By Henry Johnston
My long association with the Federal seat of Gilmore commenced a few years before 1984, a seminal time for the Royal Australian Navy and the City of Shoalhaven which lies to the south of the industrial hub of Wollongong in New South Wales.
The cessation of the navy’s fixed wing operations in this year, marked the start of a long and painful economic trough for the Shoalhaven, and especially Nowra, the regional provincial city.
Nowra was, and to a large extent still is, a navy town. Nowadays real estate and tourism are the dominant industries. Spin-off businesses associated with the military while important are barely on the economic radar.
When departing neighbouring Kiama and entering the Shoalhaven region, it is easy to mistake the lush surrounds as a National Party stronghold. Far from it. The Federal seat of Gilmore which encompasses Nowra and its satellite towns is or was blue ribbon Liberal. But Gilmore is about to cross into the Labor column for the first time in many decades.
How do I know?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently parachuted Mr Warren Mundine into the seat, metaphorically stabbed the endorsed Liberal candidate Grant Schultz in the back, and earlier allowed the sitting Member Ann Sudmalis, to be thrown under the political bus.
By so doing ScoMo unleashed in Gilmore a full blown death match struggle for the future of Liberals in Gilmore and across Australia.
Gilmore / Nowra tell the tale of two sides of a river. North of the Shoalhaven lie the moneyed bastions of Kangaroo Valley, Berry and Gerringong and Geroa. To the south live some of the poorest, most deprived citizens of New South Wales, who struggle in soul-less housing commission estates. Many of these citizens are expelled from housing commission accommodation in western Sydney.
Nowra, like many rural communities, suffers from the scourge of ice. In my south coast community, a 40 minute drive south of Nowra, 26 houses were robbed in one night. Mine among them. The culprit after an inevitable arrest had his house fire bombed by local vigilantes. In my tiny community, arson, murder, robbery, serious drug dealing, spousal abuse and random acts of violence, are the norm. But most visitors and tourists to the south coast never see this dark underbelly. They are rightly mesmerised by the region’s stunning natural beauty.
Until recently the local Liberal clique of Shelley Hancock (the NSW Parliament’s Speaker), Federal Member Ann Sudmalis and her predecessor Joanna Gash, along with their developer-cum-real estate lackeys were happy for this dreadful state of affairs to continue. Then along came Warren Mundine about whom I make no comment. But I do say this: The Aboriginal citizens of the Shoalhaven / Nowra / Federal seat of Gilmore are among the most put-upon Indigenous people in New South Wales.
Mundine an Aboriginal man who claims ancestral ties to the south coast, lives in Sydney and was the former national president of the Australian Labor Party
There are too many examples of out-and-out racism deployed against the Yuin of the south coast, but the most egregious in my time there, occurred in 1982, when accused anti-Semite councillor Greg Watson, took down and burnt an aboriginal flag made by local auntie, Maude Moore. Watson called the flag a “revolutionary piece of rag’.
Speaking of Jews, Watson reportedly said, “You can say, ‘why don’t you jack the price up? Why don’t you be a good Jew? Why don’t you screw the price of the last dollar out of it like private enterprise would?’” Track down the report on ABC Radio’s PM program of Thursday 1 May, 2008 here and make up your own mind about this less-than-charming individual.
Greg Watson was a key member of the local Liberal clique I mentioned earlier and needless to say Pauline Hanson is very popular in Gilmore. Thus a Liberal candidate of Aboriginal extraction faces endemic racism, even before the poll is announced.
By contrast I make a few observations about the woman whose name adorns this unhappy Federal Liberal seat; Dame Mary Gilmore.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes her as a “patriot, feminist, social crusader and folklorist; she has now passed into Australian legend”.
The dictionary also says ,“Mary Gilmore campaigned in the Worker and any other available forum for a wide range of social and economic reforms, such as votes for women, old-age and invalid pensions, child endowment and improved treatment of returned servicemen, the poor and deprived and, above all, of Aboriginals.
“She wrote numerous letters, as well as contributing articles and poems, to the Sydney Morning Herald on these causes and such diverse subjects as the English language, the Prayer Book, earthquakes, Gaelic and the immigration laws, the waratah as a national emblem, the national anthem, and Spanish Australia”.
Read more here.
Of all the aspiring and former politicians who’ve held sway in Gilmore, only the ALP candidate Fiona Phillips comes close to the legacy of the Federal seat’s namesake. And of the soon-to-be-defunct Liberal clique of Gilmore, good riddance to your shameful and wasteful history.
Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.
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