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July 10th 2017 print

Tony Thomas

Deadline Missed by 50 Years

A young reporter of literary bent is sent in the late Sixties to cover a council meeting, subsequently filing an account that, much to the amazement of the chief sub, invokes Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua’. Spiked in 1967 and only recently re-discovered,  it deserves a run

reporter IIIMany journalists keep their scrapbooks of articles for inordinate periods. When cleaning out a cupboard, I found a volume of mine from The West Australian in the 1960s, the pages  browned with age.

Something unusual fell out, a “copy sandwich” of a story of July 1, 1967, that never got published. In those days we wrote each sentence on a separate half-page A5, so the subs could trim the story to length by throwing away pages. The stack of pages was called a sandwich.

On the top page was a note from the Chief of Staff, Viv Goldsmith: “Tony Thomas – see me about features and news cover (guideline for the future).”

Notes starting “See me” are seldom preludes to positive feedback.  Strangely, the story had traversed the sub-editors’ table and even acquired a note to the hot-metal compositors, “Urgent”. This sub-editor was a moron, turning   my choicest bon mots into the English of phone books and railway time-tables.

I suspect the chief sub had, in a spasm of caution, referred the sandwich upstairs to the editor, who sent it  down to the Chief of Staff with advice to counsel me against levity and disrespect in news reporting.

My aborted story is about a fiery meeting between the semi-rural Armadale-Kelmscott Shire Council and 500 of its electors. The council had summonsed and fined many of them for allegedly neglecting  their firebreaks. The electors had activated some clause in the shire’s constitution to hold their councillors to account.

To set the scene, you probably know that Perth sits on the coastal plain and 30km to the east,  running north-south, are the lightly-settled Darling Ranges, rising to 600m. They’re not exactly the Alps. Armadale-Kelmscott is one of the hillside districts. I probably reported this meeting with special avidity because I  lived  on a half-acre nearby, on Gooseberry Hill.

The sandwich shows signs of poor typewriter hygeine. Each letter ‘r’ falls half below the line and the ‘r’s’ stem is missing, leaving only a mark like a tilde or curly hyphen. But no-one in Newspaper House ever kicked me about my r’s.

Will I ever get round to the story? Here goes:

 Next Best Thing to the Stake

We don’t burn unpopular bureaucrats [subbed to read “we don’t burn people”] at the stake any more, but an electors’ meeting is the next best thing.

The smell of roasting councillors wafted through the Armadale Hall as 500 ratepayers asked questions and said things about last month’s mass fining of firebreak defaulters.

All the Armadale-Kelmscott councillors attended, sitting in a row before the velvet curtains and red drapes of the antique hall. The only cheerful one was Mrs Julie Bethell, who had been elected after the council’s fining sortie.

At 8 pm the meeting opened with the force of a wet match. President P. Kargotich announced that the sound-recording crew (who had decorated the fore-stage with teeming lianas of wires) had forgotten their microphones. Someone was speeding back to Perth (20 miles) to get them. The meeting would start when he got back.

This was like lashing the lions before the Roman games. The packed hall rumbled with discontent for 35 minutes. Some young blades started slow hand-clapping.

“Order,” shouted the microphone-less president.

“Time!” counter-shouted an angry woman.

At 8.45pm a runner panted   entered into the cheering hall carrying a box of microphones. The meeting started with a history of the controversy from the president, read fast and level. Then he called for questions and suggestions from the audience.

Here a misunderstanding arose. The shire thought the meeting had been called so that people could make sensible suggestions about how to reduce fire hazards in future. Most of the ratepayers thought the purpose of the meeting was to do the council over. This misunderstanding was never fully resolved.

The microphone fiasco was grist to the mill. Mr Kargotich disclaimed responsibility; Mr Hugh Leslie, of Kelmscott, said the equipment should have been tested long before the meeting started.

“What is wrong is the shire council, and the whole body of it,” he said, after giving a different history of the fining. “If you can’t lead, then get out and let someone in who can. And if they can’t, we will kick them out.”

Later, there was some confusion between Mr Kargotich and a red-headed youth from the sound crew about whose turn it was in the audience for a microphone.

“You’re an employee of the meeting, not running it,” Mr Kargotich said peremptorily.

Mr Chandler, of East Cannington, rose soon after.

“The way you treated that man gives an idea of how you treat employees…” he began.

Mr Kargotich (divining that this speaker may not be friendly):“Are you an elector?”

Chandler: “I’m a ratepayer.”

Kargotich: “Are you an elector?”

Chandler: “I am not of the district.”

Kargotich: “Well, will you sit down.”

Chandler: “I am being fined. Does that give me the right to speak?”

Loud cheering from the hall, and Mr Chandler spoke on.

Things got so hot after a while that Mr Kargotich had to remind a woman speaker that her remarks about a council employee were going on record and she might regret it if she continued (he was referring to the laws of slander).

Near the end of the meeting, the crisis point arrived, with a motion from an impassioned Mrs Mann of Roleystone that the whole council resign. Her family had collected seven summonses, reduced by the council later to one. The motion came unexpectedly, rather like the baby that popped out of Gargamelle’s left ear.

[At the time I was doing post-grad English literature at UWA, where I would have picked up this bit of anatomical fancy in Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua’ of 1550. In that pre-Google era, I must have had the book handy].

Mrs Mann first objected to the ‘bombastic’ manner of the chairman, Mr Kargotich. She thought he was paid by ratepayers and should be nice to his employers. Mr Kargotich said he drew no salary.

“What do the 3 per cents go to then?” she demanded.

Mr Kargotich explained that legally, this money could be spent at the council’s discretion, and his shire spent only half of it, and that half, on worthy ends.

“I was told that at each council meeting cigarettes were passed around. Is this little enjoyment from the 3 per cents?” she asked meaningly.

Shouts to “Siddown!” came from around the hall.

“I would like to see the whole council resign,” she finished.

This took everyone aback, but Mr Kargotich, unruffled, asked if she wished to move a motion. She did.

Mr Carlson, of Roleystone, tried vainly to cancel the motion, arguing that a vote against the council would be dangerous and that a vote for the council would be seized on by the council as evidence of popular support.

“If passed, the motion would be considered by ourselves,” Mr Kargotich said. “We make the decision.”

After a short speech or two against the motion, it lost by about 450-50.

Our next electors’ meeting on July 7 concerns Paul Ritter and the Perth City Council. I advise the council to look to its microphones.   Ends sandwich.

Understandably, I wasn’t assigned to report that Perth council meeting, a pity as it sacked its town planner, Mr Ritter, soon afterwards. Ritter gazumped the council by getting elected to it  for 16 years. He was runner-up as Perth citizen-of-the-year in both 1974 and 1976 but  got a three-year stretch in 1986 for a dodgy application for a Commonwealth export grant. Doing time is an occupational hazard for Perth celebrities.

Well, that ends my trip down memory lane. Reporting council meetings in those days was at least a step up from reporting the Magistrate’s Court.  The West’s policy was to include particulars of old lags who ‘committed a nuisance’ in the lanes of our fair city.

I’ve just realised: it’s the 50th anniversary of when I wrote the firebreak story. Spooky!

In this month’s Quadrant, Tony Thomas writes about Menzies’ affection for price-fixing cartels.