A mission to Cherbourg

The Ration Shed, Cherbourg

The Ration Shed, Cherbourg

All Brisbane roads seemed to lead to Southbank yesterday. Most were headed towards Grey Street where a royal frenzy was taking place over some British tourists. My destination was nearby but more sedate,  the reading room of the State Library where I looked out over the Brisbane River, dazzling in the April sunshine. I was there to take notes from a book, Thom Blake’s A Dumping Ground: A History of the Cherbourg settlement. The book covers the first 40 or so years of the settlement and the small town in the South Burnett has interested me greatly in 2014. I’ve been there twice this year and will be back a third time next Sunday for a “reconciliation fun run” which in my case may be practical reconciliation or impractical given my recent poor exercise regime.

Reconciliation is an odd theme for a fun run, but Cherbourg is not a run of the mill town. It is Queensland’s oldest surviving Aboriginal reserve, and is still home to over 1000 mostly Indigenous Australians. It has its own Aboriginal shire, alcohol restrictions and is not without some of the problems that plague many Indigenous towns like high unemployment, crime and bored kids (all inter-related). There is only one road in and out of Cherbourg, a relic of a time not long gone when Aboriginal lives were managed completely by white officialdom. Cherbourg has a dark past but has survived as a strong outpost of Indigenous culture. It is not without its sense of dignity, most notable when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004. There are great people there like Aunty Sandra Morgan who turned the dilapidated old ration shed into Australia’s finest Indigenous museum. I was engrossed by the ration shed when I went there in February and I promised them I would be back for the fun run they are organising. It speaks to a community with a future as well as a past.

It is a long and often difficult past, and one that stretches back into the 19th century. It starts in 1895 with Archibald Meston, a former politician, a journalist, a businessman and a self-proclaimed expert in indigenous affairs. The frontier wars were mostly over in Queensland by then but the question was what to do with landless Aboriginals that survived the slaughter. Meston claimed he wanted ‘save that unhappy race’ and his solution was to create two new reserves, one in the south of the state, the other in the north. The watchwords would be control and discipline, and it would involve complete isolation from the white population.  The problem was that Queensland had tried reserves but failed and the authorities were not immediately keen to try again. They asked Meston to examine the work of the missions and report back.

In the meantime, Queensland enacted a law that was to have profound consequences for Indigenous Queenslanders. The 1897 Aboriginal Protection and Restrictions on the Sale of Opium Act, was to become so emblematic of the state, it became simply known as the Queensland Act. “Protection” sounded like a good thing but it was section 9 of the Act that gave it menace. It gave the Home Affairs minister authorisation to “remove” Aborigines to reserves in the district. Once these reserves were established, the Minister would do the removing with Meston looking over his shoulder, believing that stern measures were necessary for the “effective protection” of Aborigines. The first reserve was at Fraser Island, with 51 Indigenes removed from Maryborough. The remote island proved an administrative nightmare, and after three years it was handed over to the Anglican Board of Mission.

Cherbourg, then known as Barambah (until the 1930s), was first mooted in 1899 by Salvation Army missionary William Thompson. Thompson lived in Nanango, the heart of the quickly growing South Burnett region. The first two reserves he proposed were blocked by either settlers who didn’t want Aboriginal neighbours, or the railway board who needed the land for the South Burnett line. Eventually Thompson found a 2800ha block at Barambah Station, and the reserve was gazetted in 1901. He persuaded some local Wakka Wakkas to settle there and the government threw in 60 more when they closed down Durundur camp, after complaints from residents in nearby Woodford. Thompson was more interested in saving souls than improving conditions which were primitive in early Barambah. There were no provisions and just tents for houses. Fate intervened in September 1904 when Thompson was incapacitated after a horse-riding accident and had to hand control to the government. It was this time that the 100th anniversary celebrated not Thompson’s earlier start in 1901.

The government hired the former superintendent at Durundur, Albert Tronson, to be the new superintendent at Barambah. Tronson did not have Thompson’s religious scruples and was determined to make the new reserve work. Drawing on lessons from his time at Durundur, that meant it had to be economically self-sufficient. Despite over 800 hectares of arable land, Tronson felt agriculture wouldn’t work but he saw a different opportunity in the explosion of new white settlers to the region.

Tronson put his black workforce at the service of the new settlers and the South Burnett would grow wealthy on the back of cheap labour. Demand for Barambah workers exceeded supply. Still, the whites did not like the large concentration of native Australians in their midst and the Kingaroy paper denounced the government for sending “notorious and scoundrelly aboriginals” to the region. But the government was delighted by the success of their project and by 1910, Barambah was mostly self-supporting. By then too the population had surged from 300 to 1000. As long as they were working, Tronson’s laissez faire approach meant there was little unrest and a lot of freedom of movement.

All that changed with the appointment of a new Chief Protector of Aborigines JW Bleakley. Bleakley strongly believed in isolating blacks from whites and actively promoted removal to the reserves. Tribes from all parts of Queensland, and even some from Cummeragunja in southern NSW ended up in a pot-pourri of nations at Barambah. Bleakley ordered removals to avoid the scourge of miscegenation, and it was also a means of control. Some were removed for ridiculous reasons like the two Coen women who were ‘dangerously affected by the moon’ and while Taroom residents asked for the removal of half-caste Carbo who went frequently through the town “mixing with members of our little community.” Refusal to work for whites was a common reason for removal. Laziness was not tolerated and Cherbourg, and later Palm Island and Woorabinda would be where Aboriginal criminals finished their sentences. Bleakley made sure the primary purpose of such places were to reform, subjugate and dominate the inmates.

Bleakley’s mission was not entrepreneurial so he did not care about Tronson’s system of outside work assignments. Bleakley preferred to keep Aborigines on the settlement and away from whites, though because they were indispensable to the South Burnett economy, many continued as semi-slave labourers. Bleakley’s purpose was to shake all remnants of Aboriginal culture out of them, so he set up children’s dorms where they would be away from the parents and their native ways. The attached school had a purpose too but it was not to educate. Oddly the lack of learning had precisely the opposite effect than intended. Children filled the gaps with lessons in their own culture, which continued to be handed down – though now in secret. In public, the education was meant to instil the virtues of cleanliness, discipline and order. There were weekly inspections where any trace of dirt was punished. Still, it wasn’t clean enough to keep away Spanish flu in 1919 and there were 143 deaths in 1000 people – seven times the Australian average.

The death rate remained high in the 1920s due to non-existent sewerage and poor diet. In 1918, authorities paid for a reticulation system by withholding money from Aboriginal salaries, but for 20 years it only covered the hospital. The food was atrocious and the superintendent admitted buying lumpy meat unfit for whites but hinted that blacks should not turn their noses up at it. Doctor after doctor visiting the settlement remarked upon the appalling diet but their protests fell on deaf ears. From 1901 to 1940, you were four times more likely to die than the average Australian, if your home was Barambah.

Renamed as Cherbourg in 1931, it suffered particularly badly in the Depression, with demand for labour falling off completely. Those that did work had most of their wages confiscated. 20% went to administration and in 1930 there was an additional 5% levy for improvements to the reserve. In practice the stolen wages went further, as they were paid into trust accounts managed by whites who couldn’t help either using the funds to do further maintenance or simply line their own pockets.

The blacks were left with pocket money and were encouraged to barter for services. They wouldn’t dare ask about their wages, because that was ‘cheeky’ behaviour and would lead to punishment like jail, or worse still, removal to another settlement. Barambah blacks lived in constant fear of being sent to Palm Island or Woorabinda, and similar threats existed at the other two settlements. All routine and mundane tasks on the settlements were done by inmates minimising the cost to the government.

The aim was to strip inmates of all respect and dignity, and create a cheap and compliant labour force. They had restricted freedom of movement, unless they had the ‘dog tag’ which allowed some rights but required papers, which could be inspected at any time and also removed. There was no chance that anyone could escape the grind or get to own property. World War II brought a renewed sense of optimism but it was crushed again in the relentless assimilation of the 1950s. Queensland has the strongest reserve system in Australia but it was also the slowest state to react to the changing tide of decolonisation in the 1960s. The Queensland Act was abandoned in 1965 but it wasn’t until 1972 that restrictions on freedom of movement were lifted in Cherbourg.

By then the local MP, a strange, awkward New Zealand-born Danish Lutheran named Joh Bjelke Petersen had become accidental premier of Queensland. It was Joh who would later claim that Queensland’s Aborigines lived “on the clover” and would become as rich as the sheiks of Arabia. His constituents in Cherbourg have yet to see the oil. But according to Sandra Morgan, they would see Joh once every three years, looking for the settlement vote. He also used Cherbourg workers on his farm at Bethany who were paid, again according to Sandra Morgan with a wry smile, “peanuts”.

Today Cherbourg is run by its own shire council. Like many Aboriginal councils it has been plagued with problems and has a small pool of talent from which to choose. In my view, Sandra Morgan should be on that council as a strong woman and a terrific role model for the region. Morgan was born and raised on Cherbourg and also has strong links to the Bwgcolman culture of Palm Island through her husband. It was her vision that led to a team of workers rescuing the old ration shed and moving it up the hill to renovate it as a museum.  “We used to get food here,” Sandra told me, “now it’s food for thought.” The ration shed museum stands as in proud testament to Aboriginal culture, something that Europeans tried to kill at Cherbourg and failed. I’m looking forward to the pain of a seven kilometre run there next Sunday.


April 20, 2014 at 11:33 am Leave a comment

Peoples and Populations: Further thoughts on the Prime Minister’s Preamble

Earlier this year I wrote that a Treaty was needed to address injustices of Australian colonisation, a view supported by Indigenous scholars (McGlade 2004, Brennan et al 2005). However, Tim Rowse’s useful model (2012) of Indigenous Australians as “populations” and “peoples” gives me hope for the proposed constitutional preamble.

Measurement of Indigenous populations’ life indicators enable governments to “close the gap” on health and education. But as peoples they have a need for recognition as First Australians. This is why I now give cautious support for Prime Minister Abbott’s call for a preamble in the 2014 Close the Gap report. A 60,000-year-old society was destroyed in 150 years following Cook’s 1770 act of possession (Indigenous oral historians still give prominence to Captain Cook’s role). Indigenous people resisted occupation but Britain never acknowledged war and Australia never acknowledged its end. Survivors became fringe-dwellers as conscience-stricken whites comforted themselves by “smoothing a dying pillow”, as they did in other settler countries. Australia defined itself by whiteness and boundaries of race but the 1967 referendum and 1971 census began the repair of Aboriginals as measurable populations. They now seek recognition of identity with the land  to overcome the effect of racism which remains in the criminal justice system. Real wars have been replaced by history wars but the “usurper complex” positioning whites as victim, still flourishes. This review examines two texts to see how the need for justice could inform a preamble – frontier reports from 1839 looking “through their eyes” (Lakic and Wrench 1994), and a 20th-century look at the “contested ground” (McGrath 1995) of Australian historiography.

The year 1839 was a watershed on Port Phillip’s frontier. By 1835 the law of terra nullius gave carte blanche for whites to steal Indigenous land. That same year the government repudiated Australia’s only Treaty at the cost of opening up  the country to settlers. Australian exports expanded 25 times between 1825 and 1840 and wool’s high price attracted European settlers while removing original inhabitants from camps and waterholes. Myall Creek’s 1838 massacre showed settlers did not consider killing Aborigines a crime while the subsequent trial made them quiet about their conquests. The government hired Chief Protector George Robinson from Tasmania to put a humanitarian gloss on outright theft. His assistant protectors Edward Parker and William Thomas enforced what they called Britain’s “benevolent designs” with Parker’s job to track down guerrilla leaders. They regretted the inevitable outcome but their solution to Robinson was not to stop white crimes but remove Aboriginals to reserves or else bring in native police. The first path led to Coranderrk where radical hopes  were quashed by greedy settlers, while native police, especially in Queensland completed colonisation’s dirty work. Parker and Thomas were writing official reports not history, but their words are a damning indictment of settler behaviour.

By 1995 the battleground had moved to books where Stanner’s “great Australian silence” was replaced by “Black Armband” history. In 1987 Ann McGrath wrote of Indigenous survivors “born in the cattle”  but controversies over Australia’s Bicentennial a year later widened her focus. Tiga Bayles told the Day of Mourning protest that “asking Aborigines to like Australia day was like asking Jews to celebrate the holocaust”. Whites stole their land and their history, thus McGrath’s historiography begins with a Bicentennial history book flung into the harbour as scornful First Australians talked of their “200th bicentenary”. Aboriginal stories were expunged  from Australian history which became a story, in McGrath’s words, of Europeans “discovering, exploring, settling, [and] fighting”. Winners wrote the history which ignored Aborigines entirely. McGrath acknowledged her sympathetic role as an expert witness in land claims and as a “white female historian, trained in the academy of the liberal humanistic traditions”. She was writing long after the Civilising Mission of Robinson and his men but her “questions of the dead and the living” are just as much demands for colonial justice.

There is a direct line between 1839’s events to those of McGrath’s world in 1995 which cascade on to 2014. Though “usurpers” still deny problems, the enormous 19th century gulf between white and black was recognised by the end of the 20th. Governments responded by “closing the gap” but if the 2014 Closing the Gap is to be meaningful it must address issues that affect Indigenous Australia as “peoples” as well as “populations”. The Prime Minister’s preamble might do that if tackles issues of identity and justice. To get there, we must carefully but openly examine the history in documents like Lakic and Wrench, and McGrath. Only then can we move beyond contested ground and find a meeting place of black and white.

April 9, 2014 at 2:23 pm Leave a comment

Gurindji story: From Little Things, Big Things Grow

gurindjiI’ve been reading a wide variety of texts about Indigenous life in recent months but easily the most radical and original has been that of Japanese historian Minoru (Mino) Hokari. Hokari was just 32 when he died of lymphoma in 2004  but he left behind some startling insights into Australian Aboriginal history. He spent much of his doctoral research in the late 1990s and early 2000s immersed in the culture of the Gurindji people of NT and the fruits of that research came out in his challenging book Gurindji Journey: A Japanese Historian in the Outback.

The cover of the book shows Hokari on his motorbike posing in front of the vastness of Uluru. But it is a little misleading. Gurindji country is in the north west of the territory, some 1,689km by road from the iconic rock. The book is all about the learning Hokari picked up from his visits to Gurindji homeland and nothing to do with the adventures of a would-be outback tourist.

Gurindji country is most famous for Wave Hill Station. Wave Hill was the site of the famous walk off led by Vincent Lingiari and others in 1966 (immortalised in the Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow) The Gurindji walked off the English-owned property in a pastoral strike, and set up their own community 20km away at Daguragu.  The strike led to a nationwide land rights campaign and eventually a grand ceremony in 1975, attended by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, to commemorate the return of some of their land.

Gurindji People had lived in the Victoria River region for thousands of years before whites established the first cattle station in the 1880s. They named it Wave Hill and British agribusiness giant Vesteys bought it out at the start of the 20th century.  It grew to 25,000 sq km of agricultural land carrying 50,000 head of cattle by the 1930s. When the whites first arrived, they killed many Aboriginals while many others fled the region. Later on, needed a workforce to serve their growing business, they lured the Gurindji back with beef, flour and tea. They became stock workers, a cheap labour force living in poor conditions.

Hokari deals with this history briefly, but he is less concerned with objective facts than he is in getting Aboriginal views on their history . We go down strange pathways where actors such as the rainbow snake, Captain Cook, a many-limbed man-monkey named Jacky Pantamarra, and President Kennedy (as the “Big American Boss”) all play a role.  Whatever about snakes and monkeys, white academic history tells us that neither Cook nor Kennedy ever visited the Northern Territory. But that is what Hokari wants us to accept the possibility of us, particularly problematic in the case of Kennedy, in that his visit to NT came just before the Gurindji 1966 walk off, and hence three years after his assassination in Dallas.

Hokari admits histories of Kennedy visiting Aboriginal communities and a rainbow snake that caused a big flood would normally be excluded from “historical facts”. But he asks us to consider these stories as an alternative form of history. The Gurindji people are historians, says Hokari, because “they re-narrate past incidents and experiences in the present, re-enact them, apply their moral, political, spiritual and philosophical analyses and thereby try to learn something from history and communicate that something.”

This is not to say their stories should be interpreted as mythology, but as a historical truthful experience for their narrators. It does not contradict the fact white history tells us JFK never visited Gurindji country but rather it is ‘the history we do not know.’

These distinctions are not easy to grasp but require careful listening and attentiveness. Hokari was accepted among the Gurindji, not because he was Japanese (he was still a ‘kartiya’ or white man) but because he immersed himself in their culture with an anthropological zeal.

Hokari’s teacher was an old man and ‘extraordinary historian’ called Jimmy Mangayarri (who tragically died around the same time as Hokari).  Hokari said he didn’t have to ask Old Jimmy any questions – he (Jimmy) had his own agenda to teach. Mangayarri, said Hokari, had a talent for analysing Australian colonial history, the origin of Europeans and a knowledge of what was the ‘right way’ or ‘earth law’ to follow.

Jimmy used five words to convey his meaning of life. These were ‘earth’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘law’, ‘right way’, and ‘history’. The words are interchangeable and interlocking and all pertain to the morality of the world and their place in it. The Gurindji concept of home is much bigger than  the white concept as it is the country itself, filled with various ‘rooms’ they use on different occasions. The size of their home means it must also be a shared space and something you do not ‘own’ but are a part of. The origin of this timeless world is the Dreaming:  the ‘everywhen’ that spins a web of connection without a centre.  In Gurindji cosmology the ‘self’ is merely partly of a whole but intimately connected to other beings, other countries and other community members.

Jimmy told Hokari about the ‘right way’ which blurred the line between movement and law. “You look round,” he told Hokari. “Sun go down that way (west), sun get up that way (east), this is the right way.  No matter which way Jimmy would sit, he would always draw lines in the sand with a stick going west to east to show the direction of ‘the right way’.  His right way includes a geographical Dreaming track as well as ethical behaviour.  It is also a lifetime long education path; ‘a big high school’ both in time and size.

This path gave plenty of opportunity to study European ways and the effect of colonisation. Jimmy told Hokari Captain Cook arrived in Darwin and proceeded south, cutting across the west-east Dreaming track, breaking the ‘right way’.  The behaviour of the colonists that followed him was both immoral and contradictory to earth law. They came without permission, as Jimmy explained “Kartiya [whites] must ask people…  you know, all this idea from fuck’n Captain Cook.”

But Captain Cook wasn’t the first Kartiya to encounter Aborigines. Before Cook was another Englishman named “Keen Lewis”, more commonly known by the Aboriginal name Jacky Pantamarra. Pantamarra evolved from a monkey-like creature with four arms or four legs and he bred the kartiya. Jacky Pantamarra wrote a book with ‘silly ideas’ such as colonisation. Starting out with slings and arrows he learned how to use a rifle and eventually came to Australia claiming it as his own country.  Pantamarra beat his wife and brought alcohol, becoming the origin of all bad ideas. Jacky Pantamarra, his name a sarcastic rejoinder to the 19th century European discriminatory name for Aborigines (“Jacky Jacky”), encapsulates the history of all Europeans who came to Australia. Pantamarra is dead, but his story can appear any time in the past, mimicking the temporal-free structure of the Dreaming to make a point about Europeans.

The Gurindji have a word for what happened when the whites arrived in their country. They called it ‘shoot ‘em time’.  Jimmy said the kartiya shot the ngumpin [Aboriginal people] because the ngumpin stole buluki [cattle] from the stations. “That’s why kartiya bin cheeky [dangerous, aggressive], shoot ‘em ngumpin.” Jimmy told Hokari the Gurindji loved the taste of the meat of the buluki. They paid a heavy price for their tasting with mass killings and arrest.  According to Jimmy, people were “chain here [showing wrist of right arm], chain here [then wrist of left arm] … and kartiya shoot ‘em.”

Those that survived the killing times were eventually enticed back to the stations to work for Vesteys. The men found dignity in working with cattle, something they deeply enjoyed even if their conditions were poor.  The Old Wave Hill station was washed away in a 1924 flood, which Jimmy said was started because a Gurindji made a rainstone during a drought which he gave to a rainbow snake in a waterhole.  He got the rain but it became a big flood. Jimmy’s story shows how Dreaming beings are as active as humans in colonial history.  It was the Gurindji way of showing Kartiya they could control the weather.

After the flood, a new Wave Hill station was built. One of the key Gurindji figures in that time was Sandy Moray Junganaiari, a stockworker at Vesteys.  A well-travelled man, Sandy Moray, began to thinking of a better way of living.  He called meetings of elders.  “What’s for we work’n langa kartiya?” he asked them. “We wanna fight the kartiya. Get the country back!” Sandy Moray was too old to lead the revolution himself but he had planted a firm seed in Lingiari and others, particularly after the Pindan walk-off in the Pilbara in 1946.

The Gurindji needed allies (journalist Frank Hardy was a massive help) and they sought the help of the Northern Australian Workers Union. Assisted by NAWU black unionist Dexter Daniels, Lupna Giari (better known as Captain Major) began the strike action at Newcastle Waters which was followed at Wave Hill.  Lingiari probably faked an injury as an excuse to be in Darwin Hospital where he met Daniels and planned the campaign.  While it was publicly called a ‘strike’ to get the union involved, the action was really a walk-off. Lingiari and the Gurindji had no intention of coming back.

NAWU and Hardy weren’t their only allies – they also had the ‘Big American Boss’ President Kennedy.  For Jimmy and other elders, America was a place where people lived in good country.  They were moral Europeans and were not like English kartiya.  Jimmy said that during “Vestey Time” someone saw a huge airplane arrive on Wave Hill airstrip. There was a star mark on its tail and was so big there were two cars loaded inside. The visitor was President Kennedy who met Sandy Moray and Lingiari and agreed to support them. “You gotta your country back soon,” Kennedy told Moray. Kennedy started ‘the biggest war’ in order to kill the kartiya.  Was this an allegory for Vietnam or was it simply the Gurindji seeking strong support from outside to help realise their project.

On 23 August 1966, the Gurindji moved off the station to Wave Hill Settlement where they sat out the wet season. When the Dry came in 1967 they moved to Wattie Creek, where they now remain. Vesteys refused to leave, but the national campaign launched by Lingiari, Captain Major, Hardy and others gradually led to a historic land deal. For eight years they illegally occupied Wattie Creek until they struck a deal with Vesteys in 1975. The successful land claim is still widely recognised as an enormous achievement in Indigenous rights.

Independence has brought its own set of difficulties. Ngumpin law is not as strong as it was and kartiya way is eating its way into the younger community. Jacky Pantamarra brought grog to the community and its scars are still visible. Elder Billy Bunter told Hokari the young people are caught between ngumpin and kartiya culture and “don’t know which way to go”.  But Gurindji spirit remains alive and strong even if Old Jimmy is now gone as is his exceptionally gifted Japanese student. “You never kill history,” he told Hokari. “[If] you break it, history kill you!”

February 7, 2014 at 4:27 pm Leave a comment

A modest proposal: Why today should be Australia Day

As a journalist, I work most public holidays including Australia Day so in some respects it makes no difference to me what day it is celebrated on. But its timing on January 26 makes a great deal of difference to many people, and it has led me to a modest proposal. Next year January 26 will fall on a Monday and we should celebrate it as such, but let’s make sure that it stays that way in 2016. From that year onwards, let’s move Australia Day so it always falls on the fourth Monday in January. Furthermore, we should have have a new holiday for the Sunday before. Let’s call it Survival Day, it wouldn’t be a paid holiday for anyone (though as a Sunday most people would be off).  Australia Day would always be on a long weekend, and would continue to be a day of celebration occurring once every six or seven years on January 26. Survival Day on the day before would be a time for reflection and gratitude for all of us who have survived the collision of two completely different civilisations from 1788 onwards. Together  these changes would take much of the heat out of the arguments for when to have the national day.

The end of January is an excellent time to hold the national holiday. Three or four weeks after the Christmas festive season, many people are in need of a long weekend pick-me-up before the school holidays end.  I remember  living in Victoria in the 1980s and 90s when Australia Day was always on that fourth Monday of the year. This was, to some extent, a Melbourne thing not wanting to celebrate Sydney’s birthday. But it was also a way of ensuring it was always a long weekend. Unfortunately many of the other states always celebrated on January 26, Victoria was shamed for being out of step. But I believe it is Victoria that was right and the others wrong: they should have all gone the other way.

I accept that having Australia Day on January 26 is popular, particularly this year when it falls on the weekend and there is a holiday on Monday, to recover from our Australia Day excesses. But why should we have a hangover holiday? There are those who argue that January 1 should be Australia’s national day as it celebrates the Federation of Australia in 1901 but that has more problems than answers. For starters does News Years Day gazump Australia Day or vice versa? Will people back up from New Year’s Eve and does it mean two hangover holidays? Not to mention that if 1788 is problematic historically, 1901 is, if anything, worse.

Australia Day didn’t exist in 1901. It is a 20th century invention and it wasn’t until 1946 that it got its formal approval from the federal government. Nowadays, there is little evidence that the events of January 26, 1788 in Sydney Cove are important in celebrations of Australia national day. Whether it is people relaxing privately or the great and the good fulminating on the virtues that make the nation, never have I heard anyone drawing lessons or inspiration from what Governor Arthur Phillip and his band of settlers did 226 years ago.

The only people that really care about the 226th anniversary of the founding of Sydney tend to have a deep loathing of the day. On the 150th anniversary in 1938, Aboriginal leaders in Sydney found it offensive enough to launch “a day of mourning”. Only one white person attended the protest meeting at Australia Hall that day, but the evocative day of mourning survived to haunt white conscience for decades afterwards. The descendants of those Mourners had a new message for the 200th anniversary in 1988. This was to call it “Invasion Day”, which turned the focus from people to land, and it became a thorn in Australia’s soaring confidence in the 1980s, rubbing inconvenient indelible ink stains into the glamour of the bicentennial, and leading to the land rights battles of the 1990s.

More recently, the Indigenous people gave the day a new twist by calling it Survival Day. This is a significant change of meaning that give agency back to Indigenous Australians.  Europeans came in 1788, they said, many of our mob died in the horrible collision that followed, but importantly, we survived, we are still here.  That long and painful story of Aboriginal Australia highlights why the First Fleet is not spoken of with pride. It is an inconvenient reminder us of the massive lie at the heart of our history. In some respects, it is a shame Australia does not recall 1788 because in many respects it was the journey to the Moon of its day. Armed with the doubtful knowledge of only one skimpy journey to that part of the world some 18 years previously, Governor Arthur Phillip led a convoy of one thousand British people (three quarters of them convicts) in 11 ships on a voyage that started in 1787 and took 8 months to get to the other side of the world.  There were many significant dates in January 1788 that could serve for an anniversary. The Fleet first saw Australian land at Tasmania on January 9 (but had still no idea it was an island). They arrived at Botany Bay a week later landing in dribs and drabs. HMS Supply was the first ship in on the 18th, the convict transports arrived a day later, and the officers and marines brought up the rear on the 20th. The expedition’s great biographer Watkin Tench noted that only one marine and 24 convicts died along the way. Tench had justifiable pride – the death rates on the fleets that followed were much higher.

Back in 1770, Captain Cook had given the name of Botany Bay much thought. Originally he called it Sting-Ray Harbour, then Botanist Bay, but it was an inspired move to eventually come up with the euphonious Botany Bay. The colony remained by that name in British books, songs and legends long after it had outlasted Botany itself.  But Phillip was in no mood to applaud Cook; he could see that that this poorly watered ground was no place to start a colony. Phillip quickly found that Cook’s description of Botany Bay was oversold and they moved the new colony a few miles up to the next harbour which they called Sydney Cove. But it was at Botany that the Fleet first ran into the problem that continues to haunt Australia to this day.

Phillip may have considered Botany Bay unsuitable for occupation but others did. When Phillip and his men first landed at Yarra Bay on the 20th, he was greeted by the Dharawal people who led him to water. This meeting was peaceful, but the French expedition under the Compte de Laperouse which remarkably landed in Botany Bay a few days later ran into trouble, and Phillip’s second in command David Collins noted that “La Perouse was compelled to fire upon the natives.” It wouldn’t be long before the British had the same dilemmas.

When they arrived at Sydney Cove on the 26th, they found natives there too. Tench said they were initially curious and then became “more shy of our company.” It was clear to the Eora people that these new strangers would not be leaving any time soon, and they shunned them as people who did not understand or respect local law. Phillip, Collins and Tench were all men of the European enlightenment and determined to treat the natives with curiosity, courtesy and the full protection of British law.  However they were first and foremost British soldiers and they all accepted absolutely the Crown’s right to rule this new strange land. Phillip never felt the need to offer a treaty, because he had the backing of 200 armed marines to enforce British law in his little realm. On the one hand, the were “sable brethren” with the same wants and desires as the British, but on the other they were “savages” with no obvious religion to guide them and no government to negotiate with.

Phillip did however have a desperate need to understand his neighbours, not least to avoid the colony starving to death. He resorted to the tried and tested European method of kidnapping, first Arabanoo, and then Bennelong and Colbee so as to get to know the natives better.  This treachery was quickly followed by disease. Current thinking has it that the British did not bring smallpox to Sydney (Collins tried to blame the French) but instead came down the coast, contracted from the Malays who fished the north coast of Australia for beche de mer (sea cucumber) from 1720 onwards. Yet it seems too coincidental that it should arrive in Sydney 68 years later at the exact moment European invaders were making themselves at home. Whatever the fault, it was catastrophic and the Eora and other tribes came into town dying on their feet with tell-tale signs of pock-marked skin.

After a few years Phillip and Tench went home to England and with them went their enlightened attitudes. Their replacements had no reason to respect the black stragglers that haunted the growing town with their begging presence. When the Rum Corps paid their men with gifts of land, the sporadic violence on the edge of the settlement became outright war. This pattern of land allocation, friction with the prior owners, and then fighting for the land would be repeated across Australia for the next 130 years. A war that was never declared, it was never formally ended either but by the time Australia Day was celebrated nationally, nearly all the land belonged to the whitefellas.

Australia swept its foundational history under the carpet, whether it was about convicts or settler violence. These tales were replaced by a powerful myth that placed Australia as an empty land populated by pioneers who tamed the land with the sweat of their brow.  That white settlers were hardworking is beyond question, but so too is the war they faced to win the land. The Aborigines had to be crushed when they fought back because they were vermin polluting the land needed for sheep and cattle and also because the whites believed timidity would be taken as cowardice. Whenever the Aborigines stole this sheep or cattle, they were considered criminals who had to be taught a lesson. Where ever there was a white death, it was repaid in multiples. Those Aborigines that did survived to the 20th century were all considered wards of the state, managed in every aspect of their lives, their lack of freedom only matched by their chronic poverty.

In the 1950s, the powers-that-be thought the way to fix that was to make the blacks white, and assimilate them into the European state. The Aboriginal people by and large resisted and began to fight back. Contrary to expectations they would die off, their numbers were now increasing. Because many had been scattered from their own country, they were growing a new Pan-Aboriginal culture to replace the tribal culture that had been ripped from them.

Following the 1967 referendum, Indigenous Australians grasped a new level of political consciousness but have never forgotten the lessons, two centuries of oppression have taught them. They want not just equal rights as Australians but also Aboriginal rights as descendants of the First Australians. Prime Minister Tony Abbott used his Australia Day speech to try to start a national conversation about amending our Constitution to recognise that fact.  But he has a curious reluctance to march into history to justify his belief. “While Australia Day formally marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, we celebrate something richer and deeper,” he said.  Abbott is mistaken – there is no deeper problem for Australia than coming to terms with the history that the First Fleet’s arrival unleashed. A referendum on recognition, must as its starting point, recognise the truth of our past. The war must be formally ended with a treaty and reparations. In the meantime, moving Australia Day away from January 26 (at least six years out of every seven) would be a handy start.

January 27, 2014 at 12:46 pm 1 comment

Donnelly applies the whitener to Australian history

A few years back there was an ad campaign based on people’s ignorance of Australian history. According to the ad, everyone knew George Washington was the first US president but no one could name Australia’s First Prime Minister. The ad itself ensured that the name of Edmund Barton, if not his legacy, was at least temporarily remembered.

What the ad was trying to do was to encourage more interest in Australian history, but therein lies a problem and a likely clue as to why no-one knew his name in the first place -  it is a contested space and full of cobwebs many want to remain undisturbed. One of Barton’s first acts as Prime Minister was to introduce the White Australia Policy telling the country’s parliament in 1901 that Melanesian Kanakas were inferior to Europeans and they (the white parliamentarians) were guarding the last part of the world where ‘the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher civilisation’.  Barton’s point of view was shared by most white Australians in 1901, but these days is more than a bit inconvenient for anyone wishing to laud the positives of Australia’s past.

This is Kevin Donnelly’s problem when he speaks about the Australian education system. The curriculum should be impartial and disinterested, he said, and should be based on the search for wisdom, understanding and the truth. This is motherhood stuff and a hint of what he is really complaining about comes when he bemoans the lack of focus on western civilisation and Judeo-Christian teaching in Australian history.  In some respects, Donnelly’s complaint is codswallop, as religion and western civilisation pervade all aspects of our educational system. But given his focus on Australian history and his concern those values are being “airbrushed” from the education system, Donnelly might not like it, if the truth was really told.

How, for instance, would you apply western civilisation and Judeo-Christian values to the question of why the Europeans came to Australia in the first place, uninvited and with a self-given mandate to take over?  How much was western civilisation and Christian values at fault when those that did come to Australia felt superior to those that lived here before, unwilling or unable to recognise Aboriginal culture when they didn’t see cities, councils, cathedrals or crops? How might civilisation and culture explain why the Europeans destroyed what went before, treating Indigenous people like either vermin to be killed off, animals to be tamed,  or children to be educated in white ways?  Or why those that came in the name of religion at missionaries and churches treated natives like slaves and their children like souls to be bartered off to the highest bidder?

Why was it a Barton-led nation at Federation determined Australia would be for whites only, preferably British, and the Aboriginals were no better than flora and fauna?  Would that religion explain our nation’s fetish for war – as long as they weren’t ones that took place on native soil? Would the “Judeo” bit explain Australian anti-semitism between the wars and the country’s refusal to take in refugees from Nazi Germany? And why did the various branches of the “Christian” bit hate each other so much and leave a legacy of bitterness and bigotry that spanned generations?

Maybe Donnelly might tell us which aspect of western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage explains why in 2014 we are such a pack of bastards when it comes to letting others into the country and then washing our dirty immigration laundry in other people’s sinks. Never mind complaining about the new $8000 media visa into Nauru, why not examine the circumstances by how we permit this vile charade to happen?

Maybe too, Donnelly might have a quiet word with the marketing managers at Aldi and tell them why t-shirts with “Australia Est 1788” mixing snappy corporate branding with unfunny, inaccurate history is not such a good idea.

But I suspect Donnelly will do none of those things, being more keen to wallow in the reflected glory of western civilisation and religion celebrated than explore the murky shadows of their massive blind spots. The common point in all these questions is the selectiveness of what we choose to remember. Donnelly wants us to ignore the elements that make us feel uncomfortable and bask in those that make us feel good.  His views are a proxy for those who want to paint a clean veneer of white-picket fence philosophy onto the messy and complex canvas of modern Australia.

Kevin Donnelly is doing the donkey work for more powerful actors. This pandering to Anzacs and Gallipoli is leftover secret men’s business from the days of the Howard government with many of the same players in the same positions of power to finish off the agenda. This is not education, this is cultural indoctrination.

January 13, 2014 at 1:27 pm Leave a comment

Forget the Preamble, what Australia needs is a Treaty

The new Coalition Government has been making noises on a referendum to change the constitution to recognise First Australians. The wording of the change has yet to be announced but Prime Minister Tony Abbott is saying the change would “complete our constitution rather than change it.” What exactly Abbott means by completion rather than change is not clear from the article but I assume it means the change will have purely ornamental rather than legal force. According to his deputy Julie Bishop, the government wants to have a “deep discussion” with the Australian people before agreeing to the wording but here’s a free tip from me if the changes are purely for show: Forget it.

I say forget it, not because Australian  constitutional referendums have a habit of failing, but because there are genuine things constitutional change could do to improve the situation of First Australians. The most profound change would be to turn the preamble into a Treaty, common enough in other settler countries, but the first ever in 225 years of European occupation of Australia.  Unlike a flowery but pointless preamble, a treaty would genuinely acknowledge past failures and injustices and show sincere desire for a better future and more just relationship.

A Treaty is a political document between sovereign people and it was this difficulty that saw John Howard reject the idea as far back as 1988 as an absurd proposition that “a nation should make a treaty with some of its own citizens.”  Yet the idea is far from absurd to the many Indigenous people who see this as the first step in the recognition of the wars and dispossession of their country and the genocide that followed.  It was Howard’s assimilatory ideas in the face of historical evidence that were blatantly contradictory and hence absurd. Howard’s culture of forgetting was shared by his later immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock who told ABC in October 1998 there couldn’t be a treaty because there never had been a war in this country.

Ruddock’s idea of war was flawed as was his view of a Treaty.  A Treaty (also known by its Yolgnu name Makarrata meaning thigh) was long established as an appropriate way by which whites could acknowledge Aboriginal equality and prior ownership. In 1979 an Aboriginal treaty committee was formed by prominent whites almost all came from political and intellectual left. Then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser offered to discuss treaty conditions with Aborigines while 8 years later his successor Bob Hawke spoke of ‘a compact of understanding’.  But this whitefella idea of a treaty was rejected by the Federation of Aboriginal Land Councils because of insufficient consultation with Aborigines, doubts of its significance and consequences and because it would legalise occupation and use of sovereign Aboriginal lands by the Australian settler state. The Aboriginal Sovereign Treaty campaign in 1988 called for sovereign recognition and treaty. It was enshrined in the Barunga Statement presented to Hawke.

Barunga called for a treaty, a national system of land rights, compensation for land loss, end to discrimination, Aboriginal self-determination and protection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Hawke promised a treaty but it faded from agenda, replaced by land rights issues in the 1990s. As Prime Minister in the end of that decade John Howard fought land rights and firmly rejected treaty recommendation in favour of what he called ‘practical reconciliation‘.  There was no reason the two couldn’t co-exist and indeed there is a view that practical reconciliation is impossible without a treaty framework. True or not, Australia has never sat at the table and negotiated the basic terms of peaceful coexistence between the first peoples of this continent and those who came later. It is no coincidence, Australia’s first peoples typically find themselves on the lowest rung of our society and largely locked out of the wealth of a very affluent country.

A Treaty that might address these failings has mutual obligations. For the Government it would mean responsibility to long-term funding and administrative support for education and health. For the Indigenous community it would mean taking the primary responsibility for child protection, community justice and substance abuse. There are three key elements to a treaty: a) a starting point of acknowledgement b) a process of negotiation and c) outcomes in the form of rights, obligations and opportunities. The hardest part will be part c, working out what outcomes would be suitable for a Treaty.   A Treaty must be on the reasonable basis that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies have been injured and harmed throughout the colonisation process and just recompense is owed.  This means giving away power or land or some sovereignty – none of which will be easy. It might mean governments stop fighting land claims or guaranteeing a number of Indigenous seats in parliament or returning Aboriginal reserves or other Crown land to original owners. There will be resistance to some or all of these moves. But if they are not addressed, we will simply be coping by the act of forgetting and moving on a an aged-old moral problem to the next generation to grapple with. Without a Treaty, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Islander people have difficulty advancing claims of title, compensation and sovereignty.

But a Treaty is not just an important opportunity for blackfellas. It is also important to non-Indigenous people to allow them to come to grips with a challenging issue of great difficulty and complexity. That is how they relate to the Indigenous peoples of the Australian continent. Unlike a preamble which goes nowhere, a Treaty would help bridge the gulf, mutual understanding, better public policy, better use of money.  A Treaty would eventually be a source of pride, like Waitangi is to modern New Zealand. As a way of righting grievous wrongs, it can also help in building a better nation, more secure in its identity, its symbols and its values.  A Preamble with no legal heft behind it would achieve none of those things.

January 3, 2014 at 11:52 am 10 comments

Woolly Days media person of the year 2013 – Edward Snowden

snowdenI read the other day an article in Nieman Journalism Lab that pronounced the death of the blog in 2013. It had been overtaken, the article said, by social media, aggregators, micro-blogs and meme police (think Reddit) in setting agendas and influencing other media. That may be so, but I think the death of blogging may be exaggerated. The article that reported the death was itself a blog post and there are hundreds of millions of blogs still active. I’ve been blogging on and off for over eight years and don’t see myself stopping soon. I enjoy writing them, I like the way they force me to marshall my ideas and I enjoy my work seeing in the public domain, no matter how uninfluential. Millions of others, I suspect, will continue their blogs for a million other reason. One of my many million reasons is that I can get to name a Woolly Days media person (or personality) of the year award, something I’ve done for the last five years.

My winner wouldn’t be aware of the award but that doesn’t stop me from having fun and naming someone I saw as making a difference to the world of the media. The year I started the award – 2009 – was around the time Australia was grappling seriously with the end of analog and the idea of paywalls for internet content. ABC boss Mark Scott was in the fortunate position of being able to deal with both issues without the need to turn a profit. But he was emerging as a thoughtful contributor to where the digital world was taking us. As boss of the national broadcaster he straddled the political divide as a former Liberal staffer appointed by John Howard yet who seemed ready-made Labor-lite and someone not afraid to put the boot into Rupert Murdoch. It is difficult to see how Scott will survive into an Abbott Government but he has put ABC in a strong position as an independent cultural institution, albeit very safe and conservative in its Sydney values.

I didn’t give much thought as to whether it was a one-off award or not in 2009. As it happened, one person dominated world media headlines in 2010 and he was Julian Assange. Assange was Australian but his actions had huge international ramifications. Wikileaks transformed the dangerous act of whistleblowing by providing a safe place to blow that whistle. I believe Wikileaks’ best work was tackling corporate crime such as Trafigura and Bank Julius Baer  but like Icarus, Assange got too close to the sun. The astonishing horde of documentation Assange got from Bradley Manning made Assange a public enemy to western powers. Assange was a brilliant operator who changed the rules of information dissemination but he had fatal personality flaws. Assange has a case to answer under Swedish law and needs to face that justice system, otherwise the current Mexican stand-off will last only until a more American-friendly Ecuadorian government tosses him out to the streets of London.

While Assange languished in legal no-man’s land in 2011, a massive new media story was developing. What initially was defended as ‘few bad apples’, turned out to be an organisation rotten to the core showing it wasn’t just our intelligence services that spied on us. Guardian journalist Nick Davies with the fierce support of his editor Alan Rusbridger courageously overcame a smear campaign to reveal malfeasance by Rupert Murdoch’s News International with the assistance of the Metropolitan Police. The Guardian’s work was the best media on media story in years and Davies and Rusbridger fully deserved my award.

In the following November I knew I had to pick a media personality for 2012 but hadn’t really thought who it might be. In the end I grudgingly gave it to the British judge Brian Leveson who took on the Inquiry that bears his name from the Guardian hacking revelations. Leveson is a thoughtful jurist and his findings were admirable – though I have serious misgivings the British government’s new regulator will actually carry out his wishes. Nonetheless he deserved the award for running the best daily entertainment that year. Testimony after testimony was spectacular and it bordered on soap opera at times – especially when any of the Murdochs were giving evidence.

When it came thinking about this year’s award (again around November), I became aware of an anomaly – there was a serious gender imbalance, all my winners were men and White Anglo Saxon Protestantish at that.  This said more about the stereotypical way I think about media than a lack of suitable women candidates. Indeed, I found a magnificent contender in the very last week of the year. I had not heard of Ukrainian journalist Tetyana Chornovil before she was beaten up for investigating the Interior Minister but she is everything good about a journalist: single-minded, honest, fearless and determined to tell the story in the face of intense intimidation. She is already the favourite to win my award in 2014.

Yet I cannot give Chornovil, or any other journalist, my 2013 media person award. That has to go to Edward Joseph Snowden, the American computer specialist who leaked top secret National Security Agency documents to world media. The thousands of documents show the extent of surveillance done nationally and internationally, against friend or foe. Pentagon Paper leaker Daniel Ellsberg (who was assiduously courted by Julian Assange as he set up Wikileaks) described Snowden’s revelations as the most significant in US history and it certainly lays bare the US’s intelligence framework, not to mention causing political headaches across the globe.

Snowden himself became the story after his dramatic flight from the US to Russia via Hong Kong and he now remains stranded like Assange in legal limbo (of the unholy trio of leakers, only Bradley Manning has ended up in an American jail so far and even he has ‘escaped’ by changing his identity to Chelsea Manning). The idea that Russia, with its own repression, gives Snowden immunity is a sick Putin joke but the laugh has so far been on the Obama administration which has been left flat-footed as it attempts to deal with the scale of the leaks without being able to press charges.

There are times when we become a little cynical of the way government works and we look the other way when they get involved in a bit of sausage-making. There is the sense in many of our obsessive rules and regulations that it won’t affect me if I don’t do anything wrong. But there are times when someone holds up the mirror and we must look. We know we won’t like what we find and Snowden’s material shows government at its most paranoid and Orwellian-sinister. What the leaks showed was government surveillance is not about protecting people from terrorism but about protecting power. The US and allies spied for political, economic and social reasons, and while this was something we all suspected, here was the proof. Media commentator Jay Rosen said Snowden exposed threats to our freedom and his going public was a decisive moment.

Snowden says he did it to inform the public what was done in their name and what was done against them. One of the NSA documents which he leaked admitted they wanted mastery of the intelligence medium. To find the pin the haystack, they would collect the whole haystack. What they wanted was the ability to spy on anyone, anywhere, and at any time. This was gripping stuff and left authorities and their lackies flailing for answers and blaming the messenger. The craven editors at News Ltd and the Washington Post claimed publishing the articles breached national security but what the leaks showed it was national security itself that was on trial.

What happens next to Snowden is anyone’s guess, but I cannot imagine it will end happily. He is too far outside the pale for the US to forgive and forget and sooner or later, Putin will cash in his chip. Snowden will likely rot in prison like Manning. Whether it is enough to deter other would-be leakers, remains to be seen. In the meantime we must do all in our power to read what he has risked so much for. Not a woman, like Chornovil or Manning, but a worthy winner of the Woolly Days media person of the year 2013.

December 31, 2013 at 11:57 am Leave a comment

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