Peter Clarke in Ballarat, hoping for some good news. Photo: Ken Irwin
ON MANY a Ballarat evening, in the grounds of Sebastopol's luxury Blythewood Grange conference centre and resort, you can find an Aboriginal father dreaming of his long-lost son.
To Peter Clarke, the place is the only home he recognises - he is a graduate of its former incarnation as a Poor Sisters of Nazareth orphanage.
Mr Clarke is regarded as part of the "stolen generations". He was two months old when Victorian welfare authorities took him and four siblings from his mother. He was raised in Ballarat orphanages.
Now, Mr Clarke, 38, is taking legal action to get access to his 10-year-old son, who he says was taken from Australia eight years ago by his estranged Irish wife.
He says she has refused to return with him because Australia is "too racist" to bring up a part-Aboriginal boy, and her husband does not provide sufficient intellectual stimulation for her.
The "tug-of-love" is over Elliot Browne-Clarke, the only child from Mr Clarke's marriage to former Monash University post-graduate student of Aboriginal anthropology, Pauline "Polly" Browne.
When a British newspaper contacted her at home in north-west Ireland, she would not discuss Elliot or the marriage split. "These are personal matters and I'm saying nothing," she was quoted as saying.
Although he knows the marriage is over, Mr Clarke despairs over his situation.
But after eight years, he is not seeking custody, just some contact. And he says he wants his Irish-raised boy to know that "he'll always have another camp fire burning here".
He longs to teach him some knockabout skills - such as how to whistle through an acorn shell, or leap safely from a pine tree - that he learned during 18 years in institutional care.
"I'd like to be able to go to Ireland and have some time with him. I'd like to have a barbecue with him, cook him some sausages," he says.
"He was a privilege. He completes me . . . I'd give him a big hug."
The life of Mr Clarke, a nephew of Aboriginal army officer Captain Reg Saunders, appeared to change for the better in 1992 when he spoke about Aboriginal child-care issues to law students at Monash University.
He met "Polly" Browne, a red-haired woman about 12 years older than he. She was deeply interested in Aboriginal cultural issues. They married in June 1992 and lived in Fairfield. After a number of casual jobs, Mr Clarke became a native title field officer.
He says the marriage seemed stable and he did not object when his wife said in 1998 that she needed to return to Ireland to see a seriously ill uncle.
"I said it was important that the baby meet the elders, that we needed to build those bridges. So out the door they went, with my blessing and encouragement, for four weeks' time.
"But four weeks became another month, and another, and the excuse became a sister-in-law, and three or four years down the track, she had pretty much given up on me. The phone calls wouldn't come in. She didn't come back."
Mr Clarke wonders whether his wife really only fell in love with Aboriginal culture, "not the man", or perhaps whether seven miscarriages affected her thinking.
"Seven miscarriages is quite a lot to endure, and she had endured that physical pain, but also the mental pain, and I think a part of her clammed up. I think a part of that threw a wall up around our baby, that she had said, 'This is just too precious in my life'. "
In April 1999, Mr Clarke went to Ireland and had brief contact with his wife and son.
But Irish police arrested him and he was charged with brutality.
He appeared in court and his wife and son, and her sister attended. He says his wife stood up after the charges were read and said they had fabricated the allegations.
Mr Clarke says he was released and received an apology from the judge, who reprimanded his wife.
It was the last time he saw Elliot. "I kissed him on the forehead and told him we were good mates, and then I came home."
Now his solicitor, Denis Barry, of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, is attempting to have Ms Browne served with divorce papers and is seeking access for Mr Clarke under an international convention on child abduction.
Mr Clarke wants to visit Ireland for access once a year, make a phone call at least once a month and have the right to correspond with Elliot.
But Mr Clarke's latest contact attempts, with help from a British newspaper and an Irish men's rights groups, appear to have led Ms Browne to flee her home, thwarting attempts to serve legal papers.
Mr Barry says he is in the hands of Irish authorities, who he hopes will act to locate her. Ireland is a signatory to the convention.