Of dodgers and dynasties

The outbreak of schoolkid sandwich-hurling at the Prime Minister has something of a history in Australia, though the projectiles and causes have changed form. Way back in 1917, prime minister Billy Hughes turned up at the Warwick railway station, south-west of Brisbane, in a vain attempt to rally the citizens in his campaign to introduce conscription. Some unimpressed local tossed an egg at him, and the aim was true. It hit the prime minister's hat.

The outbreak of schoolkid sandwich-hurling at the Prime Minister has something of a history in Australia, though the projectiles and causes have changed form. Way back in 1917, prime minister Billy Hughes turned up at the Warwick railway station, south-west of Brisbane, in a vain attempt to rally the citizens in his campaign to introduce conscription. Some unimpressed local tossed an egg at him, and the aim was true. It hit the prime minister's hat.

But unlike the now notorious and lame salami-sandwich incident at a Canberra school this week, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard laughed off the incident - "They must have thought I was hungry" - pandemonium ensued at the Warwick railway platform.

The grandly named Warwick Examiner and Times reported the outrage in detail on its front page beneath cascading headlines: "Disgraceful Happenings", "Sense of Tumult on Railway Platform", "An Arrest Made".

"The Prime Minister was met at the train by several prominent citizens of Warwick, and as he was on the way to the edge of the platform someone from the crush on the platform threw an egg," the unnamed reporter scribbled. "The missile caught the prime minister on the hat ... For a few minutes there was a mingled series of hoots and cheers, and further eggs flew. One perpetrator of the deed was rather severely handled, but apparently, he was not alone in this respect."

In the confusion, Billy Hughes, hurrying for sanctuary within the train, managed to cut his hand "and blood ran freely".

"At this stage," reported the penman, "there was a great deal of commotion. The pressmen were jostled about and it was difficult to hear in the din. A voice cried out, 'Were you ever in Adelaide?'

"Mr Hughes, 'Arrest that man!"'

And on it went as though it were the script for a movie, though it remains unexplained why a prime minister should demand an arrest for being accused of visiting Adelaide.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson, in the last stages of the 1993 election campaign - the "unlosable" election that he lost to Paul Keating - took an entirely different view of egg pelting. He seemed overkeen on public rallies that regularly appeared close to riot - potatoes and tomatoes were lobbed at him in Salamanca Place in Hobart. At the final campaign rally in Sydney, an egg sailed through the air and Hewson caught it with such deftness it didn't even break.

"It was the catch of the day," he crowed, as if such a feat had sealed the election for him. He had to wait for election night to get egg on his face when he lost the unlosable to Keating.

It surely says something about the current state of respect for political figures that the recent Vegemite and salami sandwich tossings have been greeted with little more than amusement and a bit of a holiday from school for the perpetrators, let alone headlines about "disgraceful happenings", or an arrest. It is not known whether the Prime Minister's close-protection officers will now be required to pledge that they are prepared to take a sandwich for their boss.

More extraordinary, anyway, was the sight this week of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott shedding tears over the impending departure from politics of the long-time Labor frontbencher and former ACTU chief Martin Ferguson.

Abbott's distress was at having previously jeered at Ferguson for being part of a "Labor dynasty", simply because his father was a deputy premier in a NSW Labor government and his brother Laurie sat in the House of Representatives. Public confessions of cheap shots are rarely part of the modern politicians' tool box, and Gillard couldn't help rolling her eyes at Abbott's public anguish.

The rest of Australia spent much of the week rolling its eyes at political leaders of all sides who tried to sneak through a cosy deal that would have shelled out a handy $50 million or so to their parties' election war chests.

More satisfying, perhaps, in this winter of roiling discontent, to turn off and escape to a movie theatre. There, at least, we might ponder in perfect safety another case of a dynasty, Ferguson-free, without fear of it bringing a tear to the eye, even if some critics are metaphorically tossing sandwiches at the latest extravaganza.

In 1925, as F. Scott Fitzgerald was putting the finishing touches to the novel that would become an American classic, The Great Gatsby, an old grain store in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine was converted into the first cinema in the area.

A few years later, the little single-screen Sunshine Picture Theatre was taken over by a fellow named George Kirby. All these decades later, the Kirby family's relationship with the cinema has led from Sunshine to the Australian movie director Baz Luhrmann's Hollywood version of The Great Gatsby, filmed in Sydney.

Old George Kirby's grandsons, Robert G. Kirby and John R. Kirby, are still in the picture business, though they have moved a fair distance from Sunshine.

Their father, George's son Roc Kirby, founded Village Roadshow. Having started sweeping floors and selling ice-creams at his father's picture shows, Roc opened the first Village Drive-in at Croydon in 1954. By the time he died in 2008, Roc Kirby's Village Roadshow owned a film production division, cinemas throughout Australia, theme parks on the Gold Coast and a stake in the radio company Austereo.

Roc's sons Robert and John are now respectively chairman and deputy chairman of Village Roadshow Ltd.

Village Roadshow Pictures, through a long-time relationship with Warner Bros, sank many tens of millions of dollars into the production of The Great Gatsby. Now there's a dynasty.

And so the world turns: F. Scott Fitzgerald writes a novel about the death of the American dream; an old grain store becomes a picture theatre in Sunshine, Victoria; an Australian family hands down a love of moving pictures through generations; and an Australian director turns Fitzgerald's American masterpiece into a film spectacular.

However, even Luhrmann would be hard-pressed to cram onto celluloid the latest twist in the Australian political script. Queensland's merry prankster Clive Palmer has just announced a swag of candidates for his new political party.

One of them is a Lyndal Harris. She happens to be the great-granddaughter of Billy Hughes, the recipient of the first projectile tossing episode in Australia's ever-weirder political history.

Fact, sometimes, is stranger than fiction.