PETER BEATTIE: The Atherton Years
IT was 1959 and Annie Esbensen, as always, took her place each weekday outside McAuliffe’s Menswear Store in the main street of Atherton.
Annie, in her early 60s, retrieved her table and chair - kept in safekeeping overnight inside Jim McAuliffe’s shop - and sat there for much of the day selling charity raffle tickets for crippled children.
Annie was a large bespectacled woman who relied on the use of a wooden cane. She was also the town gossip.
From her perch in Main Street, she was the central cog of a great wheel of whispered affairs, rumoured theft, and talk of illnesses and financial hardships that encompassed this small north Queensland rural community and a whole patchwork of surrounding farms.
It was said that she assiduously recorded the exact dates of local marriages on a wall calendar, and just as carefully checked the corresponding dates of the births of children stemming from those unions.
Be it a fierce summer on the tablelands, or a dour winter, Annie Esbensen remained a fixture in Main Street. A religious woman, it may have rankled her at times that her pious work was done across the road from the public bar of the Barron Valley Hotel.
She had recently moved into town from a small farm to begin her retirement with her second husband, Harry. He was a tall, willowy man who possessed little conversation.
They lived in a modest house in Robert Street, around the corner from Main Street and within site of the town silos. The house was shared with a lodger – Sid – whose rent may have offset the couple’s meagre pensions.
There were chickens out the back, and a Hillman Minx down the side of the house.
Two years earlier, in faraway Sydney, Annie’s daughter, Edna, had died unexpectedly of heart problems at only 38. She left behind her husband, Arthur, and six children. Arthur didn’t drink or smoke, but he had a love of the racetrack, and he found single fatherhood difficult.
Then, in 1959, Annie and Harry’s routine, and plans of a quiet retirement, were disrupted. It was decided that Annie would take the responsibility for the upbringing of one of her late daughter’s children.
So it was that a seven-year-old boy was put on a train at Sydney’s Central Station and sent north to the rural haven of Atherton (pop. 3,500), 90kms south-west of Cairns, with its sugarcane fields and rainforests and country values.
He travelled alone to his new life with fresh memories of his father waving him off at the station platform. They had told him his mother had “gone away”, and he couldn’t comprehend why she would suddenly leave him. Now he was going to “Nana’s” house to live.
FOR most of us, childhood becomes more idyllic the further we move away from it. We garnish it with fondness. Our recollections become gilt-edged.
Peter Beattie is no exception. In his latest memoir, Making A Difference, published earlier this year, he wrote of his impressions of Atherton: “Atherton was a conservative, small country town, one based on primary industries. It was a good community, it felt strong; I liked life there. Atherton was a place I came to love. Having arrived there because my family had been broken up, I still count myself lucky to have ended up in such a positive environment.”
In both Making A Difference, and his earlier autobiography In The Arena (1990), Beattie provides only the briefest thumbnail sketches of his early childhood and school years. He presents that time in his life as enjoyable and character-building, despite financial hardship.
The reality, however, was far from rosy for the young Peter Beattie, and infinitely more complicated.
He wrote that going to live with Nana and Harry “held no special fears as I recall” and “a novelty”.
In 1959 young Beattie, in fact, entered a world that was closer to Edwardian Australia than the eve of the swinging 60s. A devout Anglican and rigidly conservative (she was a great fan of former Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies), Annie Esbensen quickly ensured that Beattie lived by her strict doctrines.
The small, three-bedroom house in Robert Street, near the corner of Lloyd (the house has since been demolished), was variously described by locals as “a dump” and “awful”. There was little room even for seven-year-old Beattie. His living quarters for several years was “the laundry room downstairs, with the concrete tubs”.
Nana’s house was directly opposite the Atherton State (Primary) School, which Beattie attended. In his first few years he occupied the small wooden classroom closest to a huge stand of pine trees in the school grounds.
He immediately struck up a friendship with a boy who lived nearby – Glen Graham. (Graham is one of the only friends from Beattie’s Atherton years named in Making A Difference.)
“One of my earliest memories of poor Peter was seeing this kid dressed in heavy gabardine trousers and braces and a long-sleeved shirt pulling weeds out the front of his grandmother’s house,” Mr Graham said. “Old Harry was standing over him with his walking stick, nudging him with it if he didn’t work hard enough.
“He copped a bit of criticism from the other kids. He didn’t have a school uniform, just pants below his knees and braces, and he was a thick-set sort of guy. He had a few fights.
“In Atherton, if someone picked you, you had to turn up in the recreation ground after school and fight. He handled himself.”
Mick Nasser, who now runs the Barron Valley Hotel, said Beattie immediately stood out when he arrived in Atherton.
“He went to the State school and I was in the Catholic school, and I recall he was always very loud and a bit of a smart arse,” Mr Nasser said. “I remember giving him cheek when he walked past the school. We gave him lip and he was cheeky, he gave it back. We used to thrown stones at him. We called him pumpkin head.”
Beattie also participated in what came to be known amongst local children as “the gully wars” – a series of periodic stoushes between local Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics and children like Graham and others in a wooded gully not far from Nana’s house.
“We used to get influenced by the movies,” Mr Graham said. “We’d make marble guns with firecrackers we bought from Fong Ons (a store in Main Street). One kid got shot in the head and it broke his skull. The police had to sort that one out.”
Beattie’s difficult home life became known throughout the town and several people offered him small gestures of support.
“My mum used to feel so sorry for Peter,” Mr Graham recalled. “He was the kid that never had toys. He lived on that cold wet slab down in the laundry. The boarder, Sid, was there for years and died in the house in 1966, I think, which allowed Peter to move into his room. I think it was the first time in his life he had his own bedroom.”
A relative, Gwen Lunn (whose uncle Harry married Annie Esbensen), said Beattie was “brought up very tough”.
“They didn’t have much money and I think Peter was a burden,” she said. “He had an awful life. That woman (Annie) never bought him a damn thing. He’d come to swimming and he didn’t even have proper swimming trunks.
“We all tried to help him out. He was a boy that wanted people to like him. He would do anything for people to like him.”
Annie Esbensen received financial assistance from the then State Children Department to help bring up young Beattie. It is believed one of Beattie’s older brothers, working in Papua New Guinea, also sent regular cheques. Each year the boy suffered the embarrassment of picking up his second-hand schoolbooks from the principal’s office.
Meanwhile, Beattie threw himself into every conceivable activity that was on offer in Atherton. He joined the cubs and scouts, attended the swimming club, played hockey and football, went to judo class, and participated in everything from athletics to local drama productions. Several people who knew Beattie as a child and teenager concluded his almost manic desire for activities and action was so “he could get out of that house”.
The lack of money was no impediment. He was helped on several occasions by individuals and the community at large, and relied on his own resources.
One local, in her 80s, who declined to be named, said she was accosted by Annie Esbensen in Main Street one day after Beattie had returned from a hockey trip to Townsville.
“Annie was cranky,” she said. “Do you know what Peter’s done? she said to me. He stole my charity money to go on that trip to Townsville. He took the money from the crippled children’s tin. Everybody knew about it. Old Jim McAuliffe used to top up the money that went missing. Peter, he was a bit of a devil.”
Despite this, Nana maintained a strict religious grip on the boy. He was required to regularly attended Sunday service at the nearby St Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, and for a time was an altar boy.
Alan McFarland, now retired, was church rector at St Mary’s from 1960-67, and remembered young Beattie. “I knew he lived with his grandmother. She did a lot of caring for other people,” he said. “He was a lively boy. Like all boys, some are hard to settle down.”
Beattie entered Atherton State High School in 1966. Like many country schools, its sporting oval was its epicentre, just as it is today. The school sits on a ridge in Maunds Road, overlooking town.
The school motto is Alis Aquilae – on wings of an eagle – and the crest features an open-winged eagle and a blank book.
The school magazine – the Barrinean – for 1966, revealed Beattie showed a talent for athletics and long distance running, but did not shine academically. He was in class 8A, and a brief end-of-year report states: “Moving to the more silent and studious side of the room we have the class giant and athlete Peter B. and beside him that silent child Clifford who never says more than 6,000 words a day.”
In athletics, Beattie was “Under 14 Boys Champion of the Day” with 19 points.
The following year, however, was a watershed one for Beattie. He met his future wife – Heather Scott-Halliday - at school. And it heralded the arrival of two men who would greatly influence his remaining school years – the Principal, Morrie Harnell, and a new young teacher, Denis Penshorn.
Beattie has described the late Mr Harnell as “my mentor”.
Both Harnell and Penshorn took Beattie under their wing – Harnell in the classroom, and Penshorn on the sporting field.
“Peter was in a good group of kids in 1967 and he certainly had stand-out qualities,” said Mr Penshorn, now retired, who still lives in Atherton. “I had a bit to do with him in sport. I coached him in hockey and football. He was a bright and lively personality.
“I won’t say anything against the man. He didn’t come from a rich family. Other people in those circumstances would think the world owed them a living, but not Peter. I believe his social conscience came from within himself.”
Heather Scott-Halliday, the daughter of an Anglican minister, was in a class a year below Beattie. He wrote in Making A Difference: “She was intelligent…she was kind, considerate, warm, compassionate, and not only was she all those things but we felt an affinity for one another.”
When Heather’s family left Atherton after a couple of years, he kept in touch. Beattie also had an “intellectual” friendship with a girl called Pam Davis.
In Year 9, Beattie began to make minor academic headway. The Barrinean recorded that he was a “Merit Student” and won a general award for “Diligence”. In late July of 1967 he also began his school acting career.
The school’s first ever Drama Night featured three plays. Beattie gained an honorary mention. “The first play of the night, The Crimson Coconut, was well received. Peter Beattie played Robert the waiter…”
The year was also significant in that it saw the start of Beattie’s keen rivalry with another student – Sam Elmas. Beattie writes in his latest memoir: “One of my best mates was a young fellow named Simon Elmas, better known as Sam. Sam is a lovely guy with whom I’ve remained friends.”
Both boys would tell their contemporaries at an early age that they would be Prime Minister of Australia. Both had notions of pursuing law at university. In school photos you can almost feel the tension between them.
“Sam was Beattie’s great rival,” said a former classmate. “Sam was better looking and brighter, and he was Beattie’s greatest competition. It was a rivalry that went right through high school.”
There were other bright students to contend with – Jenny Whebell, Kevin Hawke and Gary “Radar” Richter. Yet for what Beattie struggled with in the classroom, he tried to make up for on the sporting field and in front of the footlights.
In Grade 10 he came third in cross-country, was a member of the Open cricket team (“a slow medium bowler and excellent short leg fieldsman”) and played inside right in the hockey team (“Peter Beattie was another prominent goal scorer and his speedy attacking play was a credit to the team”).
He also won Best Actor of 1968 for his role in The Bones in My Toe.
Glen Graham recalled a study method Beattie employed during that time. He would record relevant information and then play the tape as he drifted off to sleep. Graham said he often went to bed at night in those years ‘with Peter’s voice playing on the tape”. Beattie was also obsessed with the PM programme on ABC radio, and newspapers.
Beattie targeted the humanitarian stream in his final two years in school. One classmate recalled: “He used to say to me – why are you studying those subjects? He would only study what would get him the best results. Peter Beattie was always for Peter Beattie. He always did everything so he looked the best. He wasn’t very popular. We always thought he was up himself.
“He was a crawler that’s for sure, and he always knew who to influence and who to make friends with.”
Another classmate said Beattie was almost addicted to trophies and tangible symbols of achievement.
“In the scouts he had so many badges on his sleeves they were actually curling underneath the sleeve hem,” he said. “In his bedroom at the house in Robert Street you couldn’t see the walls for all the ribbons and pennants he’d put up. There was everything there on display; even those little minor ribbons you wouldn’t think twice about, going right back to primary school. He loved to surround himself with symbols of success.”
Another student recalled a young myth-maker already at work: “He used to say he was related to (Otto von) Bismarck (founder of the German Empire), or had some German aristocratic background. It was ridiculous. He’d make up the most fantastic stories.”
Former Atherton High School teacher and officer in charge of the school cadets, Ken Gorton, said Beattie showed natural leadership. “He had a pretty good idea where he was going,” Mr Gorton said. “I remember he wanted to do law and go into politics. He was very, very enthusiastic in his work with the cadets.”
He brought the same enthusiasm to the scouts. As Glen Graham recalled: “We went on a trip to Mount Bartle Frere (Queensland’s highest peak at 5,325 feet) and planned to ascend the western side. It was a terrible day. When we got there a lot of people started changing their mind about the climb. The jungle was thick and there were leeches.
“Peter was striding ahead. No, he said, we’re going to get to the top. He made us go to the very peak. By then it was late and we had to camp there. It was freezing all night and we were covered in leeches. But we made it.”
Beattie at this stage was still intensely active in school and sporting activities, but there were also some lively moments outside school hours. One recurring issue was his Nana’s car and Beattie’s proclivity for joy rides.
In his latest book, Beattie tells of the car incidents in a single paragraph. In an ABC radio interview in July, he was equally as cryptic: “When I was a bit older I did do a few things that weren’t terribly nice and got a good box around the ears for my trouble.”
Beattie often took Glen Graham on his late night joy riding excursions.
“One night we took it (the Hillman Minx) down to Cairns,” Graham said. “I went along for the ride and I was still in my pyjamas. We got it onto the Kuranda range and the engine overheated. I walked half a kilometre onto the range and filled old bottles with spring water and poured it into the radiator. We didn’t get home until it was broad daylight.
“Peter was always out for an adventure, and these stories amount to about one hundredth of what we got up to.”
In 1970 – his final year of high school - two issues involving Beattie left a sour note amongst his fellow students, and are still heatedly debated amongst them today.
The first was a question of loyalty.
Peter Beattie was school captain, and his female counterpart was Jenny Whebell. In the middle of that year a young boy was ordered by a prefect to pick up some papers he had dropped in the schoolyard. He refused. The boy was the son of principal Morrie Harnell.
When the matter was brought to Mr Harnell’s attention, the prefect was stripped of her badge. Jenny Whebell and the other prefects felt the principal’s actions were unjust. They all resigned their positions until a meeting of the school council could be held.
The only one not to turn in his badge was Peter Beattie.
“Peter wouldn’t hand his badge in,” one source said. “Being a small town, the whole thing hit the fan over the weekend. He had his gold medal and he wouldn’t let it go. He lost a lot of face over that. The rest of them were prepared to put everything on the line, but not Peter Beattie.”
Jenny Whebell, now Jenny Butler, confirmed the incident but declined to comment. Another contemporary of Beattie also said the story was accurate. She added: “I never had much to do with him. I didn’t associate with him outside of school. I do know he was interested in himself. That will stick in my brain forever.”
The second issue was the awarding of School Dux to Peter Beattie. His name is painted in gold on the wooden honour board at Atherton State High School today. Some contemporaries still believe the award was granted to Beattie “by default”.
The 1970 Barrinean records that the only academic awards Beattie was granted in that final year were for English and Geography. As is custom, Beattie’s final year results as Dux were published in the following year’s school magazine. He achieved a single 7, three 6’s, one 4 and one 3.
In the senior exam at the end of the year, several former students claimed Beattie was only third or possibly fourth in the class. The School Dux honour was awarded by Principal Harnell, as was tradition, prior to the final senior exam.
“He was very ordinary, academically,” one former student said. “We always felt he was Dux by default. If you look at his academic record at school it’s unusual to go from what he did to School Dux. I’m not sure if Mr Harnell was giving him some extra tuition or something like that was arranged for him. ‘Radar’ Richter was by far the smartest kid in school, and Kev Hawke wasn’t far behind.”
Kevin Hawke, now a teacher in Townsville, said: “I don’t want to go into that. I really didn’t have a lot to do with Peter. He wasn’t stupid and he was no slouch, but I do think ‘Radar’ Richter should have been named Dux.
“But that was 35 years ago. To go on about it now would look like sour grapes.”
Gary “Radar” Richter, a quietly spoken computer software designer who now lives in Melbourne, said he was never really friends with Beattie and had never pondered the School Dux issue.
“I was this scrawny kid who didn’t mix too much with the rest of the crowd,” he said. “I was into radios and electronics, things like that, and Peter was good at sport. My mum and I used to pick him up at his grandmother’s and drive him to school for a while there.
“As for the Dux thing, I don’t know how it was calculated back then. I was in my own little world. I never thought of who was to get Dux. It was not something I was after. I suspect Peter may have been interested in that.”
Said another former student, still rankled by Beattie’s Dux honour: “You only have to look at the academic records to see this was a curious situation. He would shamelessly attach himself to anything that would benefit him. He would do anything – sell you down the river – to get where he wanted to get.”
Beattie had ended his school years in Atherton the college Dux, the school sports champion, and an award-winning public speaker. He was granted a Commonwealth scholarship at the conclusion of his senior year, along with Gary ‘Radar’ Richter, Kevin Hawke, and Jenny Whebell.
“You would think with all that he’d be one of the most popular blokes in town,” said one local. “He wasn’t. I don’t recall him having any really close friends at all.”
Peter Beattie was set to leave Atherton as he had arrived 11 years earlier – virtually alone.
Old Annie Esbensen and her husband Harry regained their retirement years by the end of 1970, when Beattie headed off to the University of Queensland to study arts/law.
By the middle of the following year Harry Esbensen was dead. As Beattie wrote: “They only had six months of peace together.”
Annie herself died in 1980. She is buried in the corner of the Atherton general cemetery, her gravestone covered in lichen. It is adorned with a small oval picture of her bespectacled face.
She left nothing to Peter Beattie in her will. He was stung by the rebuff, as he wrote in In The Arena, and believed her rejection had its source in his political beliefs. “Over the years I have paid a heavy price for my political commitments, but none have affected me more deeply than Nana’s last will and testament. She made sure I was left nothing. It wasn’t the financial aspect that saddened me. She didn’t have much to leave…the symbolism rather than the substance of the act hurt me.”
Annie Esbensen’s house no longer exists. The site is now home to a stock feed outlet. Beattie’s primary school also no longer operates as an educational facility. His old classroom is now a meeting place for the Atherton pipe band.
Beattie’s great rival Sam Elmas did go on to study law, but his career trajectory was disrupted by a personal tragedy and he had to return to the Atherton area to help run the family farm. He now lives quietly a few kilometres outside town.
There is virtually nothing in Atherton to indicate that it was a crucial place in the passage of Peter Beattie’s rise to the Queensland premiership. Just his name in gold lettering on the School Dux honour board.
“I was always told to never forget my roots,” one contemporary of Beattie’s said. “He forgot his. The town did a lot for him. Then he wiped Atherton.”
By 1971 Peter Beattie was embroiled in politics and student life in Brisbane. Atherton had been a lily pad.
He was now on the road to power.