Monday, 16 November 2009
In a speech at the Sydney Opera House to mark his award of Australia’s human rights prize, the Sydney Peace Prize, John Pilger describes the “unique features” of a political silence in Australia: how it affects the national life of his homeland and the way Australians see the world and are manipulated by great power “which speaks through an invisible government of propaganda that subdues and limits our political imagination and ensures we are always at war – against our own first people and those seeking refuge, or in someone else’s country”. Thank you all for coming tonight, and my thanks to the City of Sydney and especially to the Sydney Peace Foundation for awarding me the Peace Prize. It’s an honour I cherish, because it comes from where I come from. I am a seventh generation Australian. My great-great grandfather landed not far from here, on November 8th, 1821. He wore leg irons, each weighing four pounds. His name was Francis McCarty. He was an Irishman, convicted of the crime of insurrection and “uttering unlawful oaths”. In October of the same year, an 18 year old girl called Mary Palmer stood in the dock at Middlesex Gaol and was sentenced to be transported to New South Wales for the term of her natural life. Her crime was stealing in order to live. Only the fact that she was pregnant saved her from the gallows. She was my great-great grandmother. She was sent from the ship to the Female Factory at Parramatta, a notorious prison where every third Monday, male convicts were brought for a “courting day” – a rather desperate measure of social engineering. Mary and Francis met that way and were married on October 21st, 1823. Growing up in Sydney, I knew nothing about this. My mother’s eight siblings used the word “stock” a great deal. You either came from “good stock” or “bad stock”. It was unmentionable that we came from bad stock – that we had what was called “the stain”. One Christmas Day, with all of her family assembled, my mother broached the subject of our criminal origins, and one of my aunts almost swallowed her teeth. “Leave them dead and buried, Elsie!” she said. And we did – until many years later and my own research in Dublin and London led to a television film that revealed the full horror of our “bad stock”. There was outrage. “Your son,” my aunt Vera wrote to Elsie, “is no better than a damn communist”. She promised never to speak to us again. The Australian silence has unique features. Growing up, I would make illicit trips to La Perouse and stand on the sandhills and look at people who were said to have died off. I would gape at the children of my age, who were said to be dirty, and feckless. At high school, I read a text book by the celebrated historian, Russel Ward, who wrote: “We are civilized today and they are not.” “They”, of course, were the Aboriginal people. My real Australian education began at the end of the 1960s when Charlie Perkins and his mother, Hetti, took me to the Aboriginal compound at Jay Creek in the Northern Territory. We had to smash down the gate to get in. The shock at what I saw is unforgettable. The poverty. The sickness. The despair. The quiet anger. I began to recognise and understand the Australian silence.