Remembering the Port Arthur massacre two decades on

bob faserNIGEL TAPP

Retired Uniting Church minister Bob Faser remembers attending an ecumenical service in Hobart for the victims of the Dunblane Primary School massacre, in Scotland, in March 1996.

Mr Faser recalls how the general feeling among attendees was one of gratitude that Tasmania was shielded by its isolation from facing such horrors.

Only a month later many of the same people were gathered again – this time to remember the 35 victims of Australia’s worst mass murder at Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula, on 28 April of that year.

The 35 included tourists and locals ranging in age from the retired to a three-year-old girl – were killed by a single gunman in an act which sent shockwaves around the world.

The magnitude of the massacre was horrific, but it seemed surreal that it happened in a quiet, sleepy corner of the world many had previously never heard of.

The fact that Port Arthur was established as a penal colony and had been the scene of much barbarity in its early life was not lost on anyone either.

From Tasmania’s point of view, Port Arthur brought into clear focus the fact that nowhere was really safe. If such a tragedy could happen in Tasmania then it could happen anywhere.

Mr Faser recalls initially finding out about the massacre on the BBC radio world service on the Sunday afternoon.

“When I heard it I immediately switched over to (the) ABC (Radio) but they were still broadcasting a football match. I don’t think the significance of what had happened had sunk in.”

Later that evening, as the full extent of the tragedy unfolded, Mr Faser led a regular evening service at the Cross St Uniting Church and said the events of earlier in the day had impacted on those who attended.

“There were certainly some people who had not been there before – it was as if they just needed to go to some sort of sacred space to help them deal with the news.”

As the General Secretary of the Tasmanian Council of Churches (TCC) at the time, Mr Faser was heavily involved in the churches’ response to the tragedy.

Mr Faser said he understood from the very first day that the TCC became involved in assisting the people of the region that not all would be grateful.

“It was obvious that the people of the peninsula were well and truly sick of suits from the city coming down,” he said.

“But, all of us from outside realised that we had a role to play, and our role was to support the local people. If there was any resentment that was ours to wear.”

Mr Faser remains impressed by how the Tasmanian community came together to support those who suffered at the hands of the gunman. He believes that example came from the leaders down.

“Politicians from all sides behaved incredibly well in their responses, making it as bipartisan as possible.

“They showed the potential which exists for working together when it becomes necessary.”

A simple public ceremony is planned for Port Arthur on April 28 at 12.30 pm with another service to be held at St David’s Cathedral in Hobart at the same time.

The anniversary each year since the 10-year commemoration has been marked by a wreath-laying service and one minute’s silence.

Mr Faser said it was important that any commemoration was done with sensitivity and pointed to a positive way forward.

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