A Question of Power

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The allegations against Geoff Clark had their first public airing on 14 June 2001, when The Age published an article by journalist Andrew Rule under the headline "Geoff Clark: Power and Rape".

A long article, it dominated the front page and spread over three broadsheet pages. It gave a brief summary of Geoff Clark’s life, including his childhood and political career, but its main focus was the allegations made by Carol Stingel, Joanne McGuinness, Kate Healey and Sharon Handley. These women stated that Clark had brutally raped them in Warrnambool in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the women said that as the ringleader of a series of gang rapes he had dragged her off the street and subjected her to horrendous sexual assaults.

In a separate paragraph headed "Why we are publishing this", The Age‘s editors explained:

"We uncovered a compellingly consistent story. We found four women who accused Geoff Clark of raping them in a series of attacks in the 1970s and 1980s. We acknowledge that these are claims stretching back 30 years but the stories of these women are no less harrowing today. They are all prepared to be named. We have tested them on their accounts and they remain steadfast. We can find no reason why they would not be telling the truth. These are grave and damaging accusations but we believe they have to be published. Geoff Clark is a prominent public figure. It is in the public interest that these serious claims against him are revealed."

Alongside was the following response from Geoff Clark:

"I am told that a number of women have made statements alleging sexual assault by me over 20 years ago. I deny such allegations and say they are false. Such allegations are easily fabricated. I believe they are part of a continuing campaign by my political opponents both within and outside the Aboriginal community. They tried this last year and failed. The court dismissed the allegations then as so lacking in credibility that no reasonable jury could act on them. After that dismissal it was made clear that my opponents would continue their efforts to discredit me. This is no more than what was threatened. I was and am innocent. I will not allow this to divert me from my duties as chairman of ATSIC acting on behalf of my people."

The allegations in Rule’s article were as follows. Carol Stingel said that in 1971 Clark led two gang rapes against her, the first at the Warrnambool botanical gardens, the second at the sand dunes on the Warrnambool beach. Kate Healey said that in 1977 Clark raped her while she was in bed after a party at a friend’s house. Joanne McGuinness, Geoff Clark’s cousin, said that Clark, after offering to drive her and a friend home from the Warrnambool speedway, raped her at the beach in 1981. Sharon Handley (whose father is the partner of Joanne McGuinness’s mother) said that in 1983 Clark raped her in the bushes at Cannon Hill, a Warrnambool landmark.

Clark had been interviewed by the police about just one of the allegations in Rule’s article, that of Joanne McGuinness. That charge went to committal proceedings in 2000 but was struck out by a magistrate because it did not pass the legal test: that is, it was presumed that at trial a jury properly instructed would not have convicted Clark. Clark has said that the first he learnt of the other allegations was when he read about them in "Power and Rape". The article, the first of several, precipitated the fall of Geoff Clark.

When The Age article appeared, Clark was at the peak of his career. As chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, he was Australia’s most senior Aboriginal politician, on an annual salary of $240,000. It was an important and hotly contested position. Prior to Clark’s election, the chair had been appointed by the government; having a chair elected by the Aboriginal community was a significant step towards Indigenous self-determination.

Clark had worked his way up from grassroots politics to reach this zenith. He had been an administrator at Framlingham, his home community, for over a decade before his appointment to ATSIC in 1996. His early mentors were those from the radical 1980s; he was a founding member of the Aboriginal Provisional Government, an organisation led by Tasmanian activist Michael Mansell that rejected the sovereignty of the Australian government and created its own Indigenous passport.

These were heady days for Clark. He opened schools, art exhibitions, education programs and sports events. He initiated an annual cricket game between the ATSIC team and the Prime Minister’s XI, which was roundly applauded as a canny way to bond with a conservative, cricket-loving prime minister. At Corroboree 2000, an event organised by ATSIC to mark National Reconciliation Week in May 2000, he stood beside John Howard in front of a crowd of thousands and said:

"I have a black-armband view of history and I’m proud of it. I stand here before you as a Tjapwuurong man and I’m also proud of that … As I make way for you on this podium, Prime Minister, I invite you not to speak about what you have decided for us, but what you will decide with us."

In reply, Howard said, "I want to say in response to … Geoff Clark … that I have appreciated on a personal basis, and I know I speak for my ministerial colleagues, the integrity and commitment that [you]bring to [your]responsibilities within the Indigenous community."

But the glory days of televised debates, canapés with the prime minister and champagne-drenched openings were short-lived. First there was The Age article in June 2001. Then, in 2002, Clark was convicted of obstructing police after a clash at a pub in Warrnambool. Shortly after, ATSIC was disbanded.

The police decided not to pursue criminal charges in relation to the rape allegations but one of the women, Carol Stingel, sued Clark civilly for damages caused by post-traumatic stress disorder. The civil trial commenced in January 2007 and ran for 10 days. Stingel was successful: the jury found that the allegations were proven on the balance of probabilities and Stingel was awarded $20,000. Clark appealed the verdict but was unsuccessful. By the end of 2007 his reputation was in tatters and it seemed impossible he would ever hold a senior position in public office again.

From the moment The Age article appeared, the story of Clark and his accusers polarised public opinion. Everyone seemed sure of their view of Clark. No one expressed ambivalence or uncertainty; and whether for or against him, opinions were extreme. When I first began investigating the case, people on both sides kept offering me the names of other people to speak to. I worked my way through both lists and kept hearing the same things. From those who hated Clark I heard that he was a violent, corrupt, bullying thug. From those who admired him, that he was a figure of almost mythical proportions: a brilliant leader, devoted to helping his people.

Both sides were firmly fixed in their views: not a hint of criticism passed from his supporters’ lips, while his detractors spat nothing but venom.

This is an edited extract from A Question of Power: The Geoff Clark Case by Michelle Schwarz ($29.95), published by Black Inc.

New Matilda

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