Twenty years on, Port Arthur remembers

Two decades after Australia’s worst massacre, the Port Arthur community has a message: “We remember”.


Tasman Council Mayor Roseanne Heyward says the simple motto aims to give locals a united voice as they mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of 35 people.

“An event on April 28, 1996 on a lovely sunny day has been in everyone’s minds since that time,” she said.

“It was a huge event for Australia, not just this community or Tasmania.”

And while there are people who would rather forget than remember, this anniversary is hoped to serve as a turning point for how people view what has come to be known by locals as “that day”.

Signs still remain at the Port Arthur Historic Site, where most of the victims were killed, asking visitors not to discuss the massacre with staff.

The emotions have been too raw.

But Cr Heyward, who is also head of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, said changes are afoot.

“We’re consulting at the moment about taking down those signs as part of adopting a new approach,” she said.

It’s a proposal supported by psychologist Rob Gordon, whose expertise was called on by the Tasmanian government in the aftermath of the massacre to help provide counselling services.

“If we can help people reflect on and talk about the traumatic event that doesn’t evoke more pain then in the course of that talking … it starts to recede into the past,” Dr Gordon said.

“That’s the value of anniversaries: to have the right conversations.”

The Victorian-based psychologist was back on the Tasman Peninsula in March to run a series of “recovery sessions” for the community ahead of the anniversary.

Some of those who attended rejected the idea of a high-profile commemorative service, like the one planned for Thursday, where the crowd is expected to include Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and then-leader John Howard.

“I don’t want to talk about it because I feel it will lead to judgment and I feel that people who weren’t there and didn’t experience it will never understand,” one man said.

Dr Gordon was told there are some members of the community who have refused to return to the historic site since the massacre.

But he insisted it’s important that such a significant event be remembered, and not just by those who were there on the day.

“Children in the area should not grow up with this as some sort of a taboo,” Dr Gordon said.

“We want kids to learn about history and this is part of their history.”

The service will follow a simple format including a keynote address, choral singing, poetry readings, and the placement of 35 floral tributes by family and friends.

Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman will attend the service and in advance has spoken of how the massacre impacted the state and all of Australia.

“The resilience of Tasmanians in the face of the unspeakable united us,” he said.

“What happened that day will never define us, but the way we responded does.”

Not since the 10-year anniversary of the massacre has there been such a large-scale event, although every year on April 28 a wreath is laid at the historic site’s Broad Arrow Cafe.

For the wider Port Arthur community, some of the fall-out from the massacre can never be reversed.

In the two years afterwards the local economy took a hit, with very few people visiting the peninsula.

Lack of work forced many people to move away, there were affairs and marriage breakdowns and anecdotal evidence of a spike in alcohol abuse.

Personal issues aside, Cr Heyward said the economy is back on track.

“The community has come a long way, the site has come a long way, the tourism is growing all the time,” she told Sky News.

“What happened that day, it will become part of Port Arthur’s history and we will always remember.”