Down Under, mysteries without end


Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks during a press conference at the National Press Club on August 31, 2010 in Canberra, Australia. Gillard called the press conference to propose a number of reforms the Labor government would implement if returned to power, following a demand from the three independent incumbents that will decide the fate of both parties to make changes to how parliament is run.


Cole Bennetts

Top news: August was a month for mysteries in Australia. There was the anniversary of an old one: what did really happen 30 years ago when a young mother cried out “That dingo’s got my baby!” And as the month drew to a close, people pondered a new whodunnit, the likes of which the country has not seen in 70 years: has anyone seen our government?

The 30th anniversary of the infamous Dingo Baby case proved a useful distraction for a nation consumed by an election campaign so eccentric, unpredictable and uninspiring that any alternative entertainment was a welcome relief. It may seem cruel to label the 1980 disappearance of baby Azaria Chamberlain “entertainment,” but it long ago ceased to be just another big news story: well-established as a part of the national legend, it’s a tale that has been told in film and countless books. It has even been turned into an opera. Its compelling mystery and tragedy has proved yet again capable of stopping the nation in its tracks, election be damned.

Azaria’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, has told the story many times, and to mark the Aug. 17 anniversary she emerged to do so again: magazines produced special issues, television programs broadcast retrospectives, newspapers unearthed new material. The public lapped it up once more. And yet the simple story at its core remained the same: a mother says a dingo took her nine-week-old baby as she slept in a tent at an outback campsite; the country didn’t believe the story; she was eventually charged with murder and jailed, along the way persecuted by a vengeful public egged on by the hysterical media. Eventually Chamberlain was freed and exonerated.

It’s fair to say that at this distance, the Dingo Baby case is fascinating as much for what it says about Australians as for the facts of the case itself. Why were people so willing to suspend fair judgment and hound this woman and her family to the point of breakdown? What happened to the famed national sense of a “fair go”? And would we let such gross injustice happen again? After 30 years, this latest round of analysis and obsession didn’t answer any of those questions – a sign that they are rather among the mysteries that continue to sustain the myth.

As for the other great Australian mystery – what became of the government – the answer seems to be that it was swallowed up by an electorate so disenchanted by both sides of politics that it couldn’t bring itself to anoint either to rule for the next three years. At the time of writing, Australia remained in political limbo, with its complicated preferential voting system having delivered a dead-heat between the ruling Labor Party and the rival conservative Coalition. The incumbent prime minister, Julia Gillard, is now in caretaker mode as she and her Liberal Party opponent Tony Abbott work to woo the non-aligned members of parliament whose decision will allow one of them to form a minority government – Australia’s first such federal arrangement since 1940.

With the result possibly up in the air for days and even weeks to come, the only thing that can be noted with certainty is just how confused the electorate is. For starters, record numbers of voters in some areas didn’t cast valid ballots at all – a result, in part, of the bizarre campaign intervention by a former Labor leader turned TV commentator. Mark Latham had appeared on Australia’s 60 Minutes to urge people to leave their papers blank to express mutual disgust at the major parties.

Then there are the issues that exercise the independent lawmakers who will decide the result. They range from the left-leaning Greens MP Adam Bandt, who advocates radical action on climate change and gay marriage, to the eccentric “agrarian socialist” Bob Katter, who could not be further to the right of Bandt on such issues.

It’s hard to imagine how a workable government will ever accommodate such strange bedfellows. In the end, a key player will be Australia’s Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. Constitutionally, she is the head of government — as the Queen of England’s representative in Australia — and it is she who will formally commission either Gillard or Abbott to form the next government. And if neither can conjure a stable arrangement? She can send Australians back to the polls. Cue further disgust if that happens.

In keeping with the all-encompassing weirdness of this election, there has even been uncertainty over Bryce’s role: her son-in-law is a senior minister in Gillard’s Labor government, adding another element of soap opera to an already surreal story. Bryce has taken legal advice that these familial ties do not compromise her position.

Money: After Australians voted on August 21, all eyes were on the stock market the following Monday to see how local and international investors would react to the non-result result. As it happened, there was no earth-shattering reaction – continuing the strange disconnect Down Under between unsettled political events and the robust health of the economy buzzing around them. However, analysts are warning that the uncertainty can’t drag on for long – especially as some of the key policies up for debate are of vital interest to investors, such as Labor’s plans for a new mining tax, and its plan for a $43 billion national broadband network.

Elsewhere: When not discussing politics, there’s been one other topic of conversation certain to set sparks flying in Aussie pubs in recent weeks: a $37 million sexual harassment lawsuit against upscale retail giant David Jones. It’s that whopping figure that has stunned Australians, an amount that when it was announced seemed to turn public sympathy swiftly against the alleged victim, Kristy Fraser-Kirk, the 25-year-old employee who claims she was harassed by the company’s high-flying CEO Mark McInnes. It’s an unprecedented financial claim in an Australian courtroom – and led to swift criticism that Fraser-Kirk was, as one lawyer suggested, treating the case as a trip to the casino. (She has pledged to donate any award to charity.) Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it’s an ongoing PR nightmare for the company: six other women have now joined her legal action. McInnes has denied most, but not all, of the claims against him.