Racist 'poms' drive out Aboriginals

Jan Mayman on the 'culture-clash' eviction of an artist and her family that has divided an Australian suburb
A distinguished Aboriginal artist and several members of her family are enduring one of Western Australia's coldest winters in a garden shed, after a three-year campaign led by British immigrants succeeded in evicting them from their home in Perth.

Joan Martin, 56, is internationally famous for the great mosaic floor she designed for Perth's Curtin University, unveiled by Australia's Governor- General, Sir William Deane. The witty and articulate mother of seven had lived for 17 years in the suburb of Karrinyup, where she used to give talks at the local school on her art, but she has now fallen victim to a clash of cultures which has left hundreds of Aboriginals homeless in Perth.

Allegations from white neighbours of "anti-social behaviour" and overcrowding, relentlessly pursued by the local media, have led to many evictions of Aboriginals by Homeswest, the state's housing agency. Joan Martin's troubles began when two of her adult children were evicted from their own Karrinyup homes after campaigns against them by their neighbours - including some later involved in the push against her. Eventually there were four adults and 14 children living in her small, three-bedroom cottage - and she too was evicted.

A woman of the Yamatji Aboriginal people, Ms Martin says she was obliged by her culture as well as family feeling to take in all her homeless descendants, but this argument was dismissed by the Equal Opportunity Tribunal which heard her claim against Homeswest of racism and victimisation, and her demand for rehousing and compensation. She has been told she has no grounds for an appeal, although the case revealed that the head of Homeswest's own Aboriginal Housing Board believed that neighbours' complaints were motivated by racism and ill-feeling. Even the tribunal chairman, Nicholas Hasluck QC, found that "there is an element of unfairness in what has occurred".

Witness after witness revealed how the same small group of white residents had fought to drive the three Martin families, almost the only Aboriginals in Karrinyup, out of their suburb. They organised three petitions and tirelessly lobbied MPs, senior bureaucrats, the Housing Minister and even the Chief Justice. Above all, they used local television stations, with spectacular results.

A British immigrant couple, Jean and John Irvin, were leading members of the campaign, becoming public figures overnight as they told how they had been verbally abused by various Martins, particularly the children. After the eviction, a stone was thrown through one of their windows.

Joan Martin said in court that Jean Irvin came to her door one day, angry that her young grandson had been in a fight with a Martin child. "She poked me in the chest and said: 'I'll fix you, I'll go to Homeswest.'" Another white neighbour, Carmelia Kidd, testified that Mrs Irvin had brought up the fight when urging her to join the campaign for the Martins' eviction, and told the court a fight between two schoolboys was no reason to evict anyone.

Other white neighbours also took the Martins' side. The affair was started by "whingeing Poms", an electronics engineer, Gary Kidd, wrote to a local paper. "If I were in their position, with a home at stake, I too might be tempted to mouth a few choice words or hurl the odd stone in hopeless frustration," he said. He had never seen the Martins being "anti-social" - the justification for eviction by Homeswest, though it led to no arrests or police charges.

Another British immigrant, Kathy Hodges, an occupational therapist from Norwich, is among the Martins' strongest supporters. She and her Australian- born husband Len, a retired bus driver, used to live next door to Joan Martin, and are still stunned by the affair. "It was just a few people using every means they could to annihilate everything the Martins had," said Len. "The system was hijacked by a small, narrow-minded group of people, with the help of the media."

In one press statement, the Homeswest director of rental operations, Bob Thomas, said the state housing authority had "gone to some lengths to satisfy itself that the complaints of neighbours were not racially motivated and lacking in substance before taking any action". But the tribunal chairman, Mr Hasluck, seemed puzzled. "There seems to have been no effort to contact the neighbours who remained silent," he said after hearing some of them testify that they had no complaints about the Martins.

The Martins were finally evicted amid a media frenzy largely orchestrated by their critics. They were dubbed "Perth's most notorious family" after Homeswest officials briefed journalists about misbehaviour by children, bad language, fighting, threats and stone throwing and "numerous police- substantiated complaints". Television crews took to lingering near the house, looking for action. A mentally-ill relative, Mick Little, was a favourite target for the cameras; he often visited the Martin home and was easily provoked.

In the last weeks before their eviction, the Martins endured a racist blitz of bomb threats and hate mail as well as verbal attacks from white neighbours, both face to face and through the media. Racist thugs drove by at night, hurling more death threats. One abusive phone caller was convicted and fined A$100 (pounds 50). Joan Martin's son, Dean - father of six of the children - rushed home from hospital against medical advice, two days out of intensive care, in a desperate attempt to protect his family. He collapsed and died two days later at the age of 36.

Early on the morning of his funeral, a TV news car cruised up and down, camera pointing from the window - until one of Dean's sons broke the lens with a stone. A week later the cameras were back to show Joan Martin handing over her keys to a bailiff after television footage of earlier incidents had been used against her in court.

"The police were good, they listened to us. The local media never told our side of the story," she said. "It was just a relentless onslaught against us by Homeswest - at a time when we should have been left alone to grieve. I just want to be left alone to care for my family."

The widowed artist, a diabetic with heart and kidney disease as well as asthma, is now sleeping in a garden shed behind the overcrowded home of an Aboriginal friend, with her furniture out in the rain. Last week she was suffering from flu.

"I don't know how much longer I can last, but I have to keep fighting for the sake of my family," she said. "I'm not sleeping much, and food tastes like paper in my mouth."