Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2012

The Tower Mill (2012), by James Moloney

It’s probably hard for Generation X and Y to imagine just how different the 1970s felt for those who lived through that tumultuous period.  After the torpor of the 1950s and 60s, grassroots activism achieved all kinds of momentous reforms in Australia and around the world.  Public protest stopped the Vietnam War, put the environment on the agenda, demanded abortion law reform, equal rights for women, and nuclear non-proliferation.  It was an exciting time, and a time when ordinary citizens felt that they could make a difference to public policy.

In Australia in 1971, all but forgotten now, university students staged massive demonstrations against the Springbok Rugby Tour in protest against the apartheid regime in South Africa.  In Queensland,  the all-powerful rule of State Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a State of Emergency for ten days and things turned very nasty indeed with police violently attacking peaceful protestors with batons.

To the astonishment of the rest of Australia, the government was re-elected by an electorate that seemed either blind to, or supportive of the curtailment of civil liberties in that state.   Street protests were subsequently made illegal without an impossible-to-get permit, and there were further incidents of police acting with impunity against any dissenters.  It took far too long before the ABC Four Corners program exposed the corruption in Queensland and the Fitzgerald Inquiry in 1987 led to the downfall of a government that had ruled by gerrymander with the tacit approval of a deeply conservative electorate.

James Moloney has woven these events into an intriguing family drama.  Tom, a young lawyer returning home from the UK to the funeral of his father in Brisbane, has a family history that was forged on the night of the Springbok Rugby Tour protest.   He travels with the man he calls Dad, to meet up with his biological mother whom he calls Susan to sort out long-unfinished business.   Susan Kinnane is a journalist, fired with a passion to get justice for Tom’s biological father,  whose life changed forever on that night in 1971.

Perhaps it was the author’s intention to establish Tom’s search for identity, but I found that the drip-feed of information about Tom’s complex family history  became so confusing that I was reduced to sketching a family tree in my reading journal, adding to and modifying it as the facts were eventually revealed through the alternating narratives of Tom and Susan.  However, things improve once the action moves to a small town called Brindamilla and Susan receives an anonymous letter that sets her on a quest that leads back to the night of the demonstration in 1971. From this point on the novel is unputdownable.

Perhaps drawing on his own experiences in Cunnamulla, Molony captures the small town mentality of outback towns in Queensland, the heartland of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s support.  It’s an unpleasant picture, depicting the townspeople’s hostility to anyone new or different.  The community is racist to its Aboriginal population, and nasty to Susan because she asks difficult questions of the local Country Party MP, and therefore needs to be excluded from politics by the ALP aspirant because the local paper has identified her as a troublemaker.  I would find this hard to believe if I myself had not had the astonishing experience in 1990 of being aggressively abused in an outback Queensland town and run off the road simply because I had Victorian number plates on my car.  Bjelke-Petersen made a virtue of sneering at ‘interfering people’ from ‘down South’ in those days, and Queenslanders really did think of themselves as different to the rest of Australia.  This attitude made Queenslanders the butt of jokes but the hostility was not funny for anyone vulnerable and a long way from any help.

The Tower Mill is a compelling story, but it also has a special resonance in the light of the Campbell Newman ascendancy and the untrammelled power of a massive majority.  Through the voice of Susan, Moloney articulates the view of Queensland as a State vulnerable to corruption because of the Joh years, when it was the people of Queensland who gave tacit consent to a ‘regime that was steadily, deliberately chipping away at the rights of his own people’ .  Years after Bjelke-Petersen’s downfall, and having made a new life for herself interstate, Susan still fears a resurrection of the conservative complacency that enabled his excesses:

‘It’s still there, Tom,’ she’d insist. ‘It might be lying dormant for the time being, but the seed is still in the soil.
Oh how my mother loved the dramatic.  She’d interviewed John Sinclair, the man who’d saved Fraser Island from sand mining. A public servant in his day job, Sinclair had been hounded out of the state, and Susan saw herself in the same light, following the grand tradition of writers and artists who found Queensland too stultifying to remain.

Those of us who observed with dismay that the first action of Campbell Newman as Premier of Queensland was to abolish the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards were not so much appalled by the act as by the supportive redneck commentary which bloomed in its wake… a disquiet which the grassroots literary community’s brave attempt to establish an alternative (with no prize money) has not alleviated.  Politicians only axe programs when they know that they can do so with impunity.

So, as well as being a jolly good read, The Tower Mill, whatever its intentions (because it was presumably in gestation and written before the Newman landslide), serves as a wake-up call for all of us to vote prudently and to guard our civil liberties with care.

PS I’ve tagged this as Debut Australian Fiction because although James Moloney is a well-established author of children’s books, this is his first venture into adult fiction.  May there be many more!

Author: James Moloney
Title: The Tower Mill
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2012
ISBN: 9780702249327
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP

Fishpond: The Tower Mill
Or direct from UQP


  1. A most interesting review of a fascinating time. I remember the controversy over Vietnam and anti-war marches. In Melbourne, the deputy PM and treasurer, Dr Jim Carns, headed the Melbourne march which I attended. The crowds were curb to curb and ran for blocks. Although there was a police presence, there were no problems when we marched down the hill to meet the wharfies coming from the opposite direction, then sat on the road and sang a few anti-war songs, such as ‘We Shall Overcome’. Premier Bolte tried to suggest only a handful turned up . . .


    • Indeed, yes, Ken, I remember the Melbourne demos well too. What was so fascinating about this book was the reminder that although the Bolte government mocked the demos, there was no attempt anywhere but Queensland to suppress dissent in the way that Bjelke-Petersen did, and the support from the Queensland electorate was unique in this country. There was some violence at the Melbourne Springbok demo, and ASIO had files on anyone/everyone who protested and there was not-so-covert surveillance, even the occasional wrongful arrest or arrest for trivial offences, but there was no legislative intervention to curtail civil liberties. Bolte knew that Victorians of all political persuasions wouldn’t have stood for it.


  2. I have no clue about Australia’s modern history & this sounds like a great story to make an introduction. It goes on my ‘must-read’ list!


    • *chuckle* As long as you don’t get the impression that all of Australia was like that, ok?


  3. Yes Lisa, Jo was an anachronism, but I guess there is always the danger of it happening again, particularly in a conservative state like Queeensland, where the incumbent reflects the same ultra-conservative mindset.


  4. I’ll search for this. I remember this era as well.


    • It’s a book that really speaks to our generation:)


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