Lest we for­get Port Arthur

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - QUEENSLAND LIFE - WIL­LIAM McINNES Wil­liam McInnes is an ac­tor and au­thor

One Sun­day, 20 years ago, I was driv­ing my car lis­ten­ing to the football, as was my cus­tom. My team was play­ing and I shushed the singing of my young son in the back seat so I could hear what the com­men­ta­tor was say­ing. My team was play­ing and was get­ting beaten – just.

My son sang again then laughed a lit­tle as he sat up in his booster seat. What he was laugh­ing about, I didn’t know. Or care. “Shush! Daddy’s try­ing to lis­ten!”

He was quiet as I lis­tened to my team miss a shot for goal. I groaned and swore un­der my breath. I felt some sort of anger rage in me for a mo­ment. Why it mat­tered so much if the Western Bull­dogs won, I re­ally don’t know, but at that mo­ment it seemed vi­tally im­por­tant.

My son laughed again at some­thing and I shouted at him.

He was silent. I pulled the car over to a park where we were go­ing to take a walk. But I de­cided I had to lis­ten a bit longer.

And then I heard a change in the com­men­ta­tor’s voice. His name was Peter Booth and he had a warm pleas­ant voice with a slightly idio­syn­cratic ca­dence: “I don’t know, I don’t know, but I’m so sorry. We are hear­ing the most aw­ful news from Tas­ma­nia.”

The voice that mo­ments be­fore shrieked of missed op­por­tu­nity and poor com­mit­ment to achiev­ing the hard ball gets had van­ished as he starkly told the story of what was un­fold­ing in Port Arthur.

While I was shout­ing at my son to stop singing, lives ended at the hands of a gun­man. Fam­i­lies were be­ing ripped asun­der by a lone act of mad­ness.

“I don’t know, I don’t know how. It’s just aw­ful. These poor peo­ple. I sup­pose I’ll have to go on, but these re­ports,” Peter Booth ut­tered.

As the football game went on, the num­ber of peo­ple dead climbed in hideous cor­re­la­tion to the match score. And I felt ashamed. I felt very ashamed.

The ra­dio told me they were cross­ing back to the news­room, but the pain in Booth’s voice made me switch the ra­dio off.

I looked back at my son. He stared blankly at me. I took him from the car, sat on a park bench and held him very close to me.

He kissed me on the cheek. What I did to de­serve such a gift was be­yond me.

I have al­ways re­mem­bered that mo­ment. It told me a lot about per­spec­tive and life. Never try to stop the laugh­ter of chil­dren.

A few days later, dur­ing a break in film­ing a TV show, I stood out in the win­ter sun­shine. A TV net­work ex­ec­u­tive and an old football leg­end stood nearby smok­ing. They were en­grossed in conversation and didn’t look to me. “Heart­break­ing wasn’t it?” I took those words to be ref­er­ence to the week­end’s events in Tas­ma­nia.

“Well, at least we got the points. Close run. Would have been a tragedy if the Tiger’s had got up,” said the ex­ec­u­tive.

I just stared, then walked back into the make-be­lieve world of the stu­dio. I wasn’t pass­ing judg­ment. Maybe they had for­got­ten. Maybe they wanted to talk about some­thing else. And peo­ple do for­get. Sooner or later.

John Howard pushed through a raft of gun own­er­ship re­forms and stood, in a bul­let­proof vest bulging be­neath his suit, at a gun owner’s rally to plead the need for re­form.

“Who would ever have thought that an Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter would have to a wear a bul­let­proof vest to a public meet­ing,” my mother said.

It was chilling, but this was the shadow of Port Arthur. This was Aus­tralia.

Then I re­mem­bered some­thing my fa­ther once told me: “There’s La­bor and Lib­eral, but you’ll know when you see some­one do some­thing right. You’ll know it and it won’t mat­ter a tinker’s cuss what brand the fella be­longs to. You just know you back him up.”

We for­get what hap­pened, for all sorts of rea­sons, but some­times we need to take time to re­mem­ber. On Thurs­day, it’s the least we can do.

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