Australian Notes

Australian notes

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

Mr Putin suggests that Syria submit its chemical weapons to international control. Syria’s foreign minister thinks this is a good idea. The proposal may turn out to be the face-saver that President Obama needs. But who would seriously trust Mr Putin or Mr Assad?

Tony Abbott’s victory speech was characteristic. Avoiding windy rhetoric, he promised only competent, trustworthy and methodical government (‘no surprises and no excuses’). When he declared ‘I pledge myself to the service of our country’, he actually meant it. He was also brief. Kevin Rudd was characteristically gobby. He spoke for 24 minutes against Tony Abbott’s ten. He wallowed in dated rhetoric (‘the genius of Labor’, ‘the army of true believers’, ‘the marvellous tapestry of modern Australia’. The ‘light on the hill’ even got another run.) He managed a vulgar sneer at his defeated local opponent. (‘Eat your heart out, Bill Glasson!’)

Worst of all he boasted that he had ‘saved the furniture’. It is true that none of his Cabinet ministers was defeated, but they would have held their seats whoever had been their leader. (The best of former Cabinet ministers had already resigned rather than serve under him.) Rudd created the current rabble of squabbling Labor MPs. Another reason why he should resign altogether from federal parliament and politics.


Before we entirely forget the wretched Jaymes Diaz — who proclaimed but could not remember the six elements of the Liberal party’s policy to combat people smugglers — I wonder how many Labor candidates could have rattled off the seven pillars of Australia’s economic salvation that Kevin Rudd had announced. Or how many Liberal candidates could have spelt out instantly Tony Abbott’s four grand themes for national reform. In Diaz’s case, he made his shame worse by hiding for the rest of the campaign. The basic fault lies with the Liberal party preselectors.

Labor MPs might find consolation by rereading the opening chapter of The Costello Memoirs. It tells how Peter Costello’s staff, family and friends reacted to the catastrophe which the Liberal party inflicted on itself in 2007. Good reading. Strongly recommended.

Some time back I wrote in these pages about a visit to the birthplace of multicultural Australia — Bonegilla, or more bureaucratically the ‘Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre’. This was an old army camp near the Hume Weir in north-eastern Victoria where between 1947 and 1953 some 170,000 ‘Displaced Persons’ found their first homes in Australia. They were the biggest wave of foreign, that is, non-British immigrants since the Chinese of 1850. The Chinese had an enormous influence on Australian politics, and so in an entirely different way did the DPs. There have been many studies of the DPs in Australia, notably by Bruce Pennay of Sturt University, but now we have the first memoir of a child born and, for a few formative years, growing up in Bonegilla. It is Wanda Skowronska’s To Bonegilla from Somewhere. It was my great pleasure to launch the book last Sunday in the Polish Club in Sydney. It tells a marvellous chapter in Australian history sponsored by Labor’s postwar Minister for Immigration Arthur Calwell from 1945 to 1949. Wanda Skowronska recalls the Bonegilla of her childhood as a kind of Eden in the Bush. It made an indelible impression on her.

It did on me too. At the age of 19, I signed up as a teacher or ‘instructor’ in English for the University vacation. It was for me a transformative experience. When the DPs arrived it was as if, in Wanda’s words, a spaceship bearing hundreds of aliens had landed in the bush. Their recent experience had been the disintegration of their civilisation, the collapse of the moral world of parents and teachers, the failure of respected leaders. Their lives had been shaped by defeat, occupation, deportation, death camps and daily violence in the streets. The Australia in which their spaceship landed was still largely a nation of Smithy and Bradman, Stiffy and Mo, Peter Dawson and Smoky Dawson, the Pyjama Girl murder, bona fide ‘travellers’ in search of a drink, CRTS (ex-servicemen) students, deeners, donahs, gramophones, roll-your-own cigarettes and Lux Radio Theatre. We thought of ourselves as British. We had always been on the winning side in wars. Defeat was for foreigners. There was a huge gulf between us and the DPs although, led by Arthur Calwell, we wanted to bridge it.

Wanda Skowronska tells the story of her parents as representative DPs. Her father was a boy in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the biggest military action ever undertaken by any anti-Nazi resistance movement. The battle raged for two months while the Red Army watched from the other side of the Vistula, waiting for the Nazis to destroy the Polish resistance before crossing the river. In his revenge on the Poles Hitler drove 800,000 of them out of Warsaw and ordered the destruction of the old city, building by building. Wanda’s father — wounded, emaciated, diseased — limped his way to the West. In the end he found haven in Bonegilla. Skowronska’s mother. who fled the Red Army as it advanced on Latvia, was left for dead after an air raid in Hamburg. But she survived and made it to Bonegilla. All that remains today of that vibrant DP Bonegilla is Block 19. It is a national heritage site, the birthplace of a new Australia, a sort of Ellis Island museum without the American hype. Wanda Skowronska tells why.

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