October 2016


The doctor

By Tim Flannery
Bertram Wainer inspired a young Tim Flannery to take on the establishment

Sometimes unlikely heroes appear in our lives and change things forever. For me, one such person was Dr Bertram Wainer. Not that I ever met the man, who died in 1987, but in 1972 he taught me a powerful lesson that changed my life. It was a year of triumph for the abortion campaigner who had risked everything to see abortion legalised in Victoria, along the way instigating a major investigation into corruption in the Victoria Police. His abortion clinic in East Melbourne opened, and he published his memoir It Isn’t Nice.

As Wainer rode his wave, I was in my final year of Catholic schooling at St Bede’s in Mentone. I remember the shock of arriving there as a spindly nine-year-old, hovering on the edge of a sea of bigger boys in blue, here and there interspersed with De La Salle Brothers in their grim black gowns. I must have been what they called back then a “sensitive type”. Bullying and corporal punishment were frequent, and I pissed my pants every day. I was grateful at the time that nobody noticed, but now I wonder why they didn’t.

Having no reference point, I accepted the whole experience as normal. But when I was around 14 I had an epiphany. Sex, and the church’s extraordinary views on the subject, was, as was so often the case, the motive force. I was a diligent reader, and growing scepticism saw me read the Gospels end to end and dip into the Old Testament. I was sore amazed to discover how far Catholicism, as I was experiencing it, had drifted from the teachings of the Gospels. With the righteousness and certainty that only a 14-year-old can muster, I decided that the revered book in its entirety was little more than a collection of late Bronze Age to Iron Age writings purporting to document the history of a small Middle Eastern tribe. Jesus was Jewish, and my church and school were all the result of one huge misunderstanding.

Looking back now, I wonder why I didn’t ask to leave. Perhaps I still half-believed the stories about the way Catholics were treated in the outside world. And my father and mother had recently divorced, so maybe there was already enough dislocation in my life. Whatever the case, in 1972 I found myself in Year 12 at St Bede’s. Then, with just eight weeks before final exams, Dr Bertram Wainer intruded on my life.

To better prepare us for life in the wider world, our principal had organised some debates on important issues, one of which was abortion – a subject hardly avoidable given Wainer’s prominence on television and in the newspapers. One morning, the upper-school boys were ushered into the auditorium to hear a talk by anti-abortion campaigners, and to watch a film that featured late-stage abortions so horrific that my friend Michael had an epileptic fit as he sat beside me.

My best friend at school was Neil McCarthy. He was incensed at the one-sided nature of the abortion “debate”, and felt sure that some of the more liberal teachers would rally to his side if he asked for redress. So he pinned a note on the noticeboard, requesting that the school invite Dr Wainer to present on the issue. I regarded the debates as little more than a Prague Spring, and when Neil explained later that day that he had been expelled for making the suggestion, I was not entirely surprised.

But I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that for years I had silently acquiesced to the system. Now, either I would fail to find the courage to speak out or I would support my friend. With dread in my heart I penned a note supporting Neil’s suggestion, and pinned it to the board. Soon thereafter I received news that I too had been expelled.

It was my mother who saved the day. She marched down to the school and confronted the principal. I have no idea what was said, but I was led to understand – though this may be apocryphal – that my father made a substantial donation to the new sports complex, which tipped the scales of justice in our favour. Whatever transpired, both Neil and I were permitted to sit our final exams and were accepted by La Trobe University.

Bertram Wainer has continued to dog my life. At university I met Michael, who would become a lifelong friend. His father, Max, was one of Wainer’s lawyers, and the doctor stayed with Max and Michael in the family home when his life was in danger. (Wainer survived three attempts on his life by shooting and arson.) But I didn’t learn of the connection until much later, and so missed the chance to meet the man.

Born in Scotland in 1928, Wainer left school at 13 and later migrated to Australia. He put himself through a medical degree at the University of Melbourne. In the late 1960s, he opened a clinic in St Kilda, where he treated a woman suffering from the effects of a backyard abortion. He put everything aside – and risked everything – to do what he knew was right.

The fight he ended up leading was far larger than he first realised it would be. He found himself taking on the AMA, politicians and the police, as well as the backyard abortionists. At my school, some had viewed him as a kind of antichrist. But I think that the historic Jesus would have liked and admired the man. To me, he is the kind of hero I find new dimensions in every year – new reasons to admire and emulate. And I will be eternally grateful that he helped show me that I could speak truth to power.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers, The Future Eaters and Atmosphere of Hope.

From the front page

Image of fans taking a selfie with a photo of tennis star Novak Djokovic ahead of first round matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne. Image © Hamish Blair / AP Photo

‘Health and good order’

If Novak Djokovic is “a talisman of anti-vaccination sentiment”, what does that make George Christensen?

Image of Kim Philby (left) and Phillip Knightley

On Her Majesty’s secret disservice

The reporter who uncovered the truth about Kim Philby, the 20th century’s most infamous spy, and his warnings for democratic society

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Echidna poo has changed our understanding of human evolution

Citizen science is not only helping echidna conservation, but changing how we think about evolution

Image of sculpture by Jane Bamford

The artist making sculpture for penguins

How creating sculpture for animals is transforming wildlife conservation and the art world

In This Issue


The mystery of Malcolm Turnbull

What does the prime minister stand for, and when will we find out about it?

Self effacing

‘Mike Parr: Foreign Looking’ brings the anti-institutional artist to the National Gallery of Australia


New students

Welcome to the Collingwood English Language School

Please stand

National anthems reflect all the complexities – and oddities – of the countries they represent

Online exclusives

Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

‘The Worst Person in the World’

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com

Image of WA Premier Mark McGowan earlier this week announcing the state will reopen its border to the rest of the country on February 5, after almost two years of border closures. Image © Richard Wainwright / AAP Images

Family’s grief compounded by WA’s hard border

The awful predicament of a Melbourne family unable to bring home their son’s body shows the callousness of WA’s border policy

Image of Liliane Amuat and Henriette Confurius in Ramon and Sylvan Zürcher’s film The Girl and the Spider. Image supplied

The best of 2021 on screen

This year may have been difficult to live through, but it produced an extraordinary crop of films

Image of Rob Collins as Tyson in ‘Firebite’. Image supplied

Raising the stakes: ‘Firebite’

Warwick Thornton’s magnificently pulpy Indigenous vampire-hunter drama leads the pack of December streaming highlights