In late 1989, my husband was on study leave in Paris while I was home in Brisbane finishing the teaching year. This was well before Skype, but we had email (cheap but clunky) and the telephone (landline only, fairly pricey). We phoned each other regularly.
As the end of the year approached, the political atmosphere both in Europe and here in Queensland seemed equally charged with promise. Mikhail Gorbachev had changed the landscape, and the Iron Curtain, rusting for a while, was now crumbling apace. Poland held elections in the summer, Hungary began to dismantle its section of the Wall, and popular demonstrations took place in East German cities, especially Leipzig and Dresden.
Walking through Checkpoint Charlie, 10 November 1989
On the night of 9 November, the East German authorities agreed to let people cross into West Berlin, and crowds of people converged at the crossing points along the Wall. Faced with the sheer weight of numbers trying to cross, the East German guards bowed to the inevitable and opened the gates so that the crowds could surge through.
My husband watched it all live on TV – Paris and Berlin are in the same time zone – and he rang me back home. It was early the next morning in Brisbane, 10 November. I could hardly get a word in edgewise, he was so keen to talk about what was going on in Germany.
Which was frustrating, because I wanted to talk about what I’d read in the morning’s local newspaper: another wall that was beginning the crack. The ruling conservative coalition in Queensland was about to be voted out of office, despite a gerrymander that had kept it in power since 1957 – four years before the Berlin Wall was built.
There were many reasons for the Queensland government to be on the nose. It had been rocked by the scandals unearthed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption, which filled our newspapers and TV screens every night with lurid stories about brothels and money in brown paper bags. There were also growing internal divisions in the coalition, between city and country, Liberal and Country Party. These became more of an issue as Queensland grew up and lost its hayseed image. It was no longer acceptable to have a government led by a peanut farmer and his bunch of poorly educated rural ministers.
But the other reason why the Queensland government changed in 1989 was that the Labor Party finally got its act together under a small group of reformist politicians and backroom boys (nearly all boys). One of these was Wayne Goss, whose death aged only 63 was announced today.
By 9 November, when my husband rang from Paris to talk about the Wall coming down, I wanted to tell him what the polls were saying here in Queensland where it looked just possible that Labor could win. On 2 December, the polls were confirmed in a landslide, and the first Labor Government since 1957 was elected. Wayne Goss became Premier.
Goss was a gradualist. Unlike Gough Whitlam, he didn’t try to make too many changes, too quickly. This frustrated some of his supporters, but those changes have survived. In particular the gerrymander, which weighted votes so unfairly in favour of rural electorates that some votes were worth 3 times as much as others, has gone for good.
The Queensland gerrymander was a testament to failure: if politicians can only win an election by corrupting the voting process, they are doing something wrong as politicians.
The Berlin Wall was a testament to failure too: if politicians can only stop their people emigrating by imprisoning them behind a wall, they are doing something wrong as politicians.
Perhaps both Texas and North Korea should take note.