Freedom Then, Freedom Now room brochure

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Exhibition 5 May - 19 November 2017  | Philip Bacon Heritage Gallery


I am proud State Library of Queensland is able to showcase some of its wonderful and rare collection items and contribute to the conversation around civil liberties in Queensland through Freedom Then, Freedom Now.
As custodian of Queensland’s collective memory, State Library’s collections reflect the complexity and diversity of our state’s experience. Queensland has been at the centre of some major advances and hindrances to personal freedoms over the decades, and this exhibition highlights some of these incredible milestones.

On behalf of State Library of Queensland, I thank curator Emeritus Professor Peter Spearritt and all involved in delivering this intriguing exhibition. I also acknowledge Philip Bacon AM whose generous donations have made this and many other State Library exhibitions possible.

I invite you to explore Freedom Then, Freedom Now and hope that it leaves you questioning what it really means to be free in Queensland.

Vicki McDonald
State Librarian and CEO
State Library of Queensland


Freedom takes many forms. Some countries cannot guarantee freedom from hunger, while arbitrary detention, religious and racial discrimination are practised throughout the world, sometimes even mandated by governments. For example, many Indigenous residents were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to missions. Even when they were granted permission to leave, a government agency could still decide who they could and couldn’t associate with. Queensland was the last Australian state to grant its Indigenous population the right to vote in 1965, three years after they were given the right to vote in federal elections.

Geographically, Queensland is Australia’s second largest state, a major factor in its complex history. Once heavily reliant on agriculture and mining, the state’s economy now also relies on tourism and other service industries. The rise of Queensland as the winter escape for southerners has had a significant influence on Queensland as the home of the bikini and a place to party, especially on the Gold Coast.
The exercise of freedom depends on many factors, including your income, age, gender and where you live. Working class families in the 1950s could afford a block of land and become owner builders. Today few low income earners can save the deposit to buy a house. Wealthier people are free to choose where they live. Australians of European origin have always thought they had the right to buy land. But Indigenous Australians were told they didn’t have any land they could call their own. Advocates for recognition of Indigenous lands gained their greatest legal victories in Queensland with the Mabo judgement in 1992 acknowledging native title on Murray Island in the Torres Strait and the Wik judgement in Cape York in 1996, both recognising prior Indigenous custodianship and explicitly rejecting the notion of ‘terra nullius’, in other words that the continent was unoccupied when claimed by the British Government.

The motor car and the aeroplane promises freedom of movement but only if you can afford it. People can now move quickly about the state and beyond. Successive advances in communications, most notably the telephone and the internet, provides a raft of new freedoms, from finding information to communicating with friends and relatives. Individuals can now broadcast their views and their rants to untold numbers via Twitter and other forms of social media. But at the same time fear of terrorism has resulted in restrictions on our freedom from airport searches to internet and smart phone surveillance.
Some freedoms including freedom from the spread of disease require, with vaccination, the restriction of individual freedom for the greater good. Others freedoms including gambling and drinking alcohol, are a perfect example of the double edge sword conundrum: excess in either can damage more than the individual, just as passive smoking endangers us all.

Freedom Then, Freedom Now explores freedom in Queensland through a selection of themes, concentrating on life since the Second World War.

A Home of your own

In the 1950s about half of all houses in Australia were owner-built. Land on the fringes of cities and country towns was relatively cheap and there were few extra costs, especially if the roads were still unpaved and sewage connection unavailable. In an era before concrete slabs, many householders could build a basic house with simple foundations and walls of fibro or wood, usually with help from friends and neighbours. War veterans got low interest loans. Banks still preferred to lend to a male head of household, usually the person with the highest income. Single women found it very hard to get a home loan. After the Second World War both state governments and the Australian Government funded housing commissions which provided modestly priced rental housing in cities and towns. Much of this housing was subsequently sold off. 

Home ownership peaked in 1966 at 71 per cent. Housing blocks became more expensive, not least because they came with water and sewage connection and finished roads. In recent years, with rapidly rising property values, many people have been unable to save enough for a deposit. Today, public and social housing only comprises four per cent of all dwellings in Queensland. The apartment industry, which has flourished since early this century, is primarily driven by developers and investors. Tenants have little ability to alter an apartment for their own needs whether that might be to accommodate young children, the disabled or the elderly. Most tenants in Australia are on a maximum one year lease so have little security of tenure, unlike tenancy agreements in many other societies where tenants have much more protection.

From the 1960s to 1980s Queensland did offer a new kind of freedom, the opportunity to have private waterfront properties on canal estates. Developers embraced the freedom to buy up coastal and riverine land on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, and thousands of people snapped them up, not least boat owners. But such developments came at a cost to the environment with the destruction of mangroves, massive alterations to the existing river systems, and storm runoff directly into the waterways. Canal estates effectively reduce public access to waterways — you can’t walk along the side of the canal and scarce public boat ramps are usually very overcrowded.

High rise apartment blocks have been criticised because of lack of open space provision, especially for children. And almost all modern blocks are air conditioned, making them heavy users of electricity. Air conditioning provides freedom from higher temperatures but not from climate change. The freedom to own your own home, once regarded as an essential Australian aspiration, is falling out of the grasp of many.

Drink, smoke, gamble

In the 19th century, a legal or illegal tavern was often the first structure built in a new settlement, especially on the gold fields. All of Queensland is hot in summer, so workers looked forward to a beer or three at the end of the working day. Gold mining towns, including Gympie and Charters Towers, were dotted with hotels, some of which survive today.

Gambling took the form of card games and two-up, both informal and illegal. Gambling was very much a male domain, even legal gambling at race tracks, where all the bookmakers were male, as were the jockeys. Women were welcome to attend at country and city races — especially if glamorously attired. It is only in recent years that female bookmakers and jockeys have been seen at the track. Queensland still has over 100 country and city race tracks.

Gambling became much more widespread after the Second World War. The Australian Government raked in taxes placed on alcohol and tobacco but not until state governments established the Totalising Agency Boards that is, the TABs, did they start to get a huge income from betting, not just on horses but dogs and later sporting events. The TAB came to Queensland in 1962 and was privatised in 1999, though the government still collects tax on the gambling turnover. Poker machines, first introduced in New South Wales in 1956, lured thousands of Queenslanders south of the border, especially to Tweed Heads. Stung by this loss of revenue, the Queensland Government legalised large casinos in the mid-1980s but did not allow poker machines until 1992. Today, problem gambling is one of the great scourges of our society.

Women were not allowed to drink in public bars in Queensland until 1970 even though some licensees were female and female barmaids were popular. Women could drink in a room often referred to as ‘the lounge’, though some rougher country pubs didn’t bother with a lounge. The most well-known protest against women drinking at a public bar took place in 1965 when the ABC filmed Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor chaining themselves to the bar of the Regatta Hotel in Brisbane.

The legal drinking age was reduced from 21 to 18 years’ old in 1979. Beer, wine and spirits became easier to purchase with drive-in grog shops and tobacco products were even sold in supermarkets. Queensland’s restrictions not only on the sale of cigarettes but where they can be smoked are now among the strictest in the world. Some smokers resent this restriction on their freedom while a majority of the population have welcomed the move.


Compulsory vaccination for tuberculosis and polio has seen these two diseases almost disappear in Australia. A small minority of people regard compulsory vaccination as an infringement of their freedom but the vast majority see collective good outweighing individual objections.

A world-wide influenza epidemic just after the First World War saw millions of people die. Australia’s quarantine stations at all our major ports, were full to overflowing. A continent dependant on shipping for both goods and migrants feared imported disease, especially cholera and smallpox. The Australian Government set up a Health Department in 1921 and its serum laboratories, CSL developed vaccines, especially for polio. Almost all children in Queensland received the oral vaccine in 1967 with thousands travelling from the country to the City Hall in Brisbane. Queensland has a proud tradition of public health, being the first state in Australia to establish free hospital care in 1945. Most vaccinations for babies still take place at Baby Health Centres, at hospitals or at school. Free vaccination is available for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, and polio.

The biggest health crisis of recent years, the HIV/AIDS virus, still awaits a vaccine. A vast public campaign about the importance of safe sex saw the spread of the virus curtailed and a sharp reduction in the mortality rate.

"I do"

Until 1999 a majority of marriages took place in church. Priests and Ministers were  licenced to conduct the ceremony. Some religions did not approve of mixed marriages. When a Catholic wanted to marry a Protestant, the Protestant had to take instruction in Catholic principles including agreeing to any children being educated in a Catholic school. If the bride or groom did not convert, the wedding could not be held in the church proper but in a side room. Couples who didn’t want a religious wedding could go to a government registry office, prompt and secular, however for a long time this was not considered to be a proper wedding. Until the early 1980s some Indigenous Queenslanders still had to get government permission to marry, the hangover of a long history of repressive legislation and administration. Civil celebrants now perform over three quarters of all marriages in Australia.

Until the 1970s divorce was a very expensive business, especially if the couple could not agree on terms. Some couples remained in unhappy marriages either because their religion did not condone divorce or they couldn’t afford to live separately if the family home was sold up. Wealthier people aired their differences in court and newspapers. In Queensland the Sunday Truth had a field day with often spicy allegations. ‘No fault divorce’, introduced by the Australian Government in the 1970s, requiring only a year of separation, saw lawyers out of pocket and court journalists with much less juicy copy. Divorce issues can still be divisive especially over the custody of children and the distribution of the couple’s assets, when resolution often has to go to the Family Court.

In the last few years there has been a great deal of public pressure to allow people of the same gender to marry. A number of countries now allow gay marriage, which in Australia has fervent proponents and equally fervent opponents. It is an example of how societies debate issues around individual and  collective freedoms.

Too rude for Queensland?

Censorship has a long history. Usually imposed by a government agency, it is regularly used in time of war. Australians got used to censorship in both the First and Censorship has a long history. Usually imposed by a government agency, it is regularly used in time of war. Australians got used to censorship in both the First and Second World Wars, not only of newspapers but even of letters sent home from army, naval and air force personnel.  

Books, magazines, comics, films and games have been and are banned by the Australian Government, primarily through its power to prohibit imports. But the Queensland Government also got into censorship. From 1954 to 1985 Queensland had its own Literature Board of Review. Many comics and magazines were banned that today seem tame, including Playboy magazine. There are a number of examples in this exhibition of books and magazines that you were not allowed to sell in Queensland, even though some could be readily bought in other states such as the American edition of Playboy magazine. In 1969 an actor was arrested in Brisbane for swearing in Alex Buzo’s play Norm and Ahmed even though the dialogue was central to the script. Queensland even banned the Australian and American LP records from the musical Hair because of rude lyrics in a couple of the songs.

A small number of items in Queensland were banned as their ideology was repugnant to the government of the day. The Queensland Literature Board of Review banned The Little Red School Book (1972), as ‘a subversive reference book for young people’, an invitation to ‘anarchy’ in the schools, not least by providing advice about sex and drugs.

On the road, in the air

Before the coming of mass car ownership in the late 1950s, most people including children and the elderly, walked or used public transport to get to school, work, go to the shop or go for a holiday. Even today one third of the population cannot drive a motor vehicle because of their youth, their age, or they don’t have a licence or can’t afford a car. The car enabled holiday makers to range near and far. Camping on the side of the road was not only acceptable but common and cost nothing. Holiday makers on a budget also often camped in the showgrounds of country towns, which was cheap, with primitive ablution facilities.

Many Indigenous Queenslanders had their travel severely curtailed, even when they were allowed to leave mission stations or settlements including Cherbourg near Murgon and Hopevale, north of Cooktown. A state government bureaucrat could determine who they were and were not to associate with once they were given permission to enter the wider community.

Mass car ownership saw a huge expansion of holiday accommodation including fancy campgrounds, motels and more recently apartments to let, with the Gold Coast boasting the largest number of holiday rental apartments anywhere in Australia. Airline competition makes popular destinations relatively cheap to get to but air travel in regional Queensland can be very expensive. Residents of remote parts of Queensland have suffered from a decline in air services. Tourists are much better off because of price competition between airlines on the most frequented routes including major holiday destinations. Australians take for granted the right of the public to have free access to the beach, unlike in many societies where beaches can be privately owned. Our national parks, including the Great Barrier Reef, offer both locals and visitors the freedom to enjoy unspoiled landscapes.


Today dress in Queensland can be quite casual but until the 1960s most women going into ‘town’— whether in Brisbane, Toowoomba or Townsville — would wear a hat and gloves. Male professionals, especially in banking, real estate and the law, still wear formal suits but the suit is usually shed the further north you go.

Photos of beach attire in the late 19th century show both men and women in very full swimming costumes and most men wore a swim suit that covered their torso well into the 1930s. Just two decades later, bikinis, manufactured and promoted on the Gold Coast, came to define female beach attire. During this era, we gradually saw a change in attitudes as scantily clad men and women moved seamlessly from shore to town. However such informality in dress is still frowned on in large shopping malls, our new cathedrals of consumption.

Some fashions attracted short-lived outrage, with the 1960s miniskirt being denounced from many a pulpit. In the rebellious 1960s and 1970s dress could be both a political and a social statement. Skimpy dress could be a protest against the prudery of an older generation. Most clubs had very strict dress rules and some still do, requiring males to wear a jacket and tie. Overalls are still not welcome in most RSL and sporting clubs but even the Qantas and Virgin airline lounges now feel obliged to welcome fly in/fly out workers in their ‘high vis’ work gear and steel-capped boots.

Before the tariff cuts in the 1970s, most of our clothes and even our shoes were made in Australia but now most are imported, mainly from China. Clothes have become cheaper but some events, especially weddings, still command local manufacture at a high price. Our sense of fashion, decorum and affordability are major determinants of what we wear. Most of us are free to wear nothing at home if we so choose, but as soon as we step out of our front doors our freedom is constrained by expectations of appropriate dress, fashion, attractiveness and self-image.

Vote and protest

The Queensland Parliament granted women the right to vote in 1905, ten years after South Australia embraced woman’s suffrage and three years before women got the vote in Victoria. But neither male nor female Indigenous Queenslanders had the right to vote; they were deemed not capable of exercising such a right. The Queensland Parliament, embarrassed to find itself the last state to grant Indigenous people the vote, finally did so in 1965. They had already gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1962. A national referendum in 1967 removed discriminatory clauses from the constitution of 1901, which stated that Indigenous people should be a state government responsibility. After 1967 Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders were eligible for the same social security payments already enjoyed by other Australians. But in Queensland remnant repressive legislation stayed on the books for some years, continuing to curtail basic freedoms.

The right to march and protest is widely regarded as central to the functioning of a democratic society. Trade unionists use street marches both to demonstrate their collective strength and to advance workers’ rights. All manner of protest groups employ street marches for group cohesion and media impact.

In the late 1960s and 1970s there were a number of protest marches in Queensland, most notably calling for an end to the Vietnam War and military conscription. Many were arrested, with claims of police brutality. In 1971 protestors against the all-white Springbok rugby tour faced a wall of police. In 1977 Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who came from a farming background in Kingaroy, announced a total ban on street marches. The power to approve a march was taken away from magistrates and handed to the Police Commissioner who was not required to give any reason for rejecting an application. Protests against the ban were held in many parts of Queensland.

In 2013 the Newman Government passed the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment (VLAD) Act ‘to come down harshly on outlaw motorcycle gangs and their members’. Police were concerned that some of these gangs were using tattoo parlours to launder illegal income especially from drugs. Bike gang members organised a series of protests about the laws which they argued were a restriction of their freedom to ride and assemble as they wished. Pink jumpsuits were ordered by the government to be worn by bikies convicted under the VLAD legislation. There were no successful prosecutions under these laws, amended by the Palaszczuk Government in 2016, extending their remit from outlaw motor bike gangs to child exploitation and drug trafficking. The new act makes it illegal to consort with two or more convicted offenders once cautioned by police.


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Anne Tunnecliffe
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