Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Down Under: a darker side of surf and sunshine

Underneath its sunny facade, Australia has serious problems with drugs and gangs, writes Philip Lynch

Tue, Jun 18, 2013, 00:01


Philip Lynch

Ireland’s ongoing gangland feud makes for grim reading from far away here in Australia. Working class lads killing each other makes for a depressing spectacle. The economic downturn isn’t particularly edifying either but all things considered, Australia has no right to feel superior to Ireland by any stretch of the imagination.

Australia hasn’t been immune from such so called gangland killings or dark deeds. Yes, Australia with its alleged egalitarian society, healthy economy, and mining boom, bountiful sunshine and vast sandy beaches has a dark side that occasionally raises its ugly head with a vengeance.

In the 1990s, seven young backpackers were abducted and murdered in a state forest in New South Wales by Ivan Milat, one of Australia’s most notorious serial killers. Milat is also believed to have murdered several others whose remains have never been recovered. What was particularly scary about Milat’s killing spree was his ability to abduct and murder several couples. And in 2000, 15 backpackers tragically died in a Queensland hostel fire that was deliberately lit by a disgruntled drifter.

During Melbourne’s most recent gangland war which “ended” in 2010, with the bludgeoning to death in prison of one of the key protagonists, 29 men and a woman were murdered over a fifteen year period. Some of the killings – all of them in cold blood – were perpetrated in full view of traumatised minors and unsuspecting bystanders. Most notoriously were those of two young men who were gunned down at an Auskick (footy) clinic in suburban Melbourne one Saturday morning in the presence of several young children.

This vicious gangland feud went on to assume near fictionalised status; spawning a successful TV mini-series, which appropriated and exploited the lives of the key players. One wonders of course how those bereaved by the gangland killings felt about the fictionalised accounts of their loved one’s lives and how do they regarded the cocktail of glamour, sex and double dealing that aired on our TV screens.

At the height of the gangland killings in Melbourne, many of the protagonists could be seen sitting at cafes, clad in black leather jackets and wearing dark sunglasses; victims all of their own fantasises. The consequences for many of the surviving gangland participants has been wasted lives, premature deaths or lengthy jail terms; and in the wake of their tragic trail of destruction – grieving spouses, parents, siblings and children.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, as a nation we continue to have, per capita, one of the highest rates of illicit drug use, specifically ecstasy and amphetamines, in the developed world. It would seem that Australians’ insatiable demand for amphetamines and so called “party” drugs fuelled the growth of illicit drug labs and the vicious turf war that ensued over the spoils.

There is some truth in the stereotypes of many Australians loving their sport, the beach and outdoor lifestyle and a beer or two. Aussie Rules football, rugby and cricket are popular with many sports fans. The current Lions Tour is generating much anticipation right around Australia. The looming likelihood of our cricket team failing to wrench the Ashes from the Poms is already causing some cricket diehards to lose sleep. But so too, it seems, we are continuing to enjoy our illicit drugs and we remain unperturbed about the insidious collateral damage incurred by so many along the way.

Australia’s early settlers and pardoned convicts relied heavily on rum to ease the pain of their travails in what was a harsh unforgiving environment. But it also shouldn’t be forgotten that the indigenous people of this continent suffered greatly and came close to being annihilated from the days of colonisation. In the 200 or so years since the bloody birth of White Australia, perhaps we haven’t journeyed all that far after all.

Beneath our abundant sunshine, our fair go and she’ll be right mate rhetoric, our dark side lurks close to the surface.

But for all that, Australia still has a lot to offer any would-be backpacker or traveller. From Melbourne to Sydney to Darwin the scope and breadth of the scenery and space is breathtaking. Venture into the heart of this continent and you’ll witness sights that’ll linger in your memory forever.

The Irish are highly regarded in Australia. Over the three decades that I’ve lived here, I’ve never encountered any prejudice or ill-will. Perhaps this is because so many Australians are keen to lay claim to some sort of Irish heritage. And some even argue that the Aussie disdain for those in authority is directly attributable to this Irish influence, though I’m not so sure our unfairly demonised and besieged prime minister is particularly grateful about this attribute.

Philipis a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read previous pieces by him about his thoughts on returning to Ireland, visiting Belfast after a long time away, his relationship with his ageing parents, about his dwindling connection to Ireland, the complications of leaving and staying away, and his memory of the day he left Ireland in 1983.