herstory

Sydney 2015

Introduction

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ex Oceano: We are from the ocean, the ocean sustains us

Message of hope

This is my account of the loss of a gift that I'd prepared for our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and entrusted to a government-endorsed man for safe delivery.
I write this with reference to a Statement I made to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on 3rd May 2016: Statement in the matter of Tom Roberts coin.

Although this case is minor compared to the case of the greatest gift ever offered to the people of Australia, The Uluru Statement from the Heartthat invites 'agreement-making' and 'truth-telling' between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, I recognise a theme that I'd like turned around, of fear in current Australian government leaders, of face-to-face meetings with we who entrust them to move us forward as a nation, to sustainably shape our lives and present our stories.

I feel compelled to tell my story as an Indigenous Australian and as a descendant of an artist whose work championed colonisation. My father told me Tom respected Indigenous Australians, and acknowledged them in all his talks on 'Australian art', as Australia's first artists. Tom painted portraits of Indigenous Australians with the same care and respect that he did for his white patrons.

I stand (centre) with my Roberts relations in Canberra on December 4th 2015, just before the preview of a major retrospective of art by our ancestor Tom Roberts. In my left pocket is a gift I'd prepared for our new PM Malcolm Turnbullwho opens the exhibition immediately after landing from the Paris Climate Summit.

 

My gift to the PM is a small envelope containing three things: Tom's 'First artist money' passed on to me by my father, an engraving I'd made of my first sighting of the birth of an Antarctic krill, and words of hopethat I'd written for "a more intelligent, creative nation... to better inform sustainable business practices".



 

I walk alone around the gallery and meet another woman who's also looking at the art. We're both stopped at the painting, 'Young Lubra, Cape York' (1892) and I ask what her connection is to the event. She says she loaned that picture for it, and some others. I say I'm related to the artist and I show her the pastel drawing, 'Elizabeth and Carmel Pinchof' (1900) that I lived with, in my grandmother's house.


Left: Young Lubra, Cape York (1892) Right: Elizabeth and Carmel Pinchof (1900)

 

Two men arrive and walk towards us. The woman introduces me to her husband and the other man. I later find out that the woman is Maria Myersand her husband is Allan Myers,and that the other man is Bruce Parncutt.She explains that they'd just flown together from Melbourne and that she must go with Allan. So I'm left with Bruce. I show Bruce the gift and I ask if he knows Michael Napthali,the PM's Arts Advisor, as I'd earlier been advised by the PA to the National Gallery of Australia's Director Gerard Vaughanto give it to him to convey to the PM. Bruce tells me he's a friend of Michael and immediately makes a phone call, which I presume is to him. Bruce says it's not a problem and I can give the gift to Michael to pass on the the Prime Minister. He says to stay with him and he'll guide me to Michael. Bruce guides me around the gallery to show me a painting of his farm that he'd lent for the show, and then to Gandalf Hall where he introduces me to people who express great interest in the gift.

Towards the end of the speeches Bruce beckons me to meet Michael. The PM is ushered out and a number of people move around him. Bruce motions me to hand over the gift. I hand the envelope to Bruce as he walks towards a man, saying, "Michael, this is Lisa Roberts." Michael seems distracted and acknowledges me briefly. I see him talking with Bruce but I can't hear what they're saying. I don't see Bruce give the envelope to Michael but I assume that he has. They're standing about a metre or so in front of me, with people moving around, obstructing my view. Michael briefly shakes my hand before he's swept away with the PM's entourage. I feel confident my gift has been acknowledged and will be safely conveyed to the PM's office. I walk forward to thank Bruce for his help but he's gone.

Some weeks later Bruce calls to tell me that the gift is 'lost', and that Michael feels 'tender' about that. I report the loss to Gerard Vaughan. We meet and I agree to his suggestion of an ANG 'internal investigation'. He says he doesn't want to 'embarrass' the PM with media coverage. I discover that Michael Napthali and I have a mutual friend, who arranges for me to meet him in Sydney. I appreciate this chance to ask Michael directly about the incident. I come away convinced he has no memory of it.

When the internal investigation turns up nothing I contact the AFP and ABC TV.
ABC TV reports that the Coin donated to PM's office goes missing.I'm impressed by the care and attention given to me and to the story, by the AFP and the ABC. And by Senator Penny Wong who raises the question in parliamentof an apology from the PM's office to the Roberts family. As I write, on Monday Nov 19, 2018, there's still no word on that.

I'm disappointed that mainstream media refers only to the coin and not the gift as a whole, with its message of hope.

 

On 28th September 2016 I receive this letter from the AFP:

Dear Dr Roberts

I refer to your report to the ACT Policing dated Sunday 3 April 2016, regarding the loss of an intended gift for the Prim Minister of Australia, the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull MP.

I appreciate the significance of the loss of the gift to you and your family. However, after a thorough investigation and interviewing all parties involved [Napthali, Parncutt, Vaughan], no criminal offences have been identified. As a result, ACT Policing will be taking no further action.

Kind Regards

Acting Commander Susan Ball
Deputy Chief Polic Officer - Crime
ACT Policing

 

Family and friends keep asking after the lost gift, and so on 27th July 2018 I send this message to Bruce Parncutt:

From: Lisa Roberts
To: Bruce Parncutt
Subject: If the coin can be found
Date: Fri, 27 Jul 2018 21:49:47 +1000

Hi Bruce,

I trust this finds you well.

I've been thinking about the gift I prepared for the PM, and how it might still be recovered. As the person I handed it to, in trust for safe delivery, I suggest you are best placed to find it, given that Michael Napthali told me personally that he has no memory of it when we met for coffee. He told me that his mind was a complete blank, with all the confusion of the occasion.

I regret that you and I have not had the chance to talk. I actually had a dream the night after we met, that there was a scuffle as you approached Michael and the envelope found its way into your pocket, not his, and that it ended up in your suit at a dry cleaners. (I could see you approaching very close to Michael and assumed you were passing to gift to him.) Could the coin be in the hands of some dry cleaning company person? Is it worth investigating your regular dry cleaner? (I have lost clothes at dry cleaners - clean forgetting that I had left them there!) I would be most grateful if you can find the coin and deliver it to me. It would be good to meet up again.

Best wishes,
Lisa

 

From: Bruce Parncutt
To: Lisa Roberts
Subject: Re: If the coin can be found
Date: Fri, 27 Jul 2018 12:59:42 +0000

Hi Lisa,

I have a clear recollection of the occasion at the NGA. In particular I am absolutely certain that you handed the envelope directly to Michael. You had handed it to me earlier when we met inside the exhibition for me to have a look at the coin but when I introduced you to Michael you handed the envelope directly to him.

I can't begin to understand how hugely disappointing it must be for you that the coin has gone missing. I wish I could help you and I'm sorry I can't. I am 100% certain that you handed your gift to Michael.

If it had by any chance found its way to my pocket (which it didn't and is unimaginable) I would have found it immediately as I habitually empty every pocket in my clothes every time I take them off and return them to my wardrobe. Even if for some reason I didn't check every pocket that night I would have certainly done so on future occasions when wearing the same suit. Any thing that finds its way into my pockets gets found soon after. I can say with absolute certainty that your envelope and coin have never been in my possession.

I hope this email, while not offering any light on the whereabouts of the coin, closes off one possible destination for it.

I keep hoping for your sake and Michael's that it might turn up somewhere. I'm sure you do too.

Kind regards,

Bruce

 

From: Lisa Roberts
To: Bruce Parncutt
Subject: Re: If the coin can be found
Date: Sat, 28 Jul 2018 07:30:41 +1000

Hi Bruce,

I'm really glad to hear your recollection. That casts another spin on things. I know my memory sometimes fails and that remembering with another person involved in the same occasion can trigger deeper recollections. I must say I was thrown by Michael's loss of memory. I do now remember you ushering me towards him. This has been most upsetting.

I would like to meet you again and talk this through.

I am tenacious by nature and will get the story right for all our sakes.

Best wishes,
Lisa

 

With no response yet to my last message, I'm finding a useful way to deal with feelings of betrayal is to accept that "...misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent." (From Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774)

However, given the broader context of my story I feel there's a more useful response. I can keep telling the story. The more a story is told the more it will be kept alive and the more chance there is of getting to the truth.

What truth lies behind the spurning of the gift of the Uluru Statement from the Heart? What truth lies behind the incomprehensible loss and subsequent lack of attention paid to my gift?