A Tale of Two Suburbs


I had a strange dream last night. I was at Adelaide Airport and I happened to notice Dr HV Evatt, our Minister for External Affairs, waiting to board a plane. Terry Hicks was there to see him off, as ‘Doc’ was off to America to demand the release of David Hicks. Evatt was showing everyone the fishing line he kept in his wallet (in case the plane crashed and he was forced to drop a line to survive) and explaining how there was no way the Yanks could treat an Australian this way.

There were others at the Departures gate our Prime Minister, John Curtin, standing quietly in the background to avoid the cameras, and our Treasurer Ben Chifley, telling everyone in his gravelly voice how planes would never take over from steam trains. And up at the Arrivals gate there was another chorus of politicians Howard, Costello and Downer drooling, as Air Force Two approached the terminal, bringing Dick Cheney.

Yes, things might have been different for David Hicks if he’d made his mistakes 60 years ago. This was a time when, at least to some extent, politicians got their jobs through pursuing ideals and for Labor, this was the welfare of the working man. David Hicks is the son of a working man from the northern Adelaide suburb of Salisbury, the suburb I also live in.

Salisbury is made up of semi-detached Housing Trust dwellings: modest, brick homes with scoria gardens and half-dead diosmas, industrial estates, BMX parks for the children of single mums and families surviving on blue collar wages. It’s by no means a welfare-dependent slum. It’s a workers’ paradise full of ‘Ten Pound Poms,’ truck drivers, hairdressers and kids with the latest Nokia phone.

It’s a dry and dusty part of Adelaide, planted with bloodwoods and thirsty acacias, populated with Vietnamese bakery owners and Cons and Rosas caring lovingly for their ‘wog palaces.’ Everyone drives a Commodore (especially a VN) and mows what bit of lawn they have left so they don’t ‘let the street down.’

This is the area that produced David Hicks. These are the people that politicians used to care about. Sascha Taylor, a journalist, accompanied Ben Chifley on a visit to Longreach in 1947. She tells the story of how, one night, she strolled with ‘Chif’ back to his hotel. The foyer was deserted except for an elderly drunk. Chifley took the time to stop and talk to the man, before wishing them a good night and going up to his room.

Patrick White retold this story in a 1988 speech in which he makes reference to Bob Hawke and his ‘American masters.’ He quotes Taylor as saying, ‘It’s hard to believe this was our Prime Minister 40 years ago.’ Almost 20 years later, it seems even harder to imagine an Australia run by men of the calibre of Curtin, Chifley and ‘Doc.’

On the other side of town, in the leafy Adelaide Hills, our present Minister for External Affairs, Alexander Downer, is at last becoming slightly interested in the fate of David Hicks. As with Howard, he’s always been good at sensing minor tremors in the political landscape. I constantly ask myself what if David Hicks had been born in Adelaide’s affluent East, or the well-to-do Hills? What if he’d been born and raised in Downer territory, or the wealthier parts of any of our capital cities?

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

The Hills village of Stirling is the epicentre of Downer’s world. It’s all mature plane trees and cafés dispensing hazelnut cappuccinos to the wives and children of vascular surgeons. There’s a Sunday morning market on Druid Avenue where you can buy wind chimes for your porch. The people of Stirling love Alex. He’s their man: flitting around the world (without any fishing line at all), always returning to the town where everyone speaks with rounded vowels, insists on free-range poultry and sponsors ‘a little African.’

Meanwhile, back at Salisbury, Terry Hicks is on the phone to the Prime Minister (Howard, not Curtin) who’s fielding calls on talkback radio. Terry wants to know why his son is facing a charge with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. He’s just heard how a hit-and-run driver who killed a man has just been sentenced to four years in prison with an 18-month non-parole period. If that was David he would’ve already been home a year. It doesn’t add up.

But Terry’s a proud, patient and intelligent man. He asks his question and Howard deflects it, claiming he’s done all he can for David. Howard’s sweating because he knows none of us are buying a word of it any more. And when Downer faces similar questions the same night he defends America’s right to try Hicks.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps if David had been born and raised in Double Bay or Toorak, then Howard would’ve allowed him to linger in a meat-locker for just as long. Perhaps it’s our fault, for not being vocal enough, for turning to The Einstein Factor or Dancing With the Stars because we’re sick of hearing about David Hicks. Perhaps we’re quick to forget our own youthful political outings. I remember buying the Karl Marx Reader and thinking it sounded spot on. Maybe, if it had been 30 years earlier, I might have ended up shouting slogans on the streets of some South American backwater.

But I probably would’ve got over it, returned to Oz, got a job with Australia Post and a gaggle of kids. I can see David Hicks taking his sons to Monday night Joeys, Tuesday night footy training and the Crows on Saturday. This thought, I suppose, is the hard part for Terry, not to mention David.

Anyway, back in my dream, Howard has just been given a copy of his latest approval figures. He drags Alex towards the Departures gate and says to Doc, ‘He’s going with you.’ Doc, Curtin and Chifley gasp with surprise.

Yeah, but then I woke up

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.