Lest we forget Port Arthur
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.