Just Another Aussie Day


On Thursday April 6, 2006, a bunch of Olympic rowers and other fine-muscled men towed a replica of the 17th century Dutch ship Duyfken out of Fremantle Harbour. The Duyfken was beginning its year-long voyage commemorating the first recorded and, predictably, fatal impact of Europeans on Australian soil, 400 years ago.

Schoolchildren enjoyed the bunting and the glad-ragged waved benignly. Members of the union movement roared ‘Aussie jobs!’ and ‘Howard out!’ for the Prime Minister John Howard was there too. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) demonstrated that they were here to stay and would not rest. In many ways it was a Big Day Out for Australia who we are, and who we will be.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

At the core of the event was the celebration of this latest voyage of a spritely, 20-metre vessel. In 1606, the original craft sailed from Holland to the East Indies and explored for sources of spice along the coast of New Guinea. Finding none, Captain Willem Janszoon turned south and encountered Cape York.

His route was much the same as the one a few West Papuans have taken recently while trying to escape vicious attacks by the Indonesian armed forces. Again predictably, Howard is happy to commemorate Dutch people finding Australia’s shores in 1606 but his message for West Papuans fleeing from rape, torture and repression in 2006 is much more mixed.

If Howard were hated by a large number of Australians, it probably wouldn’t worry him. He is a Prime Minister who thrives on division and anger. Every chant of opposition from maritime workers strengthens his standing with the five percent of people who get him over the line at election time. If I were a psychologist, I might think that Howard has spent his life in elaborate attention-seeking. But, if I were sympathetic to his cause, I would see him as a man who believes and acts on his beliefs a man who actually trusts that opposition makes him right.

Meanwhile, among the throng at Fremantle, anti-nuclear protestors chanted ‘No uranium to China! No uranium to China!’ Howard’s Government has many beliefs, including selling ore to a country that is sucking up world resources so quickly it will surely one day rival that other great ally of ours, the United States. Although a key lesson of World War II was that bilateral agreements are no substitute for nations uniting and establishing common international law, Howard’s vision reaches wider and garners better financial returns than the wisdom of those of 1945.

Perhaps one day, the Chinese Government may honour Howard’s uranium salesmanship with a tiny plaque at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. Perhaps that was the reason a protestor heckled the Environment Minister, WA’s Senator Ian Campbell, to ‘remember Tiananmen Square.’

WA Premier, Alan Carpenter, was there, of course, and spent some time chatting to MUA workers and the mums and dads who came to see a real live replica and maybe a few politicians too. Although the wear and tear of a few months in office has had its effect, Carpenter is a man who strives to keep the common touch, and when he pressed the flesh he got encouragement to stand up to Howard and not mine uranium.

Nyoongar elder Neville Collard had welcomed everyone to country, and invited Howard directly to reconciliation. We all knew what he meant, and the workers began megaphoning Howard to say ‘sorry.’ The day was like that.

The media were there, hoping for something big but the protestors seemed mindful of the kids. A few police chewed on their fingernails and the plain-clothes security slicked back their hair a little tighter. But the appalling fact was that it was a lovely sunny day in Freo, a day when nothing bad should happen, a day of Aussie democracy. All the sniffer-dogs were going to find was seagull poo.

As the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, was leaving, he looked up at the protestors as if they were well-wishers and then did a double-take at what he was hearing: ‘No uranium to China!’ Perhaps Holland and the European Union have a better sense of what this country is doing about West Papuans, nuclear proliferation, and Aboriginal reconciliation than many Australians do, but Balkenende wasn’t saying.

When Howard walked away the demonstrators built up into a roar. I turned my back on the PM. And I looked directly into the faces of the protesting MUA workers they were anxious for their rights at work and shouting for change, at the top of their voices. The anti-nuclear protesters were anxious about the dangers of nuclear power.

I turned my back on the Prime Minister. I turned my back on what he does to us all.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.