I grew up in a Liberal Party household. My father knew I was left wing; he contented himself with using argument to try and convince me I was wrong. I was not forbidden to hold the opinions I had, but he never stopped trying to change my mind. An example was his view of Communism, that great fear of the 50s, together with the accompanying Yellow Peril.
My father was a deeply thoughtful and intelligent man. He was teetotal, and religious, but not arrogant or self-righteous with it. He was humble and gracious most of the time. On rare occasions he lost his temper and became violent; because of how unusual this was, it was all the more frightening.
My father believed that Communists were godless creatures; even that some of them had pale blue eyes with a fanatical aspect. I am not mocking or belittling my father for having this belief; it was during McCarthyism after all, and I was taught (by my father) that Communists propagated themselves organically by means of cells. He gave me a pamphlet to read about dialectical materialism; it explained how groups of just a few communists could grow exponentially.
Today, my father would probably be called a white supremacist. It genuinely worried him that within a few generations, whiteness as a genetic characteristic would disappear. He was racist as hell, but on the other hand, he numbered among his closest friends people from several cultures. Born in 1906, he’d lived through the years of the first world war in awe of his older brother, who fought in the trenches in France and was awarded a medical scholarship upon his return. He had married the daughter of a Governor of Tasmania who became the first female medical graduate in New South Wales.
In contrast to his war hero brother my father nearly didn’t make it to adulthood, due to a childhood illness that left his heart permanently weak. But he developed unexpected gifts and achieved success in business and the community. By the time I came into awareness I knew my father loved me, but that he found it difficult to have a high spirited baby boomer daughter. Our arguments were long and boring, always ending in a stalemate.
After the United Nations Association Conference for Year 12 students in Adelaide, 1968, I came home with even stronger views. The Queensland delegation had been mortified to learn, during the conference, that our State passed an Act in 1966 allowing for indigenous Australians to be incarcerated without trial for indefinite periods.
United Nations Association (Australia) Student Conference 1968. Queensland Delegation.
Even if I hadn’t already begun to form a social conscience, due to inspired History and English teaching at Somerville House, and of course the arguments with my father, the UNA Conference would have cemented my views about inequality in Australia.
Until then I had been part of the privileged class, but my mother was always reminding me how lucky we were. I didn’t understand why. Then – the knowledge of the 1966 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Act caused cognitive dissonance; the arguments with my father became more bitter. I attended a meeting addressed by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, with some other Year 12 students who had been at the Conference. The speaker, then publicly known by her Anglicised name of Kath Walker, made a point of coming to speak with us afterwards. She was pleased that some young students knew about the 1966 Act. Shortly afterwards a group of us wrote a letter to the Courier Mail.
My father was not pleased. He even threatened at one stage to have me declared an uncontrollable child. We all know, now, where that would have led. All the same, he was my father and I loved him. I still remember surfing with him. He taught me how to catch waves and ride them into shore. We had discussions that weren’t arguments. He could make me laugh.
What worried my father was that Kath Walker, in his opinion, was a communist. In the late 60s, to accuse someone of being a communist was tantamount to saying you would be in trouble with the law if you continued to associate with them. That was how it felt, anyway.
My political activism while still at school was being echoed across the country. This was 1968 after all. By the time I got to university, the anti-Vietnam War movement was attracting baby boomers from all classes of society. You could win a scholarship to university, so more students from poorer backgrounds attended. What grew out of it was a cultural ‘soup’, the like of which I think none of us had seen before. Suddenly the refectory was the place to go. You were greeted, as you entered the cavernous space, by an almost subterranean roar of conversation. Clinks of a thousand coffee cups. Heated arguments going on everywhere you looked.
Our parents and teachers wanted our boyfriends to go to a War, the motivations for which were already unclear. How could they ask this of us?
The doctors at the university health service advised students to leave home. Many did. I was not allowed. The one time I managed to sneak away with my fiancé for a weekend in Canberra, my father accused us of wanting to cohabit. Our family was strictly religious. It was unthinkable that I could move out and live in a share house like many of my friends.
The doctors at the health service were pragmatic. What I think they saw was a large cohort of noisy, gifted, confused children, who were getting into drugs, sex, alcohol, and most of all, Protest. What were we protesting? Not just the Vietnam War, although that was the focus. We protested because we could not talk to our parents, or if we could talk to them, they could not understand where we were coming from.
Bertram Tunley OBE (1906-1983)