Outback mission scores a century
'Every time we pull a $20 note out of our pockets, there is Flynn's stern face peering back through his spectacles.'
WAY out in the Australian inland, lonely stockmen tend to call any visiting preacher ''padre''. It is a curious term, for it means ''father'' in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, suggesting a Catholic priest.
The padres of the inland, however, have for precisely a century been Presbyterian. They began patrolling the Australian bush on horseback and by camel as John Flynn's men, and while they came bearing Bibles, they were expected to turn their hands to chopping wood, helping bring in the stock and fixing bores.
They were the advance troops of what is still called the Australian Inland Mission.
The Reverend Doctor John Flynn spent most of his life in the outback, and his grave lies in Alice Springs, but he lived for much of his youth in Melbourne and was schooled in what was called Braybrook Junction, now known as Sunshine, and studied theology at Ormond College.
Flynn of the Inland, as Ion Idriess called his book of 1953 about the father of the padres, is a near-mythological figure. Every time we pull a $20 note out of our pockets, there is Flynn's stern face peering through his round spectacles.
This weekend Flynn's work will be celebrated across Australia. There will be a national service in the Presbyterian Scots Church in Melbourne this evening, and the ''life and ministry'' of Flynn will be reviewed at the Sunshine Presbyterian Church tomorrow.
The services - with many others across the nation - will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Inland Mission, with John Flynn as its father.
Despite a gathering body of evidence over the past couple of decades that Flynn displayed a marked indifference to the indigenous inhabitants of the great beyond, and directed most of his energy towards offering his famed ''mantle of safety'' to white settlers, it seems unlikely much attention will be directed towards this less-mythologised side to his character.
The Flynn of the Inland legend is too well-established and, anyway, the times never seem to be right to tackle uncomfortable aspects of Australia's deeper history: only this week the federal government decided it was too hard just now to even present a referendum on giving indigenous people recognition in the constitution.
Besides, Flynn's work, however the details might be judged, was remarkable by any measure. He is, of course, best known for having established the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the world's most far-reaching medical emergency scheme.
It is hard now, in an age when grey nomads swarm across the landscape, to imagine the fierce remoteness of the inland when the first little plane of what was called the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service took off from Cloncurry in 1928.
Flynn, through his own surveys and reports from his wandering padres, had discovered that precisely two doctors provided the only medical care for an area of almost 2 million square kilometres across central and northern Australia. Fall off a horse and break your leg, get an abscess on your tooth, come down with appendicitis out there and … well, you may as well have been in the farthest reaches of Siberia or on the moon.
The flying mission was, in large part, made possible by another famous man of Sunshine, H. V. McKay, who manufactured the Sunshine Harvester. In the early 1920s, McKay wrote Flynn a cheque for £2000. It was an enormous sum, although McKay could afford it - the Sunshine Harvester Works, in the 1920s, constituted Australia's biggest manufacturing plant. The cheque, in John Flynn's hands, took to the air.
The inland may have phones and satellite internet connections these days, but in Flynn's day its inhabitants had no means of contacting anyone beyond shouting distance. Flynn and his colleagues introduced to the outback the invention of a brilliant young Adelaide engineer, Alfred Traeger: the pedal-powered transmitter-receiver.
Planes and pedal-powered radios meant those in need could call up the flying doctor and be transported to a string of small hospitals set up by the Australian Inland Mission, or nurses could fly to station homesteads. As a bonus, many hundreds of children got their education through the School of the Air.
Today, the Royal Flying Doctor Service owns 53 planes operating from 21 bases across Australia. The service boasts its pilots fly the equivalent of 25 trips to the moon every year, and their doctors and nurses care for 270,000 patients.
The $20 note is worth another look.
Tony Wright is a senior writer.