What preceded Christmas Island in 1979 was a dark history, almost a century worth of indentured labour, racial discrimination, even murder — driven by colonial greed.
- Gordon Bennett was a workers’ rights advocate
- This year marks the 30th anniversary of his death
- Bennett was a pivotal player in getting the Christmas Island phosphate mine reopened
That same year a British immigrant named Gordon Bennett arrived on the island and it was all to end.
In the years to follow, he would successfully take on former prime minister Bob Hawke, instil workers’ rights, and help abolish the White Australia Policy that was still practised on the island late into the 20th century.
A mere 12 years later, the triumphant union organiser tragically died.
But he was never forgotten.
For many of the generational families that make up the population of Christmas Island, he was the reason why they still call it home.
Bennett died with the legendary status of ‘Tai Ko Seng’, which roughly translates to ‘big brother who delivers’.
Remembering his father
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Bennett’s death, but his impact on the Australian external territory can still be seen today.
His son, Mark, was young when he lost his father and has learnt about the legacy he left behind, either from history books or an old-timer sharing a story.
“I miss him dearly,” Mark Bennett says.
“I get more of an understanding of the man he was through anecdotes and stories as each year passes.
“It is a beautiful thing, and humbling.”
Mark Bennett plays a significant role in the community and says he hopes to live by the lessons learnt by his father.
“I am immensely proud of the work that he did and the sacrifice he made,” he says.
“To see the longevity of that spirit still persisting in this community today and the evolution of the Christmas Island story progressing into new areas that were largely in part to the work that he did and the community that stood by him all those years ago is just so special and I look forward to the island’s future.”
Strength and determination
A year before Gordon Bennett arrived, Lai Ah Hong was used to living in a 3x3sqm concrete cell with no hot water, no mattress, and earning $42 a week.
“That was 1978,” Mr Lai says.
“Segregation for people of Asian descent existed on transport, in swimming pools, and the White Australia Policy was rife despite being eliminated on the mainland.
“Gordon smashed it all.”
As soon as Bennett took the job as general secretary of the Union of Christmas Island Workers, the two men bonded instantly and formed a formidable friendship.
Mr Lai says Bennett’s gentle qualities were not to be underestimated.
“Gordon’s first port of call was getting us a $30 pay increase,” he says.
“The workers thought he was too ambitious.
“But he ran a very hard campaign, going on a hunger strike on the doorsteps of Parliament House in Canberra to raise awareness.
“And he won.”
His actions caught the attention of the then president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Bob Hawke, who flew to the island to lend support to the workers’ cause.
From there wage parity was achieved, and the Migration Act was expanded.
A few years later, Mr Lai, Bennett and the community would meet with Hawke again and ultimately determine the island’s future.
A remarkable feat
Christmas Island’s natural deposit of high-grade phosphate is the reason why the island was originally annexed and the sole pillar of the local economy.
In 1987, the Hawke government closed the mine.
In question was the residents’ livelihoods.
At the time, Warren Snowdon had just embarked on his political career as a newly minted member of the House of Representatives for the Division of Northern Territory.
Shocked by his Labor government’s decision to close the mine, Mr Snowdon says he met with Bennett.
“The decision would effectively make everyone on the island redundant and force them to relocate off the island,” Mr Snowdon says.
“We met to develop a strategy to oppose closure if possible and move forward to get the mine reopened.”
In 1989, Bennett, Mr Lai and five other executives started Phosphate Resources Limited and got the locals to invest, raising about $3.4 million.
They would then convince Hawke that the mine was economical, purchase it, and reopen it.
Mr Snowdon says it was a remarkable feat.
“They fought, and they fought, and they fought,” Mr Snowdown says.
“The Commonwealth government completely underestimated the drive, the intent, and the guts of this community and its leadership led by Gordon.
“Frankly, it’s a great example to the whole Australian community of what can be achieved even though you’ve been oppressed.”
In 1991, the mine would resume operations on a small scale.
Tragically, Bennett died from a heart attack before he saw the full potential of the mine.
It still operates today, employing about 400 people and has produced 17 million tonnes of phosphate and contributed more than $2 billion to the Australian economy since it was reopened.
Mr Snowdon says Bennett’s impact on the island is indelible.
“He was the glue that bound the community together,” he said.
“He was a rogue, but a creative thinker, a brilliant organiser, a very astute judge of character, and a great leader.
“Gordon, it would never have been possible without you.”