Blacks to the back of the bus: Part Two. Guest Post by Mike Pepperday

cropped 469186 332135200168526 1305129066 oIwrote a report, much as set out in Part 1, and sent it to the WA Equal Opportunity Commission and other people at the end of January, 1990.

The Human Rights Commission in Sydney phoned in February to say they were very concerned and would be interested to see what the WA EO Commission made of the matter.

The federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs wrote in February that “as the Aboriginal community in fact has indicated its satisfaction with the service being provided by Y Coachlines, there appears to be no benefit in pursuing the matter any further at this time.” They thought I should write to the Human Rights Commission in Sydney.

The Department of Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories wrote in March agreeing that racism was counterproductive to tourism but my claims were “so serious that they go well beyond the question of mere tourism” and they passed my letter to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. I wrote back informing them that Aboriginal Affairs thought segregation was all right if the Aborigines were satisfied with it. I told them I was pleased to see they shared my view of racism but that I had written suggesting they act within their area of responsibility, namely, tourism. I thanked them for suggesting that I write to X but asked if it might not have more impact if they, the Department of Tourism, wrote to X.

I had sent the report to the X bus company in Sydney. I was notified of its being passed to subordinate offices.

The media I sent it to were not really interested, though I received polite replies. There was an odd interchange with the editor of a land rights magazine who had somehow got hold of the report. He rang in March to ask if he could publish it. I said I would be delighted. A month later he rang to apologise that he couldn’t publish because, he said, the Warburton Aboriginal Community reserved the back of the bus. I said that that was not true and if it were true it would be formal racial segregation.

He then said the Aboriginal Community had threatened to sue for defamation. On what grounds? He wasn’t sure. I suggested he publish my report and append an editor’s note saying that the Warburton Community had told him the back of the bus was reserved. If he thought I was being disingenuous he gave no sign. He said he would check up and let me know.

I tried several times to call him and eventually reached him a month later. He said that legal advice had now been given to the effect that X might sue. It was an excuse. He told me explicitly that the Community didn’t want the report printed. He insisted that the Community reserved the seats. I’d say he was intimidated by his employer and embarrassed.

The WA Equal Opportunities Commission phoned me the day after I sent them the report. It was another officer, presumably more senior. She said I should, after all, lodge a formal complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act. I wrote, on her advice: “The specific grounds are that when I objected to the discrimination I was personally threatened. Had I not objected I would have been a mute accomplice in the segregation.”

I did not hear from the WA Equal Opportunities Commission for eight months. In October they wrote quoting three pages of a letter they had received from Y Coachlines written by the driver, Murray. This is when I found out how naive I’d been. According to him I’d been drunk and was swearing and abusing the drivers and other passengers. It is very nasty indeed and I still cannot read it with equanimity. I can understand it, though, if he was fighting for his job.

I wrote back immediately, said it was a fabrication, suggested ways to check up and noted that the driver’s letter confirmed the substance of my formal complaint, namely that he had threatened me. He claimed it was because of my alleged obnoxious behaviour yet he confirmed the “body odour” quote almost word for word.

The driver also admitted he effected the segregation and stated that this is the preference of the Warburton Community (he made no mention of reserved seats). I drew EO’s attention to this and in addition told them about the land rights magazine. I also quoted the Department of Aboriginal Affairs letter about the Aboriginal “satisfaction” with the service.

For another four months I heard nothing. The West Australian Equal Opportunities Commission replied in February 1991, over a year after I lodged the complaint. They wrote: “This office will attempt to make contact with members of the Aboriginal Community in Warburton to discuss the matters you raised which related to them. I wish to advise that I can be of no further assistance to you in regards to this matter.”

The letter made no reference to my formal complaint.

I feel like retorting that they never were of any assistance to me and they well know it, but it is pointless to pursue it further. It is perfectly clear that a cosy apartheid is being practised through the connivance of the participants and the blind eye of the authorities.

People ask me who I hold more responsible: the driver or the bus company. My answer is that I think they suited (or suit) each other. Also responsible is the law, which allowed no complaint against the practice, only against the person—which in the end was ignored.

The bus service is still running. I don’t know if my complaint had any effect on the segregation procedures.

Only a few days after my trip, South African buses were officially desegregated and we saw, on our televisions, black and white South Africans sitting next to each other. I have a bleak memory of the afternoon stop at the wheat town of Merredin, 200 km east of Perth. It was over 40º and the bus’s air-conditioning had failed. The whites, from around the world, stood in the shade of the only tree while the black Australians stood by the bus, fifty metres away.

Mike Pepperday 1991.

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Ingolf Eide
10 years ago

Don’t quite know what to say, Mike, except thanks for a terrific story.

Did you ever get a sense of what the Aborigines themselves thought, either through later conversations or reports?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
10 years ago

No, nothing. But then the tale has never (till now) been published and I live an ordinary white existence which does not include any contact–certainly not with outback Aborigines. In a deeper sense I have always wondered what they think. By that I mean their culture, their worldview. Somehow they manage to hold European curiosity at bay. I reckon most of us would know more about Navajo and Samoan and PNG cultures than about indigenous Australians.

Ingolf Eide
10 years ago

Yes, me too (wondered, that is).