Larissa Behrendt and the Denial of Family

It was Tuesday morning, March 29, 2011, the second day of the Bolt trial at the Federal Court in Melbourne for breaching the Racial Discrimination Act (Eatock v Bolt, 2011). Prosecuting lawyer Ron Merkel QC was reading Larissa Behrendt’s witness statement:

My paternal grandmother [Lavena Dawson] married my grandfather [Henry “Harry” Behrendt] at Parkes in New South Wales. My grandfather was born in England and came to Australia as a child. Bolt writes in the first articles that I look almost as German as my father and that I demand to get more rights than my own white dad. There is no German descent, to my knowledge, on either my father’s or on my mother’s side of the family. Certainly my father’s research into his family did not result in any suggestion whatsoever of any German ancestry and he never proclaimed himself as having any such ancestry. The only non-Aboriginal ancestry he discovered was that my paternal grandfather was born in England.

There is German descent on both sides of her family. In 1963 the twenty-three-year-old Naval Rating Paul Arthur Behrendt married twenty-year-old Raema Elizabeth Dickhart from the Women’s Royal Australian Navy—for their honeymoon the young woman had eighteen days leave plus one unpaid day. On his wedding day it may have seemed to the pre-Aboriginal young man that the Church of England service in Artarmon was both the amorous strengthening of interservice relations and the antipodean uniting of two German family lines.

Paul’s German-born grandfather Herman Ernst William Behrendt had brought his family to Brisbane in 1909. They were preceded over forty years before by Raema’s German-born forebears, Wilhelmus Dickhart and Mary Eva Annie Kranz. Given Larissa’a good-looking parents, with German and also English antecedents, it seems unfair that Andrew Bolt should have aroused such litigious anger by simply describing Larissa as “looking almost as German as her father”.

At the time of the trial Larissa did not mention her mother’s family name when she spoke of her maternal antecedents. Her parents’ marriage certificate with this information only became available for historical research in 2013. And then it was probably ignored because no one was interested. Recently, and by chance, I saw it and was very interested because it shows that sworn evidence given by Larissa Behrendt was inaccurate.

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“There is no German descent, to my knowledge, on either my father’s or on my mother’s side of the family.” What did Larissa Behrendt know about her family history when she made this statement? According to another of the complainants, Anita Heiss, the first discussions for bringing a group action against Andrew Bolt had begun in April 2009 shortly after the first of several articles he wrote caused offence to prominent white Aborigines.

Nine months later, on January 20, 2010, as plans developed and individuals were giving thought to the evidence they would bring forward in their witness statements, a subscriber’s account was opened on the Ancestry genealogical research site by or in the name of Larissa Behrendt’s mother, and I assume she was the person doing family research. Simply typing the names of Larissa’s paternal grandfather, Henry William Ernest Behrendt, or maternal grandfather, Arthur James Dickhart, into the Ancestry search engine would have thrown up their German and English family links.

Though the family history is interesting (to those concerned) it hardly seems very significant—it is the way it was described in the courtroom that is important. When Bolt mocked the white Aboriginal with a German name, he was pointing to the absurdity of taking the sort of family tree that all Australians have and choosing to identify as simply one part of our ethnic whole. The conclusion to Bolt’s article is seldom remembered:

In fact, let’s go beyond racial pride. Beyond black and white. Let’s be proud only of being human beings set on this land together, determined to find what unites us and not to invent such racist and trivial excuses to divide. Deal?

The response was a resounding “No deal”. The German ethnicity referred to by Bolt has nothing to do with Behrendt’s part-Aboriginal grandmother. It is all about her German family tree and genes which have come from quite different sources.

Behrendt was identified in the court as a “law professor and author”, and rather than simply acknowledging her diverse ethnic background she chose to ignore it—how she did that is worth examining. Now, over eleven years later, the case is almost forgotten but the evasions remain. What she did in the courtroom then seems even more absurd today when so many Australians use the Ancestry DNA service to extend our understanding of the complexity of our own persons and to discover missing links in our paper records. There is even a new Ancestry service which can tell us which side of our families specific ethnicities come from.

Having inaccurately referred to her mother’s family, the witness statement concentrated on her father: “Certainly my father’s research into his family did not result in any suggestion whatsoever of any German ancestry and he never proclaimed himself as having any such ancestry.” Paul Behrendt died in 2006 and, though it hardly seems possible he had not discovered that his paternal grandfather was born in Germany, the writing ignores any mention of other possibilities such as Behrendt or her sibling doing their own family research or sharing in her mother’s Ancestry discoveries.

“The only non-Aboriginal ancestry he discovered was that my paternal grandfather was born in England.” Not true. Paul Behrendt’s mother was part-Aboriginal and had a white father named Arthur Dawson—both Paul and Larissa had seen her Aborigines Protection Board file and were well aware of this. Elsewhere her witness statement was again misleading when she said that her paternal grandmother “had an Aboriginal mother and was brought up by her Aboriginal father”. At this distance in time it is hard to imagine why Behrendt endangered her credibility with these easily disproved errors.

Anita Heiss has noted that teleconferences between the witnesses and their legal team were organised to carefully scrutinise the statements they would give in court. When Behrendt made questionable or doubtful statements in her written witness statement or under cross-examination she shielded her words with protective and slippery qualifications—a precaution which may have been instilled in her with pre-trial training: “to my knowledge”, “I have no knowledge of”, “something I have no knowledge of”, “I assume”, “I speculate”, “I would assume”, “I’ve had to speculate”.

Were these caveats intended for precision or obscurity? Family research for the Behrendts and Dickharts in Australia is straightforward and uncomplicated. With the exception of Paul Behrendt’s part-Aboriginal mother and her two children who were born and died before her marriage to his father there are no mysteries or blank spaces on family birth certificates. These are simple Australian stories built on public records—no reason for special knowledge, assumptions or speculation on the part of a “law professor and author”.

Instead of calling for evidence—easily available in providing documentary proofs of family antecedents—the judge, Mordecai Bromberg, allowed Behrendt to introduce unnecessary conjecture, and then uncritically repeated her evasions in his judgment (emphasis added):

Prof Behrendt referred to Mr Bolt’s reference in the first article to her “looking almost as German as her father”. To her knowledge, there is no German descent on either her father or mother’s side of the family although she assumes that because of her father’s Germanic surname, there may have been some German descent.

In Behrendt’s witness statement, the judge and the defence were led astray. The carefully selected words opened a selective path through her family story and the unprepared defence amiably ambled along the desired route. In that untrustworthy courtroom journey, Larissa Behrendt made claims that should and could have been challenged with documentary proofs.

AGED forty-something, Paul Behrendt made a great discovery—you don’t have to be black or even very much Aboriginal to be Aboriginal. Paul had a part-Aboriginal mother but he, part-English, part-German, small part-Aboriginal, divested himself of unuseful family members and declared himself exclusively Aboriginal. The political and linguistic change that authorised this changing of skin had occurred during the 1970s when people who once described themselves as part-Aboriginal declared themselves as only Aboriginal. Family stories that began with a white Adam and black Eve encountered amnesia as family trees were butchered to show only black antecedents. The creative name-change is evident in the work of academic (and now Massacre Map plagiarist) Lyndall Ryan, who wrote a PhD thesis about the part-Aborigines of Tasmania in the early 1970s and then turned these same people into Tasmanian Aborigines when her thesis was published as a book in the early 1980s. The change that has produced privilege, bitterness, distrust—turning whites into blacks—has been a cultural and political disaster.

Rather than bringing peoples together, the change has created racial insecurities and further bitter divisions—even Aboriginal supporters can find themselves criticised. In a recent race-baiting collection of essays called After Australia, one of the contributors, Hannah Donnelly, was being proud and black and made a comment that could have been aimed directly at some of the white supporters present at the Bolt trial: “I’m gonna educate you gronks. I get pissed off when white people wear the Aboriginal flag. Hey you, yeah I’m talking to you.”

An Aboriginal boyfriend once asked Donnelly: “Why do you have that sticker [of the Aboriginal flag] on your car?” It was a good question. Donnelly does not answer him as she exposes her own self-doubt: “Maybe, like so many others, he was more black than me so that he could laugh at my existence.” The sense of desperate personal insecurity one felt among the white Aborigines present during the trial is clearly illustrated in the Behrendt testimony.

On the first day in the courtroom I noticed a group of younger women who drew attention to themselves as they effusively greeted acquaintances seated about them. I wondered who they were and why they were following this case about Aborigines. As the trial progressed I realised they were the other side. Among the women I innocently misclassified as white onlookers was Anita Heiss. She only attended that one day as she was busy preparing for a publicity tour of her novel Paris Dreaming—which has her female, white Aboriginal leading character transferred from a job at the National Aboriginal Gallery in Canberra to Paris—“Surrounded by thousands of attentive men, nude poets, flirtatious baristas and smooth-tongued lotharios, romance has suddenly become a lot more tempting.”

It was only on that morning in Melbourne that Heiss learnt she was not going to be called as a witness: “But I realised that to put me on the stand would have been dangerous for the defence team; perhaps I was darker than they had thought I was, which would have thrown off their argument.” I doubt it. The lack of blackness in the courtroom was self-evident. The prosecutors were seeking validation of a blackness invisible to my eyes.

In “The Family Stories of the Behrendts” (Quadrant, November 2016) I looked at the genealogical history of the family. The Dickhart story is equally straightforward and includes, as noted, migration from Germany to Queensland in the middle of the nineteenth century. Large families were born over several generations and descendants moved around Australia. Raema’s father, born in Western Australia, married the daughter of English immigrants. They were ordinary Australians and he and three of his brothers served in the Second World War.

Raema’s mother died in 1987, and her father in 2002. If Larissa had known her grandfather, she cancelled his very existence: “My mother and maternal grandmother were born in Western Australia. I understand my maternal great-grandmother came from England. On my mother’s side there is Australian and English ancestry.”

Clearly the words were carefully chosen to exclude mention of her mother’s family name or her German-descendant father. If the name Dickhart had been spoken, perhaps this part of the trial would have been conducted quite differently.

Again, when admitting to ignorance, Larissa’s phrasing becomes oddly self-protective: “The German descent Bolt attributes to me is something I have no knowledge of.” Why didn’t she ask her mother, who had probably confirmed her German ancestry well before the Bolt trial began? Why didn’t she ask Ancestry itself? It even comes with a free trial.

The Bolt defence team appeared unprepared and unwilling to confront their opponents with uncomfortable family-tree realities or to challenge questionable “stolen” stories based on misreading documentary evidence. It was as if they expected nothing more for their client, and the media company paying their bills, than to receive a slight wrist slap and for everything to quickly return to business as normal. It never seemed they were contemplating winning the case.

The prosecution took control of the courtroom narrative and laid out a tactical base for victory. On the first and second day when witnesses were examined, it must have been clear to them that they could put forward propositions which the defence would not seriously challenge—self-identification would not meet any serious call to be proven by documentation. When Larissa Behrendt was cross-examined under oath by Bolt’s lawyer, Neil Young QC, he followed those tracks laid out for him by his adversaries, where inaccuracy was fenced with speculation and ambiguity.

Young: “Can I take you to paragraph 10, firstly, of your statement, in which you say there is no German descent to your knowledge?”

Behrendt: “To my knowledge.”

In further questions Young concentrated only on the Behrendt family. Had basic research into the family been carried out, her answers would have been shown as erroneous:

Young: “Now, you have in the past, have you not, made statements to the effect that you believed your father to be of German descent?

Behrendt: “I assume there is some German about the name, but I don’t know anything about the German heritage, if it exists.”

The German heritage? Perhaps she could have been asked about her Aboriginal heritage, “if it exists”?

Young: “What I suggest to you, Professor, is that you have held a belief that your father has some German ancestry?”

Behrendt: “I speculate that might be right.”

Readily available public documents would have exposed the emptiness and ignorance of these comments.

Young: “I suggest you’ve previously expressed that view, or at least expressed yourself in a way that has conveyed that view to the wider world; do you agree with that?”

Behrendt: “It’s never been something I remember really being an issue that I’ve been asked about. I’ve never—I mean, I would assume Behrendt was a German name but all I know about my grandfather is he came from England to Australia and I never met him.”

Young: “Yes?”

Behrendt: “I’ve had to speculate about what that background might be.”

If she had glanced over her mother’s shoulder the Ancestry research tools might have helped. And why “speculate” when, knowing this would be examined in the court, she could have simply done her own research—even easier for one with access to the resources and assistance of a university library.

Returning to re-examine his client, Ron Merkel asked a leading question to deal with dangerous family knowledge:

Merkel: “You may have already cleared this up but you did say that you had belief that you may have some German ancestry. What’s that belief based on?”

Behrendt: “Speculating about the surname, Behrendt.”

The conjurers, working in unison, were moving our attention away from the trickery that was happening. German, in the mouths of the prosecutors, had turned from family history to Nazis and eugenics—it was a trap for the defence. As Larissa Behrendt left the stand and Andrew Bolt took her place, his lawyer, Neil Young, sounded flustered. He was not leading an attack but grappling with phantoms:

One thing is clear, this case is not about the holocaust, it’s not about Hitler’s race laws and it’s got nothing to do with eugenics. The accusations that were made in opening in that regard are not only unsound, they are extreme and offensive to my clients and, ultimately, we are confident your Honour will find that they are irrelevant to issues in this case.

Somewhere along the way the simple matters of family history which should and could have been examined had vanished. It was a culture wars trial, but only one side was fighting.

The Bromberg judgment following the trial has been a fear-inducing disaster for free speech. In the evidence given by Larissa Behrendt, was the court hearing genuine ignorance of the family history of both her parents, or did perjury take place? The question deserves an answer.

7 thoughts on “Larissa Behrendt and the Denial of Family

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Michael. Clearly put, dare I say enunciated, that anyone of reason could easily agree with.
    In my view that trial was a politicized show trial, a farce really, and one only had to look at Larissa Behrendt and the subject matter to realise that. The nonsensical levels of the present day gender politics have continued the farce and taken it all to new and hitherto unimagined levels. Kant must be turning in his grave ; even his hypothetical reason couldn’t get within a bull’s roar of covering it.
    The whole thing even seemed to have had a sort of joke judge…….heavily politicized, who rapidly exited the stage after the verdict.

  • Tony Tea says:

    It defies belief that LB and her legal team didn’t know of her heritage. It also defies belief that Bolt and his legal team didn’t know of her heritage. Is there anywhere we can read Bolt’s offending article?

  • Katzenjammer says:

    This could be one episode of a TV series –
    Who Did You Think You Were.

  • IainC says:

    This article emphasises the critical nature of the quality of your legal team. Contrast this fiasco with the relentless bulldogs on the George Pell defence who eventually prevailed (albeit vicariously, thanks to the High Court). The other revelation has been that, despite the published prosecutorial evidence in both the Pell and Bolt cases looking to an outsider like a totally unbelievable pile of nonsense, once in the courtroom, (as I can attest, having been an expert witness on several occasions), everything you know to be true suddenly becomes an endless quagmire of quicksand. Knowing what I know now, I would go into serious debt to get the sharpest legal team I could rather than assume that all the facts and evidence on my side will make all the difference to the verdict.
    Katzenjammer – more like “Don’t You Know Who I am?”

  • Tony Tea says:

    Iain, imagine a world in which Richter would let those ancestry details slide. Now imagine an escalator to Mars. Which is more likely?

  • call it out says:

    Iain, I have seen a half hearted defence team lose a case where they should not have. Trouble is, most lawyers are caught up in the woke nonsense, and are hardly aware of it.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    It is illegal to utter false statements while under oath. The evidence that you have presented surely makes a prima facie case for a legal action. But, I am not a lawyer, so please can a lawyer reader briefly outline the steps that can be taken towards the legal truth on record?
    Having just read The Risdon Cove essay by Tony Thomas, my old mind is full of the damage that a myth carried forward in the historic record can do – and should be avoided. Geoff S

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