real life

Today, 22 years after he lost his family, Walter Mikac will go for a walk and ask them for guidance.


Twenty-two years ago to the day, on a Sunday, Walter Mikac was hosting a local golf tournament on the sprawling greens of a course in Tasmania. His wife, Nanette, and young daughters, Alannah, 6, and Madeline, 3, decided to visit the local historic site of Port Arthur as he played.

Standing on the golf course, Mikac remembers hearing shots flying from across the bay. They were coming from Port Arthur, he thought, but those on course assumed they were a re-enactment of sorts. Tasmania was a safe state, Nubeena — the place he, his wife and two young daughters had settled in, having bought the local pharmacy — a safer city. The family would rarely lock their doors at night.

When the game finished, he later wrote, a young couple ran into the clubhouse. People at Port Arthur had been shot, they yelled. Racing home, Mikac arrived to an empty house.

He would later learn Nanette, Alannah and Madeline had been killed by a lone gunman who shot 35 people and wounded 23 more.

He does his best not to think about that day.

“I don’t tend to look back at it, but it’s one of the main things that lives in your memory bank. So whilst it may not happen every day, and I may not re-live it all the time, there are certain days you feel emotional,” he tells Mamamia over the phone from his home in Byron Bay.


The next day, the day after he lost his entire family, Walter Mikac turned 34.

Over the last 22 years, Mikac, now 55, has done his very best finding solace in the smallest of things. The quiet memories, the songs he and wife Nannette would sing, the images lodged firmly in his memory of Alannah and Madeline sidling up to one another on the couch and having a cuddle.

There is, too, the letters Alannah had left in a diary that he would later be able to cherish. The memories of Maddie so desperate to be involved in anything the family were doing, she'd follow behind uttering nothing more than a defiant "me too, me too, me too".

"They were more dissimilar than similar. Alannah was really outgoing and was able to have a conversation with just about anyone. Maddie was definitely more introverted and quiet and just always wanted to be involved.


"Some of the stuff Alannah left in her diaries -- the pictures she drew and the letters she wrote -- it's pretty amazing stuff for a six-year-old. The overwhelming message in all that comes out of it is like a letter of love: I love my family, I love my sister. In all her stories, she writes so much of the things we did together. So to me, to some degree, that's a consolation. I knew she felt so secure and so loved at that point."

Walter Mikac is the kind of man who will kiss you on both cheeks when saying hello. He carries with him an air of warmth -- a sense of kindness -- that makes you think perhaps, if you both had the time, he'd sit and listen carefully to any story you ever wanted to tell him.

Of course, he has stories of his own. Some days, he tells Mamamia, he may not necessarily be in the mood to tell them. Other days, the stories he can tell, the messages he can spread, can be the most powerful tools he has.

Image: Getty.

After all, in the immediate and harrowing aftermath of that Sunday, Mikac was a guiding force in lobbying for tighter gun control laws in Australia.

"The general population are probably a bit complacent now [about gun violence]. Generally, people are called to action when there's tragedy and when there's a need for it. What happened 22 years ago was amazing because I was recently looking back at some old papers -- my parents had kept all the old papers from that time -- and I noticed on May 11, the gun laws had passed and the gun buy back had begun. That all happened in 12, 13 days.

"I don't think anything could happen that quickly almost ever again, and a few things helped that. One was that John Howard had just been newly elected and had a pretty big majority and then also, the fact the country was just so shocked," he recalls.

Of all the people that lobbied for tighter gun control laws at the time, Mikac has a fondness for one in particular. He tells the story of Rob Borbidge, the Queensland Premier at the time.

"He stood up against the National Party and said I am fully behind this even though he realised it was probably going to cost him his job. And it did. He has actually been on record talking, some 20 years on, saying: I am still glad that I actually did it, I feel that was a good decision, even though it did lose me my job. He knew it was the right thing to do, and we don't have many people like that now. Especially in the States."


It must, some 22 years after changing the culture of our country so dramatically, be equal parts inspiring and frustrating watching the United States from afar, trying but struggling to emulate the kind of gun control laws we have here. Does he keep on eye on the movement there?

"I feel rather inspired, I have to say. I have listened to a lot of the pieces on Facebook and on social media and just the emotion coming out of these kids and how clever and well spoken they are - they give a very clear message, too, it's not just emotion. If the politicians don't act, it's becoming clear the next generation will be the ones who make the change."

Why are US gun laws unchanging, despite massacre after massacre? Amelia Lester and Mia Freedman discuss, on Tell Me It’s Going To Be OK. Post continues after audio.

When you have such a large and instrumental hand in moulding the landscape of an entire nation for decades to come, it might be easy to forget the impact you once had on the bedrocks of how our society is built. After all, as Mikac already noted, it happened so quickly, all those years ago.

"Prior to the 20th anniversary [of Port Arthur], it sort of drifted into the background a bit because gun deaths here, since then, have been really quite minimal. So I didn't think about it a lot for a long time.

"But I've certainly thought about it a lot since the 20th anniversary, when I began to realise the enormity of putting those national gun laws in place. You just look at the statistics: death by firearms has dropped by 50 per cent, we have not had a mass shooting in that time, touch wood, and we're now coming towards 22 years.


"You know, I have to pinch myself and go, wow, that is amazing, that statistic. I remember doing interviews at the time, over 20 years ago, saying I hope no one else ever has to go through this again, certainly in Australia. And they haven't, at this point."

There are days, Mikac says -- the good days -- where he feels a responsibility to remind the world of the horror of that day in 1996. When you live in a country and are sheltered by laws that mean you never fear for your life at school, when you never question your safety in public or when the threat of violence doesn't hinder your ability to live, then you run the risk of being complacent about why your existence is so safe in the first place.

Of course we have the right to be safe. But standing close to that right should come another, more important recognition: being safe from gun violence isn't inherent to the country we live in. Instead, we live largely free from gun violence by design.

It's embedded so deeply into the scaffolding of Australia, we often forget there was ever another time.

"I do feel a responsibility to remind people, but it depends how I am feeling at the time. If life is going along alright and I'm feeling OK and I want to, I've done that.

"It doesn't hurt for people to be reminded, especially because it's now generational. People who are now 20 years and under aren't really aware of the enormity of the event, so just putting out a bit of a reminder out there is good. You don't want to lose sight of the fact that our view towards firearms and violence has changed really dramatically."


Today, Mikac has a 16-year-old daughter, Isabella, and the two live and work in Byron Bay. The charity he built in the year after Nanette, Alannah and Madeline died -- The Alannah and Madeline Foundation -- still, two decades on, works tirelessly to protect children from violence. And while he does his best to not look back at that day, he thinks often of Nanette and the girls.

"Sometimes it's as simple as hearing a song that is very linked to that time, there are certainly a few songs that remind me of Nanette, whenever I hear them. There's a song, Boys of Summer, and I still remember driving along with her singing her head off. I have strong memories linked to sounds and music like that one. [Alannah and Madeline] were just great buddies, they were always cuddled up together. That's the thing I remember most," he said.

On today's anniversary, 22 years after he heard those shots across the bay, Mikac will take himself away for a little while.

"For me, getting away from day to day things is what I like to do to get through this time of year. What I really like doing most is taking myself away and doing something I wouldn't normally do. Often I will go for a walk or find somewhere that I've been wanting to go to. Somewhere in the country and somewhere that's quiet and serene and far away from people. I just like to be able to reflect and have a conversation with them, and ask them for guidance.

"Often I just say, I'm doing my best and I'm trying hard. It's not always easy, but I miss you."