Geelong Advertiser, Saturday, 19 May 2007, p. 33
The ABC was at its very best this week when it ran Bastard Boys over two nights on Sunday and Monday. This dramatic story loosely based on the events of the battle on the Australian waterfront in 1998 has been praised by Philip Adams and panned by right-wing media critics, and by named people played by actors in the program, including Chris Corrigan, Bill Kelty (who has threatened to sue the ABC over his portrayal in the film), John Coombs and Josh Bornstein, one of the lawyers involved. The production must have something going for it when it generates that amount of interest and abuse.
Kelty claims he forced the ABC to tell viewers it was fiction. If that claim is true then it is very worrying that the ABC caved in to his demand. It is a bit like the ABC’s refusal to publish Chris Masters’ Jonestown for fear of legal action by the Sydney shock-jock, Alan Jones. The ABC should not have to tell viewers whether a program is history or fiction. The viewers should make that decision for themselves.
Chris Corrigan thought it was boring, stereotyped, left-wing propaganda, which failed to address the impact of the union recalcitrance and rorting by the waterfront workers on the people of Australia. Yet Corrigan’s arguments were all presented and he comes through as a determined character with a clear agenda and he wins the war in the end as the unions are forced to surrender the terms and conditions they had won over many years.
For dramatic effect characters have been simplified, events truncated or invented to make the story zing along. Corrigan is summoned to meet his bankers late on a Sunday evening. Under the threat of foreclosure on his debts he loses the plot completely, cursing and criticising the faceless men whose narrow perspective is undermining their own and Australia’s best interests, according to Corrigan. His minder takes him outside to calm him down and to get him to reconsider. But the defiant Corrigan returns and calls the bankers’ bluff. ‘Do your worst’, he tells them, which means he must settle with Coombs and the Maritime Union of Australia or go under. At the last moment, Greg Combet persuades Coombs that he must tell the truth to his members that the rorts and the security of employment will have to go. So the union survives, but its wings have been clipped and the union movement in Australia has been further weakened.
Now the decline of union membership is not just an Australian trend and the waterfront dispute was just one incident in a long rearguard action, which is not over yet. The forthcoming election is already seeing all the old claims about union power over the Labor Party being trotted out, despite the evidence to the contrary. Bastard Boys is available on DVD and it would repay close watching by anyone interested in the issues at stake when capital and labour collide. Though some of its characterisations may be shallow and some issues are skated over briefly and not all are presented at exactly the same length, there is more balance and more thought-provoking material in this dramatic fiction than in many works of history. And it is a student of history who is saying that.