September 6, 2012
It was a mild Sunday in mid-August, 1940, when the SS Tyndareus slipped through the anti-submarine netting at the entrance to Sydney Harbour and lowered its gangplank without fuss or ceremony.
The Blue Funnel Line vessel (below) was not one to attract attention – a decidedly unglamorous workhorse, it had been hauling mixed cargoes of freight and passengers around the world since 1916 and was no traveller’s idea of plush accommodation. Still, rust and all, it was the salvation of Dr Isidore Ropshitz and his family, who had at long last found their refuge and sanctuary.
A Polish Jew, the 44-year-old physician had practised in Vienna before fleeing the rising anti-Semitism of his adopted home to begin again in Italy, where Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler soon put pay to any hope of safety or security. The next stop was London and from there, Sydney via Fremantle. Ropshitz and his wife soon moved their family to Brisbane, where he announced in the public notices columns of the Courier-Mail that he would be receiving patients at his rooms in the CBD.
It was a strange place, this land that welcomed Ropschitz with its rough charms and odd ways – inverted seasons, peculiar animals, a tolerant and well-fed population that, by the doctor’s estimation, was sufficiently wealthy to indulge an endemic and lamentable taste for nicotine and alcohol. Australians coughed more often than Europeans, he would testify some years later, when appearing as a defence witness for a female colleague charged with medical neglect, because they could afford to “recklessly” indulge their vices.
Australia had a lot going for it, not least that it remained a sanctuary for outspoken democracy and free speech. True, there was wartime censorship, yet it was nothing in comparison with what he had left behind in Europe. The papers, for example, were full of reports of striking wharfies holding up shipments of materiel bound for the front. Try that in Nazi-dominated Europe and see what would happen! Bullets behind the ringleaders’ ears, for starters, and not a peep from those who shuffled back to work beneath the whip, knowing that an ill-advised word would be a death sentence.
But Australia was different and the family thrived, becoming over the decades that followed another of those great testaments to the opportunities in a nation where the government kept its nose for the most part out of citizens’ private business. In Australia a local doctor, even a Jewish one, could speak his mind without fear of eavesdroppers or intercepted mail. One of Ropshitz’s children revelled in that freedom and became an internationally renowned journalist and author. Another achieved distinction as a leading medical researcher and father of a federal parliamentarian.
It was an unblemished record of dynastic achievement until, well, just the other week, when Isidore Ropschitz’s granddaughter betrayed the legacy of freedom his move to the other side of the world secured for his children and their descendants. She no longer bears the same surname, the family having anglicised it before she was born, but it is Isidore Ropschitz’s blood in her veins all the same.
That woman is Nicola Roxon, Australia’s attorney-general and mouthpiece for a government now insisting it has the right to know the names of everyone with whom you spoke via telephone over the previous two years, which web sites you visited, what emails you sent.
Roxon justifies these violations of personal liberty on the dubious grounds of combatting organised crime and terrorism, and she talks a good game about how innocent the entire exercise will be. You can trust us, says Roxon, a leading light in a government whose record of incompetence has been exceeded only by its litany of lies. The fact that her scheme would appear unworkable – Roxon has never heard of shielding online identity with a proxy server, apparently – matters not at all. Like her colleague Stephen Conroy, who would like to censor websites available to Australians, she is shameless in her lust to regulate other people’s lives and interests.
There will be no convincing Roxon to drop this travesty of a measure. If the past four years of Labor rule have demonstrated anything it is that this government’s ineptitude is matched by its arrogant immunity to common sense.
Roxon avows no religious beliefs, which is something of a pity. If only she were inclined to spiritualism there might be some chance of an ectoplasmic Isidore telling her just how badly she has betrayed the principles that he journeyed half way around the world to embrace.
Roger Franklin, Quadrant Online’s editor, resides in Roxon’s electorate of Gellibrand, where it would require a better-than 40% swing to see her unseated. Miracles can happen. Here’s hoping
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray