Victorians might, but probably don’t, remember Danny Johnson as the genial wrecker from Warracknabeal, in north-west Victoria, who in 1990 wrote a letter that triggered a revolution. His emotive plea for action, published in the Wimmera Mail-Times, condemned the accident-prone, recession-hit state Labor government. He lambasted “disgraceful” unions, wasteful government spending, a soft-on-crime judiciary “that will make you laugh, or should I say cry” and, of course, the nanny state: “Our lives are becoming more regulated every day. We will need a license to sneeze.” There was the odd extreme view – “I have watched a government which wants to support gays” – and a homely call to action: “We as a nation must stand up now and be counted, every man and woman.” He might have been John Laws.
At the time, Victoria was the Greece of Australia, a “rust-bucket state” with a dismal credit rating. The state was tinder-dry with anger. Johnson’s letter hit it like a lit cigarette, catapulting him via the tabloids and talk shows to the political stage. Such was the response that, on 4 January 1991, Johnson led up to 100,000 demonstrators on his Save Australia rally through the streets of Melbourne to demand the resignation of Premier Joan Kirner on the steps of Parliament House. He was invited to deliver speeches to apple growers in South Australia, cane growers in Queensland and all manner of growers throughout rural Victoria.
Well, if at first you do succeed, why not try again? In February, after a political hiatus of 21 years, Johnson wrote a second letter to the Wimmera Mail-Times. This one, he felt, was even stronger, partly because he was all the wiser for the aftermath of the first time. Although the Kirner government had seen out its term before being tossed out by voters, Johnson, who’d received “bags and bags” of letters of support, had felt he had more to give. He’d accepted an offer from some Queensland businessmen to run as a candidate for the Victorian Senate. But then, he reflects now, “Saddam Hussein went and invaded Kuwait and that [Gulf War coverage] knocked me straight off the pages of the papers. I never came back after that … We lost the momentum.”
Meanwhile, a man he’d accepted as his political adviser, and now describes as “a scoundrel bastard from Queensland”, forwarded his novice client an $18,000 bill for advertising, staging, amplifiers, security and accommodation. Johnson went back to demolishing Warracknabeal’s dilapidated weatherboards and stocking his second-hand store with their contents. He also kitted out a shed with souvenired Australiana and opened Danny’s Rusty Nail, a restaurant and wedding venue for the young who had not yet left town.
Now 66, Danny Johnson remains mad about “the bloody government and how they’ve changed our lifestyles and conditions”. His 2012 letter bemoans business regulations, bumpy roads, the sale of land and mining assets to China, overcrowded cities, a lack of respect, a lack of water pipelines and, above all, a carbon tax designed to “make a handful of our leaders and fringe groups feel good”.
Johnson pledged to overturn the tax: “Global warming, I don’t believe it.” This time, though, he didn’t call for a march on Parliament. He’d thought long and hard about how to “help start a movement with enough publicity to change the course of our nation for the better”. The answer? “A referendum on the carbon tax by the postal box as opposed to the ballot box.” He urged people to send an envelope to Julia Gillard c/o Canberra, and write on the back: “We demand no carbon tax. Election now. Responsible government.” A million letters should do it, he thought.
Sadly, there were just two. His postal plan refused to go viral. A few weeks later the Wimmera Mail-Times ran a story headlined: “Danny Johnson concedes his plan is doomed”. In it, Johnson lamented Australians’ lack of passion. “It’s pretty disgraceful [that] men and women these days cannot stand up and fight a tax that will ruin the country … If Neil Mitchell and the television stations don’t give me airplay in the next couple of weeks then it will be over.”
And now the tax is here. Johnson blames the media, and not just Mitchell, the host of Melbourne’s top-rating radio program. Even Macca’s Australia All Over – the ABC Radio open mic for disaffected rural folk – let him down. “I’m disappointed in Macca, to tell you the truth. He’s been here to my restaurant twice.”
He’s also kicking himself, a little: “I should have suggested just writing ‘No bloody carbon tax’ on the back of an envelope, to make it simpler for people. We could have stopped her [Gillard].” Having thus been thwarted, he’s leasing out the ramshackle eatery he’s run since 2003, and setting off around Australia to see it instead of saving it. He says he might write a few postcards, but nothing more.
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