Gunditjmara veteran’s son continues his father’s fight

BY AMY MCQUIREJUNE 29, 2012

Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

John Lovett with Aunty Dot Peters at a commemoration for Indigenous veterans in Melbourne in 2007. John is fighting for what is owed to his father – Herbert Lovett – who fought in both world wars.
(AAP IMAGE/ Andrew Brownbill)

NATIONAL: The Gunditjmara are, and have always been fighters.

It was their warrior spirit that saw them through two decades of fierce warfare during the Eumeralla wars, waged to protect their homelands from white invasion during the 19th century.

That spirit was later reborn in the legendary fists of boxer Lionel Rose, who took his people’s name to the international stage when he was crowned world champion.

The Gunditjmara more recently waded through the myriad difficulties of native title to have their rights recognised over about 133,000 ha of land in south western Victoria in 2007.

They are a people who have proven time and time again that theirs is a strong and continuing culture.

But there’s one story of the fighting Gunditjmara that doesn’t have an ending.

John Lovett is continuing the strong legacy of his people. He has fought all his life to get back what was rightfully owed to his father – the one particular Gunditjmara warrior that has always been his hero.

The Lovett family have a unique history, not only in Australia, but in the entire Commonwealth.

Four brothers served in both world wars, and 21 Lovetts in total have so far served across all three arms of the defence forces.

John’s father, Herbert Lovett was one of those brothers. He was 19 when he signed up for duty in World War I. The year was 1917 and Australia had finally relaxed its entry requirements, allowing Aboriginal people with mixed heritage to join the ranks.

It was only because his parents were “not pure blooded blacks; [they had] white people on both parents sides”, that recruiting officers deemed him acceptable for the war effort.

By all accounts, Herbert should have been a hero not only to his son, but to the whole country.

“My father was a machine gunner in World War II. They had a (very short) life expectancy. The machine gun was the most sophisticated weapon in those days. The enemy always wanted to take it out,” John told Tracker.

Despite seeing the horrors of World War I, at the age of 47 Herbert again volunteered to fight in the second world war.

“To be able to go to two world wars and stand up and fight for your country… that’s amazing,” John says.

“We saw extraordinary feats coming from pretty ordinary people.

“But I believe my dad, and other Aboriginal soldiers were the exception.

“They were extraordinary because they were already behind the eight ball because they were black.”

When Aboriginal soldiers returned home from service, the equality they gained when putting on army greens was stripped from them.

When Herbert returned from World War I he found that many of the families from Lake Condah had been forced off the mission, with several moving to Lake Tyers.

The mission was closed in 1918.

In 1945, the Commonwealth and state governments had formulated an agreement to transfer blocks of land to returned soldiers. In Victoria, this agreement was legislated through the Soldier Settlement Act 1945.

Herbert’s homeland at Lake Condah was subsequently carved up and given to returning soldiers.

But when Herbert applied to receive a settlement block upon returning from the second world war, he never even received a reply.

That’s despite the RSL advocating on his behalf – a rare alliance in those days.
Australia had again dispossessed him of the lands of his ancestors, the homelands he had fought in two wars to protect.

The failure to compensate Herbert for his service entrenched the disadvantage John still faces today.

“It denied me the quality of life other kids had. They got an education, their upbringing was one of comfort, they had a future and they had security. I didn’t have any of that. I was flat out getting a feed, flat out getting a decent meal,” John said.

It also meant Herbert had to work extra hard to make ends meet, sometimes being away for long periods of time. John was born after Herbert returned from service.

“All that time he was away in the two world wars there were five of my brothers and sisters who missed him then. When he came back and had to look for work, I was next in line to experience that – missing him and not having him around all the time.”

John has been trying to find different avenues to receive reparations from state and federal governments for the past seven years. But it’s a fight that has affected his entire life.

Public interest lawyer Peter Seidel from Arnold Bloch Leibler is providing pro bono legal support for John and is currently drafting a submission to both state and federal departments seeking just terms compensation for the intergenerational effects of the loss.

“We’re arguing that John Lovett, as next of kin for Herbert, deserved just terms compensation for the wrongs done to his father and his family,” Mr Seidel told Tracker.

“We are seeking to do it without going through the court process, given John’s age and health.

“He does have legal avenues available to him. He claims fiduciary duty on behalf of Herbert from state and commonwealth governments and as a consequence has a rightful claim for just terms compensation for the opportunities his family lost in rebuilding their lives after World War II through the soldier settlement scheme.”

Mr Seidel says he hopes that an outcome will finally be reached.

“John’s been agitating for a very long time. It’s taken a certain level of desperation because of his failing health and personal tragedy.”

“… John has written many letters over the years and he feels it has fallen on deaf ears. The Commonwealth government recognizes the service of John’s family to Australia through the naming of Lovett tower.

“That’s important symbolism but it left the family in poverty. This sticks in his craw bearing in mind what happened to his family.

“… It’s time for justice to be granted to him and his family.”

Lovett Tower stands tall in the centre of the Canberra suburb of Woden.

John says that it’s ironic the family’s name is on a tower when justice still hasn’t been served.

“There was all this accolade and recognition given. But there was no equality given,” John said.

“It’s very easy to pay lip service and tell how good (the Lovetts) are and how the country respects them, but when they serve their country and are denied the very essence of what the soldier settlement was about, it certainly is another thing.”

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs has told media that the issue is a state matter.

But Mr Lovett says the Commonwealth has a part to play.

“I think there is a responsibility by state and federal governments. They need to come to the party and do the right thing.

“If you look at a larger scale, they say about 4,000 Aboriginals fought in the first and second world war.

“How many whitefellas fought in the same wars?

“It was such a big deal, only they got everything and we got nothing.”

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