Thursday, June 18, 2009

A long, long way from Patjarr – the death in custody of Mr Ward

In custody or in transit?

You might think that the recent “4 Corners” story, ‘Who Killed Mr Ward?’ was impeccably researched, going by the rather special archival footage (shot by Ian Dunlop of the Commonwealth Film Unit) (1) of Mr Ward at three-ish, in 1965, alongside his large family, who were all at that stage nomads living in the Gibson Desert.

Alas, however, it was all downhill from there – certainly for the “4 Corners” story, and perhaps also for the life of Mr Ward. I’ll begin my castigation of “4 Corners” with the charge of geographic vagueness, if not plain error:

“His family members have travelled in [to Kalgoorlie] from the remote north-eastern communities of Warburton, Tjuntjuntjara, Patjarr and Warakurna, between 500 and 1000 kilometres away” (transcript slightly edited).

Patjarr, the most northerly of these communities, is a long way closer to the Southern Ocean (Great Australian Bight) than Kununurra, in far north-east WA, and closer still to the Indian Ocean (the Eighty Mile Beach near Sandfire Roadhouse) in north-west WA. While “central WA” would be probably the most accurate moniker, this sounds jarring, for some strange reason (most other states have a well-understood and in common usage “centre”). Failing this, the more usual geographic basket that Patjarr, et al, are put in is “the Western Desert” – admittedly this is shamelessly east-of-129° centric, but it’s also clear that it refers to a WA region that is neither Kalgoorlie nor Kununurra, etc.

The second piece of geographic vagueness is the transcript’s reference to “Baddya” (a phonetic transcription of the Ian Dunlop footage voice-over) rather than Patjarr. Here, I am assuming that these two similarly named, and if not identical, very close together places (2) are one and the same. I am not just being pedantic here: the modern-day community of Patjarr, which was established about 1990 (3) in an area in which Mr Ward obviously had some affinity with, is – if you draw the connection I have – a curious silence in the life of, Mr Ward. “4 Corners” only recounts:

“The same year this footage was shot [1965], the [Ward] family moved from the desert, to the more westernised life in the remote community of Warburton [about 200 km south of Patjarr]”.

Warburton was then a mission (4) community/“community” – another omission by “4 Corners”. Why Mr Ward as an adult then chose to stay in Warburton, a dry community which was mission de-commissioned about 1975 (5), is surely a salient point.

Next point: the friendly cop from Warburton and dodgy JP from Laverton. I don’t know why Neil Gordon was part of the “4 Corners” story. All the good-cop/bad-JP, Warburton/Laverton juxtaposition showed was that Mr Ward, sober in Warburton where he was a pillar of the community, was perceived very differently to Mr Ward, drunk in Laverton where he was an obvious out-of-towner. No kidding. It would have been much more worthwhile to have interviewed Neil Gordon’s Laverton-cop counterpart (I’d guess that s/he would have come across Mr Ward before, unlike the local JP, apparently).

Next, continuing the theme: the surprisingly scrupulous prison-contract company, AIMS. In 2001, after a WA Inspector of Custodial Services report had highlighted air-conditioning problems in prisoner-transport vans, AIMS commissioned its own report from an air-conditioning expert, which recommended that the type of van Mr Ward was to die in seven years later, near the end of a 400 km trip, was used only in the metropolitan area (i.e. on short trips). This report was subsequently ignored, “4 Corners” informs us, by the WA bureaucracy. I am puzzled by this: surely the more pertinent observation is that AIMS then proceeded to ignore its own report, by (it appears) continuing to use the vans on long, hot trips.

It is hard to be certain on this point, because of the (conveniently) tangled corporate veils over ownership and staffing of the prisoner-transport vans in question. The same vehicles are still being used today by GSL, who took over the contract from AIMS, “4 Corners” informs us. So, in the meantime, did AIMS have a crisis of conscience over the dangerous ongoing use of the vans, and renounce its contract? Err, not quite: AIMS sold the vans in question to the WA government (“cheap”) in 2005, and separately “bailed out” (whatever that means) of its prisoner-transport contract about two years later, in mid-2007, six months before Mr Ward died (not that “4 Corners” runs these two developments alongside). There is a distinct whiff in all of this, in which the WA bureaucracy/government’s sitting on the 2001 AIMS report, in isolation, appears to me a relatively anodyne odour in the mix.

Finally, there is the air of strange mystery, combined with shock-horror reaction when a morsel is revealed, regarding GSL’s prisoner-transport procedures at the time of Mr Ward’s death (and now?). I am surprised that these procedures, which would have to be contained in GSL’s contract with the WA government, are not on the public record. “4 Corners” doesn’t say either way, but it implies that it has only just gleaned all it can tell us:

“LIZ JACKSON: It was common for guards to stop on a long haul trip like this, for petrol, food and water, and to see if the prisoner needed the toilet, but there was nothing in GSL’s written procedures that said that this must be done. This time they just drove on and on.

(about 20 minutes later in the show)

LIZ JACKSON: Over a year after Mr Ward's death GSL has still taken no disciplinary action against Nina Stokoe and Graham Powell, the guards who drove him on the day. At the Inquest Mr Hughes was asked why. His answer was extraordinary.

EXCERPT FROM INQUEST, JOHN HUGHES: I believe the view was formed that they hadn't formally breached any company policies or procedures”.

“Extraordinary” indeed, Liz, when you have plainly forgotten what you said 20 minutes earlier. GSL’s official procedures were/are indisputably barbaric, so it is a shame that “4 Corners” is so shocked just by this revelation that the show can’t even think to segue back to the WA government’s complicity at this point – an entity with presumably clear notice of GSL’s official procedures. But never mind – the whole point of privatisation, of course, is that no one – government or contractor – is left holding the baby, or in Mr Ward’s case, corpse. Like the ceaselessly changing permutations over ownership and staffing of the lethal prisoner-transport vans, Mr Ward and then his corpse, were never in anyone’s custody (which word implies a duty of care) – just in transit, permanently.

Patjarr Postscript

“‘Patjarr. I’ve barely heard the name.’
‘Is that right?’ Esme smiled. ‘I’d have to say that’s an extremely serious gap in your education.’”

Patjarr, “the best permanent water supply in the whole desert” (ibid) is at or near (7) where explorer Ernest Giles gave up his westward trek in 1874, and in extremis, turned around, a decision that had fatal consequences for his assistant Gibson. Needless to say, Giles completely missed Patjarr’s water.

Regarding the Ward family’s perhaps wise move from Patjarr (and environs) to the Warburton mission in 1965, there was a curious plague of American anthropologists living at Patjarr (when of course it was just bush) in 1966-67 (8).


1. Nicolas Rothwell, Wings of the Kite-Hawk, Picador 2003 p316
2. Ibid, Dunlop filmed “on the plains round Patjarr”.
3. Ibid p317
4. Nicolas Rothwell, Another Country, Black Inc 2007 pp 205-212
5. Ibid p209
6. Rothwell, Wings of the Kite-Hawk, p313
7. Ibid pp 312 and 323
8. Ibid p316

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Chaser does Pissweak Make-a-Wish World

I haven’t laughed hard at anything new (i.e. “Kath + Kim” repeats excluded) on TV for ages until last night’s The Chaser “Make a Realistic Wish” segment. I found it particularly funny because, consciously or otherwise, it extended the concept behind Late Show’s classic Pissweak World mock-ads. The genius of the “Pissweak World” segments was their wise-child point of view, elevated into editorial/narrator omniscience – an impossibility in real life, of course, but also perhaps the paradigm of that elusive beast, Truth in Advertising.

Somehow, last night’s The Chaser segment has been perceived by some (most?) as an attack on terminally-ill children. Sheesh – the thought that it was actually the adults depicted who were being satirised (rather savagely, I admit) seems to be a step too far for middle Australia. Such critics have a gaping blind spot, incidentally proving that there is not nearly enough good Australian satire being made and consumed. Get a grip, people.

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