Melaleuca Media
Civilising the sex trade

From colonial mayhem to institutionalised corruption, Queensland has tried a variety of ways to regulate the sex trade. Now some of it is legal. Long term media and former CJC scholar of sleaze Phil Dickie recounts the often sordid, always fascinating tale.

It might be called the world's oldest profession, but there is no evidence and little supposition of any prostitution in Queensland prior to the colony of Moreton Bay being established as an outpost of New South Wales in 1824. Ever since, however, the problem of women - and men - of negotiable virtue going about their mostly unlawful business has been one of the main issues to be avoided by government. Until, as it too often did, the issue blew up. The Nationals, having worked themselves up to a seemingly unassailable electoral position by the late 1980s, were put on the slippery slope to oblivion by the revelation that police had their hands in the pockets of the pimps and often, on the prostitutes as well.

Fitzgerald QC, whose inquiry delivered the final shove to Sir Joh and Co, clearly thought the criminal approach to regulation had its limitations and put the issue on the high priority research agenda of the Criminal Justice Commission. The CJC has done much wrong, but it did this right. The plan called for more political courage than Goss or Borbidge could summon up, but Beattie appears to have had the mettle to grasp this particular nettle. He can claim one significant advance over all his predecessors - finally we have abandoned hypocrisy as a cornerstone of policy.

The regulation of commercial sex in Queensland falls naturally into periods of confusion - governments ignored prostitution except to create or react to episodes of moral or medical panic; periods of corruption - police shouldered the regulatory burden for a cut of the proceeds; and periods where prohibition got lip service but regulation for public health reasons was the more sensible and preferred option.

The colonial period was largely one of confusion. Nothing defensible can be said of much frontier prostitution. Native communities had only two commodities of value to offer to the society suddenly and overwhelmingly dominant in their shattered homelands - the labour of young men and the sexual services of women. And the terms of trade were not good in either case.

Similarly, there were elements of sexual exploitation and forced prostitution to blackbirding - as the last state sponsored and tolerated English variant of the slave trade was known. Major centres of prostitution in the 1880s included Mackay, Cairns and Thursday Island. Most of the historical, government and law enforcement record is, however, preoccupied with the prostitution going on in the immediate environs of Parliament House and the "tenements" of Albert, Mary, Charlotte and Margaret Streets.

A noisy if not necessarily large lobby demanded temperance from drink, gambling and all other wantonness and even ran their own "dry" hotel up in the more salubrious district of Ann Street. Governments had not only to respond to the likes of the Social Purity Society lamenting the spread of fallen women into suburbs like Boggo Road, but also into the periodic fear of disease spreading outward from the tenements.

The preoccupations of the time are reflected in the statistics - in 1877 police charged 20 with being disorderly prostitutes - all were white, female and from Brisbane. One was a Roman Catholic and ten were Church of England, five couldn't read or write and 13 could only read. After a few years of increasing figures and similar analysis, the police commissioner ventured an opinion that an urgent need existed for a reformatory for girls. A few years later, he anticipated Fitzgerald by about a century by suggesting that perhaps some agency of the State could license brothels.

There are indications that some of the constabulary had their own methods for enforcing the law anyway. A pimp or a madam seeking to avoid being lumbered with charges of keeping a common brothel could pay at least some police to look the other way. And if the clamour from the temperance vigilantes was too strong the Suppression of Contagious Diseases Act allowed a bit of street sweeping to go on without the drama and inconvenience of an arrest. A number of precedents for the new century were being set.

Disease control legislation was common in the garrison towns and naval ports of the British Empire; Brisbane, Queensland was never notable in either capacity. Particularly in early days, the medical value of the episodic and later enforced examinations was doubtful, but the infringement on the civil liberties of those being regulated was undeniable. The clinic became known, over time, as "the lock hospital".

Medically based regulation was formalised in 1911 and persisted, with one interruption, until 1959. In its statutory form it had advantages - doctors were in charge and they were less corruptible than police. Also, though still formally illegal, the inner city and South Brisbane "houses" were tacitly recognised. Elsewhere in Australia, criminal syndicates fought for the control of brothels and street prostitution, bought off rival groups of police and politicians and linked drugs (mainly cocaine and sly grogging), gambling and vice into the three perennial pillars of an illegal economy. Queensland mainly escaped this mayhem, thanks largely to the isolation of prostitution from other criminal trades and a tendency on the part of local police to - for a fee - protect the local bookmaker and the local sly grogger from southern heavies trying to muscle in.

The interruption was the Second World War. Demand - assisted by Yanks "over-paid, over-sexed and over here" - utterly overwhelmed supply. The Federal government went so far as to charter a special train to bring willing workers up from Sydney. The police found themselves back in the box seat as prostitution became inextricably mixed up with sly grogging, gambling, and a thriving black market. Some police found this line of work and the power to prefer one entrepreneur over another very much to their taste. Detective Sergeant Frank Erich Bischof seems to have been one of these officers.

Bischof was strategically placed as a superintendent of the Criminal Investigation Branch in 1957, when a newly elected Country Liberal party government was casting around for a non-Catholic to head up the force. He got the nod, despite the government being told from several quarters that he had a reputation for corruption.

In 1959, Bischof unilaterally acted to remove the doctors from regulatory control of prostitution by the simple expedient of putting a padlock on the front doors of the houses and standing constables beside the locks. There was considerable angst about this in political and public service circles but little could be done - Bischof was paid to enforce the law and enforcing it was just what he was doing. It didn't take that long for this new state of affairs to evolve into the new regulatory framework - police would take a "red shilling" to not enforce the laws.

Later, some evidence emerged that Bischof might have acted when he did because a complaint had emerged that he - or constables Terry Lewis and Glen Hallahan on his behalf - were trying to put the squeeze on a Margaret Street madam. Some corroboration exists for the story, but Fitzgerald let it lie in the face of the absence through death of key participants and a forest of denials from others.

Star prostitute of the era was dark eyed brunette, Shirley Brifman, down from Atherton and working in an establishment called Killarney. "They hit for half of what they were collecting again," she said of the incident.

The closure of the houses displaced the girls into the lounges of inner city hotels (although presumably not the still dry Canberra Temperance Hotel). Barrister and Labor member Colin Bennett attacked the new social nuisance in Parliament and let slip that Bischof and cronies tolerated after hours drinking and prostitution down at the National Hotel.

Premier "Honest Frank" Nicklin called a Royal Commission, to be assisted by police and limited strictly to an examination of doings at the National. Mr Justice Harry Gibbs - later a chief justice of the High Court of Australia - applied strict rules of evidence and missed most of it. Two witnesses came forward and both were crucified, one with the help of star witness Shirley Brifman pointing dramatically across the court room to declare he had "done an abortion on me". Years later, she confessed this was hogwash and said she had been put up to it by detective Tony Murphy.

Murphy, who had denied any contact with Brifman, was nearly a decade later charged with perjury after Brifman produced letters written to her during the course of the National Hotel Royal Commission. Shortly before both Murphy's trial and a scheduled Sydney hearing on charges of procuring her daughter for the purposes of prostitution Brifman was found dead of a drug overdose. Investigation of the death was cursory by modern standards with Brifman being found to have taken her own life. Magistrate Martin found no properly instructed jury would convict and discharged Murphy. (David Hickey's excellent history of NSW racketeering "The Prince and the Premier" recounts a tale of a notably corrupt NSW officer coming to Queensland, forcing a tube down Brifman's throat and emptying a bottle of sleeping pills down it. The officer was a close associate of Murphy's but no evidence has ever existed to implicate him in Brifman's death.)

Sydney vice-king Joe Borg turned the key to his ignition and blew himself sky high in 1968. Associate Simone Vogel fled north and brought with her the innovation of the massage parlour.

Raymond Whitrod, police commissioner 1971-76, was in part procured by an outstanding minister Max Hodges to rid the force of corruption. One early success was to have Hallahan run out of the force over corrupt dalliances with a prostitute (although he was later to be suspected of organising a very successful payroll robbery and a very inept heroin importation). Most of the attention however was on Licensing Branch dealings with SP bookmakers and Whitrod's men were comprehensively outmanoeuvred by barrister Des Sturgess and defendant and former police officer Jack Herbert. Hodges stood by his commissioner on the matter of police who beat up demonstrators in front of TV cameras at least being investigated and found himself Minister for Tourism instead. Whitrod left soon afterwards when Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen orchestrated the most meteoric rise in world police promotion history and made Terry Lewis his deputy.

Lewis initially told one of Whitrod's staunchest supporters, "The government has given me a car, a good salary. I don't need to be involved in anything else." And the signs at first were promising. The Whitrod team remained in charge of the Licensing branch and kept giving the bookies hell and kicking down the doors of the gambling dens and the massage parlours. A couple of city real estate agents found themselves charged with living off the proceeds. Some notable identities, including members of the family Bellino, headed north away from the heat.

Alas, Whitrod's men soon found themselves in the frame, under investigation for alleged misuse of informant payments and then, despite this investigation having no result, in charge of the police garage or scattered around western Queensland. The new hierarchy, with the help of Jack Reginald Herbert, reinstated the police payrolls one by one - first from the gaming machine operators, second from the SP bookmakers and finally, from the pimps. We don't have very precise information on any drug payroll - it seems inconceivable that there wouldn't have been one, but Herbert didn't keep that set of books.

Lewis maintains none of the money went to him, but this stretched the credulity of Fitzgerald and later a court - despite the best efforts of the judge to hide large lumps of the evidence. Lewis ended up making history three times - as Queensland's longest serving police commissioner, as the first serving police commissioner to receive a knighthood, and as the first to go to jail.

Ironically, the rampant local corruption did serve Queensland well in one respect. The major southern criminal syndicates were (mostly) still locked out at the border and, to a larger extent than elsewhere, a degree of separation remained between the various illegal trades.

At the height of The Joke, Mark Two police were effectively franchising the brothels, the gaming dens, the bookmaking and gaming machine territories on something like the McDonald's model. In vice, the preferred operators were vast New Zealander Hector Hapeta and his diminutive de facto Anne Marie Tilley, and Geraldo Bellino and Associates, who balanced smaller prostitution interests with a near monopoly in illegal casinos.

Barrister and later Director of Prosecutions Des Sturgess, staunch court and sometimes public defender of Terry Lewis, Jack Herbert and Tony Murphy among others, hinted in a 1985 report on child sex offences that all might not be well in the Police Licensing Branch. The Sunday Mail repeated street gossip of corruption soon afterwards - Licensing Branch inspector Graeme Parker sued for libel and the paper paid up.

The Courier-Mail opened batting in 1987 and demonstrated convincingly that the Licensing Branch was either extremely flat footed or highly corrupt. Assistant Commissioner (Crime) Graeme Parker sued again, but this time the paper persisted with more, and more alarmingly detailed, stories. In May ABC Four Corners detonated "The Moonlight State" under an already rattled government.

Bjelke-Petersen was distracted by the prospect of a tilt at Canberra and his deputy and police minister Bill Gunn was left holding the baby. In five months Gunn had shifted his stance from "there is no evidence that massage parlours are used for prostitution" to "I'm not going to have these allegations hanging over my head" and ordered an inquiry.

He passed over the prospective inquiry heads suggested by Bjelke-Petersen, cabinet minister and former police officer Don "Shady" Lane and Lewis and appointed little known Gerald Edward "Tony" Fitzgerald QC.

Lewis adopted a bold tactic in the inquiry early days, claiming the force had been instructed by a succession of ministers to tolerate prostitution. The succession of ministers were incensed by this crude verbal. When Lewis found himself out on a limb after first Sergeant "Head Job" Harry Burgess and then Assistant Commissioner Graeme Parker took the bait of an indemnity and 'fessed up to corruption, Lewis found himself very short of friends in George Street. Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen lasted only a couple of months longer, before being dumped by his own party. It would be interesting to know whether he ever reflected on the advice of former police minister Max Hodges that a corrupt police force would one day end up being a monstrous political liability.

Fitzgerald virtually hand-picked the members of the new licensing branch, starting with the physically imposing absolutely no nonsense Graham Williams as Inspector. Many of the new breed went on to high office in the new reformed police service, with Williams close to finishing a record run in Parker's old job as Assistant Commissioner Crime.

The new branch set about assiduously enforcing the law, with a particular focus on one Warren Armstrong, failed Jehovah's witness and minor pimp from the pre-Fitzgerald era, who set about assiduously trying to find holes in the law. Armstrong pioneered the very short-lived trade of lingerie hairdressing, before trying a number of variations on a Bangkok girlie bar theme in his Spring Hill establishment, the Players Inn. Armstrong habitually wore enough gold chains, bracelets and rings to fit some pimping stereotypes but, admitted only to running a bar where clients may just meet women who may just be prostitutes who may just invite them outside to discuss a suitable price and locality. Whether this is the extent of his involvement or whether it was even legal was a question always before the courts.

In effect what was happening is that the new breed of pimps was discovering that the claim of Terry's men that the law didn't allow them to close down the brothels was a fiction. If, on the other hand, the components of the brothel were scattered around the landscape, reception here, girls there, rooms anywhere and everywhere police had to prove they were connected.

After Fitzgerald reported, there was an interim while the new CJC interviewed everyone within sight and pondered how best to regulate prostitution. Police took no heavy action and pimps tried to establish reputations as decent human beings who might one day merit a licence to run a legal brothel. Things were so benign the taxman moved in and signed up numerous prostitutes on a 10 cents in the dollar, PAYE deal. Of course, this couldn't last - the police pulled on the jackboots again, the tax take dwindled to around nothing and prostitutes appeared again on Brunswick Street.

The CJC deliberated in a comprehensive but still reasonably expeditious way, and reported on their deliberations in 1991. Basically the scheme was for boutique brothels to be established after comprehensive checks in the neighbourhoods where they would cause the least offence. The police and the industry were both upset by it, which suggests it was basically on the right track.

The reception was most problematic from Premier Goss, who had developed a set against the troublesome CJC. Goss instead implemented a scheme of his own devising, basically restricting any legal prostitution to a single operator working from her own home. It was, the Premier said, intended to keep the prostitution out of the suburbs and off the streets. Politically, it was also seen as a rebuff to CJC parliamentary committee chairman Peter Beattie.

The consequences of this bizarre arrangement was that the prostitution went to the suburbs, because that is where the single sex workers - or those just pretending to be single sex workers - lived. Due to the high proportion of single mothers in the vice workforce, more not less children were exposed to what used to be called moral risk. Violent attacks on the now unprotected sex workers skyrocketed. Street prostitution proliferated, mainly in the electorate of Peter Beattie.

In a two stage operation involving a State election followed by a second election in a disputed seat, Goss was shown the door by the voters in 1996. New National Party minister Russell Cooper put in some serious work on putting forward a variation of the CJC recommendations, before being muzzled by his own party. But the groundwork was laid for the new incoming Beattie government to pick up the threads.

Difficulties have, naturally, emerged. In the CJC, we felt it a matter of principle that any scheme set up for prostitution should not override the normal right of local government to allocate and limit land uses. Some councils have abused these privileges, finding wholly spurious grounds to reject applications.

Most of the existing entrepreneurs have not applied for a licence, anticipating correctly that they will not get one. The new breed of pimp is a business person.

Without doubt, the new scheme will need some fine tuning down the track. But when the main controversy to date has been about local government planning jurisdictions and delays in getting the system going the portents are looking reasonably promising.