David Leith has been involved in social change long before Western Australian Labor Party asked him to become candidate in the state elections. David’s life testifies about the noble virtues and principles that were shaped in him by the chain of events that brought his family to Perth. He generously agreed to reflect on the formation of his inner man, a process indispensable to his social involvement in the WA Labor Party.
Step back in time; look closely at the child in the very arms of his mother; see the external world reflected for the first time in the yet unclear mirror of his understanding; study the first examples which strike his eyes; listen to the first word which arouse with him the slumbering power of thought; watch the first struggles which he has to undergo; only then will you comprehend the source of the prejudices, the habits, and the passions which are to rule his life.
David Leith (first from the left, second row) helped Ms Sabine Winton at the first stages of her campaign.
Photo via Sabine Winton FB Page
David Leith is taking Perth Herald Tribune for a journey back to his childhood to tell a story that revived in him unexpectedly. We are sitting with a man who almost all of his adult life committed to the Labor Party in Western Australia. Our talk over the steaming cup of coffee revolves around the issue of people’s reactions to the other. Where are the sources of fear, intolerance and xenophobia?
Few days before Pauline Hanson, who promises her political party to abolish multiculturalism and “promote “nationalism”, during a television interview almost convinced a reporter that she now also embraces Muslims. Beyond the cameras, on her website Senator Hanson’s claims remained unchanged. “As a government policy, multi-racialism encompassed measures to destroy the Australian culture” – she concludes.
“To help our neighbour to make a choice is the most valuable attitude in the circumstances, we constantly encounter in our lives”
For a number of years the infectious Hanson attitude has silently spread out contaminating the whole spectrum of political and religious views in Australia. In its early, fulminating form, haemorrhaging of stereotyping of Australians, who looked differently than white British-descendants of colonialists or convicts appeared, which turned to hostility to immigrant community. In more developed form of the Hanson attitude illness, this hostility intensifies and includes also refugees. During the later form of disease the symptoms of open hatred towards Muslim community, which is mixed with the distorted understanding of patriotism. The late stage often includes homophobia that is hatred towards other forms of self-identity.
Almost every man and woman can find deeply in themselves seeds of discrimination and hatred toward his or her neighbour – Freud, Jung and Adler taught us after thorough and deep analyses of human psyche. In the state of maturity, they said, human person acquires ability to push off negative inclinations replacing them with seeking peace and pursuing it. A source of call to departure from evil – that affects the level of deepest thoughts of the human person – was never discovered or described. Every man and woman naturally but indescribably encounters a moment in his or her life when the sound of that call becomes louder and difficult to be demurred. The loudness of the call contrasted with deafening silence of hidden memories may release them changing its shades of grey into the radical white-blackness.
Te Aroha. Colonial style house. 1960
Photo via Library of Congress
This sort of contradiction has been present in David until recently. He pauses and his eyes close for an almost unnoticeable fraction of moment as if he would see live images somewhere deep in his inner being.
“It has been part of my responses to things like Pauline Hanson’s insults to the Aboriginal and refugees communities as well as to our Muslim brothers and sisters. It was very, very deeply offensive to me and instigated my response.” – he speaks slowly with his head slightly bowed.
As an owner of a small business in fish industry that offers seasonal jobs he employed hundreds of migrant women, including refugees, over the course of many years. Although he cannot offer high-income jobs, his company always pursues policy of open doors to these vulnerable people who can for the first time put their foot into the labour market.
“It just turned out to be” – he mentions, what we perceive as his great generosity toward migrant community that is rather uncommon in the individualistic Western Australia.
When Pauline Hanson directed her angry criticism to the community, which included also employees of David’s company and his friends, he could not ignore her provocation.
“I had friends, who I liked and respected their energy and even certain kind of bravery. I admired them.” – he admits. “And she was rubbishing them” – he lifts and puts down his cup of coffee as if this would release concentrated energy.
When the phenomenon of Pauline Hanson appeared on the Australian political scene David created an idea to organise Australians opposing against chauvinistic views of her political party. He founded “Hearts on sleeves” project that with a little blue-red heart lapel united like-minded citizens embracing state policy of multiculturalism. This Australian national colours heart was sending a clear message: “Pauline Hanson does not speak for me.”
“It was really helping people to make a choice, which is the most valuable attitude in the circumstances, we constantly encounter in our lives” – he emphasises. “There is always a choice to make. We are standing before fear and mistrust that lead potentially to repression, or are we going to choose something else?”
“If we are democrats we must believe that we are to choose something else, otherwise we would have to stop being democrats. I am not going to make such decision.” – he declares raising a little bit his voice as if he would make sure that we would not miss that this is the central moment of our talk.
As David talks the title of the cover article of the magazine we did not have time to close on our Kindle almost shouts: “Distrust in the Western democracy and free market increases among European and American voters”.
“I do believe that our report is fundamentally, absolutely unarguable, incontestable. As much as I feel it in relation to myself I must feel it in relation to everybody else. We all have to protect democratic means rejecting the other choices that something will encourage us to make…” – he stops.
“I pursued that idea of self-expression from 1996 to 1998 in that project” – he adds.
“You like to think that at certain level this is about principle. But this is also what happens to you inside, about very, very deep personal reaction coming from somewhere that turns to be past experience.”
Yes, it was an experience in David’s life.
“My mother could not reveal it because of childhood shame. This shame was communicated to me already when I was five years old. I was aware of this for my whole life.”
David Leith was born in a small town Te Aroha in the agricultural district on the North Island in New Zealand.
His father was a self-employed steel fabricator.
After his fifth birthday the Leith family moved to Auckland to immigrate in six years later to Perth.
“My father decided to come here because of the economic downturn in late nineteen sixties.” – David takes a breath for a moment. We have a feeling that a story, which was encapsulated in two sentences will unfold in a moment.
We are right.
David talks about his father, who served in the New Zealand Navy during World War II.
“But he really, really hated it.” – he adds.
His father decided to rebel against the disciplines at the Navy that threatened to court-marshal him. He was imprisoned until he decided eventually to follow military instructions.
When David grew up he watched his dad being a steel fabricator and then a builder. His family lived in semi-rural housing. In the afternoon he would go fishing and play at the beach. He was enjoying beautiful natural landscape.
The idyllic story changes suddenly its tone.
A tragedy happens to his family. The community is blaming his mother unjustly, this is why his family has to leave town. The tensions generated by tragedy remain in the Leith family and radiate on David throughout his childhood.
He takes from New Zealand one more experience, which as foundation is being laid in the deepest spheres of his soul. David heritage derives from Scottish and Jewish communities, which found their home after turbulent years of searching on three continents. His heritage is rooted also among Maori.
David would learn about richness of his identity when finally the curtain of shame would be torn in two.
“My mother could not reveal it because of childhood shame. This shame was communicated to me already when I was five years old. I was aware of this for my whole life.” – he recollects.
David turned five when he watched his older peers playing rugby, the most popular game among children in New Zealand.
“They were first, strong, skilful… They were fantastic” – he describes his peers, whom he met fifty years ago, as it would have been yesterday. “I looked at them and I looked at myself. I must be connected to them – I said.”
They were Maori.
At home he confidently said to his mother that they must have some Maoris in family. She strongly denied.
“At the age of five I learnt what does it mean to repress truth” – a smile disappears from his face.
It was obvious even for a young boy when he looked at his uncle, cousins and “everybody else” that family had Maori heritage. His grandfather thought, spoke and behaved like a Maori.
“Somewhere deeper inside of me is also that social experience which has been present all my life.”
Perhaps this social experience sharpened his sensitivity towards less fortunate materially, racially persecuted and innocently accused. With his mind and heart, already in early years of his youth, he embraced democratic and social values, which were a part of identity of the Western Australian Labor Party.
Photograph via Archives
In Perth like other young Western Australians he had no opportunity to play, fish or befriend Aboriginal. The Liberal governments erected high and thick wall of intellectual, physical and emotional isolation.
At the University he finally met a very, very small number of Aboriginal students.
“At school it was a kind of segregation” – David Leith recalls. In Perth Aboriginals had very limited rights.
“I was aware of this injustice… “– he sadly says..
Until in March of 1971 John Tonkin, a schoolteacher, long-term Member of Western Australia Legislative Assembly, led his Labor Party to electoral victory.
Western Australia Labor government led by Honest John, as Tonkin was popularly known, lasted only three years but with its one vote majority had achieved unexpected victory repealing discriminatory laws towards First People of Australia. Labor healed relations with Aboriginal people, who until the decision of Parliament in 1972 had to carry passports while moving around the Metropolitan area.
“I had an opportunity to give thanks and celebrate when this was repealed.”
The Tonkin government initiated changes that resulted in the recognition of Aboriginal land rights. It also introduced the first environment bill in Australia, which initiated establishment of Environmental Protection Agency. It also laid down foundations for civilised policy of immigration.
Did the Western Australians change their attitude towards immigrants when Prime Minister Malcom Fraser opened Australia for war refugees from Vietnam?
David is not certain but he adds “people were open for that”. He thinks that the initiative, which was embraced by both parties, is a perfect example of powerful constructive strength that is generated by bipartisanship.
Currently it seems like a part of Australian society is again on the rocks of chauvinism, polarisation and conflict. The anger-fuelled reactions and stereotype-based concepts tend to dominate in the political debate, which seems to be intentionally directed to common lowest denominator.
“The new elite are the angry social media posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response. Together they foment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy.” – American publicist Bill Keller reflected recently on the state of American society. His thoughts convey the crisis of elites in the West including Australia.
David Leith says that only now as an older person understands and appreciates fully his identity and can reject social shame being able to pause and reflect.
“I am asking why I am reacting on certain situations with anger? If I have question around this issue of equality I again ask myself: why? Where does it come from? It comes from very, very deeply ingrained experiences we had. On the one hand we were unable to having a repress a desire for affiliation or recognition and as a consequence we mistreat other people.”
“If we are democrats we must be convinced that we are always obliged to reject hatred, bigotry and nationalism. We need to defend our democratic values.”
At the age of five, as he admits, he learnt what is social shame. At that time obviously he did not know this word. But that non-verbalised feeling was a prison for him for many years.
The chains were unshackled releasing him when he was asked whether he would be a candidate for Western Australian Labor.
In the same time the party also selected Tammy Solonec, who is a descendant of the First People of Australia.
“What a fantastic choice – I thought when I first met Tammy. Western Australian Labor has an Indigenous woman for the seat, which is possible to win in the right circumstances. How great it is! I am able to stand alongside this person!” – he smiles.
At this very moment he could compare shame that he felt at the age of five and pride when he is sixty.
It was incredible, as he says, to see how pride and shame are inversely related to each other and finally to understand what had happened to him and his mother when he came back home from the school playground after watching Maori peers playing rugby.
“Now I understand” – his face radiates with warmth and enthusiasm.
We shake hands leaving a local cafe greatly encouraged.