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The Bendigo Writers Festival

Walking down View Street in Bendigo with its seductive coffee aromas and relaxed alfresco eating, I sensed the weather gods must be in favour of Writers Festivals. It was a perfect early Spring day. Or maybe it was just the Bendigo Writers Festival that had earned their blessing, for here was an indisputably spectacular line-up of writing talent.

For many of us, the most exciting guest was Julian Assange, who was interviewed last night by Emeritus Professor Robert Manne of La Trobe university, in the Ulumbarra Theatre, a glorious resurrection of arts space in the old Bendigo gaol.

Perhaps, after the disastrous Census night just gone, it was the possibility of the technology failing—the video link-up from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to the Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo—which added an extra frisson of excitement last night, for the charge was electric. More likely though, it was the persona of Mr Assange himself, who spoke with clarity and reason, but was clearly moved by his reception in Bendigo. At times he seemed to fight back tears.

Professor Manne has appeared at other Writers Festivals—I’ve seen him several times in Brisbane—but on Saturday night he excelled himself under very difficult conditions. For instance, the empathy that eye contact offers in a face-to-face interview is difficult to establish on a video link. Yet he asked the important questions, so that we know the status of the rape charge against Assange (it no longer exists), the legality of the Americans to issue a warrant to extradite him (questionable since Assange is an Australian citizen who does not publish in the USA) and what can be done to support him.

Julian Assange is a champion of freedom of speech, which every person who has attended an Australian school knows is a right and a responsibility of democracy. The United Nations has found that his detention without trial for six years is illegal, yet no Australian Prime Minister has called for his release. Commercial media—especially the New York Times—has excoriated him. Assange claims this is because when military secrets were released into the public domain, the media moguls who are close to the Establishment, could not bury or slant their reportage to avoid embarrassing it. He asks that people support him by talking  about WikiLeaks publications to correct the commercial media’s self-censorship and misinformation.


Kerry O’Brien was first on the bill for me today, speaking with Peter Kennedy, the Managing Editor of The Bendigo Star, about his biography of Paul Keating.

This award-winning journalist reminds me of a line in the Tennyson poem, Ullyses, when the old man describes his son, Telemachus, as “decent not to fail.” This could equally apply to Mr O’Brien, whose investigative journalism on the ABC’s The 7.30 Report and 4 Corners has always been of the highest quality.

O’Brien had his audience roaring with laughter at some of Keating’s descriptions of his Parliamentary colleagues. For instance he referred to Malcolm Turnbull as “the cherry on top of the compost heap” and John Hewson as “a shiver looking for a spine to run up.”

During question time, O’Brien was asked about pivotal moments in his career. There was a case in 1975 when five young Aboriginal men were arrested and imprisoned for the murder of an Aboriginal woman—a crime they did not commit since it became apparent that the actual murderer was the victim’s white de facto husband. Racism created that miscarriage of justice and is no doubt responsible for the mistreatment of  Indigenous children in the Northern Territory, revealed in a recent 4 Corners program, forty-one years later.

O’Brien concluded his session with a suggestion that the PM read the passage about Mabo in his book, to see how it can be used in respect of Asylum Seeker policy.


Anne Summers, author of Damned Whores and God’s Police in 1975, plus seven other books, was next on today’s program. Always generous about other writers’ work, M/s Summers referred her audience to the work of Anna Goldsworthy, and Clare Wright’s new book, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which I bought when I discovered both her own and Kerry O’Brien’s books had quickly sold out of the Festival bookshop. Sharon Kemp interviewed her about her writing and her work in establishing Elsie, the first women’s refuge in Australia.

“Violence to women is men’s inability to accept women as peers,” she said, then spoke of a recently established private refuge in Sydney that was fully booked out three months before it was open. The government is not providing enough refuges for women, and is trading off one set of rights—like paid parental leave—for another.

Speaking of the Government’s poor record for gender equity, she points to a mere 12% of female representation in Parliament, as opposed to Labor’s 42%. “Labor has Affirmative action,” she said, “whereas the Liberals do not. And with fewer women in government,” she added, “it’s likely to remain that way for a generation.”

Anne Summers is a national treasure. She always gives good value, so it was lovely seeing her again at Bendigo. She mentioned another writer—Clementine Ford—who has written about the sexualisation of young women—certainly something worth looking at.

Anna Goldsworthy, John Bell, Clare Wright and Frank Brennan were four more writers whose sessions I would love to have attended. However I found there were difficulties ordering tickets online. Perhaps the system was overloaded. I certainly hope other people did not miss out as I almost did. A helpful librarian from the Bendigo library gave me the phone number of the Capital Theatre where I was able to make telephone bookings for the sessions I did manage to attend.

For my next blog I will talk about a couple of fringe activities associated with The Bendigo Writers Festival which effectively encouraged people in the community to get writing: the Colab Exhibition,  a collaboration between writers and visual artists, plus the Doomsday Tuna’s Session which inspired this blog. In the meantime let me say, “Well done Bendigo, you’ve excelled yourself!”

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  1. What a great review of the Bendigo Writers Festival.

    Thanks for providing some insight into the sessions that you attended along with setting a vivid the scene of the weekend’s festivities.

    I am glad that our workshop was able to inspire you to keep moving along in your blogging journey and I look forward to any feedback you would be willing to offer in your next blog.

    Stef @ Doomsday Tuna

    • Thank you, Stef, for your kind words, and for your awesome workshop in the Bendigo library Thursday week ago. I’d like to talk about that workshop in my next blog, if you don’t mind.
      Best wishes,

  2. Rod Fyffe

    What a fantastic weekend of brilliant writers, brilliant ideas & cool peopple!

    • It was one of the best—if not the best Writers Festival I’ve attended. Great to see you there, too, Rod.

  3. Of course I wouldn’t mind at all Cheryl. I look forward to reading it.
    Thank you,

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