Quandamooka versus Queensland: A tale of law, PR and Stradbroke Island

quandamookaI was coming from Roma St Station towards Kurilpa Bridge to the Queensland State Library yesterday thinking about my aboriginal studies with a final assignment due on Monday. I was trying to figure out how crucial dignity was to three Indigenous ambassadors from different times, Bennelong, Bussamarai and Noel Pearson. Suddenly, out of nowhere appeared two men with an Aboriginal flag.

The timing seemed extraordinary and they were heading the same way as me.  I followed them to the Commonwealth law courts in front of Kurilpa bridge. Some Indigenous people were putting up signs and waiting outside the court, while others still got ready to do a traditional dance. There were television and other media present. There was the promise of a peaceful protest and street theatre.  The State Library could wait, I thought, this was a media event and I was media.  This was also Indigenous people acting out their own dignity. This was important, to them, and to me.

Across the forecourt, young men put up banners while others handed out kits to waiting media. I asked for a kit and read their story. The High Court case was about sand mining rights on “Straddie”. Straddie is North Stradbroke Island, or Minjerribah, to its Indigenous people. They were here to appeal to Canberra to stop Brisbane from making laws about their island without their permission. It is also political. Labor’s law in 2o11 permits mining to 2019 – with Indigenous consent – but the LNP introduced a new law in 2013 to push the end of mining to 2035 and also increase its size. But federal law says they should have consulted with the traditional owners and this is something the Queensland government  didn’t do.

The constitution says that when State and Federal law clash, the latter should prevail. But not for the moment, and the unconsulted Straddie Aboriginal people had to take it to the highest court in the land. It was blatant lack of regard, something my reading of the history told me happened time and time again across the country since 1788. Straddie is close to Brisbane but bridgeless, much to the delight of most of its residents black and white plus most of the visitors that make the ferry. Visitors are not new. Straddie has been home to humans for over 20,000 years.

We don’t know their original name but their descendants became the Quandamooka people. The Quandamooka maintain a presence on the island to this day. Straddie was annexed by Cook in 1770 and again by Phillip in 1788 as part of New South Wales but the islanders remained blissfully ignorant of British rule for another 36 years. Reality struck when another penal colony was needed to punish the ones already here that needed further punishing. Moreton Bay (Brisbane) fit the bill.

The British felt no permission was necessary to establish this colony, enforced at the butt of a carbine. They first landed on Straddie, the same year – 1824 – as they landed in Brisbane. At a place the islanders called Pulan, they built a pilot station overlooking the strategic exit to the ocean. Whites later renamed it to Amity Point. By then Moreton Bay was opened to free labour and from 1859, Straddie would by ruled by Brisbane, not London or Sydney. An early church mission named Myora failed to win converts. And though Australia was formed in 1901, here as elsewhere, the Quandamooka people were not counted and at the mercy of their colonial government. The earliest Brisbane rulers were pasturalists who had good financial reason to support “the opening up” of territory for agriculture. Later regimes were heavily paternal, locking up Aborigines in concentration camps across the state where they could be kept under control. Many Stradbroke Islanders were sent to Cherbourg or Woorabinda or Palm Island.

It was Brisbane that decided the first sandmining on Straddie would take place in the 1950s. There was no consultation with Quandamooka or any other local peoples or no profits to them either. Mining came and nothing much changed until two groundbreaking events in 1993. The first was Mabo v Queensland (no 2) where, on the second attempt Mer man Eddie Mabo and his friends proved to the High Court they had customary title to the Murray Islands in Torres Strait. In response later that year Paul Keating pushed through a Native Title Act, a brave move that cost him much political capital (giving things to blacks remains electorally unpopular in Australia). Keating’s Act provided for a national system which would recognise and protect native title, but needed to co-exist with the “land management system”. For Straddie that meant co-existing with sand mining. Mabo had got them a seat at the negotiating table, and also overrode Queensland law.

The Quandamooka people lodged their land claims in two phases between 1995 and 1999. The Native Native Title tribunal registered both claims in 2000 (the second one three months before the first). The claims were slowed up by boundary disputes, needing a 2006 workshop of elders, lawyers and anthropologists to resolve the disputes. In the meantime, the main mining lessees expired in October 2007. Two days after the close date, Lessee Stradbroke Rutile Ltd (owned by Consolidated Rutile) applied for a 21 continuation of lease. In 2009 both companies were gobbled up by Belgian company Sibelco, a “raw material producer” for the world manufacturing market.

In January 2010, the Federal Court asked the National Native Title Tribunal to facilitate negotiations with the State Government, local government and other interested parties to finalise an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA). Sibelco nominated its subsidiary Unimin to negotiate a separate ILUA with the Quandamooka. In mid 2010 Unamin’s “offer” to the Quandamooka involved the long-term operation of the mines until 2035 and another in 2050 and they also wanted their support in their lease negotiations with the state government.

The Quandamooka came back with a counter offer. They split the ILUA in two, firstly a complex one that would deal with future mining and might take many years to agree on, called “a Future Acts ILUA”, and the secondly a simple one to have greement on the ground once the Federal Court judges on the native title claim. They also refused to be the meat in the sandwich on the leases and advised Unamin/Sibelco to sort it out with the government and come back to them for consent.

In April 2011 the Bligh Labor government passed the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability Act (NSIPSA Act) which gave effect to key elements of the ILUA between Queensland and the Quandamooka. It approved mining on Straddie until the end of 2019 at which time full native title rights would return to the Quandamooka.

The ILUA was signed almost three years ago to the day, 15 June 2011. In what was proving a historic year, the Federal Court handed down its Native Title judgment in July 2011. For the first time, a court had recognised that Quandamooka law and customs had survived colonisation. Judge Dowsett said the Quandamooka were a “pre-sovereign society” who had maintained connections with Straddie and the adjoining sea (though not with adjoining islands or the mainland). He also noted Sibelco, Telstra and other big stakeholders were adopting the state’s submissions. The National Native Tribunal ratified the claim on 11/11/11 making it the law of the land.

But Judge Dowsett was too sanguine about Sibelco’s intentions. With a state election coming up in 2012 and a likely change of government they did as all good mining companies do and ran a political scare campaign to get their original position back on the table. They focussed their campaign in the crucial seat of Ashgrove where Campbell Newman was running to become premier from outside parliament. Labor environment minister Kate Jones held the seat but it was Newman’s scalp they wanted. Newman duly proposed to extend sand mining to 2035 if the LNP took power. During the campaign Newman told the ABC Labor had acted in “a unilateral and capricious way” by bringing forward the end of mining in its 2011 law which was “all about green preferences”. Neither interviewer nor Newman made any mention of the traditional owners and Newman had no contact with the Quandamooka before his announcement.

Sibelco’s PR company Rowland would later win a PR state award for excellence demonstrating “achieving environmental and economic progress in an island community”. Rowland’s other reward was another fat contract after Newman’s landslide election win. Without changing any laws, the new Mining Minister ruled mining would stay to 2035. Still the government had not contacted the Quandamooka. In October 2013 the government brought in the North Stradbroke Island Protection and Sustainability and Another Act Amendment Bill 2013. The new NSIPSAAA Bill offered Sibelco security to 2035 with fewer environmental provisions.

When the bill went to the agriculture, resources and environment committee, the Quandamooka could finally respond as the native title holders. The committee report admitted the government had not consulted the Quandamooka on NSIPSAAA, which breached the Queensland Legislative Standards Act 1992. Despite this, the Bill became law in Queensland’s unicameral chamber on 20 November.  Without consent, it had changed a range of matters previously agreed with the Quandamooka.

In March this year, the fight-back began. Elders gave their assent for the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation to launch a High Court Challenge to Queensland’s 2013 Straddie law. They say the law overturning the 2011 law contravenes Keating’s Native Title Act 1993. The section of constitutional law is S109 which says  if a state law is inconsistent with a Commonwealth law the latter shall prevail and the former “shall, to the extent of the inconsistency, be invalid”. The legal battle will surely be on the extent of the consistency between the two acts.

Whatever happens, the dignified Aboriginal elders outside the High Court yesterday won the moral battle. Their dancers performed a smoking ceremony where they blessed their own people and all other by-standers, including the media filming the ceremony. “It your job,” a Quandamooka dancer told them – us, me – “to tell the world”. These people are proving that dignity very much matters.

June 7, 2014 at 10:26 am 4 comments

On Utopia, John Pilger’s no-place-land

Finally caught up with Utopia, John Pilger’s simplistic but important documentary on Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous people. Nuance has never been Pilger’s strong point but pitching his film at his mainly British audience (“this is Canberra, capital of Australia”), he misses out on vast swathes of context. Pilger is good at capturing the injustices of colonisation but far less strong in dealing with issues of decolonisation.

The name of his documentary, Utopia, is a whitefella word. Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia described an ideal society that could never be reached. Formed from Greek roots, it meant either ‘no-place-land’ or ‘good-place-land’. And while Utopian now means a perfect state, Utopia itself  is ‘nowhere’. Such sophistry meant nothing to the people of Uturupa in northern Australia who were ignorant of all things European for hundreds of centuries. The first settlers came in the 1880s and unable to handle Uturupa, they called it Utopia, perhaps as Pilger suggested out of the irony of such a difficult land, for this no-place-land was hard on black and white alike. But it was the blacks who suffered most.

Pilger begins his film in modern Utopian settings. The Palm beach penthouse and the leafy suburbs of Canberra’s Barton are the drop-off point for Pilger’s polemicism starkly contrasting with Utopia’s poverty (though the warm sun basked poor and wealthy alike). Barton was named for Australia’s first prime minister Edmund Barton who ushered in the openly racist White Australia Policy keeping coloured people out, while the blacks who were already here were not counted.

Pilger’s first interview is with former Labor minister of Indigenous health and NT MP Warren Snowden. Snowden stupidly turned the interview in a defence of Labor’s record and got angry when Pilger suggests they should have done more. Of course, they should have; but successive administrations have been unable to solve Indigenous health problems, caused by a legacy of 200 years of hatred and neglect. After Indigenous people were finally counted in the 1971 census, successive Closing the Gap reports have at least identified where the problems are in comparison to the rest of Australia and it will be another 50 years or more before they can be fully closed. Not that Pilger with his “puerile questions” and demands for instant change, appreciates that.

The trouble with Utopia is that Pilger is like a kid in a toy shop rushing from one shiny bauble to another. Here he is in the Australian War Memorial bemoaning the lack of recognition of the Australian frontier war, there he is recollecting his own Sydney childhood watching poor Aboriginal people in La Perouse, then he attacking Howard’s history wars before heading out on the street for an Australia Day vox pop of white people on what Indigenous people think of the day. A minute later he is touring Rottnest Island’s grisly black penal history. All are important issues but glossed over in Pilger’s rush to create an atmosphere of condemnation.

He brings black brutality up to date with the 2008 arrest of Aboriginal man Mr Ward in Laverton, WA. This is a disgraceful case that demands greater attention. Arrested for drink driving and denied bail by the local JP, Mr Ward was remanded to appear in court in Kalgoorlie 400kms away. As far back as 1975 the WA Aboriginal Legal Service had complained prisoner transport vans were “ovens on wheels” and nothing had changed by 2008 except the service was privatised. Mr Ward was given a 600ml bottle of water for the four hour journey while temperatures rose to 56 degrees inside the van. When the driver checked his welfare in Kalgoorlie, he was dead on the floor with a large abdomen burn in contact with the hot surface. The coroner noted he had been cooked to death and the department and company (4GS) were later fined for their neglect.

The responsible minister Margaret Quirk was clearly genuinely distressed by the case which she told Pilger would haunt her for rest of her life. His cynicism at her suggestion of departmental cultural sensitivity training was unwarranted, as it was clear that many public servants simply have no idea what happens in remote Aboriginal settlements and the injustices they face on a regular basis. Pilger was right to point out the high indigenous incarceration rates but on less firm ground with his description of WA and NT as ‘apartheid states’.  He need not have been so strident on the high moral ground. Quirk’s point is that there are structural issues across society that led to Mr Ward’s death and many like him, that one well intentioned Minister cannot solve alone. However state politicians can be rightly condemned for their ‘law and order’ posturing on mandatory sentencing which overwhelmingly affects Indigenous populations who are usually arrested on public order offences.

Pilger addressed the touchstone case of the 1960s Gurindji land rights strike. The strike was called when the government delayed equal pay by two years following a court case. However the net result was that white owners sacked their cheap black workforce rather than pay them equally. The Gurindji got their Watties Creek but lost their jobs. By the 1970s, a whole generation of stockworkers were unemployed and homeless, drifting towards the towns and the welfare system.

Welfare was a well-intentioned but deeply flawed aspect of decolonisation as part of the Whitlamite reforms of the 1970s. It led to large amounts of money spent on community programs that offered no real sense of achievement. It was ‘sit down money’ and led to the perverse situation described by Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Peter Sutton of dysfunctional societies twisted by easy access to alcohol and drugs while domestic sexual abuse was rampant. The Lateline case exposed by Chris Graham and noted in depth by Pilger may have been exaggerated but the problems identified by Little Children Are Sacred were not. The Howard Government had its own cynical electoral aims for the Intervention but significantly the Labor Government that followed did not dismantle it. As Pearson says, the left are strong on rights and the right are strong on responsibilities, but good Indigenous policy needs to be a mix of both. Pilger, in his faraway British eyrie, shows no sign of understanding this crucial point.

Nonetheless I applaud Utopia as an important conversation starter. The best white writer on Indigenous matters, the anthropologist Bill Stanner, identified as far back as 1968 the culture of deliberate forgetting that characterised Australian views of its Indigenous population. They were written out of the history and they had little say in the present as a voiceless 2% modern minority. Indigenous people did slowly find their voice through the freedom ride, the referendum campaign, the tent embassy, the Makaratta treaty campaigns, and the land rights battles of the 1980s and 1990s.

But what of the present where casual racism, like casual sexism, remains an open sore? Where is the Indigenous conscience in 2014? I agree with Pilger we need some form of constitutional recognition but it must be in tandem with responsibility. Post-Intervention, the Stannerite silence is returning and if nothing else Pilger’s work is deafening in the dark. Let’s hope he inspires a more informed conversation on what remains Australia’s deepest wound to its psyche.

June 1, 2014 at 11:50 am Leave a comment

Budget facepalmer

The medieval theatre of the set-piece nonsense of lock-ups, Treasurer speeches and Opposition replies are over and now it’s down to the horsetrading to get the budget through. Until June 30, the balance of power in that unrepresentative swill of a Senate remains stubbornly with the Labor and Green alliance. The much vaunted elimination of the carbon and mining taxes still hasn’t happened and Labor-Green can afford the budget similar treatment, by simply echoing the Abbottesque-howl of “broken promises” and reject every negotiation between now and the end of June.

But if the budget remains in limbo on July 1, then the numbers in the Senate will change. Labor-Green will lose the balance of power and the government can look to six of the 10 independents and minor party seats to get their budget – and their broader agenda – through. The inconsistently brilliant operator Clive Palmer oscillates between acting magnificently contemptuous – including finding parliamentary theatre so dull that it sends him to sleep – and then revealing his hand with his willingness to ditch carbon pricing as well as demand retrospective payments for previous carbon taxing expenditure.

Sitting alone in the green chamber, Palmer can hold the stage but it is in the Upper House where his strength will be revealed when three Palmer senators and his patsy Ricky Muir will dance to his tunes. Perhaps this is what the current government is betting on as it launches its strange ‘war on everything’ budget. Of course, it is not war on everything, war itself is one of the few budget winners. But attacking such normally supportive vested interest groups such as pensioners, large families and motorists is expensive political capital being expended in the first year of government.

Fiscal prudence is a good thing, but to say Australia is living beyond its means is meaningless until we fully examine what those means are. Joe Hockey’s budget presumes a crisis but neither he nor Abbott can successfully say why this is so. Shorten exposed that with his facts and figures about what state Labor left the economy in September. But again it is Palmer who goes straight to the point and labels the emergency a fraud.

Where I draw a point of difference with Palmer, is that there is a genuine emergency. If say, the entire budget was put at the mercy of say, solving the problems of climate change, then there a Prime Minister would have a good case to sell to the nation. Such a notion still lies far outside Australia’s political Overton Window, the view vigorously policed by a media more willing to ridicule than to assist, and a host of Murdoch apparatchiks all too willing to impress the boss.

It is Murdoch’s flagship that wants to destroy the Greens at the ballot box. It is his journalists that are nitpicking Palmer’s career. It is his tabloids that built up Rudd to smash Gillard and then Abbott to smash Rudd. What is clear from all this is that we should be destroying Murdoch at the ballot boxes and launching campaigns NOT to vote for whoever they are recommending. What’s good for Murdoch, is only good for Murdoch.

The man he annointed, Tony Abbott, is now a rabbit in the spotlight, agonising over his every word between a mess of ums and ahs. I heard him described last week as first postmodernist PM (surely that was Kevin Rudd?) as someone who swaps ideologies and convictions at whim. It is hard to know what he believes in apart from three word slogans and being a weathervane. It is hard to imagine what influence he has in a heavyweight party room full of masculine ideologues other than getting the occasional “captain’s pick”. Quaint cricketing analogies worked for John Howard because he loved cricket. Abbott on the other hand sounds like a dill when he says it. And his “picks” like PPL, which on face value is a good thing, end up ditched hated by the left as inferior to childcare and by the right as too expensive. No wonder it barely featured in the budget that was a running sore of bleeding cuts.

The deficit was the excuse, but making government smaller is always an avowed aim of the Liberal Party. Apart from the innate belief that private sector will do everything better (excepting police and defence forces) and the downsizing of pesky organisations partial to inconvenient truths, they also want to reach into Menzies’ playbook to create a nation of “lifters” not “leaners”, a variant on the similarly catchy “hand up” not “hand out” philosophy. Despite the 1950s language, this is no bad thing of itself. In our most disadvantaged community, the Indigenous community, there are many voices saying that is precisely what they need. People like Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are saying end the ‘sitdown money’ and instead give the communities the means to look after themselves.

This argument appealing to personal dignity, also works at the wider level where people who are not contributing to the economy should be encouraged to do so. The problem is that Hockey doesn’t leave those on the bottom with any dignity at all. His approach, is all stick and not a skerrick of carrot. The leaners are not given anything to lift. The government knows that motivating people by taking away their allowances rarely works, which is why it won’t bring in many new income-related taxes. But while it understands that wealth creation by the well-to-do needs a bit of leeway, it does not offer the same privileges to the less well off.

No one can honestly say how things will pan out when Palmer becomes kingmaker. The ultimate sanction of a double dissolution would likely only leave him in an even stronger position. The government may hope he is generally on their page as a former LNP member with similar economic outlooks. But as the actions of the similar disposed Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott showed, there can be much cantankerousness as well as honour and wisdom in independence. There will also be much bluffing to come. But Palmer is holding four aces and willing to gamble them to gain an even better hand.

May 19, 2014 at 3:53 pm Leave a comment

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

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