenn Beck.
Hal G.P. Colebatch lives in Perth. His book Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books), shared the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2014.