A letter to Chris Mitchell, retiring Editor in Chief of The Australian

Opinion Article

2015 December, 11

My Good Friend, 

I momentarily fell silent when Inquirer editor Jenny Campbell asked me whether I wanted to write this weekend, the occasion of your retirement as editor-in-chief of this great newspaper. I hadn’t heard it impending, so my feelings were caught off guard. We have had such a long friendship and your stewardship of the Oz has been such a constant feature of my public life, I’m wondering what I will do whenever I feel the spontaneous convulsion (usually late on a Thursday night) to offer my opinion on something or other, and you end up clearing some space for me at late notice.

You have been such a generous friend for more than two decades. A stalwart champion of the imperative to bring your fellow black Australians into the centre of national policy discussion, you defined The Australian as the media that treated most seriously the question of the rightful place of the original peoples and their heritage in our country. You understood so clearly that my people’s heritage is also the heritage of all Australians.

I first heard of you when you urged the Oz to make Eddie Mabo The Australian newspaper’s Australian of the Year for 1992. After more than two decades since the High Court’s decision on native title, today we can scarcely recall how prescient — and ahead of the curve — that posthumous nomination was. You understood the once-in-a-nation’s-lifetime importance that Koiki’s victory represented, a victory not just for his Meriam people in the Torres Strait but a victory for the Australian people.

It is, I think, wrong to interpret your assiduous inclusion and principled advocacy for the indigenous story of this country as meaning that you went out on the limb for us. Rather, you shifted the centre so that the tree trunk itself accommodated our story. Unashamedly and unreservedly. Indigenous culture, policy and politics have not been an occasional side story: it has been a consistent theme of the paper, woven through the national story as an integral and yet distinctive thread. 

I recall shaking my head when I heard you even went up to Gympie, when you were editing The Courier-Mail in Brisbane, to argue the case for native title at a public meeting. Talk about the lion’s den. I’ve been in a few lion’s dens over the years, but these were all out of necessity rather than choice. I thought: what kind of newspaper editor defends their editorial stance on controversial issues to their readers?

Mate, I think we shared the kind of, dare I say it — vision — that Paul Keating articulated throughout his public service. A prosperous, independent and creative people and all those good things, but more importantly a country with soul. If public life is about securing material means for a nation’s citizens, it cannot be the end. It is the soul and spirit that is the end. 

That is why Keating placed reconciliation as one of the three main themes of his prime ministership. Watching Kerry’s O’Brien’s interview series with Placido reminded us all again he was our finest leader for the new times: Australia happened to have a world-class philosopherking, one whose vision was for the ages. 

At the Oz’s 50th anniversary shindig last July I asked Paul Kelly (the in-house historian rather than the out-house poet), whether we would ever see the like of his namesake again and the Doyen said: “You know the answer to that question.”

The most poignant piece in Kerry’s interview was when Keating spoke of the impact of losing his father on the street of his suburban home and the grief that never left the young man even as he now moves through his 70s. Being present at the time and place of a father’s passing is an unforgettable grief. It gives rise to a melancholy that pervades one’s life and never leaves us for our remaining years. Paul spoke for all those (thousands if not millions) of young men like you and me, orphaned from our fathers too soon, making me realise that it is a melancholy one does not want to banish, but which nurtures and sustains us. 

I thought about the conversation you and our late friend Lew Griffiths once had, and I listened to two of my great Australian friends tell their stories of their childhood — yours in Queensland and Lew’s in his family’s peripatetic wanderings around the outback — and the affinity with Aboriginal people you gained and always held on your lives. Each of you had an unerring sense of the things the country needed to get right concerning its original peoples. As with Lew, the predicament of our people has been a driving force in your work as a newspaperman. 

You gave me my chance to write with the Courier when the gorgeous Julianne Schultz was your opinion editor. I speak of layered identities and that we share ethnic and other cultural and political layers with some and not with others and that common layer we share at those times we are Australian. Well, Julianne and I share that layer as legatees of Martin Luther and it explains why German Lutherans and ancient Cape York and Central Australian tribes — from the Finke River to Hope Valley — share a layer of common identity. These bonds within our various tribes and the bridges that span the space between our tribes make for a diverse and united country. It is what makes us such a successful case study of multiculturalism, and underlines what we must to do to maintain its triumph and avoid its pitfalls. 

It was Rosemary Neill whose series in the late 90s on violence in remote communities that really forced me to move from land rights to social and economic policy. My accumulating convictions around what was wrong with indigenous policies and why things seemed to be getting worse rather than better, came together in a monograph that I self-published in 1999 called Our Right to Take Responsibility. You will recall that you assigned our old mate Tony Koch to the case and the Courier led the way with our case against passive welfare and substance abuse. 

Kochie obviously played a great role in reporting on the prosecution of this agenda, first with the Courier and then when you took him with you to the Oz. Our friends at the Courier weren’t happy and they showed that unhappiness in various ways, but taking the big fella from Mitchell to the nation was an inspired move. His Walkleys during his tenure at the Oz were thoroughly deserved. 

The most magnificent example of campaign journalism, when an editor and reporter work as one tracking and hunting in the cause of justice, was The Australian’s reportage of the death in custody of Mulrunji on Palm Island. It was principled and relentless. It not only reported on events, but moved events along.

As you know, Koch and I had a great falling out over his reporting of the Djarragun College controversy and the saga that led to the imprisonment of its principal for enrolment fraud. The cops called it “noble cause fraud”. There was no evidence that Jean Illingworth gained personal benefit from any of the alleged fraud. From my point of view I saw the case against that old lady as not dissimilar to the conflagration of circumstances that led to the wrongful imprisonment of Pauline Hanson and former chief magistrate Di Fingleton.

Anyway when I was — in all fairness to Tony, unbeknown to him — in the cancer ward for a year, he launched a swingeing attack upon my poor leadership. Geez it was a bollocking, and here I was dealing with a heavy-duty concoction of chemotherapy drugs coursing through my veins — while being assailed by Koch. And for good measure Chris Sarra put the boot in true opportunistic form. I remember texting you to say WTF, and you explaining this was the tempered down version! Kochie and I never really reconciled after that, but whatever the truth of his character assessment of me, I acknowledge his contribution. 

Yesterday I attended the funeral in Rockhampton of John Purcell, the former president of the Cattlemen’s Union of Australia. In 1996 John signed the Cape York heads of agreement that set out a framework for reconciling land tenure and use in wake of native title. 

Cattlemen, blackfellas and greenies have been arguing about land tenure and use for decades. There was no consensus and everything was bogged down in conflict and strife. 

Rick Farley introduced me to Purcell. He brought the blackfellas and cattlemen together, and we brought the greens into the tent. The heads of agreement committed to tenure security for pastoralists. It recognised the land rights of traditional owners, and it recognised the environmental values of Cape York. It truly provided the framework for a future where all parties could work together. 

But then the worthless leadership of various state and commonwealth governments kicked in. Rob Borbidge opposed it when he was premier. The local member for Cape York, Warren Entsch, worked hard to pull the whitefellas away from the agreement. 

By the turn of the century, the agreement was in tatters. The stakeholders were committed but governments were not. The agreement was abandoned. 

That is when our conflict with the greenies began. Working in cahoots with Peter Beattie’s government the greenies started environmental lockups through vegetation management and then Wild Rivers. The greenies were very influential with the state Labor government. First with Beattie and then with Anna Bligh. 

That is why we started the campaign against what the greenies and state Labor were doing. 

It took us five years to defeat Wild Rivers. During that time we had the support of John Purcell in his role with Property Rights Australia.

I told his funeral yesterday that John joined the pantheon of elders of Cape York, whom we greatly honour and love. John was a great man, not a skerrick of prejudice did he possess, and a deep respect for our people. Chris, he was the kind of Australian you would honour, and the kind who gives us great cause for hope in his example and leadership. The Oz’s coverage of the heads of agreement and our subsequent fight against Wild Rivers was a crucial part of this whole story. 

Which brings us to the present and the business of constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. I think we both were convinced that Tony Abbott played an important role in bringing this agenda to this juncture. We talked a lot about Tony’s commitment and the chance that he represented for indigenous affairs. 

We now have Prime Minister Turnbull. We don’t know what will happen, but he will need Keating’s head and Abbott’s heart if we are to succeed. His response to our empowerment framework this week was bewildering. Just a pale promise from his minister, Nigel Scullion, to re-run the failed COAG trials from a decade ago. Not grappling with the empowerment reform agenda we put to the Abbott government in March, and analysed by Paul Kelly at the time. 

The response has all the policy agility of a sloth. It has the reform innovation of the horse and buggy. This is not a good first sign of indigenous affairs reform. Just another episode of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day

Mate, however hard this whole business is, you know we are a long way up the mountain we call radical hope. Though the summit is still covered with clouds, and the dark and deep crevasses of doubt shadow the path ahead, base camp has receded far below.

A letter to Chris Mitchell, retiring Editor in Chief of The Australian