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13 January 2008

High Court of Australia saves historic Regatta Hotel at Toowong in Brisbane from permanent closure


Slim Dusty's 1957 smash hit the "Pub with No Beer" could have been the "Pub with No Licence" except for a long forgotten decision of the High Court of Australia.

Since 1887, Toowong's heritage-listed Regatta Hotel has been a favourite meeting place for Brisbane residents and in later years for politicians, lawyers and television personalities.

It boasted wild parties after the GPS Head of the River in the 50s and 60s.

It was the scene of the famous 1965 challenge by Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor who chained themselves to the foot rail of the public bar protesting against antiquated laws stopping women entering public bars in Queensland.

But nothing in the pub's colorful history can beat its fight to remain open which had 7 High Court judges pondering its future after World War 1 and making one of the oddest judicial rulings since the English rule of law arrived in Australia in 1788.

Merle Thornton (right) and Rosalie Bognor chain themselves to the footrail of the public bar at the Regatta Hotel Toowong on 31 March 1965, in protest at Queensland's antiquated laws which made it illegal for women to be served alcohol in public bars. The conservative Queensland Government quickly changed the law after one of Australia's most-successful protests.

University of Queensland law graduate and now Ipswich Councillor for the past 29 years Paul Tully came across the long-forgotten decision in a dusty law book during his legal research as a migration agent.

Cr Tully was well-known at the pub in the early 1970s when he was editor of the University student newspaper Semper Floreat.

In 1917, the Liquor Act 1912 gave wowser groups the power to close any pub through a local option poll of electors living with a 3-mile radius of an hotel.

On 5 May 1917, the people of Toowong voted to close their local pub forever.

The pub's owner Sarah Ann DANIELL and the licensee James Patrick GLEESON immediately ordered their lawyers to find a way to overturn the poll.

Section 109 of the Australian Constitution provides that where there is an inconsistency between a Commonwealth law and a State law, the Commonwealth law prevails.

The Commonwealth Parliament had enacted the Commonwealth Electoral (War-time) Act 1917 to prevent State polls on the same day as a Commonwealth election.

With that in mind, the lawyers for the Regatta Hotel seized on the fact that the Toowong local option poll had been held on the same day as a Senate election.

They tried this argument before the Brisbane Licensing Court which tossed it out as legal bunkum.

An official notice then appeared in the Queensland Government Gazette on 8 September 1917 declaring that the pub must close by 31 December 1919.

The next port of call for the lawyers was the Supreme Court of Queensland which showed some sympathy for the cause as public opinion slowly turned in favour of retaining the pub.

On 3 December 1919, the Supreme Court ordered that the decision of the Brisbane Licensing Court be referred to the High Court of Australia.

On 22 March 1920, the parties put impassioned arguments to the 7 High Court judges sitting in Sydney headed by Chief Justice Knox.

It was claimed that the voters of Toowong had been part of an unlawful ballot as it had been conducted on the same day as the 1917 Senate election.

The counter argument was that it was only a technical breach of the Constitution.

One month later on 22 April 1920, the High Court announced its decision.

By a majority of 6 to 1, the court ruled that section 109 of the Australian constitution had been breached and that the State law which allowed local option polls on the same day as a Commonwealth election was void to the extent of the inconsistency.

There were free shouts and hearty cheers all round at the Regatta Hotel that night, as news of the High Court decision was received from Sydney by telegram.

And almost 90 years later, the Regatta Hotel still stands as one of Queensland's most recognised icons thanks to the 6 judges of the High Court of Australia and an obscure provision of the Australian constitution which the nation's founders would scarcely have thought would be the saviour of one of Australia's most historic pubs.

The historic Regatta Hotel in its current glory.

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Or post to: History Queensland, PO Box 1, Goodna Qld 4300

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