This is a tale of two strong women of this country. They are at once very different but also very similar in many ways. They have both spent large parts of their lives fighting for that which they believe in.
Tennant Creek is a small town one thousand kilometres south of Darwin and held fast by a small mountain range to the north, the vast red sand country of the Tanami Desert to the west and the Mitchell Grass plains of the Barkly Tablelands to the east. To the south Alice Springs is 500 long kilometres away.
Tennant is in a slow decline from its long-past glory days as a gold mining town. Nowadays ‘the Creek’ is propped up largely by the Aboriginal dollar, whether ‘falling from the fingers’ of the locals or from the wallets of those that provide services to them.
Rebecca Healy is a young woman born in Queensland but grown up in the small town of Elliott, two and a half hours fast drive north of Tennant Creek.
After her parents separated she was shuffled between her mother in Tennant and her father in Elliott. At the age of 12 she ran away from home and quit school, drifting between a life on the streets or with friends until she was placed in welfare accommodation in her teens. There she prospered, taking on positions of responsibility, studying courses in business and government and training towards public service employment. By the age of 19 she had bought her own house in Tennant Creek. She went on to serve with a number of community organisations and government advisory boards.
2011 was a big year for Rebecca Healy. She was awarded the Barnardos Mother of the Year Award for the NT, later that year taking the national Barnardos Mother of the Year Award. She had been a member of the conservative Country Liberal Party for a number of years and in late 2011 she was nominated as the Country Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Barkly in the Northern Territory parliament.
In 2011 Rebecca Healy was nominated for the Young Australian of the Year Award and on 25 January 2012 she travelled to Canberra to attend the national ceremony as the Northern Territory finalist for that award.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has, like Rebecca Healy in many ways, also lived a life dedicated largely to service to and care for others. A member of the Arrernte language group, she was born in 1937 at Urapuntja Creek in the Northern Territory and was educated at St Mary’s school in Alice Springs.
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At 16 she was cast as the lead in Charles Chauvel’s classic Australian film Jedda but soon after joined an order of Anglican nuns in Melbourne where she remained for 10 years.
After leaving the order she married her husband and, like Rebecca Healy, ran a foster home for disadvantaged youth. Upon her return to Alice Springs in the late seventies she joined the Country Liberal Party and ran as an unsuccessful candidate for election of several occasions. After a falling out with the CLP over a dam proposal she and her husband moved back to her country to the north-east of Alice Springs in the early 1990s.
In 2007 Rosalie Kunoth-Monks was elected President of the recently formed Barkly Shire Council, which, as well as covering a large area of central Australia, incorporated the town of Tennant Creek in its jurisdiction. In January 2012 Rosalie Kunoth-Monks – a vocal opponent of the Howard government’s NT Intervention – travelled to Canberra at the invitation of Amnesty International to discuss issues related to the continuing and endemic difficulties facing her people in the Barkly Region.
That sets the scene.
On the afternoon of the 26th of January Rebecca Healy and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks were both on the lawns near to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy across from Old Parliament House in Canberra and far from Tennant Creek.
What happened next would see them on opposite sides in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. You can see the decsion of Justice Dean Mildren of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in the defamation case bought by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks against Rebecca Healy and the ABC here.
On that day Rosalie Kunoth-Monks had been manning the Amnesty International stall nearby and was somewhat reluctantly pressed into speaking alongside other central Australian representatives giving speeches to the crowd celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Rebecca Healy had spent time wandering around the Parliamentary precinct and was at the tent embassy area when Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and others addressed the crowd.
As noted here earlier today, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks eventually issued a legal against Rebecca Healy and the ABC’s PM program for their reporting of Healy’s comments. The decision of Justice Dean Mildren of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory was handed down late yesterday afternoon.
In that judgement, he described Rebecca Healy’s actions after the rally:
… she and her partner followed the crowd across towards where the Lobby Restaurant was.
She and her partner were present when events previously described at the restaurant took place.
Ms Healy also made a short video film of some of the activity there. After returning to their hotel she and Mr Newman went to the nearby casino and watched the television news in the bar area. Some of the reports that she saw she believed implied that the police or security services had over-reacted to the situation and had been unnecessarily forceful with the protesters.
She did not believe that this was a fair assessment of the behaviour of the police and decided to make public what she had seen in the hope that a more balanced description of the events of day could be provided.
After telephoning some friends and colleagues associated with the Country Liberal Party, at some stage on the evening of 26 January she was interviewed by Michael Coggan, a journalist employed by the second defendant. This interview was recorded.
Some of the words used by Ms Healy concerning the plaintiff were heard on the ABC AM Program the following day.
Shortly after the AM program was broadcast Rosalie Kunoth-Monks engaged solicitors who wrote to both the ABC and Healy seeking an apology from each. None was forthcoming. The hearing of the claims of defamation against Rebecca Healy and the ABC were heard in Alice Springs over six days in October 2013.
Justice Mildren summed up his impressions of Rebecca Healy and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks.
Of Rebecca Healy he said
My overall impression of Ms Healy was that she was doing her best to give truthful and honest evidence.
The concessions she made about the e-mail were frank and did not assist her cause.
She was plainly a person of limited education and outlook. She may well be described as excitable, foolish, filled with unreasoning prejudices, prone to exaggeration to make a point, and prone to draw inferences which are unreasonable, but that does not prove that she did not honestly believe what she said in the ABC’s story.
I accept that is what she honestly believed.
Justice Mildren described Rosalie Kunoth-Monks’ reputation in the following terms.
… she is and was at the time of the publication a person of high national standing and distinction.
She has been a prominent advocate of the causes of Aboriginal people, attending many public meetings and forums.
She was the subject of a profile on a television program, “60 Minutes”.
Dr McMullen included a chapter on her in his published memoir. His evidence, which I accept on this topic, is that he has personally interviewed her many times for television, radio, newspaper articles and academic publications.
In media circles, she is widely considered as a ‘national treasure’. She has received the Northern Territory’s Tribute to Women Award and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.
In August 2010 she addressed the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
She was one of Andrew Denton’s subjects in the Elders series on ABC television (in such company as Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, Bob Hawke, Richard Dawkins and Clive James).
Of the injury suffered by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks to her feelings, Justice Mildren said:
She described how the article attacked her identity as a peaceful advocate and champion of reconciliation. She felt despair that the good work of the Shire towards reconciliation would be undermined.
She fell into a deep depression for three months, and there were many days when she would lie in her room, not eat, and retreat into herself. She experienced feelings of intense rage. During cross-examination she said that even sitting in the witness box, she felt the pain and/or loss of her dignity
She had previously considered whether she should run again for the position of President of the Shire. She had lost her husband not long before, and still had not decided whether to run again.
The publication was the deciding factor not to seek re-election.
Justice Mildren found for Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, awarding her $125,000 with interest added from 27 january 2012 for a total of $133,972.
Rosalie Kunoth-Monks issued a statement through her lawyers.
I feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief.
I have always been about bringing people together and not pulling them apart.
Having a national story that stated otherwise hurt me deeply.
This victory has given me the strength to continue to advocate for treaties so that black and white can live together as two respected peoples.
Earlier today Rebecca Healy told The Northern Myth that she found the Australia Day protest very divisive, saying that she had:
… very strong views about what happened that day.
It was difficult for me to say anything at the time and it is difficult for me to say anything now, however I fought strongly for something that I believed.
I’m just happy to move on now.