It is, someone said, like Captain Cook’s landing in Botany Bay in 1770. It was a desolate landscape ‘in the middle of nowhere’, but it was the beginning of British Australia, one of the wonders of the world. Our little touring party, more than 240 years later, was standing on or near a nest of bull ants at the disused and dismantled Bonegilla railway station in north-east Victoria. It too was a desolate landscape ‘in the middle of nowhere’ but it was the beginning of Multicultural Australia — which also has a claim to be one of the wonders of the world. It was in Bonegilla that most of the 180,000 ‘Displaced Persons’ of post-war Europe first settled in Australia, the forerunners of the 300,000 assisted foreign migrants who passed through this old army camp in the 1950s and 1960s on their way (most of them) to becoming Australians.

The camp was closed down in 1971 and the ‘blocks’ demolished. But Block 19 still stands as a national heritage site. It is a sort of Ellis Island museum — without the American hype. I have long wanted to visit it, or rather revisit it, since at the age of 19 in 1947 I was a teacher there, a student engaged for the summer vacation to try to teach the Displaced Persons or DPs enough English to get by in the jobs they would quickly be allocated. (The label DPs was soon dropped for the more matey ‘New Australians’, sometimes abbreviated to NAs.) For our tour the other day we were lucky to have Bruce Pennay as our guide. He has published many studies on Bonegilla and its history, including one of the best on the DP episode.

Bonegilla life was tough back in the Forties. (See Sophia Turkewicz’s film Silver City.) Food was basic. There was lots of it and it fattened you up, but it was definitely not for the fussy. Lots of boiled mutton and potatoes, porridge, jam rolls and custard. Bathing in ‘ablution blocks’ was communal. The latrines were holes in the ground. The lingua franca was German, with loudspeakers (‘Achtung! Achtung!’) for camp announcements. There were ethnic tensions, infidelities, camp informers and top-offs. I was fascinated. It was a formative, broadening experience.

The general public was either supportive or indifferent to this new Commonwealth initiative. Bonegilla was a long way off. But everyone knew Australia needed workers. (‘Populate or Perish!’) The Chifley government introduced the scheme and the Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell was its ardent apostle. The only serious current of criticism was from those who believed that some of the Displaced Persons — presented as forced labour in the German war machine — had been complicit in it. Minister Calwell dismissed these ‘wicked falsehoods’. All the DPs, he said, had been screened by the IRO (International Refugee Organisation). They were homeless refugees, ‘the flotsam and jetsam’ of Hitler’s and Stalin’s wars: desperate, penniless, willing to work, and fearful of the Soviet gulag. They deserved a helping hand, and teachers at Bonegilla, all of us little Calwellites, were only too willing to extend one. (A curiosity preserved in Block 19 is a set of portraits of Tudor kings and queens which one DP had painted to illustrate his commitment to British civilisation. The Union Jack in the corner of our flag is what first caught the eye of some DPs: it meant stability, freedom, prosperity — a change from the swastika
or the hammer-and-sickle.) As teachers we urged them to become Australian citizens — or in the language of the day, British subjects — as soon as they could. This is ‘the best country in the world’, created by the magic of democracy. You are welcome newcomers in the land of a new start. We felt we were doing our bit for Australia.

But the plausible idea persisted, and not only among Jewish organisations, that some Nazis or fellow-travellers and even a few war criminals — the number is disputed — had slipped through the screening processes. It remained a matter of debate for decades, and is still debated, although no alleged war criminal has ever been successfully prosecuted in Australia. Meanwhile Block 19 and the disused Bonegilla railway station stand as symbols of the rough-and-ready transformation of post-war Australia, long before the word ‘multicultural’ had been heard of.

Julian Assange is in a win-win position. If he stands for the Senate this year he may well scrape in, even with a small primary vote. The Family First candidate Steve Fielding took a Senate seat in 2004 with a derisory vote but won through (after 285 distributions) on everybody’s preferences, including Labor’s. With all the books, plays, films and telemovies about him, Assange already has a formidable publicity machine. During the Senate campaign he can deliver headlining speeches from his Ecuadorian balcony in London. Who can beat that? Even if he does not make it, he will have generated enormous publicity for his cause. He can’t lose.

Each year the Queen’s Christmas message is largely about the religious significance of the birth of Jesus Christ. But most of the newspapers ignore ‘all that stuff’ and report only the secular messages — this year about the London Olympics, the athletes and volunteers. The Queen finished her speech quoting Christina Rossetti’s beautiful hymn ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’: What can I give him, poor as I am?/ If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;/ If I were a wise man, I would do my part;/Yet what I can I give him: give my heart. At least one or two newspapers quoted the speech in full — Rossetti and all.