My own “first contact” was growing-up in the 1950s and 60s in country NSW - across The Great Divide. I’m not just talking about our famous mountain chain either: this was an Aussie form of apartheid. No question about it. Aboriginal families herded into rough, town camps on the other side of the river, without electricity and with communal taps. Aboriginal people segregated on a Saturday night, squatting on the floor down the front of the local picture theatre. Aboriginal boys - who were the same age as me - being “hosed clean” by the lifeguards at the public baths, before they were allowed to jump in the pool. As much as things have changed in the last fifty odd years, they’ve also stayed the same.
For me, this divide is personal.
About twenty years ago I was astonished to discover that along with my rich Irish ancestry, my great great grandmother – a lady named Bertha Lamey who lived near Tamworth – was a Kamilaroi woman. For reasons that escape me, it had long been a deep, dark family secret – which surprised me, given that my mother didn’t have a discriminatory bone in her body. Yet she had never once mentioned Bertha’s existence. When I asked Mum about this she just smiled and said, “I didn’t really think it was that important. I never spoke much about our family’s Irish heritage either.” That was true. Mum always seemed much more interested in the present and the future rather than the family’s past – which had been colourful but poor.
I suspect the real reason that my mother’s tightly-knit family never spoke of Bertha’s existence was that growing up in bush towns, in deeply working-class Australia, they believed there were enough obstacles in life - without the added “burden” of having an Indigenous connection.
On the contrary, my sisters and I remain extremely proud of Bertha, whom I also discovered lived to the rare old age of 104 years.
Sadly, there are no photographs of Bertha – just a marriage certificate, the record of their two children and confusion about why NSW Supreme Court probate papers from the late 1850s claimed that my great great grandfather, John Lamey, had died “without any immediate family”, apart from his Irish-born sister and niece. Almost certainly colonial authorities at that time were not about to hand over a small farming property, “forty head of horse and other assorted livestock”, to an Aboriginal woman and her kids.
Bertha received nothing at the time of her white husband’s death.
Beyond this old Kamilaroi connection, being invited to work on the SBS documentary series, “First Contact” was in many ways for me a natural fit. Over several decades I’ve been deeply committed to the reconciliation of Indigenous Australians, having served on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation for a decade, as Chairman of the Fred Hollows Foundation, Chairman of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation and Patron of the Aboriginal Employment Strategy. As a journalist, I have also reported widely on the poverty and plight of Indigenous Australians.
As a young reporter, I remember a whitefella in Narrandera telling me the story of being taken by his father and uncle on “a hunting party” one Sunday morning – to shoot Aboriginal people. They lived in a squalid camp, on a small island, down the Murrumbidgee.
He was a six year old child at the time, which he figured was probably the late 1920s in NSW.
In the racially-divided, WA mining town of Meekatharra an old Aboriginal man told me of being chained to a boab tree by policemen - for two days without water - because they suspected he knew the identity of some young blackfellas who’d speared a cow belonging to a white property owner. He vehemently denied knowing the men. They eventually released him when they returned, dragging the culprits in chains behind their horses. The Aboriginal man had been only ten years old at the time.
In Leonora – out in the Kalgoorlie goldfields – I watched as Aboriginal women waited for hours in the dust and scorching sun outside the District Hospital, while white women drove up in their Land Rovers and were immediately treated by the Flying Doctor. The stories were endless.
I’ve seen with my own eyes shameful discrimination that persists today. Yet, the urban myths abound - about how “those bloody Aborigines” get special treatment, with welfare served up on a silver platter.
Forget the “myths” - they’re really urban lies.
Everybody it seems has an opinion, formed from newspaper stories, talkback radio or the ignorance of latter-day Pauline Hansons. Yet, the truth is SIX OUT OF TEN Australians have never even met an Indigenous person. (At least not that they know of.) Never had a chance “to walk in their shoes”, for just a few steps.
That’s why the SBS series is must-watch TV. Six whitefellas meeting blackfellas for the first time in their lives. This group of ordinary Aussies hit the road for a month - starting out as a bunch of strangers. They weren’t allowed outside or family contact. No mobile phones or internet. (That proved a lot tougher than you might think.) These six get to confront their own beliefs, their own prejudices and, in some cases - by their own admission - their “ignorance”. My role in this grand odyssey - which took us over fifteen thousand kilometres across the outback – was just to be there to talk to them about the experience, to see how they were coping. I was there to listen – to guide them across their own great divide.The First Contact Network Event premieres Tuesday 18 November, 8.30pm on SBS ONE and NITV and continues Wednesday and Thursday