Back in the 1800s, Australia was a continent that ran on violence. Indeed, that was its raison d'etre. It was here, as far away from the British Isles as it's possible to get without lobbing up on the ice floes of Antarctica, that the dregs, the scum, the cutthroats, the poor, the unfortunate and the rebels of the British Empire were sent to serve out sentences for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
Conditions were deplorable, and in reality little different to those experienced by African slaves who survived the middle passage trip to the Americas. Untimely death from illness, exhaustion or disease was commonplace, as were hangings, and floggings for minor transgressions of the rules (after a fair trial, of course).
The aim was to brutalise the convicts into submission and to distance them geographically so they couldn't sully the sensibilities of the British upper and middle classes. (Now they can't keep away from the place, but that's another story.)
In those days, transportation to the other side of the world might as well have meant transportation to Mars, given the length of the voyage and the appalling conditions aboard the transports, and it was near impossible for a freed convict to raise enough cash for a trip home, assuming that a freed convict was allowed to do so. So once transported to Australia, there was virtually no chance of a convict returning. Even if a convicted criminal was serving a seven-year sentence, it was in effect a life sentence as they were in the Antipodes for good.
The other effect of course was that many of those in the military deemed unsuitable for active duty in Britain's wars, or who'd offended a superior officer, ended up guarding criminals and acting as a de facto police force in outfits such as the New South Wales Corps, which ultimately became a mutinous band of soldiery (and we'll use the term loosely) whose main forte was the monopoly trade in rum, which at one time became the colony's main currency. The nature of such a posting also meant that many of those in the soldiery who were good men quickly became bitter or homesick or both.
The mixture was a heady one: thieves, rogues, forgers, murderers, prostitutes, ne'er do wells and Catholic and Irish rebels (and sometimes all of the above rolled into one) and the beginning of a police force built on corrupt practises and a penchant for oppression of what it regarded as the criminal classes.
It's against this background that the lawlessness and the cynical and almost universal dislike of authority that came to characterise early Australian society (and still does, to a certain extent) should be viewed, rather than the kind of pioneering spirit and frontier busting of the American expansion that led to opportunistic outlaw gangs roaming the West. There is a belief that our crims are somehow different, and it's telling that murderous groups of outlaw bushrangers like the Kelly gang who roamed the countryside in the 1800s are still regarded today almost as fairytale icons of European settlement.
I tell you all this by way of explanation, because right now, violent crime is alive and well in 21st century Australia, and many still take a vicarious delight in the nefarious goings on of certain members of the criminal milieu.
Indeed, it is the talk of Australia at the moment. The courts in Victoria have just banned the much-anticipated broadcast of a drama series about the decade-long Melbourne gangland wars that have left 30 or so criminals dead in a series of tit-for-tat killings. We're short on rain on this continent, but it's been raining bullets down in Victoria for the best part of 10 years and Channel 9's new drama series Underbelly faithfully (but with some heavy dramatic licence) documents the bloodletting.
Not even in the Chicago of the 1920s and 30s would you find such a colourful cast of characters, both dead and alive: Alphonse John Gangitano, the so-called Prince of Lygon Street, a standover man who ran roughshod over the citizens of Carlton, a nice inner-city neighbourhood of Melbourne populated by Italian immigrants; Carl Williams, the gang driver turned killer who accounted for at least 10 victims; the male members of the hard-arse Moran crime family (the male members of which were killed in the violence, and who were connected to the old Painters and Dockers' Union crime gang); Graham "The Munster'' Kinniburgh, so named for good reason; the 'Ndrangheta (the Calabrian Honoured Society); an Italian gang known as the Carlton crew, with alleged connections to the mafia; the wonderfully named Zara Garde-Wilson, a glamorous lawyer with a penchant for short skirts, high heels and bad men, and of course the Russians, the Serbs and just about anyone else in Melbourne out to make a quick buck through drugs, prostitution, gambling, armed robbery, standover rackets and – believe it or not – lucrative control of the fresh fruit and vegetable markets.
Even the notorious Chopper Read, who famously cut off his ears with a razor blade to get out of solitary confinement in the brutal H Division of Melbourne's Pentridge Gaol, gets a mention in despatches in the real-life version, although he isn't implicated in any of the crimes that form the basis of the story.
But with one trial still taking place (and possibly more arrests to come if the police can ever find enough evidence or witnesses to make the charges stick), the Director of Public Prosecutions in Victoria, Jeremy Rapke QC (Queen's Counsel), thought it prudent not to have the series aired in that state given the potential it might have for jury contamination (so chalk one up for a legal system that actually thinks that's important). He agreed with a ban ruled upon by Victorian Supreme Court judge Justice Betty King, who is set to begin hearing a murder trial next month of a defendant whose name is currently suppressed.
Rapke, probably rightly and at the very least least erring on the side of caution, says screening the show in Victoria will "adversely affect the right to a fair trial of the person charged with murder whose name is presently suppressed. It may also adversely affect other pending criminal hearings in this State''. Justice King's view was that some of the conversations were obviously the imaginative works of the scriptwriters, and thus likely to portray certain people in a certain light – which may or may not be the right light.
This hasn't gone down that well at Channel 9 or in Victoria, where the story has now become part of the fabric of the city, as pretty much the whole of Australia had been primed for this show since 9 announced its intention to screen the 13 episodes from this week in its bid to recapture ratings lost to its major free-to-air rivals.
Melburnians know most of the story anyway, thanks to a daily diet from the Victorian media, and the technology now available for downloading probably means many Victorians will see it before it is allowed to screen legally in that state, although anyone actually found to be disobeying the ruling risks contempt of court charges, which carry the risk of jail and large fines. It's hard to see how it can be enforced, however, without Melbourne's finest bursting into citizens' homes to arrest people hosting Underbelly parties.
This is not the first time such a thing has happened in Australia. Some years ago, Blue Murder, another excellent series documenting the violent gangland wars in Sydney, Melbourne's big-apple northern neighbour, during the 1970s and '80s had to be held over while a number of trials were taking place and for much the same reason. It took six years for it be finally screened in New South Wales, although I must confess to having seen a taped copy from Queensland. By the time it aired, I reckon at least five million Sydneysiders had already seen it.
Having experienced much of that era first-hand as a police reporter working for a string of Sydney newspapers, I can tell you that most of the dramatised item was a pretty fair representation of what really went on – although Americans viewing it will be hard-pressed to understand much of the slang. It was a very wild time to be a crime reporter and it wasn't unusual for us to get the tip off and arrive at the scene after the uniformed police but before the detectives, and while the corpse was still warm.
It actually is a bit like NYPD Blue or Law and Order — lots of standing around while crime-scene officers count bullet holes and mark out spent shell casings. Except the blood is real, and so is the victim. Actor Richard Roxburgh did a great job of portraying Detective-Sergeant Roger Rogerson, the former New South Wales Armed Hold-Up Squad detective who had been accused over his associations with certain members of the Sydney criminal underworld and his willingness to use his pistol or shotgun to bring his quarry to heel. What's not in doubt is that he was a very effective copper, and a string of high-profile arrests of some very dangerous men are testament to that.
Even Rogerson, who didn't like much of the script (for obvious reasons), was generous in his praise of Roxburgh's portrayal. Having spent some time drinking with Rogerson and his mates, I can tell you the actor got it absolutely dead right: Rogerson was a mean-looking bloke in his prime, with icy blue eyes and blond hair and a stare that could send a cold shiver down your spine if you caught it at the wrong angle. You'd have hated to be a crim on the wrong end of an arrest by "The Dodger" and his mates.
For all that, he was also very charming company, and a great help as a contact. One time I went to meet him in an inner-city pub where we were joined by another hard-bitten former detective (who at police headquarters once asked me to pass him "that copy of the L-Z truth detector'', the thick and heavy second half-volume of the Sydney White Pages phone directory, more for a laugh at his own expense than anything else).
When they arrived, I'd already plonked myself at a table in the public bar, right in front of a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window looking on to busy Sussex Street. A grinning Rogerson, pointing to a darkened corner at the back of the hotel, said: "Mate, do you really think it's a good idea to sit here? Let's move over there, eh?'' And of course, we did.
Rogerson was alleged to have been involved in a whole string of crimes (including conspiracy to murder another detective who was shot through his kitchen window but survived), many of which were said to have starred a bloke called Neddy Smith, a self-confessed underworld killer who ended up doing life for a number of murders, and a nasty bloke known as Mr Rent-a-kill, an imported hitman from Melbourne named Chris Flannery who purportedly met a very nasty end.
But Rogerson never went down for anything much except a rort (caper) involving a vintage car and a dodgy bank account — oh, and the small matter of perjury. Yet if he really had been involved in everything people said he had, and it's unlikely he can take the rap for all of it, then he certainly wasn't alone. A subsequent royal commission into police corruption called by the New South Wales government uncovered evidence of ongoing and deeply entrenched systemic corruption that went from the comical, to the practise of "verballing'' suspects to make a brief of evidence stick, to allegations of some of the most heinous crimes imaginable. And it all made for fabulous newspaper fare.
Amid all the allegations of bribes and killings, my favourite front-page headline from the commission was this admission by a detective, expressed in 396pt type: "WE LIE UNDER OATH''. Well, shock, horror. A more newsworthy splash at the time time might have been: "We DON'T lie under oath''. However, the shootings and the clean-up of the cops had a bizarre and unintended effect: the old-style criminal underworld of Sydney and the network of corrupt police that had propped it up seemed to go in one fell swoop. As Rogerson himself admitted this week after watching Underbelly, the NSW coppers pre-royal commission kept tabs on everything, and kept the criminals in line, and there was honour among thieves (and by all reports hired killers, too, apparently). While the old-style crims shot each other, and met their ends after a quiet beer at the Cauliflower pub in inner-city Chippendale, or down in quiet suburban parks where they'd gone for late-night meetings, they rarely hurt anyone else. Certainly, there was often some thought given about who might be caught in the crossfire.
Now they've been replaced at the top of the pile by gangs of punks in baseball hats, falling-down trousers that show off their undies and oversized T-shirts decorated with jewelry likely liberated from shops they've targeted in motor vehicle ram-raids using stolen Subarus. They don't care about such niceties, either.
Like the Mexicans south of the border (down Victoria way), we'd become inured to it all, I suspect, which while explaining our attitudes, still doesn't make it right. I also suspect that deep down, we've viewed them as Robin Hood characters, when in fact they're not, and the police as being in the same league as the Sheriff of Nottingham (which at one time might have been closer to the truth but usually isn't today, in NSW at least). It seems like there's a bizarre, vicarious excitement factor that goes with this stuff.
That probably comes from our wild colonial past, the legacy of our convict gene and the outlaw bushrangers who shot it out with with the police troopers in the days before federation. The Australian outback is a great place to hide-out for those with the skills required, but if anyone's watched The Proposition, the film starring Guy Pearce about a gang of brutal bushranger outlaws, they'd have some understanding that it was a pretty good place to die as well, one way or the other.
Likewise, many Victorians still regard the famous bushranger Ned Kelly, whose gang robbed and murdered their way across northern Victoria, as a rebel folk hero. Some people think that's why Melburnians have so benignly and blithely accepted the sorry goings on in Melbourne as part of the life of the city. When they'll get to see Underbelly is anyone's guess, and I can't enlighten anyone as to its content in case I go for a row on contempt charges given the vagaries of the internet, but from what I saw of it the other night, it won't do much to change that perception.
But the fall-out from the demise of the cast of characters of Melbourne's underworld (not all of whom, it has to be said, were killed in the comfort of their own homes and cars, including Jason Moran, who with his mate Pasquale Barbaro was shot dead in front of his kids at a children's football clinic), will likely be similar to that of Sydney, especially when the whiff of police corruption that seems to have gone with it becomes too strong for the hierarchy to ignore.
There's an inevitability to that demise, as most of the old-style crims are now pushing up daisies. Then the drug-dealing outlaw motorcycle gangs, who are really the modern-day bushrangers, and the punks with their stolen Glocks and shocking taste in music, will step in to fill the vacuum and take over, and nothing will ever be the same again. Whether that's good or bad depends on what you think is the lesser of two evils. But one thing it won't be, if the Sydney experience is anything to go, is anywhere near as interesting.