Caroline Overington has been a journalist for more than 20 years.
Here is a selection of her work.
The Australian Wheat Board Scandal
Caroline Overington won the Walkley Award for Excellence in Investigative Journalism, the Blake Dawson Prize, and the Sir Keith Murdoch Prize for her coverage of the United Nations Oil-For-Food AWB kickback scandal, Australia's largest ever international trade scandal, involving more than $300 million worth of corrupt payments to the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in th years preceding the disastrous Iraq war.
We’re all grown up now, aren’t we?
Those of us born before the turn of this stunning century, who grappled with our awkward adolescence in the 1970s and 80s, maybe even the 90s. We’re all grown up. Whatever it was that worried us as teenagers — our parents getting divorced, that boy who didn’t love us back, would we be able to get a job? — we survived it.
Yet it’s true, isn’t it: we’ll be driving along, maybe with our own bored teenagers in the back of the car, and we’ll come around a familiar bend, and this will come on the radio:
Listen now to the wind, babe
Listen now to the rain …
And we’re felled, hurtling back in time, to childhoods long gone. To an Australia that barely exists any more ... READ MORE.
What are we doing to our children?
A little girl called Dolly who was once the face of Akubra has taken her own life after being cyber-bullied. She was 14.
Look at her, not only in the picture that was taken for a Christmas campaign when she was six, but in those that were displayed by her devastated parents at her service yesterday, smiling shyly as she walks along with her horse in her dusty boots and her low-slung jeans.
You want to sweep her up into your arms and run, and keep on running.
Double click me.
This is Peter Smith, who was just 20 years old when he died on Pitt Street in Sydney in 1971.
For more than three decades, his sisters wondered about what really happened to him.
Now, at last, they have an answer.
By Caroline Overington, January 2020, The Australian
They used to have this little ritual, back when they were kids: Belinda Smith would wake up, and cheekily knock on the kitchen wall that adjoined her brother Peter’s bedroom, and he’d knock back.
“We did that same thing every day,” says Belinda, who was about four at the time, while Peter was 20. Then one morning, she knocked, and there was no return.
“And I knew straight away something was wrong,” she says.
Her mother, Jean, was distraught, so it was left to her eldest sister, Pamela, to break the news: Peter had died suddenly during the night, on Pitt Street, in Sydney.
It was 1971.
“My parents told me that he’d had a sudden brain aneurysm, and nothing could have been done,” says Belinda. “But for 47 years, I wondered. We all did.”
Peter had been out that night with his best friend, Gary Hall, who had been — still is — like a brother to Pete’s sisters.
“We were all very close,” he says. “Peter and I attended the same school, Marist Brothers in Eastwood. I had been welcomed into his family, and he into mine. We caught the same bus to school. We played a lot of cricket together. We played side-by-side in rugby, so there was an element of trust, and counting on each other, on the field, too.
“And we shared a love of music. It was the Vietnam War, so I guess we were protesting. We had long hair, and flared pants, all that. We had an old record player, and we’d swap albums. They cost quite a lot of money in those days, so that kept us going back and forward between our houses: Janis Joplin, and Carole King; Jethro Tull, and Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan.’’
Gary and Peter both had good government jobs in the city — Peter was with the agency that is now Australia Post — and on Fridays, “we’d come together with other office workers, and we’d have a few drinks”.
Gary, now 67, vividly remembers the night of Peter’s death, October 22, 1971.
“It happened around 10.30pm,” he says. “Hotels in those days closed at 10pm.
I was with him at the pub, and (we) were headed to the Town Hall station to catch a bus home to Ryde, and we stopped at the milk bar on Pitt Street.
“We were both merry but not staggeringly drunk. And there was a confrontation and Peter was punched. And he stumbled backward and ended up on the footpath. I went to him, ‘Pete, let’s get up’. And he never got up.
“He was lying near the gutter, and I realised he was lifeless. It was absolutely shocking. And the first person who came along was a male, about 10 years older than me, and he looked at Peter, and checked his pulse. There were no mobile phones in those days, but the GPO was directly opposite, and there was a whole line-up of public phones, and this man, he just got up, and ran across the road, and he called triple-0. “By then some other people had come along and they seemed angry and I was worried that I might be set upon, too. The ambulance came and I tried to go with Pete, but I was refused, so I ran, really frightened, to George Street and caught a taxi, straight to Peter’s house.”
Peter’s parents, Colin and Jean Smith, were asleep, but his middle sister, Judy, who was then about 13, answered the door.
She recalls Gary being “white like a ghost, and shaking”. She immediately woke her parents.
“It was after 11pm, so quite late, for the times. And I told them that Peter had been punched, and he had died,” Gary says. “They were distraught.”
The Smiths had a relative who was a NSW police officer. They called on him, for help. What happened next is perplexing by modern canon: Peter’s parents resisted a full investigation into their son’s death. “A file was opened but it quickly closed,’’ says Gary.
He was never interviewed by police, never asked to pick anyone out of a line-up, nothing like that.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand, except that I knew that Pete’s mum was frail; and his dad, Colin, suffered huge stress from World War II. Today, we’d probably say post-traumatic stress syndrome. They probably couldn’t have coped with a long inquiry, and there was also this sense of: what good could it do? Nothing will bring him back.
“And I was only 19, and Pete’s parents were in their 40s and 50s. And it was a different time. I fell into line, and obeyed instructions. Basically, the funeral was held, and that would be that.” Peter’s death was put down to a sudden haemorrhage, with “no suspicious circumstances”.
“Pete’s parents made it clear: they wanted no discussion about it,” says Gary. “They did not talk about it with the girls, or anyone.”
But little Judy knew the truth. She had been there, when Gary knocked on the door. She had heard what he had said, about Peter being punched.
“I guess I was about 16 when Judy told me,” says Belinda. “It was a hushed thing. We knew our parents didn’t want us talking about it. And it was years and years after they died that we felt able to make inquiries.”
In 2014, that determination finally got the better of Belinda’s trepidation: she applied to the NSW Coroner’s Court for a copy of Peter’s file.
“When I received the report, I was stunned. According to the autopsy report, there was no aneurysm. Which meant the punch must have killed Peter. We knew we needed to act on this information, but we had no idea where to start. Then we met Hadyn Green.”
Green is an adjunct associate professor of forensic science and a retired police superintendent from Western Australia who gives talks on forensics and cold cases. In 2015 he was the guest lecturer on the Celebrity Century cruise ship, when Peter’s sisters were on holiday. Belinda and Judy lined up, to talk about their brother’s case.
He remembers the moment. “Most definitely. I mean, with CSI and the crime shows, people do love to talk about this stuff, and you do tend to get people who approach you with things, and some are so off-the-wall, but this story made sense, and after being a police officer 40 years, you can tell whether somebody is genuine.”
He asked Belinda: “What information have you got? Can you send it to me? And I was quite nonplussed to receive the file. There was almost no paperwork there. Basic things that should have been in there — photographs of the scene, statements from witnesses — all of that was absent.”
His conclusion: “This hasn’t been done properly for whatever reason.
“I actually joined police in 1971, as a cadet, and things were very different back then, but a homicide was still a homicide,” Green says.
He wrote a report. “It outlined my concerns. The areas I addressed were: is this a possible unlawful killing? Was the investigation carried out correctly? Had the inquiry been interfered with in some way? Remembering that absence of evidence is not evidence, it was necessary to make some presumptions. But a natural death, with no cause, that did not look right to me. I went back to family and said: he may have died from the punch. And I encouraged them to keep going.”
But going where? Peter had by this point been dead for almost half a century.
“Everyone said ‘don’t get your hopes up’,” says Belinda.
But one way or another, they had to know.
In 2016, Judy wrote to the NSW Coroner’s Court, outlining their concerns — there had been no proper investigation, and witnesses had claimed to have seen her brother punched — and she asked for an inquest.
“After a wait of over a year, we were advised that Peter’s case would be referred to the coroner,” she says.
In November 2017, the NSW Police Force put Detective Sergeant Phil Hallinan in charge of the brief of evidence. It was the oldest case he’d ever worked on, but he wasn’t daunted.
The milk bar in Pitt Street was long gone. But the shopkeeper was still alive, and he was tracked down, as was the police officer who attended the scene; the daughter of the man who had attended to Peter on the footpath; and friends of Peter, who remembered Gary telling them about the punch, the day after it happened.
The inquest, before deputy state coroner, Magistrate Elizabeth Ryan, opened on October 29. Gary was called, and for the first time, gave testimony, as to what he recalled. He had been drinking with Peter at the Carlton Rex Hotel, he said. They had wandered, after it closed, down to the milk bar on Pitt Street.
The proprietors at that time were Jim Boulougouris and his younger brother Con Boulougouris. They had migrated to Australia from Greece in 1965. Their shop sold milkshakes, cigarettes, Glad-wrapped sandwiches and some hot food. It had been late when Peter and Gary wandered in, both a bit intoxicated. Stepping up to the counter that was facing the street, Peter had accidentally knocked over a chip or Twisties stand. Peter was confronted in the customer service area of the milk bar by both shop attendants.
Gary was standing outside the shop urging Peter to join him and move on. A short time later he saw Peter dead on the footpath.
Con Boulougouris gave evidence at the inquest. He recalled the night in question — “a young man out on the pavement falling down, grabbing a pole and not being able to get up” — but he did not recall any physical or verbal confrontation inside the milk bar. There is no suggestion the Boulgouris brothers were responsible for Peter’s death, only that Con gave evidence at the inquest.
In her summation, Ryan said: “Mr Boulougouris is now aged 80 years and has suffered strokes in recent years which he said had impacted on his memory … there is no basis to conclude that Mr Boulougouris was not giving truthful evidence about what he saw and recollected about the night’s events.”
The court heard also from Michael Buckland, head of neuropathology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, who agreed with the findings of a report by a fellow forensic neuropathologist Dr Michael Rodriguez, who had examined the autopsy report from 1971: Peter probably hadn’t died from a spontaneous aneurysm. Probably, he had been punched.
Ryan praised the family for their efforts over nearly five decades. It cannot have been easy, going against the wishes of their parents. For complex reasons, they had wanted to keep this door closed. And for different but equally complex reasons, their children needed it open.
“There is a need for me to make a fresh determination as to the cause of
Peter’s death,” Ryan said, in sober conclusion. “I find that Peter Smith died from a massive basal subarachnoid haemorrhage caused by a blow to the head (from) a person whose identity cannot be established.
“Answers have been found to some, if not all, of the questions that have haunted the family over the years,” Ryan said. “This will not bring Peter back to them, but I hope it gives some comfort.”
Asked about her memories of Peter, Belinda says: “Oh, he was fun. He was intelligent and sociable. He was loved. Peter, or Petey, as I used to call him, meant the world to me and my sisters, Pamela and Judy.
“There was enough of an age gap between us that we never argued as a brother and sister usually would. I was so young when he died, but I remember always waiting in anticipation for Peter to arrive home. He would lift me up in the air … he was such a fun brother to have and he had so much love for me. I adored him.”
Pamela remembers Peter as a considerate and caring young man who was academically talented. Judy remembers Peter as a wonderful big brother, teaching her how to ride a bike, skateboard, swim and surf.
“His death took a terrible toll. Both our parents died prematurely. I think it was the shock and grief … by the time I was 18, my family of six had become a family of three.
“But our sense of Peter was very strong throughout this process. We never lost hope that we would expose the truth for him. And for Gary. Because we cannot begin to imagine what Gary has been through, witnessing Pete’s death, when he was just 19, and knowing the truth of it.”
But Gary has been comforted, too. “I lost something closer to a brother than a best friend when Pete died,” he says. “I’ve always thought, we were building a friendship that would have lasted a lifetime. We would have kept playing sport, kept playing music. I stayed close to his sisters.
“I felt powerless afterwards, and when they decided to pursue the matter, 100 per cent, I was willing to back them. And it feels right, to have the truth out. Because he didn’t deserve to die. And I’ve had a strong sense, all my life, of Peter being present. He has always been around me. So this was me, being here for him.”
He searched for years for his mother.
She lived ten doors down.
Caroline Overington The Australian February 2020
Let’s go back, not only in time. Let’s go back to a different Australia. It is Wednesday, January 20, 1993, and Robert Tickner — husband, father, federal minister in the Keating government — is standing on the Sydney Opera House steps, feeling “strong enough to tow a boat”.
Everyone else is wearing shorts and thongs, or else summer dresses. He is wearing a crisp white shirt and neat pants. It’s a big day and he has been nervous about what to wear, and who can’t understand that?
He is about to meet his mother.
“I peer into the distance, trying to make out who is approaching,” Tickner writes in his new book, Ten Doors Down, which is about his adoption from Sydney’s old Crown Street Hospital in 1951.
He saw a solitary woman coming from Circular Quay. She was still a tiny speck in the distance. He took the cheap disposable camera he’d bought that morning and snapped a picture.
“She was barely visible,” he says, but he knew. He just knew.
The woman came closer, and Tickner couldn’t, in the end, contain himself. He came bounding down the stairs, shouting: “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me!”
The woman was at first quite startled. Then she opened her arms and into them he went.
It was the first time they had held each other in 41 years.
Plenty of readers will remember Tickner. He was the member for Hughes, in Sydney’s west, from 1984, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs minister in the Hawke-Keating government.
Mabo. The Redfern speech. The Hindmarsh Island affair, and the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, also known as the Stolen Generations.
Tickner was there throughout. It was often bitter, and all the while, he was engaged in personal maelstrom.
“Now, I want to stress that I had the most wonderful childhood,” Tickner tells The Weekend Australian ahead of the release of his book. “I always knew that I was adopted. My parents (Bertie and Gwendoline Tickner, who were in their 40s and still childless when he arrived) explained that they chose me to be their son”, and he liked that formulation: everyone else just got to be born but he was actually chosen.
“I grew up secure and confident,” Tickner says. “I was showered with love.”
He went to Taree High School before becoming a boarder at St Paul’s at the University of Sydney. He attended his first political rally in 1971, against the visiting Springboks. He became a lawyer for the Aboriginal Legal Service in Redfern before being elected to the House of Representatives. In 1986 he married Jody, who was the granddaughter of one of his mother’s sisters, so his first cousin, once removed (because of the adoption, there is no genetic link.)
He became, in the process, “the instant and devoted father” of Jody’s daughter, Jade, who was then six. At no point did he ever feel that anything was missing. Then, in 1992, son Jack arrived.
“I remember being in an almost transcendental state,” Tickner writes. Having previously been hostile to the idea of investigating his origins — his parents were his parents; he needed no one else — he found himself wondering. Then, after his father died of cancer, “and Mum slipped into a world of her own” with dementia, “the longing became intense”.
He contacted the relevant authorities and received a file. He had been given up for adoption by his mother, Maida, who was 22 when she became pregnant and 23 when she gave birth. She had been “turned out” by her father for being unwed.
“At that time, it was so shameful that keeping the child was usually impossible,” Tickner writes. “The social stigma wasn’t confined to Australia … Joni Mitchell, who relinquished a child for adoption in the 1960s, and was reunited with her in the 1990s, described the scandal of conceiving a child outside marriage as being so intense that it was like you murdered someone.”
He was advised to write a letter, which would be passed on to his birth mother. His instinct, he says, was to assure her that he’d had the most marvellous upbringing.
“Life is wonderful!” he wrote. “I hope to meet you soon.”
It was all very tentative, but Maida indicated a willingness to meet. Tickner understood that she would be nervous.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “Just be yourself … I will probably be emotional, and if we cry hopelessly, then so what?”
Now comes the coincidence.
Tickner enclosed with that letter — written on special paper, handmade by Jade — a photograph of himself, aged five or six, taken at his grandma’s place at 18 Lansdowne Street, in Merrylands, in Sydney’s west, where he had spent almost every weekend of his childhood. By chance, his birth mother lived at No 38 — meaning they had, on many occasions, for almost a decade, been only 10 houses apart.
His mother, on learning this, almost had a breakdown.
“She thought her mind was playing terrible tricks on her,” Tickner writes, because how could it be that he had been there all along?
“Let’s walk in my mother’s shoes for a moment … She had given up her child and wondered what had become of him every single day of her life.
“Fast forward to January 1993, she realises that the child she had grieved for so deeply was right under her nose, a little boy playing in her street.” It pushed her pain “to its limits”.
Tickner writes beautifully about the relationship he built with his mother after they agreed to meet on the Opera House steps. She had been so long without children. Now she had this grown-up son, who’d bring her flowers on Mother’s Day.
The book is mainly about the two of them, but Tickner is also candid about difficulties he faced, towards the end of his political life.
He separated from Jody during the Hindmarsh Island affair and slept for a while on the floor of his electoral office, before renting a shed with a mattress behind a house in Stanwell Park. He was tossed from the seat of Hughes when John Howard came to power in 1996, and “with no job, no marriage” he could see no reason not to get into his father’s old Skyline and start driving.
He went first to Broken Hill, and then Port Augusta, where he bought a tent and some clothes. He drove on, camping and contemplating, feeling lost.
He knew he’d have to get a job, but when the time came he found it very difficult.
“I went from being a government minister to being unemployed overnight,” he says. “I wrote 70 substantive job applications and provided referees but still couldn’t get hired … I felt quite desperate as my period of unemployment extended into its second year.
“I became very depressed, as most people who are unemployed do, but was too embarrassed to seek professional help. I had no fixed place of abode.”
Tickner in time became chief executive of the Australian Red Cross, a job he held for a decade, but he has never forgotten that long period of unemployment, which allowed him to “grow enormously as a human being”.
You are perhaps curious about his birth father. Well, so was he. And that’s all in the book, too, as is the discovery Tickner made while clearing out Maida’s home after she died.
“There was one find that I nearly missed, concealed at the very top shelf of the bedroom cupboard,” he writes. It was an account of her first meeting with her son at the Opera House.
She had arrived an hour early. She saw people coming and going and wondered who they were meeting. She looked around cautiously, thinking maybe her son was sitting somewhere, checking her out — TERROR, she wrote — but then she saw him moving rapidly toward her, and she heard him calling out: “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me!”
She remembered hugging him tight before pulling out of his embrace, saying: “I want to see your face.”
He pulled his head back so she could get a good look.
“Here I am,” he said, because there he was. Her son, at last. There he was.
Ten Doors Down by Robert Tickner (Scribe, $32.99) is out February 2020