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Dingos and babies

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Tuesday, 28 February 2012

They can't get enough of it. Since August 1980, Australia has remained in a fixated state over the fate of Azaria Chamberlain who was, so her mother Lindy claimed, dragged out of her tent by an opportunistic dingo. A spectral jury haunts the Chamberlains in judgment of what exactly Lindy was up to the day her child was taken.

The case is further compounded by the absence of the child's body– Azaria is the permanent absentee, the missing figure in this drama. What she left behind was merely a bloodstained singlet, jump suit and nappy. Instead, the world's film going audience had to be tortured by Meryl Streep's version of an Australian accent, a cringe worthy effort most notable over the statement 'My God! My God! The dingo's got my baby!' (Streep's baby, incidentally, transformed on set into a 'baybee'.)

The Northern Territory Supreme Court found the dingo defence implausible, and convicted Chamberlain for the murder of her nine-week-old daughter by slashing her throat in the front seat of the family car on a camp site beside Uluru, then Ayers Rock. Her husband was convicted as an accessory. A long court battle was waged that culminated in both their convictions being quashed in 1988. The judgments afforded to the Chamberlains out of court, however, were something else – relentlessly vicious, speculative, even bigoted. Why pick Azaria as the name, this 'sacrifice in the wilderness'? These people were Seventh Day Adventists, as if that would make any difference at all.


The Chamberlains won't let up. Their quest remains an onerous and lifelong one. Given the way they have been bruised and treated, it's not difficult to understand why. A fourth inquest has been opened into events leading up to Azaria's disappearance. The person in this case who needs convincing is Northern Territory coroner Elizabeth Morris, though her opinion in the end won't matter much. The three previous inquests failed to come to any agreement on what caused Azaria's death. The third effort in 1995 found inconclusive evidence of a dingo's involvement.

The Chamberlains are fighting a losing battle. Their case has become a steadfast mythology, irrefutable cultural facts that defiantly refute evidence to the contrary. The Chamberlain case became the fountain at which Australian culture communed at. John Bryson put in his effort – Evil Angles (1985), which was then given the film treatment by Fred Schepisi's Streep-led A Cry in the Dark (1988). In 2002, Moya Henderson added to the pantheon of Chamberlain cultural artefacts with an opera. That same year, Dingo Innocent by Buck Richardson appeared, a book heavy with publicly trawled sources and psychological speculation.

While the Chamberlains stood condemned, the dingo has not gotten off scot free. The dingo is Australia's attitude to the nature writ large, a microcosm of fear and loathing that explains tribal hunts for errant sharks who gobble careless tourists and 'conservationists' who treat animals like objects of entertainment. Australia's 'deadly' residents are the subject of both hero worship and scorn. Former police officer Anne Lade, who has been hired by the court to investigate the case, reminded her listeners that dingo attacks were frequent, some being fatal. Known lawyer Rex Wild, who is also assisting the coroner, had this suggestion: 'Although it (a dingo killing a child) may have been regarded as unlikely in 1980… It shouldn't be by 2011-2.' Lindy Chamberlain herself reiterated the dangers. 'It gives me hope this time that Australians will finally be warned and realise that dingoes are a dangerous animal.' The Australian environment is indeed an inhospitable, asocial place.

The vast majority of those who populate Australia hug the edges of the continent with manic desperation, idealising the interior like a romance they would rather not have. If you venture in, prepare to get lost. Peter Pierce is perhaps the most insightful on the entire mania about Azaria's disappearance, suggesting in The Country of Lost Children (1999) that the case neatly fits a broad narrative of 'lost child stories in Australian history', being 'the one that most curiously mingles and confounds the nineteenth and the twentieth-century master narratives of such tragedy.' That said, Pierce ventured to say that it was less the environment to blame here than the Chamberlains' refusal to understand that human agency remained critical to the disappearance of children in twentieth century Australia. In the battle between dingo and human, the dingo would come up looking a far side better.

Neither side, however, will benefit from the latest inquiry. The end result will be a doubly inflicted defeat. The Chamberlains will not be any more convincing than they already have been. Sides have been taken and positions hewn into stone. The dingoes will simply move up the scale of dangerous Australian beasts, losing their appeal even further. Such is the fate of, to use James McAuley's beautifully harsh words, 'A futile heart within a fair periphery.'

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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