The Morrison government wasn't the first to toady to the Americans, but they intensified the practice. The Howard and Abbott governments had done much the same, but Turnbull’s government began imprisoning not only American whistleblowers but Australians who helped them and Morrison’s government continued and expanded the practice.
Officially, Australia has no prisons operated by the central government—all federal prisoners serve their time in one or another of the many state prisons. The holding centre in the Queensland outback was an anomaly, a secret anomaly. Not one of those interned—the guards’ training taught them not to use the words “prison” or “prisoners”, because the facility was officially a processing centre, not a prison—at the Warenda compound was a dangerous individual. Together, they constituted a danger to the government and especially to the United States government but not to any people.
The internees were activists—outspoken writers, entertainers, union organizers, a few whistleblowers, and many others who attended demonstrations and protest rallies—but none were terrorists, despite the government’s claims. The majority were intellectuals, labor organizers, environmental activists, political agitators, or students, but several were people who had attended one or two rallies, protests, or demonstrations and thereby earned an entry in the intelligence community’s databases.
The number of people imprisoned—for, contrary to the government’s nomenclature, they were prisoners—was far fewer, the situation less dire, than Argentina, Chile, or Guatemala in the seventies and early eighties but was still enough to embarrass a modern democracy if the secret prisons became public knowledge. The government had created a problem for itself: if they released any of their ‘detainees’, the secret prisons could not remain secret—which impelled the authorities to continue ‘processing’ those interned ‘indefinitely’, meaning “forever”.
The location of the “processing centre” was a closely guarded secret, although most of the inmates soon figured out approximately where they were. One incarcerated science professor worked out the location to within less than a mile using observations of the sun and other astronomical objects. On the outside, only employees and a few politicians and senior bureaucrats knew where the “processing centre” was located or that it existed at all.
On the inside, a few prisoners believed their incarceration a mistake that the authorities would soon correct. Those benighted individuals expected the bureaucrats to release, and soon, almost all those interned at Warenda. Jonas Robb and his friend Bernie Webb did not count themselves among those deluded souls. Environmental and political activists for three and four decades respectively, Jonas and Bernie knew the score and wanted urgently to get out and find a way to blow the whistle on the whole operation. They dicussed that project at every secure opportunity.
The government had begun building the compound—or prison, to be both forthright and candid—on the quiet, seven years in the past. The first internees arrived at a small facility two years after that, but even that small facility had a staffing problem. The government's “correctional” planners expected local people to flock to the jobs available at the “processing centre”. The planners failed to take into account that their local people didn't exist. The nearest towns were Cloncurry and Mt. Isa, and each lay more than a hundred miles from the supposedly attractive jobs.
The facility remained under-staffed, even though the government quickly set about building on-site dormitories and family housing and instituting a FIFO—or, more accurately, a DIDO (Drive In, Drive Out)—“week on, week off” scheme. The “processing centre” grew faster than the housing available for employees.
Bernie, who had organized protest marches and demonstrations for more than twenty years, arrived following a mass arrest at a rally three years after the first internees. The government’s intel was good: most of those arrested gained their release without ever experiencing anything but the local police lock-up, but committed activists such as Bernie all ended up in the desert at Warenda. Still not keeping up with staffing needs, construction of employee dormitories continued well after Bernie's arrival.
The police detained Jonas a year later after a “routine traffic stop” on his way home from a concert at which he had urged his audience to take action on climate change and other environmental issues. In the course of the show, he sang several well known folk songs with additional verses of his own about climate change. He also denounced from the stage between songs the disappearance of several whistleblowers and activists. Had Jonas been a famous pop singer, his disappearance must surely have become a cause célèbre. As a major player in the niche market of folk music, Jonas wasn’t well known enough for his disappearance to attract much attention.
Both Jonas and Bernie knew that getting out of the compound was never going to be easy—the place was built, after all, to keep people inside. The two men also knew the authorities and their hirelings, the guards, counted on the vast and uncompromising desert to contain their wards. Getting outside the boundary fences might be possible, although escapees’ survival thereafter might prove more than a little difficult.
The conspirators schemed constantly to find ways to overcome the obstacles. On occasional work details outside the perimeter fence, they often managed to bury bottles of water—although they didn't know whether they could ever find and retrieve them or whether the water would still be potable if they did. Jonas even managed to bury one wrapped in a hat, in case he ever managed to get outside and lacked a head covering.
The area surrounding the Warenda compound supported little vegetation. Infrequent Gidgees, which Jonas knew as Acacia cambagei, survived, as did a few of the invasive Prickly Acacia (Acacia nilotica) and the occasional, rare North West Ghost Gum (Corymbia bella). Even so, one could, if not locked behind a fence, walk for hours without finding any shade. The fence, though, remained the initial obstacle.
The two men, at moments when they both felt confident they couldn’t be overheard either by guards or by high-tech eavesdropping devices, talked about getting themselves on the other side of the fence. In one such conversation, Jonas asked, “Should we bring Les in? He’s solid, not going to narc.”
“The more people involved,” Bernie replied, “the more chance they'll find out.”
“And the sooner they'll notice someone's missing.”
“Yeah, that, too.”
“So, just the two of us?”
“Hell, I don’t know, Jonas. It’d be nice to spring some of the other lads, but prob’ly harder to pull it off.”
“Yeah, and prob’ly easier to spot, if they do an aerial search.”
“Which they would.”
They had many such conversations. In one of those discussions, Bernie pointed out that the conspirators might want to make use of times when they were already outside the fence. Jonas agreed but observed that the enlarged contingent of guards on those occasions watched their wards like a wedge-tailed eagle eyeing an exposed rabbit.
“I didn’t say it would be easy,” Bernie replied, “only that there might be an opportunity.”
Jonas agreed, and from that day forward both men always carried two full water bottles and drank sparingly on all excursions outside the perimeter fence. Construction of staff housing provided one of the few regular opportunities for internees to spend time outside the compound. Both men had building skills: Bernie had worked as a carpenter, and Jonas had built three houses—one for himself as a bachelor, one for himself and his family, and one for himself as a single dad. As a result, both found themselves regularly press-ganged into the crews building staff dormitories and family housing.
As Jonas had remarked, the guards on those details watched the internees like hunting raptors and with equally lethal intent. Many weeks, and several tours of construction duty, passed before Jonas said, “It looks to me like there’s two possibilities: one, we somehow get into one of the trucks delivering materials, just before it leaves, or, two, we hide out in one of the houses or barracks and hope nobody comes looking for us until after dark.”
“First one’s harder, I reckon,” Bernie replied, “but the second one’s more risky.”
“A lot more risky, ’cause they’d notice us missing long before dark. Still, if we found a good enough place to hide ...”
“If there is one.”
“Yeah. We just need to keep our eyes open and see what we can spot.”
On one such construction excursion, another internee—oddly, one of the inmates who expected the government to release the detainess—tried to run away. The guards on the ground called out to him to stop, then used their walkie-talkies to call the nearest tower. The guards in the tower also called out to the runaway to stop, through amazingly high volume speakers mounted on poles by the perimeter fence. None of the guards made any attempt to catch the man. When he didn't stop running in response to commands over the loudspeakers, two of the guards in the tower picked up rifles and brought him down with three shots each.
Two other guards came out from the main compound a few minutes later carrying a stretcher. They commandeered four inmates, including Jonas and Bernie, from the detail working outside and retrieved the body. Jonas looked with amazement and horror at the enormous cavity where the man's chest had been and at the astonishing amount of blood on the already red soil.
Later, as they picked at their institutional dinner, Jonas said to Bernie, “They didn't need to do that. They could've caught 'im easily.”
“They didn't want to catch 'im,” Bernie replied. “They wanted to use him as an example for the rest of us.”
“Holy shucking fit!” Jonas said, then added, “I s'pose you're right though.”
“And,” Bernie continued, “that means one less prisoner for them to look after.”
The guards’ actions had the desired effect on some of the internees, and the opposite effect on others. The camp’s administrators reacted as if the entire interned population had attempted to run away. The director—calling him a warden would have made the prison connection obvious—decreed there would be no work details outside the compound for the next four days and only half an hour a day of yard time each day.
The formerly compliant and cooperative inmates—which is to say, almost the entire body of detainees—reacted negatively, more negatively than the administration had anticipated. The internees exhibited a great deal of unease and did a great deal of grumbling. Most inmates engaged in passive resistance through withdrawing their cooperation. The director responded by decreeing no outside time at all on the third day. Jonas told Bernie he almost expected to see posters saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Bernie managed a smile and said, “That’s a good one. I haven’t seen one of those in years.”
Jonas couldn't decide whether encouraging the grumbling and resistance was a good idea or not. On the one hand, he thought defying illegitimate authority a good thing a priori; on the other, he did not want to add to the suffering of those locked up in the “processing centre”.
When outside work details began again a few weeks later, the guards seemed more lax, as if daring their charges to make a run for freedom. Neither Bernie nor Jonas harbored any intention of making a literal run, but both redoubled their efforts to spot and recognize a safe exit from the compound. Four weeks of the old routine passed before Jonas said, “Y’know, we don’t have to get inside one of those trucks. There’s room for two or three men between the longitudinal frame members underneath—even more on the big twelve-wheel trailers—and you’d be invisible to anyone who wasn’t under the truck.”
The two men thenceforth scrutinized the guards, each time a truckdriver prepared to depart. The guards watched all of the men on the work detail every time but didn’t seem to pay any extra attention as trucks departed. The latter fact gave Bernie and Jonas hope an opportunity might present itself, so they stayed ready and kept watching. Three months went by with no such opportunity, but both men had learned patience.
The third anniversary of Bernie’s arrival occurred fourteen weeks later, and brought an anniversary gift. Early in the afternoon, after the internee crew had unloaded a consignment of roof trusses from a flatbed trailer, an incident occurred. A well-liked inmate called Shorty—an ironic nickname derived from his six foot, five inch height—tripped over a piece of debris while carrying one end of a C-beam. In falling to the ground, Shorty slammed into the back of another inmate and knocked that man to the ground.
The other man, who had been facing the opposite direction and so did not see Shorty fall, leapt up and attacked the big man. A few guards argued about whether to separate the men or watch them fight, and other guards joined the argument. Jonas saw the truck driver climb into his cab and casually stooped and ducked under the trailer, pitching a pebble at Bernie as he did so.
Bernie spun around, saw Jonas, then turned back toward the altercation. As soon as he felt confident none of the guards had seen his sudden pivot, Bernie moved casually toward the trailer. As Bernie climbed up between the frame members, Jonas saw Les watching Bernie and hoped their assessment of their trusted friend was correct. The roar of the big diesel starting up came just as Bernie got his feet out of sight on the frame members. At the same moment half the guards moved to break up the fight, as the other half resumed their normal posts and activities.
Half an hour later, the truck driver slowed to make the turn onto the highway. The truck was still moving fifteen or twenty miles an hour, when Jonas called out to Bernie, “Let’s bail.” Jonas dropped his feet to the gravel road and released his grip as soon as his feet touched, then lay still as the twelve enormous tires rolled past him. As soon as he was no longer under the trailer, he rolled off the road and lay motionless. The truck pulled onto the highway and began accelerating, and Jonas risked raising his head and looking to see that Bernie had likewise rolled safely off the road.
“We’d better get away from the road,” Bernie said.
“And the highway.”
“Yes, and the highway,” Bernie agreed, as he began walking east.
“Wait!” Jonas called. “They’ll expect us to go east, so that’s where they’ll look. I think we’re better off going west.”
“They’ll look in all directions, but I see what you mean.” Bernie reversed direction, as he said, “OK. Let’s go.”
“I s’pose we should’ve talked about that before now,” Jonas said, as they walked west across the barren landscape.
“Never thought of it. I guess you didn’t either.”
The men angled southwest to get away from the highway and the access road, moving as quickly as they dared in the heat. Half an hour and almost two miles later, Jonas asked, “Do you think we’d be better off on the north side of the highway?”
“Nothin’. I was just wondering if they’re more likely to focus their search on one side or the other.”
“Actually,” Bernie said, “the best thing would probably be for one of us to be on each side.”
“How w—” Jonas paused, then continued, “You mean separate? I don’t like the idea of leaving you to make the walk all alone. What if something happened, you got injured?”
“If I got hurt, you’d just have to go on without me. At least one of us has to get the word out. I s’pose if you get hurt, I’ll have to go on without you.”
“Yeah, OK, I get that.”
The two men walked another forty yards before Jonas said, “So, it doesn’t really matter if we’re walking together or not.”
“Well, the company’s good,” Bernie replied, “and four eyes probably give a better chance of spotting danger than two.”
“But, if we’re spotted, they get both of us.”
Bernie resumed the thread of the conversation two hundred yards later with, “Yeah. I think we prob’ly better split up.”
Educated as a scientist, graduated as a mathematician, Cora Tate has earned her living as a full-time professional entertainer most of her life, including a stint as a regular performer on the prestigious Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. Cora’s repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as a librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner, among other occupations. Cora has written five novels, three novellas (two published), three novelettes (two published), and about sixty short stories, of which forty-two have been published by forty-six literary journals in seven countries. Cora recommends Earth First!