Alan Kennedy recognises that Raymond Fitzpatrick and journalist Frank Browne were an unlovely pair, but what federal parliament did to them in 1955 was a scandal
In June 1955 two men, Bankstown businessman Raymond Fitzpatrick and journalist Frank Browne, went before the bar of the Australian parliament where they faced a charge of abuse of parliamentary privilege.
They are the only people in Australia’s history to have been brought there and so seriously did the parliamentarians see this breach of privilege, both men were jailed for three months. It was an extraordinary event, or it should have been, but it is a chapter in Australia’s history where the bare facts as outlined above have usually been where the story began and ended.
In June 1955, parliament exercised a right it has always had but which common sense says should never be exercised. Parliament showed it was above all the laws of habeas corpus, natural justice and trial by jury and just sent two blokes to the slammer for writing something they didn’t like. No court in the land could overturn this decision and if they had sent them to jail for life they would have stayed there.
Other legal avenues had been open, including defamation, but they were left untouched. At the time the then prime minister, Robert Menzies, solemnly told the parliament: “The degree to which this House preserves the freedom of its members to speak and to think will be the measure of democracy.”
Pious poppycock from the man who didn’t feel this freedom to speak extended to members of the Communist Party which he tried to ban, only to be thwarted by the High Court.
Reading Mr Big of Bankstown: The scandalous Fitzpatrick and Browne affair by Andrew Moore, you have to wonder why it has taken so long for there to be a book about the events leading up to June 1955. In it we find deep questions about freedom of speech and the abuse of power by parliamentarians.
Oddly enough, the breach involved a false story that the member for Reid in western Sydney, Charlie Morgan, was involved in an immigration scam. The story was written by Browne and published in Fitzgerald’s paper, The Bankstown Observer.
Morgan is described by author Moore as a "plodding backbencher" which is damning with faint praise. He ended up being on the wrong side of the rank and file in his electorate when he backed the Catholic "Groupers" in Labor's great schism of the mid '50s and was subsequently rolled by a young boxer and former POW called Tom Uren.
Apart from the beige figure of Morgan, the book is full of astonishing characters - not least the journalist Frank Browne.
While Fitzpatrick was shattered after his three months in Goulburn's jail, Browne parleyed his imprisonment into a quest for self-appointed martyrdom, pulling the cloak of free speech and free press around him and working it for all it was worth.
He had a point. Even now, reading about the process of dragging these blokes before parliament leaves you uneasy. It's proof of that old adage that when you're defending the right of free speech, you may find yourself defending some pretty odious characters.
Browne was seen as an outsider by the mainstream media, especially the tightly controlled Canberra press gallery which had its opinion leaders like Alan Reid. Browne published a news sheet called Things I Hear, which was known by everyone as "Things I Smear". In it he dropped buckets of smelly mud on all politicians.
It was a scurrilous rag, and when Browne was called before the bar of parliament he had no friends in the chamber and few friends in the media. The pollies lined up to give Browne a kicking and there was no media campaign howling at the thought of parliament imposing itself in such a dictatorial fashion. And while Fitzpatrick was a man of many criminal faults, in this he was really collateral damage.
Browne had an extreme right-wing bent; there is a picture of him in the book addressing a rally of the Australian neo Nazi party in the Domain in 1955. He was the party's self-appointed fuehrer. He spent the 1930s fighting the "Marxists" in Australia, writing at one stage "we are not afraid of the sight of our own blood provided it mingle with the blood of those planning national destruction."
He left Australia in the mid 1970s to go to what was then Rhodesia and fight with the whites against the black majority which wanted its land back. Moore says Browne returned complaining about the Somerset Maugham lifestyle of the whites, adding "the whites weren’t worth fighting for."
Browne remained a well-connected gadfly in Australia but also worked as a publicist for BHP, CSR and TNT. In 1981 he was found in a "squalid flat in Kings Cross that reeked of whisky" and he died the old journo death of cirrhosis of the liver.
Fitzgerald is a character who deserves a bigger place in the annals of the wild men of Sydney. A street-fighting roughnut who makes Queensland's white shoe brigade look like choirboys, he wheeled and dealed through the Bankstown area as the post-war property boom exploded and the area went from semi-rural to high-density living.
The tentacles of his corruption spread through into the police force and the NSW parliament, plus ça change. The lure of easy money from dodgy property deals is the leitmotif of Sydney and probably began as Governor Phillip was raising the Union Jack on Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788.
This book should have been written 40 years ago, but thank goodness it has been written now.
Apart from the parade of larger than life characters who strut this stage of post-war Sydney, there are the more serious issues of free press, free speech and the limits of parliamentary power. Back in 1955 we had an immigration scandal and Fitzpatrick starting his own newspaper to progress his interests. All sounds just too familiar, doesn't it?
Mr Big of Bankstown: The scandalous Fitzpatrick and Browne affair