Posts tagged ‘Aboriginal issues’
By the 20th century, Queensland was in white hands and Indigenous survivors lived in shanty-towns or missions. At Hope Vale in Cape York, German missionaries were successful because they learned the local language. Many Indigenous people were killed in the 1870s Palmer River goldrush and the Guugu Yimithirr people were grateful to Lutheran pastor Schwarz who provided an alternative to a fringe-dwelling existence. As in missions across Australia young strangers developed an Aboriginal identity of their own. Noel Pearson’s father was a stockman who grew up at the mission and shared its Lutheran faith and Noel was born there in 1965, two years a “constitutional alien” before the referendum was passed. Noel enrolled at a Brisbane Lutheran school, and studied anthropology and archaeology at the University of Queensland.
A great influence was Charles Perkins, another mission boy whose political fearlessness and strong sense of Aboriginal dignity saw him lead the freedom ride and later clash with numerous prime ministers. Pearson got his first taste of politics with what Marcia Langton called the Goss Labor Queensland government’s ‘nasty games’ on land rights. Pearson was excited by the 1992 Mabo decision saying native title showed the capacity of British common law. He described Keating’s Redfern speech as ‘the seminal moment of European Australian acknowledgement of grievous inhumanity’ to Indigenous people. But after Howard won power in 1996, Pearson adjusted his political radar.
Pearson was beginning to understand the problems of decolonisation. On western Cape York, Peter Dutton exposed the devastating state of Aurukun describing it as the end of the liberal consensus on Aboriginal issues. In Pearson’s Hope Vale, alcohol, drugs and gambling dependencies were rife. He saw ‘sit down money’ as a long-term corrosive and began to take ‘once unmentionable’ issues to a national audience. Pearson saw the political left was strong on land rights but weak on personal responsibility while the right was the opposite. Pearson became a ‘radical centrist’ and following Amartya Sen, he spoke of the illusion of singular identity and began understanding Australia as country shared by two peoples. His goal is to see Indigenous people recognised as “peoples” with cultural distinctiveness and “populations” who can be measured against health and education outcomes against other Australians. Pearson’s speeches speak to an ever-evolving sense of self, grounded by the dignity of his upbringing and his Aboriginality.
Bennelong, Bussamarai and Pearson are separated by time and circumstance but united by the need to take control of their lives. All faced massive challenges and all were scarred by proximity to colonialism. Bennelong was arguably Indigenous Australia’s first and only ambassador, but was discarded when Britain had no more use for him. By Bussamarai’s time colonisation was in full swing across Australia, a war on many fronts. His ‘opera’ was similar to Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip: the mark of a strategic thinker with a sense of drama.
Bussamarai was killed and victors wrote him out of the history. Today, an Indigenous man is re-writing history and imposing his own dignity on a white world. Noel Pearson is educated enough to understand the scars of colonisation but he is also honest enough to see the problems of decolonisation. His speeches are the mark of an iconoclastic intellectual, black and brave yet also human and universal. Pearson is using dignity to serve new ends for a people that have survived invasion and want to flourish on their own terms.
Forty years after Bennelong’s death (see Part 1), equal terms between black and white were forgotten as white Australia pushed out from the coast. Encouraged by British demand for Australian wool, pastoralism provided the impetus for territorial expansion. Legally the justification was terra nullius. Chief Justice Forbes called Australia an ‘uninhabited country’ but it was the settlers who were making it uninhabitable for the blacks. Squatters, blinded by profits, simply stole the land and when Aborigines fought back they were killed. Their mere presence was enough for them to be shot or poisoned – men, women and children. This was true in southern Queensland’s Maranoa as elsewhere, but there a Mandandanji resistance leader would put on a show that was just as elaborate as Bennelong’s spearing of Phillip and just as meaningful.
In April 1850 white settlers near Surat were invited to a corroboree, what Gideon Lang would later call an ‘opera’. The conductor said Lang, was ‘Eaglehawk’ (Bussamarai) who sat behind a choir of black women while men on stage acted out an elaborate play. With astonishing mimicry the actors played cattle grazing in the fields. Next they became black warriors sneaking up to spear cattle. Then others playing ‘manufactured whites’ starting shooting the ‘blacks’. To the great joy of the mainly non-white audience, the ‘blacks’ overwhelmed the ‘whites’ at the end of the opera. Bussamarai’s message was he could combine five local tribes to drive the whites from the country. The lessons the whites drew was equally clear: bring in the native police.
The history is scant on Bussamarai/Eaglehawk, two of his four names along with Old Billy and Possum Murray (Bussamarai may simply be a backward formation from Possum Murray). The first squatters searched Mandandanji lands around 1842 when Finney Eldershaw and others scouted the Maranoa and Balonne Rivers. Thomas Mitchell came through in 1846 and he was a close friend of NSW parliamentary secretary and fellow Scot William Macpherson. William’s son Allan had a property in New England and Macpherson junior was excited by Mitchell’s diary entry for the Maranoa: ‘fine open country, and from the abundance of good pasturage around it, I named it Mt Abundance’.
Armed with Mitchell’s maps, Macpherson capitalised on a March 1847 Order in Council possibly drafted by his father which granted frontier squatters 14-year leases. Macpherson claimed 400,000 acres of ‘the most beautiful land that ever sheep’s eyes travelled over’. But within a week the blacks appeared, frightening his men ‘into convulsions’. The fear was mutual, the natives dreading Macpherson’s double-barrelled carbine and horse. While Macpherson was away, they killed two shepherds and stole a thousand sheep. Macpherson was forced out after two years of ‘sundry conflicts with the hostile blacks’ and while he believed the grass was no use to them, he admitted ‘they no doubt thought they had a better right to the land than we did’.
While Macpherson showed conscience, other quieter settlers who followed did not. These men like Thomas Hall, Henry Dangar, Robert Fitzgerald and Joseph Fleming were in the Gwydir wars, and a ‘social destructive group’ with a ‘single-minded quest for wealth and status’. Hardened by the Myall Creek massacre and subsequent hanging of seven whites, they had a new unwritten law: ‘death by stealth’. In 1859 drover William Telfer heard about the slaughter that occurred after Macpherson’s time. Telfer was a witness to the Waterloo Creek killings and Telfer’s Wallabadah manuscript describes several massacres in the Maranoa including a ‘fight’ on Fleming’s property with a ‘Cheif [sic] who was shot with about fifty others’.
Bussamarai was also active killing settlers at Dulacca until a posse tracked his mob down to the Grafton Ranges. There they captured “a powerful man”. Though later released, Bussamarai did not forget his humiliation and forced Blyth to evacuate his station in October 1848. The absentee Gwydir landlords allowed 20 or so ‘insubordinate and lawless white workers’ to kill 80 Mandandanji in two years. The elusive Bussamarai’s talents got grudging tribute. Hovenden Hely, in the Maranoa in 1852 to search for Leichhardt, described Bussamarai as ‘the head and prime mover of all the depredations and murders committed there’ but admitted he was a ‘chief of great repute’. However with squatters agitating for native troopers to come, his time was up. Native Police Sergeant Skelton recounted the end after a fight in November 1852 “they [Bussamarai and another] were both shot in the attempt to apprehend them”.
Bussamarai’s death was one of hundreds in the violent Maranoa frontier war from 1846 to 1856. It was a war that moved up from the Gwydir and across from the Darling Downs and would later move north towards the Dawson River. The ruthless competition for land that led to Bussamarai’s death was forgotten and buried under pioneer legends. Through storytelling, the frontier was transformed into a battle between (white) humans and nature. But until it is accepted the frontier was a war zone, reconciliation of the past with present will continue to be an elusive goal.
Human dignity has always played a key role in political action. Dignity is a central tenet of Christianity yet Protestant England and Catholic France established colonial empires by force because they rated the dignity of Asians and Africans lower than their own. The dignity of Australia’s Indigenous people is grounded in culture and religion but for two centuries Europeans stripped them of dignity, calling them ‘savages’, ‘wild myalls’, ‘ignorant blacks’, ‘niggers’, ‘coons’ and ‘drunken Abos’. Restoration of dignity is now central to Indigenous peoplehood. When Bob Maza was attempting to create Koori awareness in the 20th century, his appeal was based on dignity: “The white man can look back with pride and honour at the history of his people. So you who are black must also search and find that pride and dignity which lies in your ancestry.”
The next three posts examine how dignity shaped the lives of three Indigenous Australians from different eras. First is Bennelong from the period of encounter, who leapt across the frontier to lead an ‘Australian’ and ‘British’ life. Second is Bussamarai, a Mandandanji warrior from colonial times. This little known frontier fighter was an impediment to the British land grab for 10 years and had startling ideas for communicating with Europeans. The third is Noel Pearson, a complex modern day warrior for postcolonial times and his Guugu Yimithirr people. Pearson sees dignity as an important tool of peoplehood, ahead of a day he hopes the vast majority of Australians will agree to the ‘unfinished business’, a constitutional treaty with its Indigenous people.
There was no talk of treaties when Cook took possession of New South Wales in 1770. Cook saw fires along the coast as a ‘Certain sign that the Country is habitated’. His naturalist Joseph Banks saw fishers who ‘scarce lifted their eyes’ at their strange visitors. Cook and Banks started a tradition of an inoffensive people that hinted at innate weakness. Banks told a 1779 parliamentary inquiry NSW was a good place for a colony, because it only housed ‘naked cowardly savages’. Banks was wrong. Indigenous people have lived in Australia for 60,000 years and had plenty of time to develop a sophisticated lifestyle. They quarried for stone and ochre and mastered firestick farming which transformed the landscape. Bradley in the First Fleet saw how they had sophisticated fishing techniques and while they also used mathematics to make calendar calculations. They traded with ‘sea gypsies’ - Muslim trepangers from Sulawesi and other islands. Possibly 750,000 people lived in Australia in 1788 networked by songlines, kinship, reciprocity and law. Most needed five hours daily to gather food. That left time for rest, sociability, spirituality, and development of dignity.
Britain’s conquest was unrelated to the ‘natives’: it was a claim against European powers and the colony would absorb, in Colonial Secretary Evan Nepean’s words, ‘a dreadful banditti’. Governor Arthur Phillip wanted Indigenous relationships but had no instructions for a treaty and offered none. Echoing Dampier a century earlier, John Hunter thought the Eora, smeared with animal fat and covered in dust and ashes, “abominably filthy”. Watkin Tench was sympathetic but trusted British guns: ‘Our first object was to win their affections and our next to convince them of the superiority we possessed,’ he said, ‘for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.
Anthropologist Bill Stanner said the seeds for the unequal relationship between black and white were sown during Phillip’s ‘muddy and incoherent’ rule. The Eora mistook Phillip’s missing front tooth as a sign of initiation and offered respect but kept their distance. Just as the Dutch did in northern Australia in the 17th century, Phillip resorted to kidnapping to establish communications, claiming it necessary to swap languages so ‘redress might be pointed out to them if they are injured, and to reconcile them by showing the many advantages they would enjoy by mixing with us’. His first victim Arabanoo died of smallpox. Judy Campbell says smallpox swept down from the north coast but it seems an extraordinary coincidence it arrived within 15 months of the First Fleet. Whatever the cause, it decimated the Eora and left an infant colony facing starvation.
Phillip kidnapped again and snared Bennelong, who stayed for five months and would become a ‘personage’ in the colony. Bennelong recognised how clothes marked status and swiftly adopted British manners. Tench judged Bennelong as ‘of good stature and stoutly made, with a bold intrepid countenance which bespoke defiance and revenge’. His casual violence towards women shocked the British. Bennelong laughed while telling Tench of a wound gained while he beat a woman ’till she was insensible and covered in blood’. Bennelong’s escape was likely due to the need for sex but it also allowed him time to plan revenge for his kidnapping. Phillip’s spearing at Manly beach was a ritual payback punishment for Bennelong’s abduction. Inga Clendinnen says Bennelong directed an elaborate performance as the ‘hinge man’ for proper compensation from ignorant invaders. Bennelong would insist Phillip visit him ten days later, despite Phillip’s serious injury. As the first Indigene to formally “come in” to Sydney, he insisted his house be built on what would become Bennelong Point. It was a de facto Eora embassy where people came as they pleased to the bewilderment of the British. Tench said Bennelong had become a ‘man of so much dignity and consequence that it was not always easy to obtain his company’.
Bennelong used reciprocal obligations and kinship to manage the British, calling Phillip ‘father’ and insisting wife Barangaroo have her baby at government house. Bennelong would accompany Phillip to England as someone ‘very attached to his person’. After three years abroad Bennelong was homesick. Hunter described his condition: ‘He has for the last 12 months been flattered with the hope of seeing again his native country… but so long a disappointment has broken his spirit and the coldness of the weather here has so frequently laid him up that I am apprehensive his lungs are affected’.
On his return Bennelong’s fell on hard times as his 1796 letter to England reveals: ‘another black man took [my wife] away… he spear’d me in the back, but I better now”. He died in 1813 and his Sydney Gazette obituary noted his insubordinate drunkenness and damned him as a ‘thorough savage’. The Gazette was uncharitable. Bennelong was a dignified ambassador for his people and the first to offer a glimpse of how Europeans and Australians might exist on equal terms.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
I’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!”
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.
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.