1997 – “Uneasy Eden”: Peace and Conflict in a Rural Community





The Tasmanian Peace Trust
1997 Annual Lecture


I feel very honoured at having been invited to give this lecture and would like to thank the Tasmanian Peace Trust for affording me the opportunity to bring together two subjects in which I have developed a particular interest: the resolution of conflict within a small community – the achievement of peace – and, second, the Tasman Peninsula, that small, oddly-shaped fragment of land, dangling like an ear-ring from Tasmania’s left ear.  This is the place where I have lived for the past 7 years.

It has often been said that Tasmania, while unique among the states of Australia, represents in some ways a microcosm of the nation and its historical experience, even that Tasmania contains within itself the essence of what occurs in a more diffuse form all across the continent to our north.  This idea owes something, no doubt, to the way things look on maps where Tasmania hangs below the Australian mainland like a drop of liquid squeezed from the bulky landmass overhead.  Yet there are more cogent reasons for seeing Tasmania as a place in which elements of Australian life become intensified, where tendencies move to inescapable consequences, battle-lines are more clearly drawn and the moderate or partial becomes extreme.

When I first attempted to write this paper I spent so long trying to prove that proposition that I never arrived on the Peninsula at all and said very little about conflict resolution.  Instead I argued, for instance, that before white settlement Tasmania’s seal colonies were more abundant and her great eucalypts taller than any others, and that, even now, the island boasts the highest cliffs, the most mountainous terrain, the wildest wilderness and – at Cape Grim – the cleanest air in Australia.  The red soil of the north-west is the most fertile in the country and the super-fine wool from the midlands the most highly-prized of all the Australian clip.  Residents of the island have led the way in activities ranging from poetry to boat-building, from the formulation of plans to cope with those injured in a disaster to the foundation of the world’s first environmental political party.  They have also been responsible for some of the darkest passages in the nation’s history.  While the arrival of the white invaders brought suffering and death to indigenous people in every part of the mainland, in Tasmania not one full-blooded Aboriginal survived the impact of the invasion. Convicts, transported from Britain, were held in several mainland states and ultimately influenced the life led in them all, but, again, Van Diemen’s Land’s Port Arthur was Australia’s largest prison – apart from Norfolk Island – and the proportion of convicts in the colony’s population higher than in any other part of the country.

More recently the place has been home to some of the most convinced conservatives and some of the most impassioned radicals in Australia, and has been the site of a succession of confrontations in which ideological differences simmering across the nation have come to a climax.  The Orr case, the battles over Lake Pedder and the clamming of the Franklin, the controversy over gay law reform or, currently, the sale of the Hydro-Electric Commission and the restructuring of parliament exemplify in peculiarly stark colours disputes which have been – or are – important national issues.
It is tempting to move next to the idea that the Tasman Peninsula is, as it were, Tasmania’s Tasmania, that in many ways it represents a small scale version of the whole state and, hence, a Lilliputian replica of the entire country.  At this point, however, one begins to suspect one is drawing rather a long-bow.  Nubeena, the Peninsula’s capital, is not much more than a fishing village with one school, one general store and one policeman so that it’s not easy to see the place as a microcosmic Melbourne.  At the same time, the Peninsula is, topographically, extremely diverse for its size, combining many different kinds of Tasmanian and Australian terrain from rain forest to coastal heath, or lush pasture and orchard to marsh or mountain. The population, too, reflects something of the nation’s variety.  It consists in part of families who have lived in the area for five or six generations – some with at least one Aboriginal forebear – and in part of a diverse collection of new-comers, including alternative life-stylers. retirees from various states and countries, a cook from New Zealand, a cabinet-maker from Sydney, a sculptor from the U.S.A., a businesswoman from Hong Kong … And the
fortunes of the Peninsula have always tended to reflect the experience of at least the rural population throughout the state and beyond.  In particular, its hardships and disasters, culminating in the killing spree at Port Arthur on 28 April 1996, represent in climactic form ills which have afflicted a much wider population.

Disaster came first to the indigenous population – the Pyedareme, one of the bands which made up part of the Oyster Bay tribe.  Whether they were victims of violence or disease is unclear.  All that is certain is that by the time George Augustus Robinson set out to conciliate the remnant of the tribes in 1830 they had vanished from their home territory. Robinson seems to have known them only as a people of whom the surviving Aboriginals told him stories.  Thereafter, in the convict period, the Peninsula witnessed more than its fair share of hardship and misery, and, later still, a free population, made up largely of timber-workers, farmers and fishermen, paid the heavy price exacted from small rural communities in a depression and two world wars.  Gradually the people of the Peninsula came to rely heavily on their orchard industry so that when Britain entered the E.E.C. they felt the blow as much or more as any community in Australia. More recently their dairy farms have been thrust under by the march of agribusiness and their chicken farms, like thousands of other small concerns across the country, are menaced by the dictum: ‘Get big or get out’.  Consequently, like many other rural areas, the Peninsula has turned to tourism for its livelihood. Port Arthur has become the Peninsula’s major employer and key attraction.

Martin Bryant’s rampage on 28 April 1996 came as the climax to a series of multiple murders committed by young men in various parts of the country over the past decade. All of these crimes, proceeding, it seems, from some spreading sense of social alienation, devastated the communities in which they took place and sent shock-waves across the country. The shooting at Port Arthur, where tourists from many countries and every Australian state had gathered on that Sunday afternoon, brought death, maiming and psychological injury to people from far beyond the Tasman Peninsula. But the local community, which lost seven from a tiny population, found that all its members were inescapably involved in the tragedy. Some were working at Port Arthur on 28 April. Others – doctors, ambulance workers, SES members – hurried to the site to give assistance. Many have still not recovered from the effects of their experience, and, in many cases, the trauma has been exacerbated by financial difficulties. After the shooting the number of visitors prepared to stay over-night on the Peninsula dropped sharply and, eighteen months later, is only just returning to the earlier level.

This anxiety, along with various other circumstances, led on last year to conflict within the community.  Immediately after 28 April everyone drew together in a quite inspiring way. Then came a time of tension and dispute which. I think, is now passing. It’s on those differences and in particular on the ways in which they are being resolved that I really want to concentrate today.

I’ve mentioned the history of the Tasman Peninsula not simply in order to demonstrate all over again that its experience is representative of a wider one but, in a sense, for the opposite reason.  In many ways what happened in that small community after the massacre followed a predictable course quite precisely.  Experts on the counseling of disaster victims foretold both the altruism and the ensuing conflict, but I would suggest that some of the counseling and conflict resolution would have been more effective if those involved had known more about the unique character of the population and the more extraordinary passages in the area’s history.

Although Port Arthur is now the Peninsula’s chief employer, attitudes to the place and particularly to those who manage it tend to be ambivalent or even hostile.  After the shooting, disputes flared up between individual employees and the management over particular issues such as entitlement to workers’ compensation, as well as between community groups and the previous Board and General Manager over broader questions such as the conservation of the site’s historic buildings and the plans for a new Visitors’ Centre and sound and light show.  And behind all this lay other problems, which the massacre had rendered more insistent.  Who owns Port Arthur?  What does it mean? What purpose does its preservation serve?

Unfortunately some of those involved in trying to resolve conflict over the past year reached for solutions which were not so much representative as stereotypical. The heat, it was suggested, had little to do with the ostensible bones of contention and was largely a by-product of anger, frustration and insecurity created by the disaster. There was probably some truth in that, but at the time it wasn’t a particularly helpful observation. Still less helpful was the suggestion that the Peninsula community, because of its economic woes, was jealous of affluent tourists and, in consequence, hostile to the whole concept of Port Arthur. Few, if any, advisers looked back to the community’s history in order to try to shed light on the current disputes, and yet, had they done so, they might have made some illuminating discoveries.

After 1877, when the prison at Port Arthur closed, land on the Peninsula was made available to settlers.  Families began to move into the area, many, like the Noyes, descended from convicts, and some, including the Greatbatches, Briggses and Gathercoles, from convicts who had done time at Port Arthur. According to Richard Flanagan, the people of the West Coast tried to rid themselves of the last traces of the notorious penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour by dynamiting the buildings on Sarah Island. It wouldn’t have been surprising if the families of men who had suffered at Port Arthur had set about razing the Penitentiary, the Asylum and the Commandant’s House to the ground. But, in fact, they did nothing of the sort. After the site was devastated by two bushfires in the 1890s the local population, instead of pulling the buildings down, carefully built a number of them up again – The Parsonage, for instance. Tower Cottage and. most notably, the Asylum. No doubt this was done in part to attract the tourist traffic which began to flow in some volume to the site of the notonous prison almost as soon as it had closed its doors.  But it’s noteworthy that the Asylum, say, was not rebuilt as a museum but as part of a new free town.  The refurbished Asylum served as the school, the community centre where dances and other get-togethers were held and the council chambers, and in doing so became an extraordinary metaphor.  One might say that the inhabitants of the town known as Carnavon which grew up in and around the former gaol neither denied nor sensationalised the past.  The place where, in some cases, their fathers or grandfathers had served out their sentences became the ground in which they planted their hope of the future, the site of their children’s education, of their social interaction and of their control of their own destinies.

There are still a good many older Peninsula inhabitants who remember going to school in the former Asylum, who still think of Port Arthur as their home town and who fiercely resent the way in which it has been sealed up, so that they need a pass to enter it.  They and their families feel that they have lost control of their place and their past. One has written a moving piece called ‘My Home Town’.  The mayor’s wife has dubbed the new Port Arthur, ‘the Vatican’ – the state within a state which the surrounding population no longer own or manage.

I feel very strongly that had some of this been realised by all those concerned with getting Port Arthur employees back to work and helping the people of the Peninsula to come to terms with what happened at the site in April 1996, then at least some of the conflict which arose between the management of Port Arthur and the staff or the community could have been avoided or resolved more quickly.  You might say that those attempting to resolve the disputes could have taken a leaf out of the book of the people of Carnavon by confronting the past, making it part of present life and seeing it as the site of learning, interaction and the power to plan the future.

In the end, then, the first point that I want to make – at long last – in relation to conflict resolution is that a knowledge of the history behind the dispute – viewed without shuffling or sensationalising – is of crucial importance.

So too of course, is a knowledge of the present, of history as it is being made’ And that, at least, was very quickly realised in the week following the shooting.  A newsletter was produced at the Taranna Devil Park, the Tasman Council then began to disseminate information and later other publications like Tort Arthur Update’, produced by the Department of Community and Health Services, began to appear they all contained information about public meetings, committees which were being formed, details of help of different kinds available to victims, advice from various experts and so on.  All this helped people to feel that they were not alone and provided useful guidance. It also went some way towards scotching rumours and preventing the sort of dispute which arises when someone suspects that A is getting more favourable treatment than B, or when people strike out blindly through fear of the unknown. All this was very well understood, in particular by the Director of Public Prosecutions who took the trouble to send clear, informative and friendly letters to all those who might be called as witnesses, visited – or arranged for his associate to visit -every potential non-police witness and came to the Peninsula to hold public meetings and answer questions.  In short, Damien Bugg, behaved in an exemplary way and did much to prevent or resolve the kind of conflict which arises from misapprehension and anxiety.

Associated with the need for clearly stated information in maintaining peace in a community that has suffered a disaster is the need for appreciation of the contribution of everyone involved.  Indeed, Michael Langley, a Peninsula resident and a member of the previous Board of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, rather surprisingly, sees the need for acknowledgement of service as the most important requirement in managing such situations.  Unhappily, where the police force, medical workers, S.E.S members and others were quickly praised for their bravery and dedication on 28 April, the employees working at the Site and those who arrived later in the afternoon were at first overlooked despite the fact that those present when the shooting started displayed great courage in getting visitors to safety and assisting the wounded until help arrived.  This, inevitably, led to much bitterness, especially between employees and the Board and also between individuals. And this situation was exacerbated because a number of people – often with no thought of deception – produced accounts which are at variance with the known facts. One, for instance, believes that she was present at the Site on 28 April when, in fact, she was elsewhere. Another has published an account of certain heroic acts which could not have been performed in the time available.

Under these circumstances there is bound to be a good deal of anger and back-biting.  This, as Michael Langley suggests, can be prevented to some extent by the very rapid acknowledgement of the contribution of everyone involved.  I’d like to add that I think it is very important to acknowledge the work of groups and not to single out individuals -especially survivors – for special praise.  Unhappily, the recent round of awards for bravery has not, in my view, improved the situation in my own community and has, in fact, proved damaging to some who are still
suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress.

One advantage of acknowledging the service of groups, rather than individuals, is that it serves to strengthen communal bonds and, of course, it goes without saying that the more such bonds can be reinforced the greater the possibility of maintaining peace becomes.  Over the past year the Peninsula community, despite the various conflicts that have erupted, has witnessed some remarkably successful attempts to draw people together.  Perhaps the most striking of these is the establishment of a community library in the Tasman District School at Nubeena.  The involvement of children – the new hope of the future – in any peace process or healing activity is. I think, crucial. At Nubeena the children have drawn closer to all those who come into their school to use the library and library-users have developed a new interest in the school.

Another recent activity in which the local children played an important part was The Festival of Journeys held at Port Arthur in October.  This was the most recent of a series of rituals which, as much as anything, have served to heal the Tasman community.  Others have been the funeral of 2 of Bryants1 victims at the church at Koonya, a memorial service held in the shell of the convict church and the Christmas carol-service held in the same place.

It’s sometimes said that in a society where religious faith is waning and cultures vary from group to group, ritual which depends on the recognition and veneration of shared symbols, has lost its power.  This, it’s often argued, is why it is impossible now to write great tragedies of the kind watched by a close-knit audience of Athenians or an Elizabethan gathering of play-goers who all shared the same Christian beliefs.  Yet the various religious services of the past year have held some value and meaning for non-Christians and even agnostics and atheists, and the Festival of Journeys united everyone in a quite startling way.  It involved various spectacular events – a procession of lanterns made and carried by students from the Tasman District School; the entry of a swan-like boat – also constructed locally – which was set on fire and burst into fountains of white light. There were also plays and a puppet show, music, singing and dancing, food and drink.  The symbols of light in darkness, of travelling from separate places to arrive at common ground, of sharing food, warmth and pleasure, of gathering in circles required no exposition.  Nor did anyone actually say that the festival had been held to drive the demons from Port Arthur, to purify and reclaim it although I think that this was the effect achieved for many people. Those who had actually lived in Carnavon or had played cricket in the space in front of the Penitentiary had a sense of re-possessing their own home town, while people who had not been able or willing to visit the site since the shooting came perhaps because a child was in the procession of lanterns and reclaimed the place in another way. at another level.

I don’t want to claim too much for The Festival of Journeys but I would like to say that the event put me in touch with neighbours and Mends in a way I had not experienced for many months.  This, in turn, brought a sharp realisation of how, far beyond the firelit circle, far beyond the Peninsula, the tide is running fiercely against mutual concern and communal harmony. At this time it seems to be suggested to us at every turn that the care of children, the education of those who are not well-off, the plight of the unemployed or the sick or the elderly who can’t afford nursing-home fees, are not matters of general concern, that all that matters is to make money for ourselves, yield up less tax, hang on to what we have and damn every user who can’t pay.  We are being seduced into a monstrous selfishness, a horrible denial of all that makes for communal peace and care for our neighbours.  And it struck me as I watched the burning ship and all the children holding their lanterns that it was out of the encompassing darkness, out of an isolation devoid of sympathy and dedicated to self, that the figure of Martin Bryant had come with his high-powered rifles.

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