Australia’s most popular opinion writer has branded the equation of his views on Aboriginality with Nazi eugenics as “false and grossly offensive” in the Federal Court today.
Andrew Bolt, giving evidence in a racial discrimination case brought by nine prominent members of the Aboriginal community, said he totally rejected the suggestion of racism and that he “had been a vigorous opponent of the eugenics movement in my columns all my life”.
Bolt was responding to evidence heard yesterday in the case, in which Ron Merkel, for the applicants, argued Bolt’s focus on descent to the exclusion of other markers of identity was the basis for the Holocaust and should therefore be disowned.
This morning’s newspapers were plastered with the suggestion in court that Bolt’s fixation on descent had the potential for society to embark on a slippery slope to genocide. Merkel said Bolt had “mindset frozen in history”, that “this kind of thinking led to the Nuremberg race laws” and that Bolt had adopted a “eugenic approach to Aboriginality”.
But after striding to the witness box, the widely-read polemicist was having none of it.
“I thought that allegation and the linking to the Nuremberg laws and to the Holocaust was false, grossly offensive and that Mr Merkel had crossed the line,” Bolt retorted, under friendly questioning from Herald and Weekly Times QC Neil Young.
The statement drew a stern rebuke from Justice Bromberg, who repeatedly admonished him with the words “Mr Bolt, Mr Bolt” while he answered, drawing giggles from the public gallery. Bromberg was keen to restrict Bolt’s evidence to his general views on race and biological capacity, rather than his opinion on yesterday’s proceedings.
“Mr Bolt, you need to be responsive to the question please, the question focused on the biological descent issue,” Bromberg said.
The sentiment was echoed by Merkel.
“This is not a forum for Mr Bolt to have a discussion on his view of the opening… Mr Bolt has written his articles and he will stand or fall by them no doubt.”
The nine are suing for alleged hurt and distress suffered as a result of four opinion pieces written in 2009. In the articles that are the subject of the case, Bolt had referred to “white Aborigines”, suggesting many of the applicants had made a choice to identify as Aboriginal in order to receive government grants and jobs.
In fact, modern definitions of Aboriginality have to pass a three-part test including self-identification and community acceptance in addition to descent.
Bolt’s stint in the witness box began farcically when Young, for Bolt, discovered HWT had not been provided with a transcript, forcing a 10 minute adjournment.
Under cross-examination when proceedings resumed, Bolt tantalisingly revealed some of the internal workings of the Herald Sun newsroom, saying he has “a team” of employees to moderate comments on his blog, in addition to himself. The comments thread often contains objectionable material that has to be excised after publishing, he said.
“Sometimes someone alerts you to an error,” he said.
In his witness statement, Bolt lists a number of quotations that appear to back his view of ongoing debates in the Aboriginal community over the identity issue, however counsel for the applicants questioned whether he had read the opinions prior to publication or sought them out later to assist with the case.
Bolt maintained he had read them, and that while he did not keep notes of the quotes, the “internet age” meant they were on hand at any time for his perusal.
The articles were “part of a voluminous amount of reading” and “part of the formulation of my thoughts”. Bolt said a 2002 Good Weekend profile on academic Larissa Behrendt — a party to the claim — was read before publication and not triggered by a discussion over the issue with Australian columnist Janet Albrechtson.
Bolt was also read a list of the Australian Press Council’s principles, with which said he agreed with “in principle”.
Elsewhere in his witness statement, the leading scribe outlines his long career in journalism, starting as a cadet on The Age in 1979. But the reporter-turned-columnist appears to have forgotten the newspaper he wrote on in the 1980s, listing its title as the “Herald Sun”. The Herald Sun was first published in October 1990, and Bolt was famously lured back to The Herald following a period as a Labor adviser.
Earlier, Behrendt entered her witness statement into evidence, which told of her being branded a “blackarse” at school. In one article at the centre of the case, Bolt said Behrendt, a Sydney professor, had a German grandfather and referred to her as “mein liebchen” after outlining her record of academic success.
The current NSW Australian of the Year said she supported the “three part test” of Aboriginal identity and had previously told a journalist it was “ludicrous” that descent alone be relied upon in the claiming of government benefits.
In her witness statement, Behrendt said Bolt was trying to allude to her “Aryan” ancestry by listing her apparent German heritage next to a photo of her with blonde hair and white skin. However, Bolt had never specifically used the word Aryan in his columns.
“You used that to allude to Nazi Germany did you not?,” Bolt’s lawyer said, before Behrendt was excused from the witness box.
Yesterday afternoon, activist Pat Eatock said she had first identified as Aboriginal when she went to work at the Arnott’s biscuit factory at 14 in Brisbane, and earlier among her immediate family and friendship group.
According to Bolt, writing on April 1, 2009: “Eatock only started to identify as Aboriginal when she was 19, after attending a political rally, so little did any racial difference matter to her before her awakening to far-Left causes.
“But she thrived as an Aboriginal bureaucrat, activist and academic…”
Young, for Bolt, quizzed Eatock on both points, highlighting the radicalising rally, which was in fact a conference on women’s issues addressed by legendary activist Faith Bandler in the early 1960s. Bolt had relied on a summary from the Australian Women’s Register for his statement that suggested Eatock was a late convert to Aboriginality.
When Young stated that, “looking at your career as described in the paragraph in the biography, it appears to be a career that could be described as a successful career, do you agree with that?”, the feisty Eatock dissented: “No, looking at those short periods of employment … any reasonable person would think that was a failed career. Six years employment over a period of 35 years or something is a lot of unemployment.”
On the question of whether her career had contained “significant achievements,” the 73-year-old was blunt: “I still maintain that any person not knowing me, reading that, there is very little to say that person is a high achiever.”
Young: “Ms Eatock, I suggest you do yourself a disservice.”
The second witness yesterday was local artist Bindi Cole, with Young’s cross examination zeroing in on how and when she had decided to identify as Aboriginal.
Bolt’s defence, which will continue this afternoon, is expected to focus on the free speech provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act.
*As this matter is still before court, Crikey is not allowing comments on this article. If you wish to respond email [email protected].