The property where Eliza Wannan and Will Dalton-Brown died after they were run over in a paddock while sleeping after a party. Photo: Janie Barrett
The notion that every problem must have a legal solution, and that no person can achieve closure until someone else has been punished received a significant fillup this week with the inquest into a terrible tragedy on a rural property near Orange.
About 100 teenagers and young adults were having an all-night party at the property on Australia Day 2010. A learner driver aged 17 moved a vehicle during the night and, in doing so, ran over two 17 year olds sleeping in swags on the grass. They were killed. Some of the parents and others devastated by the pointless deaths are angry that the driver will ''escape'' being punished by the law on what some press commentary has called a ''technicality'' - the fact that the accident occurred on private property, not on a public road or in a public place.
I should imagine that the driver is as devastated as anyone else, and would do anything to undo what has been done. Perhaps he was foolish, or stupid: I have known young men and women to be so. It is not entirely clear to me that the suffering of anyone will be much relieved by casting the driver into jail, or even by the satisfaction of some formal finding that he was criminally at fault. I feel also for the parents, and at their torment, loss and grief, but it is not clear to me that the driver ''is the luckiest guy in the world'', as one bitter father suggested.
William Dalton-Brown. Photo: Ross Duncan
When I was a lad, reporters at the courts largely restrained themselves from interviewing grieving relatives of the murder victim, or checking with them that the judge's sentence was appropriate, or asking them whether they now had ''closure'' because the malefactor would be behind bars for a long time. We have a justice system to appease society at large, not particular victims, and justice is not a state-sanctioned system of private revenge, or rationed by the number of tears.
Likewise the Australian system of executing people - when we had it - did not go out of its way (as they still do in the barbaric United States) to invite friends and family of the victim to the execution, so that they could jeer, insult or perhaps forgive, the murderer at their last moments. Judging by the respect for that ''privilege'' accorded by prosecutors, I should not be surprised if it was not enshrined in some states' Bills of Rights.
Accidents do happen. One can do one's best to prevent bad things happening - and sometimes ought to be proactive about it - but not every accident can be avoided.
Eliza Wannan. Photo: Supplied
Nor can every future accident be deterred simply by making an example of someone whose misjudgment, negligence, or perhaps simple bad luck had a direct role in the event. I drove vehicles from about the age of seven or eight, I guess. First, a tractor.
Then a truck. Then cars. And motorbikes. Most kids like me did, and a good many still do. I drove mostly on our property, or on the properties of neighbours and friends, and, 90 per cent of the time, if I was driving I was working, or going to some place where work was to be done. In the 1950s and 1960s, rural kids were a significant part of the rural workforce. My sister, Sally, was, before she was a teenager, driving most of her younger siblings about 10 kilometres in an old car so that they could meet the school bus at the property next door - and received a slight subsidy (which could, probably, be described as an implicit driver's licence) from the NSW Department of Education for doing so.
I would occasionally drive into town to pick up supplies such as drums of petrol. I did not drive into town for social occasions, or even for ordinary shopping, and have a feeling that if I had done so, the local cop might have made a vaguely threatening remark. But he would certainly have been aware that I could drive, and that my driving was sometimes on or about public roads. But that was true of almost all of the bush kids.
He did look at me a bit quizzically when he heard that I had run over my little sister - aged two - at about the age of 12. But that was more because of the exaggerations of the postmistress, who listened in to my mother's hysterical call to check whether there was a doctor in Walgett, about 150 kilometres away. The phone line, which was strung out along fence posts, was never good at the best of times, and the woman at the exchange thought she had heard ''head'' when she had heard ''leg''. Poor Michele made a big song and dance about being run over, and tended to blame me, though I consulted my conscience and thought it entirely her own fault. In any event, all she got was a few scratches - and, subsequently, a lot of icecream at Walgett Hospital.
My own mother got her licence during the war from a country town sergeant who was often out at my grandfather's property shooting rabbits, and who knew perfectly well that my mother could drive and had been doing so for years. He was filling in the form when he remembered that there had been something about licences in the latest bumph from HQ. He collected this out of the rubbish bin and discovered that he was now obliged to administer an oral ''theory'' test as well as a practical test. Sample copy enclosed. He decided to test mother.
The first sample question was ''What do you do when you see a double yellow line?'' My mother, 600 kilometres inland, and at least 400 from any bitumen road, had never seen a double yellow line. She thought, and posited, ''Straddle it?''
''Near enough,'' the sergeant decided.
One could remark that the morbidity and mortality of living in rural areas was unacceptably high. I myself had been run over by a tractor, and had my leg broken by a tractor by the age of five, had a sister drowned in a dam, and any number of relatives, killed or seriously hurt in miscellaneous meetings between vehicles and stock, kangaroos, trains and gravity. A great many such accidents were preventable. Indeed driving over people in swags is preventable, and where I came from, virtually unthinkable. All the more so if there was even the slightest suggestion of hooning about doing wheelies or whatever. Drunk or sober we were not entirely stupid.
At the Halls Creek races in the Kimberley Western Australia in the 1960s, the cops would borrow a two decker cattle truck which they would drive very slowly through the long grass picking up sleeping or collapsed drunks, in or out of swags. They would load them, gently on the bottom deck. One could get out only by working one's way down to the other end, then climbing the level to the next deck, and then climbing down on the ringlock. Most drunks couldn't manage that. They didn't lose many from people, drunk or sober, driving their cars in the scrub.