Sunday, May 22, 2016

Newsflash:  Gold Coast car salesman is not a wanker

For the last six months, the Australian newspaper has been running an intermittent-but-otherwise-red-hot, vindictive campaign to discredit David Ridsdale (1).  Their motivation for doing so seems plain enough – to silence one of George Pell’s chief critics; and the timing of the first three successive headline explosions has been exquisite in this regard – wheeling out David Ridsdale’s past when the public heat would otherwise be on George Pell’s present, per his Royal Commission evidence. 

As to why a loss-making newspaper would allow itself to be used as a blatant PR mouthpiece for such a dubious – but deep-pocketed – cause, you’ll have to ask Rupert or the Vatican.  In any event, my interest here is less in the tawdry underlying economics, but in the even more tawdry extremes to which a story must be stretched, so as to be able to flog the sponsor’s message, disguised, and so unnoticed, among all the lurid bathos.   

When I say “unnoticed”, I am not referring only to the Australian’s mass audience (if that is not an oxymoron).  The Fairfax Press and the ABC (/Media Watch) have been strangely reticent to call the Australian out on the anti-David Ridsdale campaign.  I acknowledge one substantial reason for this reticence – to do justice to this issue, post 7 May 2016 at least, there is no alternative but to tread on the finer feelings (or worse) of a man who here I’ll refer to as the Gold Coast car salesman.  I accept that this is a flimsy pseudonym in the circumstances, and that what I write about him here is deeply personal, unsolicited by him, and the words of a complete stranger.  That said, I wish him no harm, and sincerely hope that, by pointing out how he has been re-victimised by the Australian, this opinion piece takes away one, rather than adds another, layer of his victimisation.
More in the “it goes without saying” category, I express the same sentiments in respect of David Ridsdale.  Quite possibly, adding more oxygen to this story, from whatever “side”, is the last thing he wants at this moment.  In the interests of full disclosure, I also note that, while this piece is also unsolicited by him, he is not quite a complete stranger – either he or one of his brothers was my Grade 1 classmate/playmate at St Alipius Primary School in Ballarat in 1971, but in any event, I have not seen or been in any other form of communication with David Ridsdale since 1971.


Where to start this story?  The Australian’s biggest story in their (ongoing?) PR vendetta series so far – a 7 May 2016 weekend magazine article by Trent Dalton – was centred on the abuse of the Gold Coast car salesman by David Ridsdale in 1984, when the former was 12 and the latter 18.  The article’s title, “Chain Reaction”, evinced a broader concern, however:  what happens when (male) child abuse-victim becomes an adult abuser of children?  Hetty Johnston, a professional spokesperson for child abuse-victims was quoted on some of the nuances here.   Otherwise, Trent Dalton’s interest in the theme was limited to a “chain reaction” of two – starting with David Ridsdale’s childhood abuse by his uncle, priest Gerald Ridsdale, up to 1981, and ending, firmly (if by implication only) with the future Gold Coast car salesman’s childhood abuse by David Ridsdale in 1984. 

However, there was also a passing mention that Gerald Ridsdale also claimed to have been sexually abused as a child.  Should this story, in fairness, start there?  (Trent Dalton obviously thought not.)  Or if Gerald Ridsdale’s rapist (now presumably deceased) was himself abused – as would seem likely – back further still, and so on?

Personally, apart from the evidentiary diminishing returns, I don’t think that much is to be gained from tracing such “chain reactions” well back.  Even if Gerald Ridsdale’s childhood rapist was still alive, and healthy enough to be successfully prosecuted and appropriately sentenced, this would seem to be a mere footnote in the scheme of Gerald Ridsdale’s crimes.

Quite possibly, Gerald Ridsdale himself would regard my dismissive approach here as an injustice and double-standard, saying to himself (and/or to anyone who cares) that (a) he would never have become an abuser but for his own abuse, and (b) he would not have offended so prolifically and for so long, had his own abuser been charged at the “usual” life-stage, per the most common age-of-reporting scenario is when the victim is middle-aged and probably at a low-point, mental-health wise (i.e. in Gerald Ridsdale’s case, c. 1980).  To which I would reply curtly: “You had your chance then”, and c.1980, you blew it on David Ridsdale (among others).  (There are also obvious large differences of scale between the offending of the two Ridsdales, but to go down this path would be to marginalise the victims of once-off paedophiles, so I won’t.)  


We shall start in 1984, then, when, as I’ve said, the future Gold Coast car salesman, then 12, was sexually abused on two or three occasions by David Ridsdale, then 18.  I emphatically think that it should be unnecessary to go into the details of this, which Trent Dalton’s article does, with some apparent relish. 

On this, I think that it is a generally brave act for a victim of childhood sexual abuse to step-forward by name, and so waive their otherwise cast-iron right of anonymity (and doubly so for a male), but I query the collateral price they often pay, in terms of their abuse being graphically described.  While this is presumably necessary in the text of court judgements convicting and sentencing paedophiles (although I often detect a sense of gratuitous voyeurism even in the penning of these), Trent Dalton’s resort to lurid detail is initially inexplicable. 

Additionally, Dalton also lets us into the Gold Coast car salesman’s otherwise-private adult sexual peccadillo, which, to be fair, does depend on our contextual knowledge of some detail about his childhood abuse.  By itself, I don’t have the same reservations about this adult-peccadillo disclosure – a fact that my headline, of course, robustly attests to.  Here, I should mention my philosophy that, should mortifyingly personal (and adult) material “go” public, the lighter the touch, the better.   

Plainly, Dalton’s philosophy is different; he thinks that adult sexual peccadillos should be milked for tragedy, not comedy.  But Dalton needs to set up the Gold Coast car salesman in this (unhelpful to the victim, I would have thought) searing light.   The bare facts of the police-station and courtroom sequel to the 1984 abuse, were they to speak for themselves, would barely add up to a story, whether in 1994 or 2016, much less today’s excoriating, drip-fed public scandal (and private/lurid tragedy). 

In short, David Ridsdale is indeed, as Gerard Henderson loves to put it at every opportunity, a “convicted paedophile” – meaning that as an adult (although at 18, barely) he was, on 5 October 1995, convicted of the indecent assault of the future Gold Coast car salesman over events dating back to 1984.   In fact, David Ridsdale pleaded guilty to all this, and received a good behaviour bond, in large part apparently because of the fact that he himself was a victim of his uncle (although his age at the time and his prospect for rehabilitation presumably also worked in favour of this sentence). 

This sentence was the lightest possible one in the circumstances.  If you (a) haven’t read Trent Dalton’s article, and (b) haven’t paid much attention to mine so far, you may think “Aha!” at this point:  David Ridsdale got a slap on the wrist, while the Gold Coast car salesman got a life-sentence.  And thus, no wonder that the Australian is arcing up here:  Pell’s denouncer has dirty-linen of his own, in receiving a cushy sentence, for an ultra-relevant crime to his present-day reputation. 

Actually, the Australian has said no such thing.  While it repeatedly stresses the general shade of David Ridsdale’s dirty-linen, Trent Dalton’s article is very careful to not even hint that his good behaviour bond was an unjustly light sentence.  Instead, Trent Dalton manages to insinuate that David Ridsdale’s ­guilty plea robbed the Gold Coast car salesman of justice; apparently he only found out about this only recently, having assumed for two decades (and Trent Dalton is careful to imply this only) that his case against David Ridsdale had been quietly dropped, for some strange or sinister reason, ­by the Ballarat police (an agency that the Gold Coast car salesman in the mid-1990s had already found to be quite unhelpful personally). 

So, to get Trent Dalton’s story straight here, David Ridsdale’s ­guilty plea, far from sparing the Gold Coast car salesman the need to travel and re-live his abuse in an interstate courtroom, a kilometre or two from the scene of the crimes, instead exacerbated his childhood abuse, by thwarting his chance for closure.  While David Ridsdale, of course, had something to potentially gain (2) from his ­guilty plea, to turn this around, as Trent Dalton does, as a re-victimisation of the Gold Coast car salesman by David Ridsdale  – who under Dalton’s logic, somehow had the Ballarat police working under his thumb – is perverse, in my opinion.

But you can be the judge here.  Is David Ridsdale a criminal mastermind, a man who only the Australian is brave enough to call out?  Do Fairfax and the ABC actively still hide David Ridsdale’s murky past, despite it being all over Google (although without any hint of the victim’s identity until very recently) since at least 2002 (3), because acknowledging it would wholly rescind his bona-fides as a George Pell critic, and possibly also rescind the bona-fides of all George Pell critics, as co-conspirators with David Ridsdale?  This is the Australian’s reverse Samson-and-Goliath bottom-line (editorially, if not also in accounts-receivable). 

To be blunt, I have no doubt as to whom I would rather have teaching or baby-sitting my (hypothetical) children out of David Ridsdale or George Pell – the “convicted paedophile” wins over the supposed moral paragon.  No doubt the Gold Coast car salesman sees this differently, but here I suggest that the New Testament may have some interesting and relevant opinions on this dilemma.  This hypothetical aside, I suggest that if anyone honestly believes that George Pell has done more to arrest clerical paedophilia in Australia than David Ridsdale, warts and all, then they are one sick puppy.  Although such sick puppies are probably still in a moral class above those who gang-up and demonise David Ridsdale simply for the money.  I’ll leave it to you to decide who is in which moral category here.  

In a strange way, I’m actually with the Gold Coast car salesman c. 2015 (when he had a breakdown) all the way on one aspect – when Trent Dalton, Gerard Henderson, and John Ferguson have had an uninvited and unwelcome wank right next to me (viz, reading the Australian at breakfast, if you must know), for taking such a grotesque liberty with little-old me, every time I now see their names in public now, for their gutless temerity, I shake with a near-bottomless rage.   And if, reading this now, you feel that I have also wanked right across little-old-your own virtue, I’m terribly sorry – but to this I plead guilty also.  The “chain reaction” goes on, I’m afraid.

Disclosure:  Paul Watson is (A) a wanker, who (B) would be an appalling salesman, who would not be able to sleep at night unless he had informed every potential customer of each potential defect in the merchandise.  He also (C) has a strong personal belief in Hell, otherwise known as the Gold Coast, or in Paul Watson’s parochial moral compass, “Vatican II” – both Vaticans being places where anything and everything is for sale, and very little is real.   

Update 23 May 2016

I’ve just become aware that the ABC – perhaps stung by Gerard Henderson’s hysterical cry of “censorship” on 12 February 2016 # decided to play “me too” with the Gold Coast car salesman’s story, on 10 May 2016.

# “Meanwhile The Age — plus the rest of Fairfax Media plus the ABC — has chosen to censor the news that Pell’s chief accuser, David Ridsdale, is himself a convicted paedophile. David Ridsdale pleaded guilty in 1984 [sic] to having sexually assaulted a 12 year old boy when aged 18.

This was revealed by John Ferguson in The Australian on 21 December 2015. But the Pell-haters in Fairfax Media and at the taxpayer funded public broadcaster seem to have determined that this news is not fit to print or broadcast”.

Personally, I would have thought Gerard Henderson’s (and George Pell’s) connections with the late, paedophile-protecting, and ultra-conservative Bishop James O’Collins (a story that no mainstream media organisation wants to touch, despite being well-enough documented) are a much bigger case of “censorship” than David Ridsdale’s lone teenage crime.

But on the topic of (arguably) minor crimes, I also note two errors of fact by Gerard Henderson.  The first, in the above quote, should read “1996”, not “1984”.  The effect of this error is to separate in time David Ridsdale’s disclosures as perpetrator from those as victim.  In fact, of course, these were at much, if not exactly, the same time (1994-95) – a point that deserves taking the time to stop and think "what if?".  What if David Ridsdale had never made his dual disclosures to the police, re the Gold Coast car salesman and Gerald Ridsdale?  I suggest that the outcome here in 2016 would have been:  (a) David Ridsdale would today be a privately troubled middle-aged man, but not a “convicted paedophile”, (b) the Gold Coast car salesman would today also be a privately troubled middle-aged man (still depressed that the Ballarat police had fobbed him off about David Ridsdale in 1994, but at least having had two decades since without even hearing mention of the name of David Ridsdale).  Oh, and (c) Gerald Ridsdale would still be a free man – and quite probably, if not still offending in his 80s, having racked up hundreds more victims in his 60s and 70s.  In other words, there would have been one, and only one, big winner – be careful what you wish for, people.

The second error of fact by Gerard Henderson makes me wonder whether it, and the error above, were actually intentional.  This one could not possibly be a typo.  In his 21 May 2016 column, Henderson wrote:

Also, the royal commission declined to question David Ridsdale (one of Pell’s chief critics) on Ridsdale’s pedophile conviction in 1995 — revealed in February by The Australian”.

Here, the “February” reference can only mean Henderson’s 12 February 2016 column  – as quoted above (first quote)  – which prominently referred to John Ferguson on 21 December 2015 as actually breaking the news.  But most Australian readers, of course, would not also read this blog, or otherwise take the trouble to look back for Henderson’s February reference, so allowing his error, as to who "broke" (3)  the story, to "stick".  Has John Ferguson – who as “Victorian Political Editor” was on a plainly extra-curricular assignment in the first place – had some post 7 May 2016 reputation-saving second-thoughts about his own complicity in the “chain reaction” that his December article started, and so Gerard Henderson has kindly stepped in to muddy the first link in the chain?


1.      See:

“Pell accuser indecently assaulted boy at YMCA”, John Ferguson (Victorian Political Editor, Melbourne), Australian 21 December 2015.

 “Media Watch Dog: Banging the (loaded) Drum on the ABC”, Gerard Henderson,
Australian website, uploaded 12 February 2016, 3:45pm.

“Ghosts of the past bring horror back to life 30 years on” and “Chain Reaction”, both by Trent Dalton, Australian 7 May 2016.

 “Sex abuse royal commission fails test of fairness”, Gerard Henderson, Australian 21 May 2016.

2.    This was not a one-way bet.  If he was more concerned about avoiding the “convicted paedophile” tag than the increased possibility of a custodial sentence, David Ridsdale would have been well-advised to plead not ­guilty, and take his chances with a jury.   Had he a criminal-defence budget in the realms of the six or seven-figure sums that the Catholic Church has routinely spent in recent years defending its in-house paedophiles, I suggest that David Ridsdale would have been a fool to plead guilty.

3.    The Australian dredges up some old news and proclaims a "scoop".

Monday, April 18, 2016

On chastity vs hands down deep pockets

Celibacy is a “gift” to the Catholic priesthood; a key part of a grand vow and voluntary choice for life (usually).  That for gay Catholics celibacy is just baldly assumed should be an outrage.  Such individuals are deemed to be in a kind of second-rate priesthood; entered into involuntarily, and with zero trappings or institutional support.

Of course, this has long been a successful recruitment strategy for the priesthood and convents; for centuries, it was almost a no-brainer.  When puberty made it clear the depth and type of one's sexual identity, and assuming one wanted to remain a good Catholic, to enter the priesthood was a free first-class ticket for life (and beyond) while the only non-sinful alternative was a bleak, hard road.

This balance has now been torn asunder, of course. For the last few decades, very few gay Catholic adolescents in the West have succumbed to the Church’s bluff.  When one alternative in a binary “choice” involves demonstrable psychological distress for life, discarding the very binary framework, and instead entering into a life of “sin” is, I suggest, a profoundly moral decision.  To have taken the easy road would be to encourage blackmail; and ditto for the hard road.

This is at the heart of the Catholic Church’s inability to deal with its deep sickness within.  Without substantial fresh flows into the priesthood, the whole system quickly becomes illiquid.  The small numbers of new seminarians are much more likely to be heterosexual – for whom the category of second-rate celibate does not apply, and so in general are more fickle in their belonging.  Incumbent gay priests are thereby doubly deprived of young gay men to have uncomplicated intra-workplace dalliances with (one of the tacit fringe benefits of the priesthood, it would seem).

This crisis actually has already passed; with the paedophilia epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s being a grim marker of the transition period.  Akin perhaps to a butterfly flapping its wings causing quite something else, the modern gay rights era has a causal relationship to the paedophilia epidemic of my childhood.

To attribute blame here would be ludicrous, I hope it goes without saying. The thinking-in-centuries Catholic Church was caught wrong-footed and on the hop.  Equally, this rupture explains why the Church must clamp down so heavily on even a small gesture of homophilia within its ranks.  Loosely speaking, the present-day proliferation of out gay men and women is now a sort of rival priesthood to the Church, albeit one without earthly trappings built-in to the job description. 

Though middle-age gay ex-Catholics are only a part of this diverse mob, their presence as secular traitors – who should have been priests – has been a singular, and quite personal, tipping-point.  My age cohort bore the brunt of the paedophilia epidemic, as priests on a sinking ship took out their fears and frustrations, indiscriminately.  In the 1970s and 80s, it was probably a desperate, double-or-nothing recruitment strategy, to keep some semblance of business as usual.  The hope at the time must have been that, for gay Catholic adolescents with strong stomachs and love of hypocrisy – which is to say, future leadership material – the old closet bargain was still on.

However, few, if any, of my generation bought this – leaving the Church in a lurch.  Its human capital now in probably terminal decline, it has had no choice but to focus its efforts on the other sort of capital – money.  As this focus alone would seem crass, the Church also kept some moral irons in the fire.  Chief among these is that old chestnut, the virtue of the celibate closet for gay Catholics, and the relatively-new, corollary evil of the “gay lobby”.  As a PR strategy for a tarnished institution, this is beyond ridiculous.  But for an organisation now bereft of a large cohort of middle-aged leaders (or leaders in waiting), I can understand the logic and attraction of this strategy for the ageing keepers of an objectively rudderless real-estate empire and cash-box.

Like inbred third-world oil-sheikhs, the Church both can afford the very best lawyers and PR lackeys (some of whom purport to be journalists), and indeed nothing less would compensate for the imbecility of the client.  Accordingly, the paedophilia epidemic grew a substantial industry of hangers-on in recent decades – loyal retainers, if you like, with proven strong stomachs (through representing guilty paedophiles, and discrediting and vilifying victims). 

Having such loyal retainers, just because the task one initially engaged them for dries up should not mean that they are let go.  This is the final, delicious irony – that the Catholic Church has now effectively outsourced its homophobia – a new and growing line of work – to expensive professionals.  The emergence of this (secular and self-perpetuating) “priesthood” was perhaps inevitable – a liking for first-class trappings, and a lack of moral scruples allows a pleasing congruence between geriatric cash-box keeper and up-and-coming cash-box donee. 

Or put another way, the old game of blackmail successfully continues in another guise.  The sexuality of this new outsourced “priesthood” scarcely matters, as long as they follow the homophobic script.  It is easy money, I suppose.  But for me, and I’m quite sure for a disproportionate and growing number of my generation also, the hard road – staying celibate from the financial tentacles of the Catholic Church – has never looked so attractive.             

Monday, December 14, 2015

Peter Ryan, last of the Alf Conlon-ites

It is a shame that Peter Ryan, who died yesterday aged 92, will probably be remembered as a man of three parts:  young soldier, middle-aged publisher and grumpy old culture-warrior, per the 1993-94 Manning Clark/Soviet Spy controversy.  Actually, his public life really only had one, long act.

I have no doubt that Ryan’s military service in what became PNG during WWII, in some ways, forged the young man.  But it was a Melbourne office military posting to Alf Conlon’s DORCA #, in the later stages of WWII, which gave him a strikingly consistent agenda for the rest of his public life.  While it is unclear who exactly Peter Ryan was a near-lifelong agent for, plainly he was a toxic human being who used his cultural, commercial and official power to destabilise Australian intellectual life over seven decades.  For the most part, he did this smoothly and expertly – but wantonly – leaving little trace of his interventions, but a large penumbra of fallout.

# Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs

The “Was Manning Clark a Soviet Spy?” controversy was hardly subtle or without obvious risk of personal blowback to Ryan – after all, he was Clark’s long-term publisher at MUP, albeit Ryan started there after the “History of Australia” series was first commissioned.  Turning on one of one’s own children (even if s/he is technically a step-child, but brought up by the step-parent from a very young age) is rarely a good look.  So what prompted Ryan to this extreme in September 1993, and why did he wait for two years after Clark’s death to plunge the knife in?

Part of the answer, I believe, is that Ryan earlier had other balls in the air, and wanted to see first how these others would fall, and thus align for posterity.  Most importantly, Ryan’s lifelong mission was to sanitise from the record the corrupting influence, to the present-day (if nebulously so), of Alf Conlon’s WWII DORCA.  While this unit today is principally known for its connections to high-end political intrigue in 1975 (per dismissal of Gough Whitlam by John Kerr, another DORCA alumnus) and contemporaneous vaudeville (the Ern Malley hoax), it deserves to be much-better known, through its successor ASOPA ##, as the principal architect of Australian government Aboriginal policies in the 1950s.  And probably ever since – that is, if the machinations of Peter Ryan to suppress the DORCA/ ASOPA/Aboriginal policy connection are interpreted as significant in themselves.  It was only in early 1993, with the death of Paul Hasluck, that Ryan felt the coast was clear, as it were, to change his game from defensive subterfuge to open, peripheral attack.    

## Australian School of Pacific Administration

Paul Hasluck notably loathed Alf Conlon; equally Ryan never said a word against him.  As Hasluck saw it, this was principally because of Conlon’s loose-cannon role at DORCA during WWII, but later on, Hasluck either never realised – or at least never admitted – that ASOPA, secretly but very effectively, had hugely undermined him as Territories Minister (so notionally also in charge of Commonwealth Aboriginal policy) between 1951 and 1963.

It is here, in influencing Paul Hasluck to never say another public word about Alf Conlon after 1980 (when MUP published Diplomatic Witness), that Ryan’s staggering modus operandi is revealed.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ryan, under the guise of an improbable friendship, groomed the frail and elderly widower Hasluck, flying him to Melbourne to visit Ryan at least four times in 1988-1991, so encouraging Hasluck to take certain facts and opinions to his grave (on the face of it, successfully so).  While Hasluck was not quite the last of that generation who could have, as a senior insider who was not plainly a Conlon-ite, spilled the beans on DORCA/ ASOPA/Aboriginal policy, the last such living domino – Harry Giese – dropped off in 2000, besieged by controversy about his personal responsibility for removing Aboriginal children, per the Stolen Generations. Whatever blame can legitimately be put on Giese here, writing the child-removal policy was not one of them – that was the job of the Canberra bureaucrats, who had a shadowy DORCA and US-military alumnus, Nick Penglase, among them (Penglase also recruited Ryan to DORCA).  Nor was Giese responsible for training the welfare officers who (along with police) performed these removals in the Northern Territory; these officers were, after 1956, ASOPA graduates.

For now, I won’t go into the intricate specifics of how Ryan groomed Hasluck, other than to say that Ryan was surprisingly careless about what he blurted out in public sometimes.   Perhaps this is the inbuilt flaw of a mostly self-educated man, through circumstance elevated to work with Australia’s very best and brightest – in aiming for a breezy camaraderie to compensate for being out of his intellectual death, he instead made some jaw-dropping moves.  

While his grooming of Hasluck is not one of these overt clangers, Ryan’s clumsy attempt to absolve himself from personal responsibility for accepting CIA funds for MUP to publish, in 1969 under John Kerr’s Presidency of Law Asia, a book on – of all things – Asian contract law is revealing.  A furious letter to the editor by that book’s co-author David E Allan [“Clear funds for law book”, Australian 4 February 1999], calling for a retraction and apology from Peter Ryan, was not answered in word or deed, as far as I am aware.  Whoever Ryan (and possibly Conlon too) really worked for – and the CIA appears to be the most likely possibility – plainly did not care about either loyalty in human relationships or plain logical consistency.  Following the party line was all; which ironically made Ryan quite the undisclosed expert, of course, on Manning Clark’s supposed communist infiltration of the Australian academy.

I believe that Manning Clark’s supposed communist influence was also well-timed, in 1993-94, to distract from the otherwise bigger, fresher, and more important Left-Right story of the day; Aboriginal policy, immediately  post-Mabo.  Twenty-two years on, I assume that Peter Ryan died yesterday with a smile on his face – that in seventy years of manufactured disarray in Australian Aboriginal policy, he was never once found out, despite often being quite close to the action.  In case it needs to be spelled out, this disarray has been materially and psychically catastrophic for generations of Indigenous Australians.  It has also been, I suggest, an intellectual vortex for some of our smartest whitefellas; thinking they were boxing away their hardest in the ring of public ideas, when the whole game was always secretly rigged.    

It is now time to start reversing these disastrous 70 years, by telling some home truths, and wiping the smile off the face of the late Peter Ryan, idiot, glove-puppet and traitor.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Mulkearns and ecclesisatical responsibility; paedophilia and the National Civic Council

“Paedophilia is a continuation of office and union politics by other means”

-          Apparent personal motto of Bishop James O’Collins, 1892-1983 

As Gerard Henderson likes to remind us (1), supporting George Pell’s case that he knew nothing about clerical sex abuse in his patch until the early 1990s, the two bishops who Pell worked under during the decades in question (2) were “liberal” in contrast to the conservative Pell.  Ergo, implies Henderson, Pell, despite having senior roles in both dioceses, was plausibly locked out of the information loop by his immediate superiors over two decades (1971-c.1991), regarding paedophile priests. 

It is a strange and far-fetched argument when you think about it.  Pell, whose career plainly prospered under both these men, was according to Henderson nonetheless a victim of office politics when it came to them not sharing certain information.  If so, this was a tickle-with-a-feather, if not downright lucky, type of victimhood for Pell. 

When Mulkearns and Little both retired under a cloud at about the same time, Pell could go from nought to a hundred on the issue; from being (under his own account) almost certainly the last senior cleric in the Ballarat and Melbourne dioceses to know about widespread clerical sex abuse, to being the first senior cleric (in the Melbourne diocese) to do something to address its effects. 

From zero to hero overnight – I am surprised that Henderson doesn’t also add to Pell’s list of victimhood slights by pointing out that Hollywood should have, but hasn’t, already made a movie about Pell’s long decades of unknowing innocence, probably because Hollywood is also infested with “liberals”.  Such a movie would gloriously detail Pell’s resolute fighting fibre when he belatedly learns the truth, and conveniently gets the top job soon after, in a third act that would be wall-to-wall triumph for the underdog Pell, who fought so long and so hard against all odds.  But I digress.

Speaking of the truth, I am surprised that Gerard Henderson’s recent article didn’t bookend the (according to him) weaselly liberal reign of Mulkearns at Ballarat by his conservative, and similarly long-serving predecessor, James O’Collins.  O’Collins was, as I presume Henderson is aware, one of the three founding executives of The Movement in September 1945 (3).  This highly secret anti-communist organisation later morphed into the National Civic Council, which in turn by 1971 had dwindled into something of a shell of its former nuts-and-bolts heyday – keeping communists out of positions of infleunce, particularly in trade unions.  By the eve of Whitlam, the union communist bogeyman was barely a threat; if you believed in these things, communism was by then doing its dirty work more insidiously and nebulously still, via a liberal/left-wing counter-culture, whose agenda included sexual permissiveness.

From the mid-to-late 1960s, this new enemy was always going to be difficult to fight.  Nonetheless, some of The Movement’s younger warriors have risen to present-day positions of power and influence, and in so doing, have rarely if ever given an inch to the liberals; Gerard Henderson and George Pell, for example.  And let’s not forget Australian Prime Minister until recently, Tony Abbott, although he undoubtedly had to make more compromises than his mentor Pell in his rise to the top. 

Were it not for The Movement’s efforts over the decades, I’m sure that we’d now have had communist-mandated Sodom and Gomorrahs on every street corner.  What a terrible thought – a world where the sexual frontier would involve consenting adults with no sexual hang-ups, and not good old-fashioned child abuse behind closed doors, with associated team-bonding and career-enhancing blackmail, by looking through the keyhole.  But again I digress.

Going back to May 1971, James O’Collins was then in seeming good health (4) when he handed over the reins to Mulkearns as Bishop of Ballarat.  O’Collins choosing to throw in the towel at this point would, I think, make a very good opening scene for a quite different Hollywood movie, although one I doubt that Gerard Henderson and George Pell would have the stomach to watch.

This movie’s backstory starts like this:  in September 1945, the young and relatively junior O’Collins was not merely one of three senior clergy co-founders of The Movement – he was also its points man within the Church hierarchy (5) – effectively its founding CEO – although officially he was just its chaplain.  How and why a provincial and relatively junior bishop got this role seems to speak volumes about The Movement’s ethos and modus operandi; it was out of sight, out of mind, as far as the main Church hierarchy was concerned.   Like the 2000s US practice of extraordinary rendition, the Australian and Vatican big-wigs didn’t want to know too much about what O’Collins was getting up to, as long as he delivered the goods.

Funnily enough, torture was a common element in, say, 2000s Egypt (as one country that enthusiastically cooperated with US in delivering/accepting extraordinary rendition) and the 1960s Ballarat diocese under O’Collins.  To be fair, torture was an integral part of the Egyptian-American pact, while perhaps it was only a sideshow for the O’Collins-Vatican pact.

You see, in 1960s Ballarat, O’Collins was a battle-hardened general, who should have been at the peak of his career.  The annoying itch for him, if not sexual, was that infiltrating the unions, and associated malarkey, was fast becoming redundant – and what was an ageing, once high-flying and ambitious man, now forever marooned in the provinces, to do with a day-job that had once been so adrenal? 

The bored O’Collins’creative solution to his career ennui was to foster, over the 1960s, a paedophile network within his diocese.  As you do, apparently.  While O’Collins may or may not have had a personal proclivity for raping chidren en masse, its requirement for the strictest secrecy was plainly a pleasing use for O’Collins of his highly-trained, pre-existing skill set, from The Movement’s cloak-and-dagger heyday.  His skills that otherwise would go rusty. (And wouldn’t that be a crime, he may well have thought.)

There is plenty of information available confirming O’Collins as a knowing paedophile protector, one who was at least as culpable as Mulkearns and Little are/were, on Gerard Henderson’s loaded account.  In leaving O’Collins out of the story, while digging a grave, as it were, for Mulkearns, perhaps Henderson may care to explain what it all means that John Day was promoted by O’Collins after paedophile allegations were known, while conversely, Mulkearns, in the same position, effectively demoted Day to the small parish of Timboon; a surely unprecedented move, at the time if not also now, for a Monsignor.  [NB: I am not defending Mulkearns’ action in this specific respect, only pointing out that it was significantly less culpable, in my opinion, than O’Collins’ craven act in promoting known horrific paedophile John Day].  

At this point, the Hollywood movie really hits its straps.  By early 1971, O’Collins had apparently had enough of running a secret Salo Republic-style child-abuse sideshow (if not main arena) within his diocese.  The secrecy side of it was no doubt fun for him, a stimulating game to oversee, if not also play, but perhaps overall it was becoming all a bit tawdry, especially while outside, the emergent permissive society daily reminded O’Collins that the war against communism that he had signed on for in September 1945 was now essentially lost, or at least hopelessly side-tracked

In 1971, O’Collins thus understandably wanted out – but he and the Vatican were in a quandary:  who could be trusted to take over his job, and not to spill the beans on the sordid sexual empire that O’Collins ran?  A liberal, that’s who.

Mulkearns’ appointment after O’Collins may seem counter-intuitive; they were ideological opponents, after all, and what was to stop Mulkearns spilling the beans, cleaning up the debauched mess he inherited from O’Collins, and so making O’Collins retirement very uncomfortable, at best? (And conversely, Mulkearns’ job perhaps a lot easier, depending on how he played his cards with the Vatican, and vice versa).

This is the big mystery in the movie – and sorry folks, I’m not going to spoil the ending now.  But I will give you some hints about the strange O’Collins-Mulkearns handover.

On Easter Thursday, 11 April 1971, just before Mulkearns took over from O’Collins, the ambitious, and highly-educated young priest George Pell left Europe, and his cosmopolitan student life forever, for workaday Ballarat.  He therefore missed the opportunity to settle in nicely to his first diocesan appointment, at least, under his mentor, O’Collins, and instead had his career left to Mulkearns’ caprices, although in this – and every – respect, the Vatican obviously was Mulkearns’ boss.  In any event, you might think:  “silly George Pell and silly O’Collins for not timing more career overlap between them here?  Or not?  I’ll leave the contents of the rest of this narrative arc to you.

In guessing your own narrative sweep and ending here, you may want to consider a couple of other snippets.  One is that O’Collins got to live on in the imposing bluestone Bishop’s Palace in Ballarat until he died on 25 November 1983; while Mulkearns had to camp out (as Paul Keating may have put it) elsewhere.  What this means as to the power relativities between the retiree and the nominal boss, I’ll up leave to you, as likewise also the fact that George Pell lived with O’Collins in the same Bishop’s Palace in for some years in the early 1980s. 

Finally, to bring up the current Royal Commission, yesterday lawyer Sam Duggan, for Cardinal Pell, said that some words  George Pell allegedly said in 1983 (“Haha I think Gerry’s [Gerald Ridsdale has] been rooting boys again”):

Indeed, Sam Duggan seemed to have a point – that is, unless you know about the obscure concept of ecclesiastical responsibility, a canon law doctrine in which a Bishop is effectively still responsible for a diocesan priest’s actions, even if that priest is sent to another diocese, or even another state.

This is quite undeservedly an obscure doctrine, in my opinion, as it seems to have as many important legal ramifications as the notorious “Ellis defence”.  I only learnt about it this morning when I read this:

Sam Duggan’s “it makes no sense whatsoever” thus in fact makes quite a lot of sense, to me anyway – Ridsdale (among others) was the poisonous gift ("chalice", if you must) that Mulkearns was handed in 1971, and then could never, try as he might, shake off.  Wherever Ridsdale was sent to geographically, he was still Mulkearns’s jurisdictional problem (unless the Vatican laicised Ridsdale, which was notoriously hard to do).   I’ll leave the implications of this doctrine, especially in regard to the consequent motivations two other main players in the Hollywood movie, to you.

Back to 2015, in fact – although I’m not positively sure about this sequence – Sam Duggan had just yesterday heard the above lines about ecclesiastical responsibility in the Royal Commission shortly before he uttered his lame “it makes no sense whatsoever” line. 

You need to start paying more attention, Sam – you will now necessarily have your own role in the great Hollywood movie I have referred to, when you will face your own proverbial cross-examination.  And coming days in the Royal Commission will determine whether that role is career-making or breaking for you.


(1) “Cardinal must receive a fair go at royal commission and in media” Australian 5 December 2015

(2) The now terminally-ill Ronald Mulkearns b. 1930, bishop of Ballarat 1971 to 1997, Pell worked under him from May 1971 to late 1983 or early 1984; and the late Frank Little, Archbishop of Melbourne 1 July 1974 to 16 July 1996, Pell worked under him in a loose sense from 1984, when Pell became rector of Corpus Christi college in Melbourne, and then more firmly from 1986, when the then-Pope, without reference to Little, appointed Pell an auxiliary bishop of Melbourne, until he took over Little’s job in mid-1996.

(3) All  three were senior clergy; the other two were Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne and Cardinal Gilroy of Sydney; see Paul Ormonde, The Movement, p 134.

(4) Though O’Collins was then 79, he lived until late 1983. 

(5) See FN 3.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Arise, Ye New Arts Minister

I happened to be in Mildura the other night (Friday 2 October 2015), to capture an historic occasion – albeit in a Zapruder kinda way.  New Arts (and Communications) Minister Senator Mitch Fifield was at his first arts event as Minister (or more precisely, and as it usually coincides, his first Opening Night).

That day’s Australian had run a story on Senator Fifield’s thinness on the arts ground during his first two weeks.  Oddly perhaps, Senator Fifield’s reply letter, published in the next day’s Australian, did not mention his then-imminent Mildura appearance. 

While the main reason he was in town was apparently a CW-state meeting of arts ministers, this coincided with the opening festivities of the Mildura Palimpsest Biennale.  While neither attendance seems to have any reason for being a secret, I may be naively underestimating the throngs of poets, at al, who may have one-to-one implored, or en masse heckled the new minister, had they known where to find him.

I can report that Senator Fifield presents nicer in person than his press photos make him appear (which look I’d call Country Town Beadle), gave a reasonable speech, and then adjourned to the lawn near where I was sitting.  I turned around to take a photo, which fortuitously was at the precise moment he was handed, post-speech, his first glass of champagne.

The photo’s resolution is appalling, but the trio’s body language speaks plenty, I believe.  The senator, the drink-fetcher (probably his spouse or a staff member), and Mildura Palimpsest Biennale curator Jonathan Kimberley (in blue jacket) all appear to reverently focus on the full glass of champagne.  

There appears to be an unstated ceremonial aspect to the moment – the imminent first sip will make it all official, marking the point at which there is no turning back; a future of frequent re-enactments of the same crisp scene, just with different backgrounds and lookers/hangers-on, now awaits the senator.

Whether this same, refilled cup contains a sweet elixir, heady-brew, or Lethean coping-juice should be ascertainable, I’d guess, by about the one-hundredth performance by Senator Fifield of his now de riguer little set-piece.   

Saturday, September 05, 2015

NT spending Aboriginal-disadvantage money “as they see fit”

The Australian has recently run two front-page articles on the siphoning of CW money intended to remedy Indigenous disadvantage:

·        Amos Aikman, “Aboriginal cash siphoned” Australian 8 August 2015, and

·        Amos Aikman, “‘Close gap’ funds spent on desk jobs” Australian 5 Sep 2015.

In one sense, this is not an old story at all with Nicolas Rothwell having made the same point several times over recent years (Rothwell also has an editorial in the Australian 8 August 2015, “Scandal of underspending on Territory’s remote communities”, but it is something of a weary understatement).

Where the funds have gone to is, of course, the multi-billion dollar question.  According to the page four graphs in Amos Aikman’s article today (“‘Close gap’ funds spent on desk jobs” Australian 5 Sep 2015, the Northern Territory government has received about 25% of about $1.3bn in IAS grants.  That’s about $315m.  However, Aikman’s text has this as a paltry $31.5m.  Whether the decimal place was a subbing error or not, it is a convenient whitewash for the Northern Territory government.  Hence, my drawing attention to it ASAP. 

While this has to be a brief post, here I also point out the Northern Territory government’s apparent mea culpa in the earlier article (Amos Aikman, “Aboriginal cash siphoned” Australian 8 August 2015):

“A spokesperson for Territory Treasurer Dave Tollner . . .  argued state and Territory governments were free to distribute revenue as they saw fit”.


Saturday, May 02, 2015

Anzac Day 50 years on, 50 years on

One-hundredth anniversaries are necessarily artificial re-imaginings – there will be no one alive, with a cogent first-hand memory, to listen to.  And when there is no one to listen to, talk is cheap and abundant – albeit within some strict limits.  That is to say, it is ubiquitous and meaningless propaganda.

Book browsing recently, I came across a fiftieth anniversary of Anzac Day account #.  With many WWI veterans still alive in 1965, it was refreshingly unvarnished looking back to the long summer of 1915 at Gallipoli.  It could have, but didn’t, dwell on the more cringe-worthy aspects of Anzac Day commemorations c. 1960 (a la the play “The One Day of the Year”), and/or how, back in 1915, Incompetent British Officer X wasted the lives of Y plucky Australians at Z beach, when instead ZZZ beach was, in hindsight, the obvious weakness in the Turks’ defences.

My main recollection of George Johnston’s article is that nudity at Gallipoli was a big thing – lots of nude swimming off the beaches (including by British officers, whose competence was not specified), and later on, presumably as the summer heat peaked, general nudity in the trenches.  As with any good homoerotic idyll, then, the late-autumn evacuation (a non-botched operation, by all accounts) was a dream ending – from above, it was a sobering prod from the real-world, and from below, a sweet, seasonal passing. 

What George Johnston doesn’t indicate is how much of a downright gay old time was had.  While accepting that what happened at Gallipoli sexually was always, quite properly, going to mostly stay at Gallipoli, it could liberate the Australian national consciousness in several ways to think that the silver lining at Gallipoli (an upside of the sort that is found in many other awful and/or macabre situations, which in no way minimises the downside) was not a vague, collective “us” Finding Somebody to Ceremoniously Blame, but rather was young Australian men improvising and doing it for themselves – assertively in charge of their own bodies, despite or because of the dire situation all around.    

Why George Johnston’s account, and its underlying implications, have not gained traction over the last 50 years is not hard to explain.  The Official Australian Anzac Account TM was first penned by 30 y.o. Australian journalist (and later newspaper proprietor and WWII Chief Censor) Keith Murdoch, who used it to advance his career greatly, despite the content of the long letter he wrote clearly breaking wartime censorship rules.  In that letter, Murdoch famously – and to date, everlastingly – stuck it to the British.  More importantly perhaps, Murdoch’s loftily-praised Australian soldiers were virile but otherwise apparently sexless, and also mostly voiceless.  Overnight, an idealised, politically-passive (and fully-clothed and heterosexual) volk was manufactured – delivering packaged readers to Murdoch, and packaged voters to the politicians who clamoured around him.

One hundred years on, it is breathtaking how little has changed.  In April 2010, the Murdoch press freely incited the murder of a police informer, Carl Williams, publishing top-secret information without legal sanction.  It and its government and other cronies get away with this, and much more, because Australia’s volk have short memories – our democracy, like Anzac Day at 5pm, is a drunken echo-chamber.

Murdoch’s capture, and privatisation of history has perpetuated a false history that masquerades as communally-owned authentic populism – dangerous as it is to say this (albeit it is now well after 5pm on Anzac day).  The real story – one piece of which is what George Johnston told – is not suitable for private manipulation and profit.  It is also, therefore, genuinely owned by all of us.  Sketchy though it is, it is time that we took pride in this story, and junked, once and for all, Murdoch’s wretched Anzac crock.

# George Johnston, “Anzac – a myth for all mankind”, Walkabout April 1965, reproduced in Walkabout anthology 1968, pp 52-58.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Choosing lifestyle

“Lifestyle” is now surely a self-parodying word.  Its main current usage seems to be by real-estate agents hyping the location virtues of otherwise perhaps unliveably-small inner city apartments – they are invariably on “lifestyle strips”.  Presumably meaning an area with two or more copycat, hipster-rent-a-crowd cafés – so if your apartment is not sufficiently claustrophobic, you can take the lift down, to where you can soak up your new “lifestyle” in all its deafening, crowded and bum-numbing glory.  (If you’re under 35, I do appreciate that these things are actually positives, and indeed the Most Risky Thing in The World for a hipster to do would be to patronise a new café in which there is not already a “hipster quorum” – a dozen or so near identically-dressed other hipsters sitting on milk-crates, or similar stools cunningly and expensively designed for maximum discomfort.  And if there's a queue to get in, I also appreciate that this is to hipsters what the "Sanitized" strip on motel toilet seats is to Middle America - a ring of confidence, worth its weight in gold).   

A secondary real-estate use of “lifestyle” is probably even more risible – it simply means what until yesterday would have been called a retirement community, but today, thanks to a few pieces of gym equipment thrown into a room, is now a “lifestyle village”.  You no longer move to such a place to quietly live out your twilight years – sweating them out instead is a much better deal.  Oh, but I’m sure there’s an in-house café too – thus meaning that the dwellings are unliveably-small (see above), or if not, that your neighbours are not the inviting-you-home-for-a-cuppa type, in which case you’re not really living in a “community”, in my opinion.  

It thus seems fair to say that people who choose “lifestyle” are gullible, insecure herd creatures.  And also, as of this morning, Indigenous Australians living in remote communities – according to Tony Abbott, anyway.

Presumably, these Indigenous Australians have fallen for a real-estate spiel also; poor dears.  It might have gone something like this: 

“Move out of the town camp, and back to your country.  It will be a dry community, so your less functional neighbours and relations won’t be there much.  You may find it a good place to create some art – and the local art centre is a big employer in town.  If art is not your thing, there’s usually a mining company sniffing around nearby – meaning there’s a fair chance, if you don’t mind the lost land trade-off, of living sweet on royalty cheques.  And if by some chance, your chosen remote community doesn’t have any real economy, you will still live the good life, spending your days and nights sitting on whacky, ramshackle furniture communing with your neighbours, happily ever after.  Best of all, you won’t even need to move to ‘lifestyle village’ when you get older – this community already has a few pieces of gym equipment no one ever uses.  In fact, you’re probably sitting on it right now.”

Thursday, January 08, 2015

 Charlie Hebdo – too soon (?), two different ways

Unfunny jokes have an interesting place in the pro-free speech pantheon.  Much as some would deny it, not all forms of speech are equally worthy of protection.  That which one vehemently disagrees with – but is cogently argued or is just plain hilarious – must count as an “in”, of course.  The right to swear at a cop for the thrill of it, or to picket, with homophobic placards, the funeral of a US solider killed in combat?  Possibly “in”; this is the zone where the potential hurt caused by the words seems disproportionate to their objective mundanity (swearing and homophobic comments are ubiquitous, so to proscribe them in one narrow context is hardly riding roughshod).   And unfunny jokes are even more everywhere.

Nearly ten years ago, I thought that the Danish cartoons were unfunny.  Which doesn’t mean that (and I don’t think that I should have to spell this out, but I will, just in case) vigilante action or violence is an appropriate response.  The two main options in dealing with unfunny jokes are to ignore them, or to make an immediate, but considered, withering response.  The second option is not straightforward – it runs the acute risk that the joker will then respond that the listener/jokee doesn’t have a sense of humour, or some such.  A repetitive loop, for the recital of unfunny jokes ad infinitum, is thus probably created.  In an extreme case, unfunny jokes can hence develop into being a psychic assault; the joker metaphorically holding the listener/jokee hostage.  The only escape here is to go back to Plan A:  ignoring the joke.  But sometimes, I dare say, there is too much water under the bridge for this to be a viable option for the repeatedly harangued jokee.

From what I’ve seen of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, they also seem unfunny.  Here, I disclose my bent for what some would consider transgressive humour – I thought that the Chaser’s “Make a realistic wish” skit from 2009 was hilarious.  I was stunned at the blowback it received – and most especially at the side-stepping of the real issue:  was it funny or not?  I’m sure it wasn’t funny to “Make a wish” type foundations, or to the stressed-out parents of kids-with-cancer etc (I wouldn’t be so sure about the kids themselves here).  But it was funny to many others – and it did not fall into that type of speech that, if censored from broadcast TV, would have plenty of other avenues to makes its point.  Let’s be clear about it, then:  Australia has its own Taliban tendencies, and most worryingly, in my opinion, these people don’t stop at censoring unfunny jokes.  Indeed, they probably just ignore these, and only really become censorious when funniness strikes.

“Too soon” is not an objective measurement.  In this post, I don’t intend to cause disrespect to the families of the deceased and injured Charlie Hebdo editorial staff.  They certainly didn’t deserve what has happened.  Some may even be heroes, but if so, they didn’t die in the service of comedy in my book, at least.  All were victims of Islamic terrorism, but some were also, I fear, dupes of a peculiarly “Christian” mindset (see below).  A satirist’s solemn duty (other than being funny) is to lampoon their own culture, and purported even-handedness across cultures that the satirist barely knows is a certain – and tired – short-cut to being unfunny.


To understand what was motivating the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, it may be useful to compare humour across Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  I’m no expert in comparative religion, much less humour as a specialist sub-topic, but here goes, anyway.

In Judaism, the coming of the Prophet still awaits.  In Christianity, the Prophet has been and gone, but we await a second, more spectacular, coming (talk about hedging your bets).  In Islam, the Prophet-waiting caper seems to be firmly over.  

To illustrate what this means for humour I will draw – drum roll, please – a cartoon.  However, due to my drawing and technology skills, this will have to be a “text” cartoon.

A Rabbi, a Christian cleric, and an Islamic cleric are each looking at a cartoon which separately insults, with purported humour, their respective religion’s most sacred personage.

The Rabbi responds:  “That joke was already old at the time of Solomon, you second-rate schmuck!”

The Christian cleric responds:  “I bet you wouldn’t dare make the same joke about Islam or Judaism!”

The Islamic cleric responds:  “We’re outraged!” and “Too soon!” (though almost certainly not in those exact words; “too soon” is a piece of Knowing Insider-speak, an exquisite formulation that is half-comment and half command to desist).
In religion, then, a framework of waiting appears to be paradoxically good for the development of quick repartee. Conversely, a condition of post-Prophecy seems to encourage tetchiness in thought and deed. Neither of the above Christian nor Islamic responses engage in humour, and they share a wounded defensiveness.  One difference is that the Christian response, in seeming defiance of any and all New Testament imperatives, provokes the joker into finding another, probably more vulnerable, victim. It is personally delivered – and if taken seriously, it is potentially very nasty.  

The Islamic response, in contrast, is said on behalf of the group.  It directly aims to shame – and shut up – the joker.  Like the censorious stressed-out parents of kids-with-cancer, its “we” is both a strength and a weakness.  It is an-all-or-nothing, us vs them, proposition, as to what is fit to pass before their minority’s ears and eyes – making the outrage understandable in the heart, but at another level, deeply unreasonable for the rest of us.  If such communal outrage is taken to its extreme, as we have just seen, it is also very nasty. 

Censorship of funny jokes is the worst cancer of all.  So chill out, world – either turn the other cheek, as the (never-was/penultimate) prophet once said, or use your brains for a change and fire back with a better, shinier joke.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Border Security Australia – 1825 style (includes pirates!)


The Timor-Arafura Gap

“To benefit fully from Asia's rise, we need to truly understand the diverse ‘Near North’, as opposed to colonial notions of a ‘Far East’”.

-          Bill Shorten, Aug 2013

Quite.  But sadly, Bill Shorten is not talking literally about Australia’s near north (which I’d define as PNG, West Papua and the south-east Indonesian/Timor islands (say, south of latitude 3ºS, and east of longitude 123ºE) – but about the far north (or more accurately, from the main population centres, the far north-west).  If Indonesia gets even a look-in in Shorten’s world view, it apparently goes no further south-east than Bali/Lombok.  

Overwhelmingly, though, Bill Shorten’s “Australia’s near north” is north of the equator, and the colonial/northern-hemisphere notion, say, of India as “south Asia” would not be inconsistent with it.
Anyway, I want to move beyond these clichéd north vs east, and colonial vs modern dichotomies.  Newsflash:  Asia has a south-east, a farsouth-east, in fact (Tenggara Jauh).  Yes, it’s obscure, particularly the central (yes, central) parts of it that I’ll be focusing on here.  But this is where it’s at – where the backyards of Australia and Asia meet, 300km apart.

The 19th C history of either side of this 300km gap is poignant (but, cue the boys’ own sidebar, it also contains pirates!).  But most of all, it is deeply confronting to many of Australia’s colonial founding myths – which is no doubt why the events of 1825 on a new (and thereafter, doomed) British colony on Melville Island and the Dutch-occupied (sort-of) islands to its immediate north have until now, never been properly told, let alone analysed for their present-day ramifications, which include Australian policies re immigration, China trade, and settler/Indigenous relations.
But first, to home in on the “far south-east” area I’ll be talking about.  I’m excluding Indonesian (West-) and East Timor, and the islands to their north and west.  In the other direction, I’m excluding PNG, West Papua and the Kai and Aru archipelagos, which are firmly in the orbit of Papua.  In turn, Papua is arguably more anchored in the south-west Pacific than in south-east Asia.  What’s left over, then is south of latitude 6ºS (and north of present-day Top End Australia), and east of longitude 127ºE and west of 132ºE.

I’ll call these islands 300-500km N and NNW of the Tiwi Islands (and 400-600km ditto from Darwin) the “Serwatti Islands”.  They have the Arafura and Timor Seas** on their eastern and western fringes respectively, and the straits between them are/were shipping lanes on the direct route between Macassar (present-day Sulawesi) and China on one hand, and Top End Australia on the other.  However, note that there was quite possibly more shipping going through these obscure straits in the 19th C (and even 17th C), to and from and Top End Australia, than today – the wounds of 1825 are thus arguably still raw here. Certainly in 2013, without a private boat (the only airport I’m aware of is at Saumlakki on Tanimbar, which in turn is only serviced via Ambon), you cannot do the short hop between Darwin and the Serwatti Islands, and I imagine that the immigration authorities would rather frown on anywhere the Serwatti Islands as an entry/exit point for Indonesia.
“Serwatti Islands” was a label in popular use in the 19th C, that in present-day geography  corresponds with most of the islands in the “remote” (as it is invariably described) south-western area of the Maluku/Moluccas province of Indonesia, about latitude 8º S, between and including Kisar and the Tanimbar group.  Note that I’m excluding Wetar here, which is officially in south-western Maluku, but doesn’t much concern my subject.  Also note that the Serwatti Islands, aka “Serawatti Islands”, both historically and in present-day conceptions of Maluku’s south-western islands, usually do not include the Tanimbar group.  But for present purposes, the islands of Babar and Yamdena (the main island in the Tanimbar group, aka “Timor Laut”, and also the largest single island, by far, in my Serwatti Islands grouping) are peas in a pod, as well as being only 130km apart. 

As for the 20-odd minor islands west and north-west of the Babar/Barbat group, up to Kisar, which I’m also labelling “Serwatti Islands”, these are too dispersed, and also too peripheral to my subject to be worth a separate nomenclature.  And one more clarification:  confusingly perhaps, Ambon locals (in Maluku terms, big-city folk) refer to the south-western Maluku islands as Tenggara Jauh, or the far south-east – despite some them being due south, and even slightly south-west, of downtown Ambon (at 128º E).
But in this part of the world (not to mention most of Australia, north-west of Cape Howe), south-east is destiny – and going to or from the south-west is only a Sunday ramble in a cross-wind.

** Darwin sometimes is also caught between deciding whether its harbour abuts the Arafura or Timor Seas – although the case for the latter seems geographically overwhelming, IMO.  Perhaps, in occasionally wistfully batting for Team Arafura, Darwin – ever eager to snuggle up to Asia – wishes to metaphorically bridge the Timor Trough, a rather non-snuggly natural feature running the entire length of the Timor Sea, whose eastern end is smack-bang between Babar and Yamdena – at the very middle, then, of my erstwhile, archipelagic centre of Australia’s “near north”.

The bare facts of the several failed, short-lived attempts to set-up a British outpost in Australia’s Top End between 1824 and 1849 (Alan Powell, Far Country, p 45)  –  are well-enough known, especially the case of the last, longest and most successful of these, at Port Esssington (1839-49).

However, there is perhaps a tendency for this comic-heroic pattern of repeated failure to blunt the edge of the historical record of the first – and most abject – failure, at Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas*) on Melville Island (1824-1828 #).  [*Fort Dundas would have been the name of the military base within or adjacent to the settlement, had it prospered, at least; q.v. Fort Wellington for Raffles Bay, and Fort Concordia for Kupang].  [# Some sources put the demise of Port Cockburn at 1828, others as 1829.]

Helping to obscure the record here is the overlap between Port Cockburn and its twin/replacement settlement at Raffles Bay/Fort Wellington, on the mainland’s Cobourg Peninsula. Raffles Bay was geographically close to, but did not overlap with, the later settlement at Port Esssington.  Port Esssington itself was almost the second, rather than the third, British settlement in the Top End.  Though already reconnoitred, Port Esssington lost out to Raffles Bay either because it was closer to Croker Island, per Bath’s original instructions, or because the reconnaissance of Port Esssington had been only superficial.

Conversely, Raffles Bay’s overlap with Port Cockburn was more temporal than geographical – the former was settled in 1827, when the fate of the latter, 200 km east, was already sealed on paper.  However the actual dates of demise of the twins are quite close – Port Cockburn had a protracted demise, while Raffles Bay’s own, also in 1829# was speedy.  But it is not only their close dates of demise that qualifies them to be called “twins” – London’s original intention and official instruction was to establish Port Cockburn and Raffles Bay (or Croker Island, at least) at the same time, and when low staff numbers meant that only one of these could initially proceed, it was a spectacular mistake, in hindsight, to have chosen Port Cockburn.

Since 1835, commenters and historians have invariably noted the irony of Raffles Bay being closed just as it was finding its feet; albeit this took a hard couple of years to achieve. In contrast to the unfortunate on-the-fly decision to choose the Port Cockburn location over the alternative (or both), the abandonment edict from London was carried through to the letter, however palpably misjudged it was at the time, according to those on the ground.   

While this irony/farce sits well with the plucky-diggers-vs-incompetent-British-toffs recurring theme in Australian history, an alternative interpretation is that it was the Port Cockburn fiasco – which couldn’t much be sheeted home to incompetent British toffs – that sealed the fate of the Raffles Bay settlement. The older, but feebler, twin thus took its more vigorous twin to the grave with it – and, however un-Australian this may sound, there was little plucky heroism in this.  For both, the die had been cast in 1824 when Port Cockburn was mistakenly chosen as first priority, which is why it is necessary now to look at its surprisingly little-researched, brief heyday in early 1825.   


The bleak, doomed British garrison on Melville Island wasn’t always so.  It’s just that early on, it needed Asia very badly, and upon reaching out in a moment of vulnerability, Asia ferociously bit back.  And in response, as is often the way, rather than admitting humiliating defeat, the British doubled-up their efforts, to make the end defeat vaguer in cause, and so more glorious to posterity. Or until I came along (sorry).

Raffles Bay thus is easily cast as an aspiring player on the Asian main-stage – a nascent mainland entrepot**, a la Singapore (which was just a fishing village at the time).  This makes Port Cockburn all the more forgettable, as an entrée or mere rehearsal.  On a scrubby island (although if truth be told, not that different from the mainland, in terms of terrain and settlement potential), Port Cockburn was not much talked up as a stillborn entrepot, during its brief life, or subsequently.  There is searing irony in this; it traded with Asia (or attempted to, at least) just to survive, while mainland Raffles Bay, perhaps better provisioned by the British and conceptually anchored to Sydney (there was excited talk of building a road between them!), got the glamorous – if  hypothetical, hype aside – role of bustling entrepot where all manner of exotica were to be traded; of which incoming survival basics would have been the least interesting items on the list. [** But Raffles Bay's ostensible success arguably hinged on large-scale Chinese immigration, which may have well been a step too far, for Sydney and/or London]. 

The provisioning question turns on luck, in part – two ships sent from Port Cockburn to near Asia for supplies were lost to pirates in short succession, while Raffles Bay had no equivalent interdictions. But pirates usually only thrive where their home bases are beyond the law, and here there were delicate matters of empire, with the long-established Dutch and the interloping British, flexing their ascendant military muscle and keen to consolidate their hold on the whole Australian continent, facing off across the Arafura Sea.  An indication of just how up-close this face-off was is that Melville Island was formally ceded by the Dutch in an 1824 treaty.  Though it seems obvious now that Melville Island belongs to Australia, and not to Asia, that small, insular Serwatti part of Asia just to the north of it, barely belonged to the Dutch (or any other colonial power), despite the Moluccas, just further north in turn, being a Dutch economic powerhouse for centuries.  The spice-less Serwatti Islands were, like the depressing but closely-charted Gulf of Carpentaria, too Australian for the Dutch – although the Dutch were happy to fly their nominal flag over them, if nothing else as a buffer against British interests on mainland Australia.  Otherwise, bar a minimal handful of Dutch-administered port (and not fort) outposts, the islanders were left to their own devices – and, when it came to non-Dutch ships, their own murderous plunders.

Unfortunately, the plucky Brits at Port Cockburn on Melville Island also had a strongly independent mindset, when it came to where to go to obtain much-needed provisions:  the (theoretically) Dutch-administered Serwattis, or the free port of Kupang on West Timor.  The former had the advantage of being quite a bit closer to the Top End, but the disadvantage of being closed ports (to non-Dutch), under a recently-signed British/Dutch treaty.  Oh, and also of being notorious pirate hotspots.   

Why two ships apparently disobeyed their instructions, or at least common-sense (the supposed instructions are rather vague), to go to Kupang for supplies; instead choosing to land at the nearer but much-riskier Serwattis, will probably never be known.  Assuming that there wasn’t a planned and pointed provocation to the Dutch, possibly there were issues with the boat or crew, making urgent landfall – anywhere – the priority, and this factor, by curious coincidence, happened twice in a few months.  

I like to think, however, that there was a crushing geographical fate at work, beneath which the Brits on Melville Island were mere pawns.  If the Serwatti Islands were too Australian for the Dutch, Melville Island was – similarly – too Asian for the British.  United by a sort of Arafura zeitgeist – of feisty independence from European colonisers, as enabled by a paucity of Euro-coveted resources ## – it was always Melville Island’s destiny to cast off its British veneer as a passing aberration.  [## One account has it that the Dutch chopped down every nutmeg tree on Babar, because it was too small and island and too far away from East Indies HQ to bother exploiting, but equally they didn’t want those who could be bothered to do so.  No doubt this fuelled Babarians [?] sense of grievance, and so propensity to piracy]

It is sweet and fitting, then, that the two sides of this Arafuran family drama have slumbered on ever since, although in separate ways.  The Serwatti Islands remain bizarrely remote, despite their proximity to Darwin, which in turn trumpets its proximity to Asia (perhaps justifiably, but if so, then its own backyard is rather unkempt).  While the Tiwi Islands are now fairly assimilated geographically into Top End remote Indigenous Australia, the site of Port Cockburn, and the story of how it went so wrong, seems bizarrely forgotten.  As Crocodile Dundee would never have dared to say, at the pointy end of a Serwatti sword:  “Now THAT’S proximity to Asia!”

Sidebar:  Aggregated facts on the two 1825 ships ex Port Cockburn attacked by pirates

Lady Nelson

Feb 1825: military ship Lady Nelson departs Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas) to trade with near Asia.  Attacked by pirates on the Serwatti island of Babar; all crew murdered.

Carried to sell: firearms and ammunition
Looking to buy: cattle and/or buffaloes, tortoise shell and drinking water


April 1825: trading ship Stedcombe arrives, unloads, and soon after departs Port Cockburn (Fort Dundas) to trade with near Asia, and to investigate the disappearance of the Lady Nelson.  Attacked by pirates on Yamdena/Tanimbar/Timor Laut; all crew were murdered except for two members, Joseph Forbes (“Timor Joe”, who retired to Williamstown, Victoria) and John Edwards.  Both were kept as slaves in the village of “Laouran” on Yamdena.  Edwards died at some stage during the following ten years, while after 14 years a slave, Forbes was liberated in 1839 and given a hero’s welcome in London.

Carried to sell: beads, knives, axes, mirrors and cloth
Looking to buy: cattle and/or buffaloes, pigs and fruit.  Note that a scurvy outbreak at Port Cockburn had intensified after the mysterious (at that stage) non-return of the Lady Nelson.
Actually offered on Yamdena:  coconuts, pigs and parrots


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