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Vale Elisabeth Wynhausen
20 / 09 / 2013
Kathleen Maltzahn pays tribute to groundbreaking Australian journalist and author Elisabeth Wynhausen, who passed away this month. One of Wynhausen’s many achievements was her pioneering work in exposing the plight of trafficked women, spearheading much-needed changes to Australia’s inadequate laws. We thank Kathleen Maltzahn for providing this moving tribute to a remarkable journalist and woman.
By Kathleen Maltzahn
When Elisabeth Wynhausen died on 6 September, we lost more than a truth-telling journalist. Elisabeth didn’t just record injustice. She changed it.
When I first met Elisabeth in November 2002, I knew nothing about her reputation as an award-winning journalist or an author, or that she’d written for The Bulletin, The National Times, The Australian, The Women’s Weekly and The Age.
I just knew I’d told a journalist at The Australian a whole lot of things I shouldn’t have.
Grimy from a night without sleep, I had come straight to the shiny doors of The Australian’s Surry Hills office from a brothel where Thai women had described in searing detail how they had been enslaved and prostituted in Sydney and Melbourne. They were run-aways, without visas, living underground in fear of being captured and taken back to the brothels they had escaped. They believed they could have been killed, and could still.
I had left the brothel dazed and disturbed, and then, without planning to, blurted out to Elisabeth what my colleagues and I had spent the last night, and months, uncovering. I didn’t stop to think what I had permission to say, or what was strategic, or what evidence I could provide. Shocked, I just talked.
I didn’t tell Elisabeth as much as I might have. I didn’t get a chance. She cut me off, fired questions, interrupted some more, and then stopped to banter with a favourite waiter at the café she had taken me to before telling him off for wishing her Merry Christmas. But she was in. She knew she had a story worth telling.
Four months later, after sitting at the back of the Parramatta Coroners Court, she exposed the unnecessary death of Puongtong Simaplee, who was picked up by the Department of Immigration in a brothel, detained at the Villawood Immigration Centre, and died barely three days later. Soon, she teamed up with The Australian’s new investigative editor, Natalie O’Brien. Together, they began writing stories that would change Australian law on slavery, change immigration policy, and change women’s lives.
Elisabeth Wynhausen – source: News Limited
When Elisabeth and Natalie started writing, almost no-one in government was concerned about trafficking. A month before, the then justice minister, Senator Chris Ellison had declared that ‘we have not found that there is a slavery chain… where people are traded in, as chattels might be’ in Australia.
Literally within days, that changed. Every week, Elisabeth and Natalia ran stories exposing the government’s failure to address trafficking, showing a particular delight in humiliating the recalcitrant Immigration Department. In one meeting, a high level immigration official complained how every Saturday morning for months had been ruined by Elisabeth and Natalie’s stories.
In October 2003, the government announced it was changing the inadequate law on slavery, ending mandatory detention and deportation of trafficked women, allowing some trafficked women to stay, with support, in Australia, and investing large amounts of money to equip the AFP to fight trafficking. These changes would not have happened without Elisabeth and Natalie.
While I had initially feared I had told Elisabeth too much, I soon learned you could tell Elisabeth anything and she wouldn’t print a word without permission. Because of this, women trusted her. When ideologues criticised her stories, she kept going. She wasn’t interested in theory. She was talking about people, and while they kept talking to her, she kept writing.
One weekend, I got a call from the ‘underground railway’ in Sydney. They had helped a trafficked woman escape from a Kings Cross brothel and they needed help. When I got to our meeting place, Elisabeth was already there, having been invited by the person who called me, and had interviewed the woman. Mimi’s story was compelling, and she gave information Elisabeth hadn’t heard before. By morning, Mimi had changed her mind, and didn’t want Elisabeth to write much of what she had told her. She was also in a messy situation. She had no passport, no visa, and the traffickers were ringing and harassing her and her family in Thailand. She and I both needed somewhere safe to stay.
An hour later, we were looking out to sea from the Bondi cliffs of Elisabeth’s flat. Over the next couple of days, Mimi and I went to AFP headquarters where federal agents interviewed Mimi, raided the dodgy immigration agent and demanded Mimi’s passport back, shuttled us from the trafficker’s house to the brothel, guarded me as I went with great trepidation to pick up Mimi’s things from the now frightened traffickers, and eventually helped Mimi go home. All the while, we stayed at Elisabeth’s. Even after she left, Elisabeth didn’t write a word that Mimi didn’t want her to.
Elisabeth was famously belligerent, but in the words of her friend James Jeffrey, quoted by Elisabeth’s niece at her funeral, “never have truculence and tenderness cohabited so successfully in one person”.
In 2008, Elisabeth was in Canberra when the High Court heard the appeal of the first trafficking conviction. Her article was a typical display of Elisabeth’s disdain for pomposity and falsity, and her absolute commitment to truth:
Before the seven judges even enter the imposing wood-panelled chamber, their seven associates stand to attention, gripping the arms of their chairs: chairs in which justices Bill Gummow and Ken Hayne will intermittently recline, as close to horizontal as you can be without being in bed. It does not inhibit their rarefied deliberations.
“We are in a realm of discourse where the rights of ownership in question are the antithesis of rights that are legally enforceable,” says Hayne, a lanky, angular man with a long, mobile face.
Behind the realm of discourse are uncomfortable truths, such as the fact that of the $110 charged each time one of the trafficked women had sex with a customer, $67 was paid to their owners, $43 went to the brothel and a nominal $50 was deducted from their debt: a debt one or two eminent High Court judges call a fiction, not because it doesn’t exist but because it doesn’t exist in law.
In August that year, the High Court upheld the slavery conviction. This is one of many changes that Elisabeth and Natalie can rightly claim to have set in motion.
Some weeks after the High Court judgement was handed down, I met up with a group of women, including some of the women I met that night before I went to meet Elisabeth. This is what they said:
“The High Court decision is important. Before, all of us were scared to talk. Now, we have hope. We can trust again. We are real. The High Court judgment feels like a blessing, something very good.”
The same can be said for Elisabeth Wynhausen’s writing. It made ignored people real to us; it was a blessing; it was something very good.
Vale Elisabeth. And thank you.
* On 10 December 2003, Elisabeth Wynhausen and Natalie O’Brien won the 2003 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Print Media Award for their coverage of sexual slavery.
* Before she died, out of the thousands of articles Elisabeth wrote in her life, she chose her few favourites for a website that commemorated her life, www.elisabethwynhausen.com. She included her story about Puongtong Simaplee’s death, and her story on the High Court case.
Disclaimer: Sheilas aims to publish a variety of views on important social issues. Please note, the views published on Sheilas are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Victorian Women’s Trust.
Kathleen Maltzahn is a Melbourne feminist who was instrumental in the successful 2003 campaign concerning trafficking (and transnational sexual exploitation) in Australia. She was founder of Project Respect, and is currently the Deputy Executive Officer of the Eastern Domestic Violence Service (EDVOS). The views expressed in this piece are her own.