Earlier this year I wrote 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 Real wars have been replaced by history wars but the “usurper complex” positioning whites as victim, still flourishes.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.