Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Your behaviour in court shows that you are very knowledgeable about sport. Where did your love of sport come from?

Oh Dad, Dad. Other girls had photos of film stars, mine were footballers. And, and Dad was a cyclist and had medals for cycling and we used to sit on the bus at the bus-stop on Liverpool Road when there were long road races and we'd go out to the velodrome at Camperdown, yep.

And how have you pursued that yourself?

Well, I used to play tennis, I loved - we always played tennis, Saturday mornings and one evening, and watched football etcetera, but then when Jacob joined the soccer club I felt that as a parent I should get on to the committee and take part. And so I was there was one year just attending meetings and the next year after the elections, there was a, a knock on my front door and there was the committee to tell me that the president had run off with the treasurer and would I come and be president. So I ended up as president of the junior soccer club, totally unheard of of course, and then when we were delving out the teams - who was going to coach which team - none of these men wanted the under 6s. So I said, "Well I'll coach the under 6s", and I did. They were called Barb's Babes and we went through undefeated. My little band of - I had 15 of six year olds - who all lost their front tooth that year. They used to bring them to me in a matchbox. [INTERRUPTION]

How do you feel about Australia and being an Australian? What does it mean for you?

It means everything. I am an Australian. I am so proud to be Australian. Everything, every fibre of my being is proud to be an Australian. I love the people, I love the country people, I love their spirit and I love the quiet achievers, you know, really those quiet achievers, I love it. Hope we never lose that. We are losing it a bit in the, in the cities of course. People are so busy, busy, busy, don't communicate, don't talk to each other. Whenever I step into a lift and everyone's facing you as you step in, I always say "G'day". I don't know what they're doing when I turn round and face the door, behind my back, but I always say "G'day".

Is your interest in your country at all political?

No, I'm the most apolitical person you would ever meet. I don't care who is in government, I really don't, as long as they do the right thing by families - and by that I mean mums and dads and children and everybody involved, the extended family - do the right thing by them, because without strong families, we won't have a strong country.

Of course some people would say that is a political view, not a party political view, but a political view.

Oh well, I guess they're right, yes, I guess they're right, yep.

So how do you see communities? What, what's your - you're obviously a person who is very community based yourself. What's your view about the role of community?

I see it when I travel to the country what a community can do for that town or that city. The community, not the state government, not the federal government, maybe the local government, but the community who work with pride for their town. I see what they can do. Now I think that we're losing that in the city so what we should be doing is working in our suburbs and our shires so that we're proud of our suburbs and the services that are provided. We can't keep looking to the government for everything. We have to do stuff ourselves. Now I, I keep referring back to Mum and Dad but they wouldn't accept the old age pension because they had money although they were entitled - they didn't have a lot of money, but they were entitled to the pension - but until that money went, they were too proud to accept a pension. And I love that, because all too ready people are there with their hand out. What can I get? What can the government provide for me, without trying themselves. And I saw kids who were into the third generation - I make no apologies for this - who were dole bludgers. Couldn't wait till the birthday came when they could go and get their unemployment cheque. They had no intention of ever working because neither mum nor dad nor grandmother nor grandfather had worked, and this is how it was. And they knew, my God, they knew everything that they could get for nothing.

What do you think this did to them?

Took away their pride, their sense of achievement. I saw kids who came before me - and this was a very wrong thing to do - who had committed a crime of some sort, nothing world shattering, and I would say this sentence is going to depend on you getting a job. I'm adjourning it for six weeks, you go and knock on factory doors, you go and knock on doors and say, "Without me your business is going to collapse". You get yourself a job, you get out of bed and get a job and come back and see me in six weeks, and if you've got a job and you can't come back in six weeks, get Mum to come and tell me. Now I saw those kids after they got a job and they were different kids. Or the parent would come and tell me, "They're bringing their pay packet home and they can't believe it", and the parents are proud of them. It's important.

Has religion been important in your life?

It was.


Up until, I suppose, John and I separated.

What part did it play?

Played a very big part in our lives. We, I taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, went to church etcetera, but then the time came when John and I really needed the support and it wasn't there. So, I, I felt it let me down very badly.

In what respect wasn't it there?

It wasn't there to advise us, to support us. Wasn't there with any wisdom. And it should have played that role.

And so you left?


What about your personal beliefs, Barbara?

I'm an atheist.

As a result of that?

No, no, done a lot of study, read a lot. I know this shocks people because they don't see me, because of the person I am, they don't believe me when I say it, but it's true. It is true.

So you've come to the conclusion on a rational basis...


That there is nothing there to believe in?


So what do you believe in?

I believe in the human spirit, I believe in myself, I believe in other people and that's okay. I believe in kids, they keep me going. Not some belief that I'm going to go down there if I'm not good, or I'm going to purgatory for a little while because something happened or that I may even get to string along on a harp. No. Not for me.

Barbara there's this strange disjunction in your life of in-between what you now believe to be right for people to do, especially for families, and what you've told us about your own life. Is this because you really have been able to learn from your own personal experiences? And if so, I'd really like you to sort of talk about how that happens because people can draw a lot from it. To go back, first of all, in relation to divorce. You say now that you think that people really should stay together if they possibly can for their children and yet you, with a very young child, and a really pretty decent sort of husband from your own account, decided to divorce. Could you tell us about that and how that relates to what you now think?

Well of course my thinking's changed. You know, we've moved on over 40 years and my God if I was still thinking as I did as a 25 year old I'd be pretty pathetic. If John and I - and I have no doubt about this - if John and I had had anybody to counsel us, to listen to what our needs were, our emotional needs were, and could rationalise that with us, we'd still be together. We never stopped loving each other. We, when he - when his second wife divorced, his children came here to me and our closeness it never changed. So we should have been given that opportunity and on reflection I think that everyone should be given that opportunity so that there should be more counselling services for, for people. I think divorces are too quick. I think that maybe - if people could have time to reflect - that maybe not so many people would divorce.

And you're speaking in relation to that, not just from your observations, but from your own experience?

From both, from both, and what I've seen it does to children. I mean I know from Louise it's had an effect on Louise. She loved her father, she adored her father, and she would have loved to have been able to live with both of us, but fortunately we never had an argument so there was never any troubles with access or Christmas Day or Easter. We worked that out between us as to what was the best for her.

Now you've spoken very eloquently against the nanny system and yet Louise had a nanny, she had a full time person living in with you, looking after her. Is that an experience that made you form that view too?

No, but I was living there too. I wasn't working. She, her role was to assist me, not Louise. I was the one who fed Louise and nursed her and bathed her. Just physically I couldn't lift her or carry out any of these things.

Again, in retrospect, the child care arrangements you made with Louise with her being looked after by your parents, what do you think of that now, looking back with the experience you've now got?

Well, I wished I hadn't had to do it. Louise and I've spoken about this and the effect that it probably had on her but if I hadn't done that, there'd have been no money there because John remarried and started a new family and there wasn't enough money to go around I guess.

Did you work just for the money or was there something else?

No, no.

Could you, could you talk about that?

Look my mind never stops. It's go, go, go, go. I'm not planning on doing something and I guess this was one of the things that was happening in my marriage, boredom, as I said I was reading a book a day, I was bored witless. I walked miles and what was I going to do, sit at home and chat to Mum and Dad, who were still closeting me in their own way. But, no, I was able to get out there and create, that - be creative and to put in, because that's also my philosophy, if you don't put in, don't expect to take out, and - yeah, I needed to put in.

Again looking back, do you ever think about the road not travelled? Was there another life, a different life that you could have had had you made different choices at any particular point? In other words, is there anything you wish you'd done that you didn't do?

No, I wouldn't change my life at all. Nothing, no.

What is it, do you feel, that has been so right about it for you? Or lucky, if you like?

It's right now, that's why it's been right. I'm very comfortable where I am emotionally, in every sense, I'm very comfortable. I've loved the experiences that I've had so that they've created me so that I can understand how it is to lose a child, to be divorced, to be a single mum, as I was, to be a working, single mum, to be a professional person, to have money problems that I didn't know where the next penny was coming from, and having a loving mum and dad and a daughter I adored, and still do. Truly, when I think about that funny little peanut, you know, I saw in that humicrib and into the beautiful woman she's grown, I'm very proud.

Can I imagine a future for this Australia that you love so much that would be your ideal? If you could just wish, what would you like to see that would really be the big change that you'd like to see happen in our society here?

I would - if I had a magic wand - I would take away all the pain from every child. No more pain. No more physical, emotional, psychological - no more pain. But if I'm going to talk common sense, what I would like to see happen is that every state and territory in Australia have a commissioner for children, where they concentrate wholly on the child in the family. The Australian child in the family. Just like you have attorneys-general, and so we'd have a federal commissioner and all of these commissioners would meet with the federal commissioner. You know, all the laws in our states and territories are different. It's like as though we've got Spain and France and Germany between New South Wales, Brisbane and South Australia. I'd have uniform laws for all our Australian children.

Do you think it's likely ever to happen?

Not in my lifetime, no. It wouldn't be hard to do, they just think it is. They just think, "Oh my God, that's creating another office, that means we've got to employ this and that and, oh my goodness me, that's money, can't spend that on kids, not till their 18 because they are our future".

I've remembered one area of the trends - remember yesterday we talked about trends while you were on the bench, things that, that became issues like drugs and violence and so on - one area that we didn't explore was the whole business of sexual abuse that has come into prominence since you became a magistrate, am I right? I'd like to ask you about that, in that context of where we were yesterday, talking about these areas.

Well I think it's always been there but now we're uncovering it and we're looking at it, we're airing it, and this is good. It's good because I think that there were people that didn't realise what they were doing was an abuse. Not just sexual, I mean abuse in every sense. Now that we've opened up what could be a can of worms, people are realising that that is not, just not on. It's not acceptable. In relation to sexual abuse, yes, it's being disclosed. I don't know that we've come up with many remedies. I don't know that we've come up with protection for these kids. In fact I think we've gone backwards with that. When I sat at Minda, there was a squad of detectives who dealt only with child abuse and they were so professional. They were so good at it, I was getting briefs before me that were first class. Suddenly for reasons that I don't know, that squad was disbanded and every police station dealt with the abuse. Can you imagine a 15 year old girl who's been sexually abused by stepfather, father, uncle, whatever, telling a sergeant of police all about it? No, it's too delicate. That girl is too fragile. It is a very, very particular area that I believe is not being looked at closely enough. I don't think enough's being done.

When you were in charge of the Care Court and there were cases of sexual abuse that came before you, what sort of things worried you and gave you pause at that time to think about?

Oh well this - whether or not the mother would accept that there was in fact sexual abuse going on and would turn on the girl and call her names and was all disbelieving, "How could you break up the family?" What do you do with a little girl like that? Where do you send her? Because you have to take her out of the home, you can't allow the abuse to go on, then that makes her believe she's the one that's caused all this trouble, and she's guilty.

What did you do? What could you do?

Not much at all, except say over and over and over to this little girl, "This is not your fault". And I had them crying and saying to me, "But if I hadn't said anything we wouldn't be here". And it was dealt with so badly. There was a systems abuse, the kid would have told her story six, seven times before it came to court. Now that's an abuse.

What do you think of mandatory sentencing?

It's so wrong, it's vile, it's so wrong. He can say what he likes up there in the Northern Territory - he knows and I know why he's done it - and it's for one race of people, our original race and that's who he's catching in his net. And I hope the human rights hammer him. That poor kid, suiciding, over what? Crayons. I worry about me making mistakes on the bench and not being able to sleep. My goodness me. And it's not as though people haven't complained. They have.

What's ahead for you, Barbara? What's next?

It'll be the same I suppose. I want to go on championing kids' causes. [Laughs] I suppose I'll run out of steam and puff, but just making wherever I can, making it better for them, making a difference because by God it's hard to be a kid these days. Some idiot, idiot in Victoria has now said that every school child should be doing up to three hours homework a night. Butt out. This is government abuse in a family. What are they doing telling a family, coming into the home, saying your child will do three hours homework? Oh butt out. When are these people going to sit round a table and talk and kids be kids, and get their heads out of computers? Come on, this is terrible, you know, it's further abuse by governments of course. Governments took a lot of rights away from parents but never told them what the alternatives were. And so parents threw up their hands and said,"Well if you know so much, you do it. We're opting out". The number of kids that came home from school and said - littlies - "My teacher said you can't slap and if you do I'm to tell her". Hooley dooley. Not right.

If you had to just offer one piece of strong advice to parents about the rearing of their children, what would it be?

There isn't one. It's taken for granted that you're going to love them. You can take it for granted they're going to love you, but I don't believe they can take it for granted that you're going to love them. Love them, and not only listen, but hear what it is they're saying to you. They say so much but you don't hear it because you're really not listening.

Could you tell me about the boy who killed the Greek Consul?

Andrew was sentenced to quite a long term - because actually there were two deaths - and he ended up eventually in Minda, and he turned 18 and he was in his 19th year. And the, our gardener at Minda had taken him under his wing, and this was what I talk about when I say rehabilitation in a detention centre. This man was wonderful with Andrew. Andrew would be there, gardening away, physically with a shovel and a pick and he would be on the lawnmower driving around, often bringing in a bunch of flowers for me to have in my chambers, and he really was developing into a good kid, but he still had a fair way to go with his sentence. And we wondered and we all prayed that he would stay on there because it was so good for him. Now there was either a wedding or an important birthday and he was allowed to go home for it with two escorts, and it was either a Friday or a Saturday night. Now on the way home from this event, the escorts stopped at a pub, left Andrew in the car and went in for a drink. They may have taken him with them, I don't think they did. They left him in the car. Somehow there was there a photographer from a newspaper who photographed Andrew and the headlines were, "Andrew Tregurtha", you know, "Is this what happens when you get a life sentence?" or whatever it was. Now that came out in the morning paper and by the next morning Andrew had gone. In the middle of the night, they came, they took him in a prison van, took him to an adult jail which was Berrima. Few months later he hanged himself. It took me a long time to get over that. And also that was one of the reasons that I work so hard for a jail for young people for that transition because I said otherwise Andrew has died in vain, and that was what we needed - if Andrew could have gone into a jail for that transitional period.

During the period that you were a magistrate, it was the time where just a couple of women MPs started campaigning about a pederast ring and about talking about systematic abuse of children by rings of, of pederasts, pedophiles. Were you conscious in your court or through your own work that there might be something to this because there was a lot of scepticism about their claims?

I have no doubt there was, no doubt, and I in my court saw a number of these kids. I remember one boy, beautifully dressed and I knew his background, I knew mum and dad didn't buy these clothes, and I knew what the facts were and I said to him, "Isn't it time you made a decision to change your lifestyle? Because it may be okay now but by God you're going to regret it as you get older". And he just looked at me and said, "Who's going to dress me like this?" That said it all. Yep, I knew it was there, we all knew it was there, but who - there was no proof.

Why do you think it took so long and a Royal Commission and so on for it to come out?

I don't know, makes one wonder, but it would only be speculation, I don't know.

When you were in the Criminal Court did it ever worry you that you might be sentencing a child who wasn't guilty?

No, no, if I had that - the slightest bit of that doubt in my mind, no, I never sentenced them. Any kid that I sentenced who was not guilty - I just couldn't see it happening.

Would it have helped if you'd had some of the modern techniques, like say DNA testing and so on, as part of your apparatus for - I mean now, you know - very, very recently DNA testing has become available as an option and there are human rights issues that have been raised over it, what's your opinion about DNA testing?

I'd DNA test everybody. Forget the human right nonsense. Look what it would do? It, look at it. In America it released a man on death row. That, that's the upside, I can't get past that. I can't get past it, and if you go out to a jail, more than 50 per cent will tell you that they're innocent, how they got a bad deal, they got this. Good, step forward, be DNA tested. I've, now look, unequivocally, yes, get DNA testing.

Barbara, what's going to happen when you're not here any more to take up the cudgels on behalf of children? Does it worry you that there won't be anybody quite as game as you, quite as...

Ah, there are many people out there as game as me. Look at Chris, Father Chris Riley, he's gamer than I am, he really stands up to them, face to face, not through the media. There are people out there who will go on championing as I have, yep, I know that. I'm, look, I'm a grain of sand, [VISION ENDS] truly. It's a big beach.

[end of interview]