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What does the death of Johno’s mean for Cairns?

HUNDREDS of music fans from 18 to 80 turned out at Cairns’ iconic Johno’s Blues Bar for its last hurrah on Sunday night, June 10, 2007.

Little did many in that wonderful crowd know about the truth behind this nail in the coffin of live music in Queensland’s premier tourist destination.

The smoking laws were largely blamed for the demise of Johno’s – but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Johno’s operated under a cabaret licence which apparently prevented the management from setting up a special smoking and drinking area like other venues around Cairns. The smoking laws are certainly biased in favour of places of gambling to ensure revenues to the State Government are shielded as much as possible from the adverse economic effects of the smoking laws.

However, the pincer movement that made it impossible for Johno’s to continue operating involved a joint assault by Cairns Police and the local Liquor Licensing Division .

It is important to understand the two police operations that were used to effect the closure.

Operation Amazon purportedly aims to crack down on violence in the Central Business District. Under this program, police and Liquor Licensing officers raid licensed venues and put pressure on management and staff. Somehow concentrating on operators instead of offenders prevents street brawls.

The Homelands Program sounds like an honourable operation. This program supposedly helps itinerant Aboriginal and Island people to return to their home communities on the Cape. In the great tradition of police giving themselves awards, this program too wins obscure awards for its proponents.

Unfortunately, the Homelands Program has a more sinister purpose. Cairns police use it as an ethnic cleansing program to rid the Cairns CBD of all black people whether they live in Bungalow or Bamaga. Why?

In an article by Karmen Turner in the Police Bulletin she openly states that the program is “improving the perception (my italics) of safety in Cairns and protecting the area’s $2 billion tourism industry”.

In other words, the presence of black people in the CBD is seen as a threat to public safety.

To quote Senior Sergeant Owen Kennedy of Cairns Police from his interview with ABC on June 22, 2006: “We receive positive feedback from people who haven’t visited Cairns for a number of years – they make comment, they say what’s going on, the change in the city is just incredible.”

What’s changed? There are fewer Aboriginals and Islanders in the CBD. Operation Amazon and the Homelands Program have achieved their apartheidist aims. Cairns residents – n ot just itinerants and the homeless – were targeted under this program. Foot patrol officers who strolled through Johno’s from time to time would check the place out for blacks and “have a word” with them.

The Police Bulletin article refers to serious health issues of those parkies they send to the communities. Are we that concerned about the “perception of safety” and the tourism industry that we don’t care about the safety and health of these people? Out of sight, out of mind? These itinerants surely need to be close to health and support facilities which are not available in remote communities.

A parkie died in Cairns about a month ago. Where were our Homelands heroes then?

The great failure of the Homelands program is that many of the people flown back “home” don’t actually have homes to go to…and so they come back.

No doubt some locals are glad there are fewer black people visible in the CBD, but few white people would appreciate this type of treatment. In fact, Zimbabwe is roundly condemned by democratic countries for its Homelands-type treatment of whites.

Tourists must be wondering why we have so many Aboriginal souvenirs in the shops, but few Aborigines.

Johno’s was a favourite haunt of people of all ages over 18 and from all parts of the world. Japanese people in particular have a great interest in our Aboriginal history and Johno’s was a good place to meet them. The dance floor was often a multicultural melting pot.

Local and visiting blacks enjoyed the reggae nights that used to be held every Thursday. However, brawls would break out from time to time on these nights and police had to deal with the melees. This, of course, was a black mark used against Johno’s when police took their complaints to their former policeman mate Chris Watters who heads up the Liquor Licensing Board in Brisbane.

(When a drink-driver picked up in Edmonton one night told police he had been drinking at Johno’s, this too was used as a black mark against Johno’s).

Johno’s management on several occasions requested police take a proactive role in parking outside the premises

at closing time. Police refused saying their role was not to provide security. Which leaves one wondering what role they do play. A proactive police service supporting its community would be a welcome thing and would receive community support in return.

Of course, the real reason for the lack of support was because it did not suit the police agenda to ultimately close down Johno’s and remove blacks from the CBD. Blacks, of course, by their very presence are a threat to our safety and, in the skewed thinking of Cairns police, the cause of CBD violence.

Of course, this is not the only occasion where Cairns police have demonstrated contempt for the public.

Remember the Poison Mushroom concert on The Esplanade at the public concert on April 14.

Police turned out in force to frisk, strip-search and generally harass as many as they could of the 1000-strong crowd for drugs. Police followed people into public toilets and shamefully strip-searched people in public. A car of youths was pulled over, the kids searched and the car pulled apart. Not a single drug or anything untoward was found. Without an apology for their bungle, the police left them with a mess of a car.

At the end of the day 1000 people in attendance only eight people were found with drugs of some fort and they were charged.

People defend their actions by saying they had received very good information. Well, obviously the information was wrong. In fact, if there were going to be drugs at the concert, a massive highly visible police operation was the last way to run a bust. A covert operation would have been more effective.

Police claim they acted competently and professionally. Maybe they were. Maybe the only thing they were trying to achieve was to discourage live music events in Cairns. It would certainly fit the pattern of police behaviour under Operation Amazon and the Homelands Program.

Whatever the overt or covert aim it was one of the most embarrassing and shameful operations ever conducted by Cairns police. Police are refusing to reveal the findings of an investigation into the monumental stuff-up by the officers on the day. What are they trying to hide? What are they trying to keep from the public who they are paid to serve?

Last year Cairns police publicly tried to prevent a family from having a large gathering on their own property, a Smithfield cane farm. Of course, the event went without a hitch. But the police attitude was noted. They don’t want social events in Cairns. One wonders why they are so unsupportive of their community. They should back social events and provide support as requested or as required. After all, they are paid well enough.

Now that Cairns police has cleaned out the blackfellas, it is interesting to note the rise in whitefella violence in the CBD as reported in the Cairns Post last May. April figures show many acts of violence taking place at venues not known for black patronage. Even Shenanigans and Gilligans, two venues where police enjoy socialising, have violent episodes at or near their premises.

It seems such a shame that Johno’s as a well-run zero-tolerance night spot has closed while Cairns police turn a blind eye to the more dangerous venues, including places where drugs are readily available.

One of the great tragedies of the Cairns police agenda is that it could make the CBD safer by cooperating with night club operators rather than against them.

Johno’s, for example, has been for years well known for bringing name artists to Cairns. It was renowned as well for giving young local bands a start, including black bands. One band, Zenith, has found a degree of fame with airplay on JJJ. Surely, it is a good thing to support young people in such ventures.

There needs to be an urgent independent review of both the Homelands Program and Operation Amazon and its impact on the social and cultural life for which Cairns is famous. As noble as their aims might sound, these programs are being used for more sinister purposes.

And at the same these programs are strangling live music entertainment and discouraging social events in Cairns.



  • The Day the Music Died - the final night of Johno's Blues Bar - by Tony Hillier


Bluesbar, Ian "Johno" Johnson speaks with Tony Hillier on the last night of Johnos Blues Bar in Cairns. MP3

  • Johnos Blues Bar proprietor and Bluesband guitarist Rick Montgomery speaking with Tony Hillier RealMedia 28k+
  • Blues guitarist Phil Emmanuel speaking with Tony Hillier on the last night of the Johnos Blues Bar in Cairns. RealMedia 28k+
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