Friday, September 30, 2011

Eatock v Bolt :The stories of the nine plaintiffs – Part 1

The stories of the nine plaintiffs have been lost in the outpouring of emotion for and against the racial discrimination judgement against fact-free columnist Andrew Bolt. One of the nine, Graham Atkinson, said in court that Bolt’s articles reduced Aborigines “to that invisible group of people that government policies or government authorities tried to create in the past”. It is not just Bolt who makes them invisible. The Aboriginal plaintiffs continue to be written out of the argument that has followed the controversial case. Regardless of what you think the implications are for free speech, Eatock v Bolt offered the chance for nine Aboriginal people to tell their stories. When the dust finally settles, they will emerge as the most haunting and most illuminating part of Judge Bromberg‘s 149-page judgement.

Anita Heiss
According to Bolt, Anita Heiss's choices were “lucky, given how it’s helped her career”. Heiss is a NSW author whose maternal grandmother and great aunt were part of the Stolen Generation. Her mother was Aboriginal (not part-Aboriginal as claimed by Bolt) and father was an Austrian who became a part of the Aboriginal community. Their marriage produced six children, three fair-skinned including Anita and three darker-skinned. Her colour didn’t stop the racial abuse. At school she was called an “Abo”, a “Boong” and a “Coon”.
Others reacted badly when she told them she was Aboriginal. At university she became conscious of injustice to Aborigines and did a PhD on indigenous literature and publishing in Australia. Since then Heiss served on numerous boards and committees involved with indigenous issues most of which are voluntary.
Heiss told the court about the irony of having been discriminated against for being dark and now being discriminated against because she is not dark enough. She was also offended by Mr Bolt’s “blood quantum” approach to racial identity and its focus on how people look.

Bindi Cole
Bolt said Bindi Cole “rarely saw her part-Aboriginal father” and chose “the one identity open to her that has political and career clout.” Cole is a Victorian artist who lived with her single English mother till she was 7 until she became unfit to be a parent. Her mother always told her that she was Aboriginal.
She then went to live with her Aboriginal father’s family for 4 years, living with her grandmother and her large family who were all Aborigines. Cole kept close ties with the family even after she moved back with her mother, aged 13.
Cole studied to become an artist and photographer in 2001 and is recognised within the Koori community and the broader Australian art community as an Aboriginal artist. In 2008 she and exhibited a series of photographs called “Not Really Aboriginal”, referred to and misunderstood by Bolt.
The series questioned the perception of the stereotypical look of an Aboriginal person based on her personal experience of being fairer skinned. Cole said she was intimidated by Bolt’s articles and insulted by his phrase “distressingly white face.” The article affected the whole Aboriginal community and her aunt rang to ask her “why are they saying that about us?”

Geoff Clark
Geoff Clark is a Victorian and the former chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. His mother is Aboriginal and his father is Scottish-Australian. His parents never lived together. Clark and his two sisters were raised by his Aboriginal grandmother at Framlingham, near Warrnambool.
Framlingham is one of the longest established Aboriginal communities in Victoria established in 1861 and Clark has lived there most of his life. Here he watched his grandmother making traditional medicines, baskets and food and here he went hunting and fishing with his uncles. Relatives and elders passed on traditional knowledge of sacred sites and stories and he is now a custodian of this knowledge and an elder of the Tjapwhuurrung people.
Clark first became exposed to racism and prejudice at high school in Warrnambool. His classmates talked about their grandfathers shooting and poisoning Aboriginal people and told him he was too white to be Aboriginal. This casual racism motivated his involvement in Aboriginal issues. He was a delegate to the Convention of the International Labour Organisation dealing with the rights of indigenous people elected Victorian ATSIC representative in 1999 before becoming national chair. Clark was outraged by Bolt’s articles which he said were the essence of prejudice and racism in Australia.

Wayne Atkinson
Wayne Atkinson is a Victorian academic whose parents are from the Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung tribal groups. He had one great grandfather born in Mauritius of Indian heritage. Atkinson was raised by his maternal grandmother until his early teens on the riverbanks of Mooroopna in an Aboriginal fringe camp. He spoke English and Aboriginal languages at home and experienced racism at school.
He dropped out at year eight in order to work in unskilled jobs. After a decade, he began his studies about his history and culture and work for his community. He is now a senior elder of the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation a principal claimant for their native title claim and teaches Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.
Atkinson told the court the idea he was not sufficiently Aboriginal to be extremely offensive and was frustrated after 30 years of teaching about his culture, people do not accept who he is. He said Bolt affected a huge number of people in the Aboriginal community with the content of his articles.

Graham Atkinson
Graham is Wayne Atkinson’s brother and a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council and chair of the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation. Being Aboriginal was not something Graham had to think about growing up until he and a cousin were the only Aboriginals at a technical school. Students taunted him with “Blackie”, “Abo”, “Boong” and “Nigger”.
His parents and siblings supported him which strengthened his self-esteem and pride in his identity. He also experienced racism whilst serving in the army in Vietnam. In 1977 he was one of only three Aboriginal students at Melbourne University and he graduated with a degree in Social Work and later he gained an MBA.
He told the court he was highly offended Bolt said he identified as Aboriginal only because Thomas James had married his (and Wayne’s) great-grandmother. He said the attribution of identity based on skin colour as making no sense.

Part 2 tomorrow looks at the stories of the other four plaintiffs.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Arse over Titanic

In the final scene of the 1953 film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, second mate Charles Herbert Lightoller (played by Kenneth More) ruminates on the cause of the sinking. “There were quite a lot of ifs about it,” he said. “If we’d be steaming a few knots slower, or if we’d sighted that berg a few seconds earlier...if we carried enough lifeboats for the size of the ship...” This sinking was different, he concludes. “Because we were so sure, because even though it has happened it is still unbelievable.” The reluctance of many passengers to leave the ship, believing that it was unsinkable meant nearly all the lifeboats were lowered away without their full complement of passengers. The sinking of the Titanic was the shattering of the belief in the human harnessing of technology for good that was the beginning of the end for modernism.

Expect a deluge of commemoration in April next year for the 100th year anniversary of the sinking. 1502 people died in the North Atlantic on 15 April 1912 when Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage. It was the worst disaster at sea ever and it remains among the top peacetime sinking today behind only the Filipino Dona Paz (1987) and the Senegalese La Joola (2002) disasters.

Neither of these Third World tragedies have a cultural affinity in the west worthy of a Hollywood movie. Similarly unknown is the worst marine disaster ever the Nazi ship Wilhelm Gustloff which was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in 1945 for a loss of 7,000 lives. What too about the unheralded British Troopship Lancastria which sunk in 1940 for the loss of over 3,000 lives but whose official record has been classified until 2040 possibly because the captain ignored maximum loading capacity instructions?

The Lancastria is a mystery but the Titanic has become a myth. The reason it sank is for reasons familiar today: the law not keeping up with communication, technology and corporate greed. While fitted with wireless, it was unregulated and not unknown for rival companies to jam each other. Meanwhile the law the Titanic was sailing under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. The relevant section about the number of life-boats, life-jackets, life-rafts and life-buoys on British ships was a matter delegated to the Board of Trade “according to the class in which they are arranged”. The Board, guided by ship owners, judged the number of lifeboats to be a function of tonnage not of total passengers. By law Titanic needed to have a lifeboat capacity for 1060 people but carried 20 lifeboats, enough for 1178 people including all of first class. She could carry three times that many people.

The last time the Board had regulated on the matter was 1896. At the time the law was passed, the largest ship afloat was the 12,950 ton vessel RMS Lucania. Identical in dimensions and specifications to Cunard sister ship RMS Campania, the Lucania was the joint largest passenger liner afloat when she entered service in 1893. But the Germans outstripped the Cunard ships with the 14,400 ton Norddeutsche Lloyd vessel Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897, and further ruffled British feathers by winning the Blue Riband for the record speed in an Atlantic crossing averaging 22.3 knots, half a knot faster than Lucania.

White Star line then seriously upped the ante with vessels such as the Oceanic (1899), Celtic (1901), Baltic (1905) and Olympic (1911) trebling the tonnage. A year later their Titanic weighed in at a new record 46,329 tons, almost four times as heavy as the law aimed for Lucania. White Star’s ships were built for comfort and style not speed. Cunard continued to dominate the Blue Riband, despite their smaller ships. White Star was cutting corners of a different kind.

In 1912 White Star was owned by the International Mercantile Marine company owned by monopolist J.P. Morgan. At the time, IMM was overleveraged and suffered from inadequate cash flow that would eventually cause it to default on bond interest payments in 1914. At the British Inquiry into the Titanic disaster Sir Alfred Chalmers of the Board of Trade was asked about the lifeboat regulations. Sir Alfred made a strange claim.

He said if there were fewer lifeboats on Titanic then more people would have been saved. He said if there had been fewer lifeboats then more people would have realised the danger and rushed to the boats filling more to capacity. This claim has superficial validity as in theory the lifeboats could have saved 1,187 but only 710 survived. But then he gave the real reasons: The latest boats were stronger than ever and had watertight compartments making them unlikely to require any lifeboats, sea routes used were well-travelled meaning that the likelihood of a collision was minimal, the availability of wireless technology, the difficulties of loading more than 16 boats, and ultimately it was a matter for the ship owners.

Those owners were well served by the highest ranking surviving officer Second Mate Lightoller - the hero of A Night to Remember. Lightoller somehow guided his upturned boat through four hours of increasingly choppy seas to safety. In his testimony to the London Board of Inquiry said it was “very necessary to keep one’s hand on the whitewash brush”. That meant giving careful answers to sharp questions “if one was to avoid a pitfall, carefully and subtly dug, leading to a pinning down of blame on to someone’s luckless shoulders.” His job was to defend the work of the Board of Trade and White Star Lines and he succeeded admirably.

But his testimony did force a change of the rules. Lightoller himself admitted the pendulum had swung “to the other extreme and the margin of safety reached the ridiculous.” But then he would remember the “long drawn out battle of wits, where it seemed that I must hold that unenviable position of whipping boy to the whole lot of them.” The only other thing that bothered him was that White Star never thanked the whipping boy. Perhaps they had others things on their mind. Although the Line survived the tragedy, both IMM and Morgan went under - just like their most famous ship.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

9/11: A journey through memory and airspace

This is a picture of me on the top of the World Trade Center South Tower in late August 1991 or early September, roughly ten years before 9/11. The picture was taken by my then-wife when we were on a delayed trip around the world a year after we married. Memories being fragile and fragmental, I don’t have much recollection of the building other than vague inklings conjured up by that photo. I do remember the fantastic views and from that spot I looked out to the Statue of Liberty. In those days the Statue was still open to the public but the queue to climb the stairs was too long so we didn’t bother going to the top when we were there the day before.

Getting to the top of the World Trade Center was far less problematic. I don’t remember the queue being onerous, the minute long trip to the 107th floor was probably just as uneventful as this one in September 2000 just one year before the towers were obliterated. Yet something had already changed between 1991 and 2000 – the World Trade Center had been seriously bombed. While I was on honeymoon, the planning to destroy the towers had already begun. The aim of the 600kg explosion that went off in February 1993 was to knock one tower into the other and bring both tumbling down. That didn’t happen but the blast killed six people, seriously damaged five sublevels and sent smoke spiralling up 93 floors of both towers making evacuation difficult and two hours long.

The 1993 perpetrators came from all over the Middle East led by Kuwaiti-born Ramzi Yusef. The bombing was financed by Yusef’s uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who is now in Guantanamo Bay and probably the main reason Obama broke his election promise to close it. As well as WTC 1993, his terror credits included the 1995 Bojinka Plot to blow up 12 US airliners and also crash a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Yusef said the idea for using planes to crash into buildings came from his friend Abdul Hakim Murad, who in turn heard it from the CIA. An undeterred Khalid Mohammed apparently proposed the plan of the 9/11 plot to Bin Laden in 1996.

Whether that is true or not is debatable, but the idea of suicide attackers has long been an extreme staple of warfare because it is so difficult to defend against. It entered the political landscape in 1881 when Tsar Alexander II of Russia was attacked by Nihilist Ignaty Gryniewietsky who who blew himself up killing the Russian ruler in the process. Gryniewietsky’s last letter read: "Alexander II must die...He will die, and with him, we, his enemies, his executioners, shall die too...How many more sacrifices will our unhappy country ask of its sons before it is liberated? It is my lot to die young, I shall not see our victory, I shall not live one day, one hour in the bright season of our triumph, but I believe that with my death I shall do all that it is my duty to do, and no one in the world can demand more of me.”

Gryniewietsky's dangerous conflation of honour and purpose was exactly the same as that inspired Japanese kamekazes in WW2 and later infused Yusef, Sheik Mohammed and those that came after them in 2001. Osama Bin Laden is now dead so there is no way of knowing what role he played in 9/11. What is clearer is the role of Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 19 terrorists that brought down the four planes in the attack. Atta was one of just 4 who weren’t from Saudi Arabia.

Born in Egypt, he graduated in architecture at the University of Cairo and was the key person in the Hamburg cell of radical jihadists that got together from 1998. Atta and other members of the cell went to Afghanistan to meet Bin Laden where they agreed to work with Al Qaeda. In March 2000 he sent an e-mail to 60 companies inquiring about flight training, "Dear sir, we are a small group of young men from different Arab countries,” Atta wrote. “We would like to start training for the career of airline professional pilots.”

His application for a 5-year US visa was approved and he flew to Newark in June 2000 to enrol in the Accelerated Pilot Program at the Academy of Lakeland in Florida, bankrolled by Sheik Khalid. Within a month Atta was flying solo as was his friend Marwan al-Shehhi (who would lead the South Tower attack as Atta took out the North). With daily training. Atta earned his commercial pilot’s licence in November 2000. He told trainers he was hurrying because he had a job lined up at home. With plenty of money to wave around, no one asked him any questions.

By the end of the year, Atta was studying flight deck videos for most of the major commercial airline planes including Boeing 767s and Airbus A320s. In July 2001 Atta went to Spain to meet Yemeni-born Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a fellow Hamburg cell co-conspirator. Ramzi was supposed to be one of the attackers but could not secure a US visa because immigration officials thought Yemenis would illegally overstay their visit. Ramzi supposedly passed on Bin Laden’s instructions what was to be targeted: "four symbols of America”: Congress, the Pentagon, and the two towers.

A plan to get a 20th hijacker to replace Ramzi was thwarted when Saudi-born Mohammed al-Qahtani (also now at Guantanamo) was not allowed in the country because he arrived with a one way ticket and not enough cash to convince authorities he wouldn’t end up an illegal immigrant. It meant Flight 93 had four hijackers unlike the five on the other planes making overpowering them slightly more feasible.

On 23 August 2001 two events occurred that might have raised the alarm about Atta. His driving licence was revoked in court for failing to turn up to defend driving when without a licence earlier that year. The same day Mossad included him on 19 names they gave to the CIA they said were planning an imminent attack. But no-one connected the dots. On September 10, he drove to Portland, Maine where he was scheduled to fly to Boston at 6am on the 11th. At the airport the following morning, Atta was selected for extra screening by the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System.

The Clinton administration launched CAPPS in the late 1990s as a response to the growing terrorist threat. The system uses information on the ticket booking matched against no-fly lists, FBI fugitive lists and other data to assign a risk score. CAPPS deemed 8 of the 19 attackers worthy of further attention. One was ignored because he had no bags, and the rest, including Atta passed muster because their bags contained no explosives. The process was designed to stop people leaving bombs in the luggage and then leaving the airport. But it did not take into account people who wanted to use the planes themselves as another example of the poor man’s air force.

On arrival at Boston, Atta and the others had to go through security again – something the hijackers were not expecting and got angry about - but they got through without incident. The Portland detour served several purposes – a smaller airport was easier to get through, it deflected attention from the fact 8 other Middle Eastern men were leaving directly from Boston and also left the operation intact if Atta had been arrested in Maine.

There was no evidence Atta had box cutters aboard the plane. He did have two Swiss Army knives and a Leatherman multi-tool. He boarded American Airlines Boeing 767 Flight 11 to LAX scheduled to depart at 7.45am. 81 passengers (out of a 158 capacity) and 11 crew were aboard. Two hijackers sat in first class, Atta and two others sat in business class with none in economy (coach). Flight 11 took off at 7.59am and was close to cruising altitude in 15 minutes. The last routine instruction the plane responded to was “American 11 turn 20 degrees right”. When air traffic control radioed Flight 11 seconds later to climb to 35,000 feet, there was no response. They asked 8 more times in the next 10 minutes with no answer.

By now Atta and his 4 helpers stabbed and slashed their way to control of the cockpit. At 8.19am flight attendant Betty Ong rang the NC reservations office to say there was something wrong. She rang that number because it was a common help line for passengers with reservation issues. Her call lasted 25 minutes, though only a default first four minutes was recorded. A calm sounding Ong told the bemused operator the cockpit was not answering her calls and she thought they were getting hijacked. She said two attendants had been stabbed.

By 8.25am Boston air traffic control knew there was a hijack situation. They heard a hijacker’s voice saying “We have some planes. Just stay quiet and you will be okay. We are returning to the airport”. Seconds later Boston Control heard him say “If you try to make any moves you will endanger yourself and the airplane.” As they escalated the information, Ong told NC the plane was flying erratically. Boston told FAA command in Virginia the flight had entered New York air space.

Another Flight 11 attendant Madeline Sweeney got through to Boston Airport and spent 12 minutes talking to the American Airlines flight service manager. The airline then set up an emergency response centre. By now Ong was reporting a fatality in seat 9B held by former Israeli soldier Daniel Lewin. A minute later Boston heard another message from the cockpit: "Nobody move please. We are going back to the airport.” Boston desperately tried to raise Cape Cod military staff to get fighters airborne to tail the plane.

By 8.38am Ong was telling the operator the flight was descending rapidly. At the same time, Boston told the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Northeast Air Defense Sector a plane had been hijacked. Battle Commander Colonel Robert Marr was getting ready for a NORAD exercise when he confirmed this was "real-world" and ordered fighter pilots at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts to battle-stations. He phoned Major General Larry Arnold who confirmed the order to scramble the planes and “get permission later”.

At 8.44am the Ong call ended abruptly. At the same time Sweeney was saying “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent... we are all over the place." The flight service manager asked her to look out the window to work out where they were. Sweeney told him, "We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low." Seconds later she said, "Oh my God we are way too low" and her call ended.

A minute later the Air Force was scrambled but had no idea where to go. At 40 seconds past 8.46am, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the World Trade Center. Atta, Ong, Sweeney and 89 others in the plane were dead as well as countless others in the North Tower. The full horror of Sheik Mohammed’s planned day would take just two more hours to enfold on the world, mostly on live television. The scars it left on America’s psyche, the Arab world and the airplane-travelling public have yet to heal 10 years later.

Ultimately Sheik Khalid Mohammed and Osama Bin Laden were successful in hastening the destruction of US power. In October 2001, Bush turned down a Taliban offer to hand over Bin Laden to a third country and as early as late 9/11 Rumsfeld was pushing the line to bomb Iraq “because there were no targets in Afghanistan”. At no point was any effort made to punish Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for providing most of the terrorists or Egypt's Mubarak for providing Atta.

Instead the PNAC agenda pushed the 9/11 disaster cost of $240 billion out to the dubious double war cost of $1,248 trillion and counting. At 10 percent of US GDP in a time of financial crisis, neither crippling war can yet be considered a success. Instead, they represent a victory to terrorists far greater than they could have imagined with the long-planned destruction of large buildings.

Friday, September 02, 2011

La Gillard enchaîné

The merry-go-round of Australian politics is revolving at sickening speed. Society’s craving for instant gratification has led to demands of perfection immediately. The inevitable failure makes us repeat the mistakes of the past in a desperate attempt to avoid the errors of today. And so the talk is of replacing Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd. This way madness lies - Rudd’s knifing was wrong but there is no reason to believe he will become Lazarus of Queensland.

It is well to remember the ALP still runs the country and despite the High Court and Craig Thomson the only imminent threat to that is to replace its leader. Its coalition with the Greens and independents is predicated on the leadership of Julia Gillard and all bets are off with anyone else at the helm. Such a governing arrangement is common in Europe but is considered the devil’s work in Anglo-Saxon countries (apart from Ireland where amoral politics will tolerate any governing arrangement as long as it can turn a quick buck.)

In Australia, power-sharing is the subject of fear and suspicion from both the major parties. Keating called the Senate “unrepresentative swill”. He was half right because tiny Tasmania had as many seats as NSW where 14 times as many people live, but not right about the wonderfully complex proportional representation and plethora of candidates that made the ballot paper the size of tiny Tasmania. What Keating was really complaining about was the Senate did not agree with him. Similarly there is a perception today the country is overrun by anarchy when all that is happening is there is a government in power whose policies some people don’t agree with.

The fact "the Coalition" does not like coalitions is particularly rich as it tries to combine the neoliberals of the dry Liberal bent with the agrarian socialists of the Nationals. Totem of the latter, Senator Barnaby Joyce would profess to hate any taint of socialism but is a crucial figure in leading opposition to the Government. The US Government was worried Joyce had become a lightning rod for the resistance, particularly over climate change. It was his implacable opposition to climate change action that led to the unseating of Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader and Tony Abbott taking the party to the right.

I was at a meeting in Roma on Monday where Joyce spoke to the local business community. His ability to communicate effectively shone through. But there was little new from I hadn’t heard him say before, except perhaps, the admission he was the only accountant in parliament which “scared the hell out of him”. His audience may not have been entirely made of accountants (there was at least two there) but it was one disposed to be sympathetic. Whatever anger in the room was directed at the government. There was a question from a lady still livid our political system allowed Gillard to replacw Rudd in the first place. This lady was personally affronted and shocked a leader not elected by the people was now running the country. "How can Labor get away with this?" she asked Joyce.

It was a reasonable enough anger but as Joyce explained, the Westminster system allowed it. “You as voters chose your MP and the MPs come together to decide who leads them.” Joyce conceded it could happen on both sides of politics (Hawke/Keating in 1991 and McMahon ousting Gorton in 1971). He did take the opportunity to put the boot into Labor, by saying Rudd’s overthrow was the first time it has happened to a first-time prime Minister (Gorton won in 1969).

It is not enough of a distinction to hang current Labor over but given the presidential nature of election campaigns, politicians should not be surprised when voters see it as a failing in the system. As I wrote at the time, Rudd’s overthrow was a very Australian coup. Again like now, there was no rioting on the streets nor did the stock exchange collapse. The voters stored away their unease and anger and took it out at the ballot box where Labor was badly mauled in 2010.

Yet the Government scraped over the line thanks to Julia Gillard’s formidable negotiating skills and willingness to bargain and compromise with a variety of political perspectives. There were more conservatives than non-conservatives in the parliament so the Liberals played their cards poorly. Tony Abbott’s treacherous nature put off Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott and the pair knew any arrangement with him would be jettisoned as soon as Abbott had the numbers. Instead they dealt with Labor – already in control – who offered a power sharing arrangement guaranteed to 2013. Despite the ideological contortions Oakeshott took 17 agonising minutes to talk through, he knew Gillard made the better offer.

Falling just one seat short of Government left the Coalition with a strong sense of injustice it has nurtured since the election. The party has constantly attacked the “legitimacy” of the government though there is no sign of the police commissioner coming in to arrest Gillard any time soon.

Gillard chose the high road for her administration when she did an about turn on carbon taxation. It was an enormous gamble which she knew would excite opposition on two fronts. Firstly it opened up the breach of trust of going back on her word. Keating and Howard both survived similar breaches though neither suffered a nickname from Alan Jones like Juliar.

Secondly it galvanised an Australian tea party movement still convinced carbon emission issues are overstated and the response to it are the work of a cabal of left-wing fellow travellers. Personified by the recent “convoy of no confidence” (run by the Australian truckies, who will be hit hard by the tax) it sought to magnify the illegitimacy of the government by means of a massive people movement.
To that end the Convoy failed. It attracted poor responses from most towns it visited (except Bob Katter’s own Charters Towers).

But it had a sympathetic run in the media as it fed the “government in crisis” narrative. The convoy supporters’ angry attack on Anthony Albanese yesterday showed what it was really about. They were not there to listen but to jeer. None of those present were likely to vote Labor long before this crisis despite the exaggerated talk of defection of life long Labor voters unhappy with the alliance with the Greens.

This is a confected crisis. The parliament has two years to go and Labor may as well govern their way through it. Saving a by-election or a more serious charge for Craig Thomson, Gillard should survive to the next election. That will give the electorate enough time to look carefully at achievements as well as promises. By 2013, the carbon tax and the NBN will be realities too hard for Abbott to overturn and this week’s High Court result may actually make refugee processing easier for the Government to sell morally because it forces them to do it in Australia. There is also the loose cannon of Tony Abbott and his glib glass jaw that has not yet been fully tested. Despite all the noise and fury, Gillard could still win in 2013, if given the chance.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Australia's own Oranges and Sunshine victims remain forgotten

I saw the Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine last week. The film tells the moving story of the forced migration of UK children, a paternalistic government program from the 1940s to the 1960s that saw 130,000 children removed to Commonwealth countries, mostly to Australia. The British Government kept the program hidden for years as did the Australian Government to the Forgotten Generation – almost half a million children from the UK and Australia. The government snatched these children from their families and sent them to institutional religious environments where they were abused and treated as slave labour.

The film was especially poignant to me because I had met a member of that generation who told me his story for our newspaper. The man’s name is John Walsh who was born in Perth, WA on 27 March 1931. John was the eldest of seven children born in the 1930s who all were forcibly taken away from their parents.

When war broke out in 1939, John’s father joined the WA 2/11 battalion and he embarked for service overseas in 1940. The 2/11th arrived in the Middle East on May 18 and trained in Palestine and Egypt. They were mostly captured by the Germans in Crete and sent to Germany as prisoners of war from April 1941 to November 1945. And as John puts it, while his father and many others like him were serving their country overseas, the WA government destroyed their wives and families and sent the mothers into a life of hell and an early grave.

John said politicians in power from 1939 accused those working class and Aboriginal mothers of neglecting their children. The all powerful Child Welfare took control of the children and told the mothers they could not see their children until they turned 21. In March 1940 the Walsh family was split up. Four brothers John, Billy, Terry and George were sent to Castledare while sisters Theresa, Anne and baby brother Barry were sent to St Joseph's Subiaco. After 4 days, a Mr Young from Child Welfare came to Castledare and asked John to collect his young sister and brother who were in a bad way fretting.

“I had to look after my young sister and brother for about six months. It wasn’t easy with me being about 8 and ½ years of age,” John said. Both of them had to sleep with John on a veranda and the mattress was soaked every day so John had to put the mattress out in the sun every morning. After six months Mr Young returned to take the two youngest back to St Joseph's.

Life was tough in Castledare. John said they never got much to eat. “People would see the bruises on us but you never did say anything for there were a lot of abuses going on and no one would believe you anyway,” he said. “This Christian Brother Murphy whose nickname was Spud was bad. Of course the people wouldn’t believe you, Catholics could do no wrong. You just had to shut your mouth and hope the truth would someday come out.”

In December 1941 eldest boys John and Billy were sent to Clontarf orphanage. They had to move again in February 1942 when the Air Force took over Clontarf and 238 children (200 Australian and 38 English) were sent to Tardun St Mary’s College in three groups by train. This was in the northern wheatbelt of WA one and a half hours east of Geraldton. As John remembers “we were sent into a life of hell from 1942 to 1945.”

At Tardun there was nowhere to sleep so farm machinery was pulled out of the shed to make room for living quarters. They had to wash in horse troughs and worked from daylight to dark to put in a new wing on the old building. “The food they gave you was full of maggots and no way could we eat it,” John said. “We would steal the molasses and boil it up with wheat. We also caught a lot of galahs and other wildlife. We picked up a lot of quondongs off the trees in the bush and also ate a lot of bush fruit. I found out later they were like antibiotics and probably saved us from getting sick.”

Tardun orphanage was so far out in the sticks, the children were out of sight and out of mind. An English boy Charles Brunard,13, was killed by a truck running over him. John was one of those boys on that truck and said Brother Thomas was the driver. “The radiator was boiling over and Brunard was copping all the boiling water as he was sitting on the left-hand guard”. But a normal death certificate was issued. A boy called Kevin Glasheen also died of a fractured skull. Other boys were told to shut their mouths or they would get the same treatment.

The boys also had no warm clothes for the winter. In this life of hell, John remembers Brother Beedon, a short baldy red faced man who wore glasses, who was never happy unless he was belting someone with a strap. “It was a long strap always on the bare bum,” John said. “He was always sexually abusing someone”.

In 1945 the Air Force gave Clontarf back to the Christian Brothers and John returned there. “Those Christian Brothers were paedophiles so we found out; the life of hell was starting out all over again,” he said. No one dared speak out about what was going on. Sexual abuse, floggings, red siphon hose wrapped around your waist, a special strap made for cutting down on leg muscles. The life of hell went on until the children turned 14 and were sent to work on farms.

On 1 August 1947, John was put on a train at Perth to get off at the Serpentine railway station. He waited at Serpentine station for the farmer to pick him up but he was four hours late. When he turned up in a horse and buggy, he went into town to go to a dance. The horse took them home as the boss was drunk. John got five shillings a week with Child Welfare claiming the other two pounds a week. He worked seven days a week between 12 and 15 hours a day and stayed there for six months.

The milk truck helped get him away. John found one of his mother’s friends and her son got him a job at Plaistowes sweet factory in West Perth. “I was there for three weeks before the Child Welfare found me,” John said. “But the Plaistowes brothers and three foremen would not let them touch me. I was 17 years old at the time and still a ward of state until I turned 21.”

John never saw his father again. When the men returned home in 1946 they could not find their families and got no help from the WA Government. John spent most of the rest of his life seeking his family as well as justice. On 1 January 1975 the WA Government destroyed all the files of all the forgotten children. In the 1980s, as Oranges and Sunshine testifies, the UK children came under the spotlight and there were several Senate investigations. But the Australian born victims were ignored. After years of contacting politicians without success, the WA Government finally offered John $45,000 last year, a figure he reluctantly accepted as the best deal he would ever get. He remains bitter about the treatment the Government meted out to the families.

“If the politicians and Child Welfare had paid assistance money these abuses would never have happened,” he said.“They abandoned us and turned a blind eye. It was their responsibility to what went on in these orphanages.” John said the politicians in power at the time thought the religious institutions could do no wrong, so they never went looking for it. “The politicians who were in the Senate in the making of an apology and calling us the forgotten Australians were wrong – we were the hidden Australians."