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Issue #1433      28 October 2009

Slipped through the net

Book Launch

“I’m here to tell you the truth – a lot of people don’t like the truth,” said Des Donley. He was speaking at the launch of Slipped through the net – the story of Melrose Desmond Donley, a book in which Des tells Elly Inta his life story.

Around 80 people packed out the Jubilee Room at Parliament house in Macquarie Street, Sydney for the launch. The MC was Ra Inta, the nephew of the author Elly Inta. He made a brief introduction leaving it to Des who had a great deal to say.

His contribution was full of emotion. One minute, the tears swelled to his eyes and those of the audience as he described the brutal beating of a young Aboriginal boy by the adjutant at the Salvation Army orphanage. “The adjutant had an Aboriginal boy lying across a chair, naked. He flogged him from one end of the body to the other.” He was punished for lying, Des said, for saying he had seen two officers making love.

Another minute, and he would bring smiles and chuckles as he found humour in the most appalling situations and exposed the persecutors and system that treated wards of state with such inhumanity.

Des had been in seven or eight foster homes before being handed over to a Salvation Army orphanage and then at 15, placed in virtual slavery on a farm.

“All I got was a primary education. I couldn’t read or write when I left school,” said Des, speaking about the importance of education. “The Salvation Army home was an education – scrubbing floors on my knees, a slave to them.”

Des not only told the truth about his treatment, from when he was “kidnapped” from his Aboriginal mother at six months up until his “freedom” at the age of 18. He said a great deal about the system, about our politicians and world politics.

He spoke about the pressures on workers and families today, the shareholders wanting their pound of flesh, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He warned of the threat of a third world war. Bush, Blair and Howard said they were looking for terrorists, he said. “They didn’t find any terrorists. I know where they are – I just mentioned them,” Des said, bringing smiles to his audience.

“The Labor government is still prepared to continue the war in Afghanistan. We can’t win that war.”

Des commented on politicians and their broken promises. He is one of many Indigenous Australians whose wages were stolen by the state and have still not been repaid.

Linda Byrnie, NSW Minister for Community Services and Minister for Women, and the first Aboriginal woman elected to the NSW Parliament launched the book.

“The book lays out the life of an Aboriginal man who was taken off his mother when he was six months old, and who grew up in orphanages and foster homes as a Ward of the State in Queensland,” Linda said.

“He became a carpenter, an active trade unionist, and a member of the Communist Party.

“Because of his fair skin, he knew nothing of his Aboriginality until he was in his 60s and gained information about his family through the Freedom of Information Act. He was, as he says ‘the fish that got away’.” Des had many escapes as the title of the book suggests, he slipped through the net many times.

“Now 94, he is an Elder of the Darkinjung Tribe on the NSW Central Coast and still politically active,” Linda said. “The story sounds simple enough, but behind the straightforward description is a tale of appalling hardship, abuse and virtual slave labour, tremendous courage and determination, unfailing good humour, generosity and never-ending optimism.

“Above all, it’s the story of an ongoing battle for social justice.”

Linda commented on Des’s “refusal to be forgotten … or ignored. What’s remarkable is his capacity to cope with the shocking deal he experienced as a child and young man, and to turn that experience into a determined fight for justice.”

Elly Inta spoke with warmth of the friendship that had developed between them as they worked on the book.

“I tried to warn Des I can’t even follow a recipe without changing it, let alone a formula for writing a biography. So what he and I have ended up with is a story of friendship ... Des’ memories with snippets of me every now and then.”

Elly spoke of two “thunderbolts” for her in Des’s story. “The first one is the enormity of the crime of deliberately depriving a child of his or her mother’s love. Nothing can ever compensate for that.

“The other is the importance of education. Give people the means to express themselves and they will have something of value to live for. Instead of posturing and bureaucrating we should be devising realistic programs to make numeracy and literacy accessible to Aboriginal children. If we find ways of making learning enjoyable and relevant, children will want to go to attend school.”

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