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Remembering Dr Bill Williams

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 13 Sep 2016

I rise tonight in shock and sadness to farewell Dr Bill Williams, who passed away the night before last. It is hard to put words into the space he leaves behind. We have lost a great one. Dear Dimity Hawkins writes:

Many of you will know Bill as a great man of vision, passion and compassion. His belief in a world free from nuclear weapons and untethered from the nuclear fuel chain fired our work. His energy, intelligence, humanity and humour inspired all his friends, colleagues and fellow travellers.

 

Bill lived and worked in Torquay on Victoria's surf coast, a GP with more than thirty years' experience. His background in clinical and public health took him from Melbourne University to Zimbabwe to the Muskito coast to the Western Desert. Our thoughts tonight are with his partner Gisela and daughters Daisy and Lily, and with the wider circle of family and friends who knew and loved him.
Bill was not content to confine his passion for health care within clinical practice; he was a determined and frequently flamboyant advocate for public health in the widest sense. Not content with only applying his expertise to harms already committed, Bill set out to challenge the ultimate preventable health catastrophe and dedicated decades of his life to the prevention of war and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

In the biographical information to his extraordinary 2015 book Bleed, He wrote:

Early in my career I became involved in medical activism to prevent war, oppose militarism, eliminate nuclear weapons, organising protests and civil disobedience campaigns to obstruct and highlight the violence of war. I've been an active member and leader of Nobel Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and am a founding member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. ICAN has grown from a handful of us in Melbourne in 2006 to a global campaign with over 400 partner organisations in 95 countries. ICAN is the vanguard of the worldwide civil society campaign for a ban on nuclear weapons, driving and supporting the over 100 governments who have recently endorsed the "Humanitarian Pledge" at the UN NPT Review Conference in New York in May 2015-a commitment to negotiate and implement an abolition treaty.

If there is a better example of Margaret Meade's reminder about the power of small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens to change the world, I cannot immediately think of it. That Melbourne handful linked arms with like-minded people all over the world, found their allies in activists and peace-workers from every time zone-families who saw their homelands broken in the name of nuclear weapons testing-and in those who had fled as children from the white flash and black rain in August 1945. The networks grew, woven together with career diplomats and politicians and military personnel who have served on the front-lines of the planet's wars or worked to prepare for the one that must never be fought.

Bill wrote:
...after the energetically anti-nuke eighties and the end of the Cold War, nuclear holocaust-always unthinkable-became almost unmentionable. A mass self-censorship, a mental no-fly zone, a cone of silence descended. Little wonder: no sane person wants to contaminate their dreams with this ultimate horror. But to finish this journey of survival-to abolition-we need to penetrate the fog of fear and denial, informing ourselves and our neighbours without inducing psychological paralysis.

Dear Bill, it is happening. From Torquay to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly, to the Western Australian Goldfields, somehow, it is happening. This weekend some few dozen of us sat around a fire at Wongatha Birni in Kalgoorlie; having travelled from Ceduna, from the Flinders Ranges, from Kakadu, from Noongar country in the south-west of Western Australia, from the Central Coast of New South Wales, from the ancient Pilbara and all corners of Australia, as guests of Wongatha leaders and elders from around the region. Here, at this gathering of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance, the imaginary distinction between the civil and military arms of the nuclear fuel chain is set aside, and you will hear story of the world's oldest and most resilient system of law. You will hear story of the Spinifex people, who fled west when the British government showered their lands with radioactive fission products as the world stumbled into the Cold War. You will hear that in the local language the state's largest uranium deposit in the calcrete beds of the Yeelirrie pastoral station was known as sickness country, 'youlirrie', a place of death, and you will hear it from people who have protected that place from violation for more than 40 years. You will hear that, even in 2016, unaccountable governments still target Aboriginal homelands to host intractable radiotoxic wastes from distant reactors and isotope plants in exchange for the modern equivalent of beads and blankets.

These campaigns are about as grounded and local as it is possible to get for those who do not choose this work but find themselves chosen by it through forced imposition. In each case, it is impossible to set aside the global dimensions of the uranium market and the customers it serves. Taking on the uranium miners and the waste merchants of an industrial fuel chain perched on the edge of collapse, you soon discover that these are not environmental campaigns in the traditional sense; they are in fact about land rights, self-determination, and, ultimately, sovereignty. We seem very far from those who sit late into the night in Geneva and New York negotiating resolutions for the Open-ended Working Group, but we sit and listen by this campfire and we understand that this is all the same work.

The people and lands of Central Australia held a magnetic appeal for Bill. It was on a visit to the Pintubi lands of the Western Desert that his wife Gisela collapsed-1,500 kilometres from the nearest brain surgeon, the horror and hope described in his 2015 work Bleed unfolds. Years after her brain haemorrhage, after recovering her speech, her memories and her particularly dry sense of humour, Gisela returned to country, the Western Australian desert. It is difficult to comprehend how brave she was to be that far from doctors, an activist in her own right, walking again on Wangkatja country to protect the land she had adopted after fleeing the nuclear weapons of Europe. It meant a great deal for me to be there, within the warm and close-knit nuclear-free community, taking those steps with Gisela. Know tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, that you are held again in that community as we continue our desert walk toward the vision that Bill shared with so many around the world.

Bill was a doctor, a person who could comfort and guide through serious illness and crisis, but he was also someone who could sense the energy in a room and effortlessly lift its spirits. Imagine, if you will, Bill at a key meeting of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, in Helsinki, with Bill having helped build sufficient institutional determination to get ICAN off the ground-the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons-which would go on to help energise the present global momentum towards a nuclear ban treaty. Not content with simply wearing the ICANgeroo shirts worn by colleagues and fellow campaigners, Bill did the whole suit, which you might also have been fortunate enough to see him wear in the vicinity of Flinders Street Station, shading himself and a pair of floppy ears-as you do-under a nuclear umbrella. To wake from the horror of nuclear nightmares, Bill knew you need not only hope, but also humour.

Bill wrote:
What can each of us do that might move us along the road to a solution? And what exactly constitutes 'a solution'? In the world of pragmatism, where deals must finally be cut, a treaty to ban nuclear weapons once and for all is urgently required. Not just negotiated, signed and ratified by the worlds parliaments, but implemented all the way to zero. Maybe this route seems pedestrian, but there is no other: we must resuscitate, rejuvenate and exploit the tradition of international cooperation that has achieved bans on chemical and biological weapons, landmines, even dumdum bullets, but not yet on the world's worst weapons of terror.

Bill, you cannot be replaced and you will always be missed. We commit to honouring your leadership in the great work of building a peaceful and tolerant world free of the menace of these inhuman weapons. More than anything, you will be missed as partner, father, colleague and mate. Vale dear Bill Williams.

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