Quasi-embassy was pushover for pranksters
Canberra consultant Trish Bergin, UC professor Debra Rickwood, Mario Despoja and Health Department secretary Jane Halton staged a dramatic prank in 1979 when they stole a sigh from the unofficial Croatian Embassy as part of the ANU's Bush Week. Photo: Melissa Adams
The symbolic Croatian embassy in Canberra occupied headlines for almost two years in the late 1970s and four women - then students but now movers and shakers - played their own part in a unique chapter of the national capital's history.
Federal Health Department secretary Jane Halton, management consultant Trish Bergin, University of Canberra professor Debra Rickwood and former banker Kate Easey caused a sensation when, as students at the Australian National University, they took down the signs bolted to the outside of the rebel embassy.
They were hoping to win the annual Bush Week scavenger hunt at the ANU but they also unwittingly showed up the official forces that had been trying to shut down the embassy.
Visitors from Sydney at the unofficial Croatian Embassy on Canberra Avenue in May 1978. Photo: Glen McDonald
A news report at the time said: ''It took four university students five minutes to do what the federal government has been trying to do for almost two years.''
Ms Halton said this week: ''What we did wasn't political. It was more about how the university interacted with the town.''
Ms Bergin said their success at removing the signs was down to ''luck and audacity, mainly fuelled by naivety, let me tell you''.
Trish Bergin, Jane Halton and UC professor Debra Rickwood. Photo: Melissa Adams
It also reflected the gumption that probably helped propel the women to the top of their professions later in life.
The rebel embassy is the subject of a documentary by Croatian director Jakov Sedlar to be shown in Canberra on November 29.
The quasi-embassy was opened on Canberra Avenue in Forrest in November 1977 by Australian Croats to protest the inclusion of Croatia in the Yugoslav state.
The ''mission'' was set up in a rented house with signs out the front in English and Croatian declaring it to be the Croatian embassy, enraging Yugoslav diplomats.
The charge d'affaires of the embassy was Mario Despoja, the father of former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, who said the instigators took many of their cues from the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy in the Parliamentary Triangle.
Mr Despoja, 74, of Farrer, said he expected the embassy to be open a week.
The Yugoslav government wanted it closed, the federal government later passed new laws to do so - with then foreign affairs minister Andrew Peacock declaring the embassy damaging to the national interest - and the Federal Court eventually ordered it to be disbanded.
But it lasted 23 months, closing in October 1979.
Mr Despoja said the embassy was not illegal when it opened but with the passing of the laws, the rebel mission was closed ''without hesitation because we were law-abiding people''.
''The closure basically amounted to the removal of the two signs and shield from the front wall of the building,'' he said.
Two months before the embassy did close, the signs on its exterior became the most sought-after items on the scavenger hunt list for the 1979 Bush Week festivities at the ANU. The signs had been assigned so many points that whoever retrieved them would win the hunt automatically. Almost everyone regarded them an impossible ask.
Ms Halton, then a 19-year-old psychology student, and Ms Bergin, also 19 and studying economics, were members of the ANU ski club. The men in the club had told them not to worry about the bigger items on the list and suggested they go seek out the smaller bits and pieces.
''That was like a red flag to a bull,'' Ms Bergin said. Or, as Ms Halton said: ''Bugger that!''
The girls, with fellow students Debra, then 20, and Kate, 19, piled into Ms Halton's mother's brown Morris Marina and drove to the Croatian embassy with the intention of knocking on the door and asking to borrow the signs.
When they couldn't raise anyone - by chance the embassy ''staff'' had had a late night and weren't there at the time - the women decided to remove the signs. Ms Halton's mother kept an adjustable spanner in the glove box of the Marina because the starter motor kept sticking. With that in hand, two of the girls shimmied up a pergola and removed the signs on the first floor while the others kept watch.
Within the hour, they were back at the ANU striding triumphantly through the campus with the signs. ''I can recall when we walked in everyone's jaws just dropped,'' Professor Rickwood said, adding they were also worried about the ramifications.
Mr Despoja initially thought the Commonwealth police were responsible. When he discovered it was the girls, he invited them over for a cup of tea and donated $200 to their charity of choice in return for the signs.
''It was one of those win-win situations in the end,'' Ms Halton said. ''Mario got publicity for a cause he was passionate about. We got money for the Bush Week charity and we won the hunt.''
Three of the women reunited with Mr Despoja this week on the site of the former embassy, now home to a block of units. Not able to be there was Ms Easey, who now lives in Malta.
The women say people are surprised to hear about their involvement in the escapade. Ms Bergin said her children now consider her cool. But more than anything it probably emphasised the character of the young women who weren't going to be perturbed by a challenge.
''I think that shows in all of us,'' Professor Rickwood said. ''We sort of set a goal and saw it through.''
The documentary about the rebel Croatian embassy will be shown at the Deakin Football Club on November 29 at 7pm.