POINT a police detective turned investigative journalist in the direction of Australia’s docklands and the material unearthed is likely to make for a juicy – if not entirely family-friendly – dossier.
That’s precisely what Duncan McNab has produced in Waterfront, a thoroughly researched examination of 200-plus years of “graft, corruption and violence”, as he terms it, in and around the country’s major ports.
McNab’s carefully chronicled history begins with the opportunistic pilfering of supplies from the newly landed British First Fleet and interweaves politics, socioeconomics and conflicting community ethics into a storyline populated by prostitutes, sly-groggers, assassins, drug runners and standover men. Names made familiar most recently by the various Underbelly TV series are scattered throughout the text: Kate Leigh, Norm Bruhn, Tilly Devine and the Kanes.
Waterfront at times veers away from the shoreline and into the inner-suburban underworlds of Sydney and Melbourne, putting into context dealings in some manner linked to the painters, dockers and waterside labourers of each era as the maritime mobsters’ tentacles stretch inland from what McNab refers to as “Australia’s crime frontier”.
The book doubles as a history of the union movement across the two centuries since colonisation, tracing at the same time the establishment of distinct political parties as the country now knows them and detailing a tradition of parliamentary manoeuvring, undermining and deceit dating from the very earliest days of federation.
It also records the arrival of diseases imported unintentionally by sea – smallpox, Spanish flu, the much-feared plague – and reports the wholesale human evictions carried out by governments spooked by these epidemics.
While its focus is primarily wharf-related, Waterfront is not merely for readers with an active interest in ships. Rich with picket lines, scab labour, double-dealing, backbench infighting, opium hazes, royal commissions and more than one clichéd drunken sailor, McNab’s book is every bit as entertaining as it is informative.