The forgotten people: Howard on Menzies

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Robert Menzies with factory workers at Birmingham, England in 1941. Photo: Menziesvirtualmuseum.org.au

On Saturday afternoon I turned on the TV to catch up with world news. The dial was set to ABC and as the TV flicked into life I realised I had tuned into a repeat of the earlier episode of Howard On Menzies. It didn’t take me long to forget about world news and become engrossed in what I was watching. Having enjoyed that, I lapped up the final episode last night. Howard wasn’t a bad interviewer, I decided, and had access to an A-list of talent. The subtitle of the documentary was Building Modern Australia, and that was John Howard’s theme, that Robert Gordon Menzies had ruled Australia for so long we could talk of a “Menzies era” inexorably shaping the country as it glided through the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.

The ideas in the television show (and let’s remember that is what it was, a “show”) come from Howard’s monumental 700-page biography The Menzies Era: The years that shaped modern Australia. Howard says historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested he (Howard) was ideally placed to write the biography of Menzies “from a political perspective” as another long-term leader from the same party. Howard says the era of Menzies lasted from 1949 to 1972, as the three Liberal prime ministers that followed him were all served as ministers in the Menzies government.

Menzies was a towering figure in Australian politics throughout the centre of the 20th century and his influence began well before 1949. Menzies was a brilliant intellectual who would have succeeded in whatever career path he chose. Born in a small country town (an upbringing he was proud of, but quietly escaped) he served a political apprenticeship in the Victorian parliament and was a stellar barrister. Former judge Michael Kirby told Howard that Menzies would have certainly ended up on the High Court had he continued in law. But he gravitated towards federal politics in the 1930s where he found an easy fit as attorney-general in Lyons’ UAP government.

In 1935 he went to England, which began a lifelong affair with the country and its institutions. “One realises that a Parliament for England is something growing from the very roots of English soil”, he wrote. For Menzies “home” was Britain, though that was not to disparage his native Australia, which he saw as a British appendage. Menzies was in the constant public eye as AG, earning the nickname Pig Iron Bob for his firm stand when he clamped down on workers who refused to load boats carrying iron ore for Japan.

When Lyons died in 1939, Menzies was the obvious replacement. Though he had resigned from the ministry in a dispute with the Country Party over the national insurance bill, Menzies was sworn in as UAP prime minister. Ongoing hostility from Labor and the Country Party left Menzies vulnerable and he did not help his cause by spending much of the early war years in Britain. Britain was where the action was, and where Menzies wanted to be, but he neglected his power base. An ungrateful Australia booted him out of office in 1941.

Left to stew in his juices in a backwater while the affairs of the world went on without him, Menzies did a root and branch investigation into what power really meant to him. The start of his political renaissance is charted by his best biographer Judith Brett in her analysis of a series of radio speeches beginning in 1942 called The Forgotten Years. Then a backbencher, ‘The Forgotten People’ is Robert Menzies’ appeal to the Australian middle class, whom he saw as the moral backbone of the society. “proud, scrupulous, thrifty and modest.” The middle class lived outside the public sphere and centred their lives on their homes. Menzies imagined them as independent citizens exercising their judgment as to what is best for the nation as a whole. These views struck a powerful note with their intended audience and were to ground his future political success.

The occupations they had were “salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. Menzies believed that no party spoke for these people and set about creating his own as he sat out the war. His new Liberal Party was smashed in the 1946 election but the time was right in 1949. By then the electorate had enough of Labor’s post-war austerity and wanted something new to believe it. The times were right for Menzies.

Menzies had a lot of luck in his following career. In 1954 he was on the nose until he used the Petrov Affair to whip up the fear of communism. The Labor party split of 1955 put it out of action for the rest of the decade, yet Arthur Calwell almost snatched government in 1961, Menzies winning by one seat. Menzies’ final victory in 1964 was a triumph as he used Labor sectarianism to push through popular reforms in education, snatching much of their Catholic vote in the process. He retired in glory on Australia Day 1966 handing over power to Harold Holt.

Hated and despised by Labor in equal measure, it wasn’t until another towering intellect came along in Gough Whitlam, that Menzies’ ghost could be exorcised. And it took another Labor genius Paul Keating to read the last rites. Howard tries to get us to look at Menzies in a new light, but with Howard being in Menzies own image, perhaps is fatally undermined in that task.

But as a gripping sequence between Howard and Bob Hawke reminds us, Menzies’ longevity in power is extraordinary in a democracy and questions need to be asked about he survived so long. Luck played a large part as did his ability to turn world affairs to his account. The quality of his opposition was poor, Labor being even more conservative and set in their ways than Menzies was. And the power of his personality made him the dominant figure in his own party making sure that there would be no night of the long knives from within. His patrician bearing could never make him a man of the people and he failed in his personal quest to ban Communism. But he was always a political survivor. As Barry Humphries said “no one liked him except the electorate”.  

Howard On Menzies teased out many of those issues, as it was about Howard as much as it was about Menzies. Menzies’ success was based on “quiet prosperity” which is an oxymoron today, and probably was in Menzies’ time, predicated by hiding behind tariff walls, picket fences and whitewashed history. There was no doubt the people Menzies appealed to were hard-working and decent and Howard tried to tap into them to guarantee his own long term survival. But by the late 20th century the walls were crumbling and despite Howard’s dictum of “we will decide who comes to this country”, he could not keep his Australia as white and pure as Menzies’ Australia.

As I said, Howard had a stellar list of Australian greats ready to give their fascinating tuppence worth on Menzies. But one of Menzies’ key lessons was missed in the program. As he sat out the war, he realised an important electoral demographic was women, and he spoke to their needs. But Judith Brett aside, they were largely absent from Howard on Menzies. They remained the forgotten people.

Long Tan and Australia’s relationship with Vietnam

In recent years as a journalist I’ve attended all of the annual military commemorations in the towns I’ve worked in, Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and Long Tan Day. The format of the commemoration is almost identical for all three: the ode, the anthem, the minute’s silence, the last post, reveille, the lone bugler or piper. But each day has its own peculiarities. With all the Australian First World War veterans dead and not many left alive from the Second World War or the Korean War, the Vietnam Vets are taken their place as our most senior veterans from overseas conflicts.

Unlike in previous wars, their placement in Vietnam was controversial as there was considerable opposition to Australian involvement in that war in the 1960s. Normally Australia took its lead from the United Kingdom but under then prime minister Harold Wilson Britain refused to commit troops to the conflict, leading to the famous Wilson quote to his cabinet that “Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam”.

Of course Australia sent far more than just a bagpipe band. Prime Minister Holt would later go “all the way with LBJ” but Australian involvement began much earlier in the Menzies era.

The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam was sent there in 1962 at the beginning of the conflict and Australia was involved right through to last days of the war 1974. Almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam. Of those, 521 died as a result of the war and over 3000 were wounded.

The decision to send those soldiers to war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or jailed, while soldiers, most of them draftees met a hostile reception on their return home. Many of those soldiers suffered post traumatic stress disorder, a condition that mostly went unrecognised at the time.

While the reputation of those brave soldiers has rightly been rehabilitated over the years, many were never able to fully readjust to civilian life. I can understand their anger that Vietnam did not allow Australians attend the battle site at Long Tan (where 18 Australians died 50 years ago) but I also understand Vietnam’s reluctance in the matter.

The country lost upwards of three million people in the war and the wounds are taking a long time to heal. In time it will become like Gallipoli, a place of shared sacrifice, but Australians must be patient.

Though still ruled by the same Communist Party that took over the south in 1974, Vietnam is slowly becoming a wealthier country. Its 90 million people constitute the world’s 13th largest population and it is the world’s 37th largest economy in transition from centrally planned to market-based and from agrarian to industrialised.

The transition is reflected in its foreign policy. Resolution No.13 by the Politburo issued in 1988 aimed to have ‘more friends and fewer enemies’ and Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995. It is a claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute, but wants it settled through negotiation and peaceful means, in accordance with international law.

In 2015 Australia and Vietnam signed the Declaration on Enhancing the Australia-Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership. The Declaration sets out an agenda to guide the strategic relationship and covers regional and international cooperation, trade and investment, industrial, development, development assistance defence, law enforcement and security.  The Declaration builds upon the 2009  Australia – Viet Nam Comprehensive Partnership and the bilateral Plan of Action (2010-13). A new Plan of Action is due to be signed this year.

The links between the country will only grow. In the 2011 Australian Census, 221,114 people in Australia claimed Vietnamese ancestry. Vietnamese represent the fifth largest migrant community in Australia and Australia is the second most common destination for Vietnamese migrants, after the US. Vietnam was Australia’s fastest growing export market in ASEAN during the 10-year period 2003-2013 (average annual growth of 16.3 per cent) and this trend continues.  A minor spat over a  minor battle (in Vietnamese terms) is not going to change that. What’s needed is a prime ministerial visit. No Australian PM has been in Vietnam since Julia Gillard in 2010. This is a relationship too important to let a dispute over access to a battle field derail it.

Pauline Hanson is back – and so is Hansonmania

edc84-hansonMuch of the talk of the federal election has been about the impact of Pauline Hanson and her return to federal parliament after a gap of 18 years.

This time she will be occupying the purple benches of the Senate rather than the Green ones of the House of Reps but she will likely bring back the same unreconstructed firebrand politics to the chamber, and to the nation, with the same undoubted national coverage.

As always her media coverage exceeds her influence, and one commentator acidly described her as a “wholly owned subsidiary of Channel Seven” (and that was not the worst he called her). The ambiguous relationship she has with media was summed up in an extraordinary outburst today where she complained of bias against her and said she would bypass traditional newspapers and TV networks in favour of citizen journalism. Citizen journalism may be the only kind left in the coming years but if paid media does disappear, Hanson’s cause too will die for lack of publicity.

Some commentators like Tim Soutphommasane say that while the politics of Hansonism haven’t changed in two decades, Australian society has moved on. Yet she will be an important voice in the next parliament and as such, worthy of attention.

I am no fan of Hanson’s political views however when I was working for the Gatton Star newspaper in 2015 I had the opportunity to cover in close detail her campaign to win the state seat of Lockyer.

I ended up with similar feelings and a similar respect for Hanson that journalist and author Margo Kingston had for her after she covered her (Pauline’s) 1998 campaign to win the seat of Blair, a story Kingston recounted in her book “Off the Rails”. I could see, as Kingston could, that Hanson had a great way with people and formed quick bonds with everyone she met on the street. Hanson could always draw on a great inner strength and her sensational jailing and subsequent quashing of her electoral fraud offence in 2003 has only made her stronger.

The left wing of Australian politics has always been quick to denounce Hanson for her extremist views, but the reality is that much of her 1996 platform (such as the tightening of the borders, the removal of ATSIC, and the reduction of foreign aid) became mainstream. But even this week when Kingston warns we should listen to her not lampoon her, the reaction from the left has mostly been lampooning of Margo and unbridled rage against Pauline.

Hanson seems to feed off the rage of the left as well as having an indefatigable appetite for elections, having run in nine of them, though until last week none were successful since that shock 1996 breakthrough.

Hanson narrowly lost the 1998 election that Kingston covered, and lost even more narrowly the 2015 election in Lockyer that I covered (another 50 votes would have put her in state parliament) but I had to admire her persistence, energy and ambitious nature.

I remember getting an angry late night call from her during the campaign after I suggested in an editorial her ultimate aim was to become prime minister.

“That’s not true, I never said that,” she said to me. “I know,” I responded, “that was just my opinion and it’s an opinion I haven’t changed despite what you just said.”

Of course being outside the major parties, Hanson will never become prime minister. But it is clear she can tap into deep wells of resentment and command a lot of votes. Her views on “Islamageddon” and climate change are nonsense (the latter is the influence of conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts whom I had the dubious pleasure of listening to during a forum in Gatton organised by Hanson) but the major parties should take her seriously nonetheless. She represents a strong core of disenfranchised and disillusioned people who believe she is the only one speaking for them. I congratulate her on her election to parliament and hope she finds the wisdom to properly represent the people that voted her in.

Coalition likely to win the election with or without a majority

Bill Shorten speaks on TV tonight.
Bill Shorten speaks on TV tonight.

As we pass midnight on election day in Australia, no one is calling the election and Labor’s Bill Shorten has rightfully called it a good day for Labor. Yet he will not become the new prime minister, that honour for now will remain with Malcolm Turnbull.

At the moment the ABC reckons the LNP has 73 seats, two short of an overall majority in the 149-seat house. Labor has 66, others have five and there are six in doubt.

The Coalition led in most of those doubtful seats last time I looked and traditionally are stronger in postal votes. They can also count on the support of at least one of the independents in Bob Katter.

Katter was comfortably re-elected in the seat I live in, Kennedy, which covers a vast swathe of North and North-West Queensland. Katter almost lost the seat to the LNP’s Noeline Ikin in 2013 but Ikin had to withdraw in January due to illness and her replacement, the 25-year-old Jonathan Pavetto did not have the name recognition to defeat his 72-year-old opponent. In the last hung parliament in 2010, Katter went with the Coalition and given his stated distaste for Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek (though he has a lot of respect for Anthony Albanese), he should vote for the Coalition again this time.

As for the others, Adam Bandt and Andrew Wilkie should support Labor while Cathy McGowan and NXT’s Rebekha Sharkie are likely to vote tactically but unlikely to deny the Coalition the chance to form government.

This result is a good thing. I’ve often editorialised to say that despite what the parties say minority government is a good thing and not a recipe for chaos. It forces parties to negotiate to get their agenda through. And that’s without even having seen what the Senate is about to throw up, but with only half a quota needed, that won’t be a Coalition majority either. Nick Xenophon has increased his power. Pauline Hanson too has done well and not just in Queensland, but even she is not the ogre she is painted out to be and will be just one player in a big pond.

It has been a somewhat disappointing election for the Greens and their impressive leader Richard Di Natale. They increased their vote by 1.25% but they failed to break through for a second House of Reps seat and are likely to lose a seat or two in the Senate. This is despite their support for the rule changes in the Senate election which most people expected would favour them.

But any disappointment they may feel will be dwarfed by the Coalition which has lost at least 12 seats to Labor (while picking back up Clive Palmer’s seat of Fairfax). Prime Minister Turnbull hasn’t spoken yet but this result is a bad personal blow for him and continues his poor form leading campaigns at polls, dating back to the republic referendum in the 1990s. The pressure will be on him to resign but surely they would have been soundly beaten had Tony Abbott remained at the helm. Turnbull will have to remind his own hardheads of that fact and he will have to negotiate with the other parties’ hardheads to get his agenda through. However it is not entirely clear what that agenda is, even after a ludicrously long eight week campaign. Shorten said it was time for the parliament to get back to work, and he is right. But a big question remains after today. How will it work?

Forget News Corp, remember the truth of Indigenous history

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Aborigines cooking and eating beached whales, Newcastle, NSW c1817 (Joseph Lycett). NLA

The troglodytes that make news placement decisions at News Corp tabloids accidentally stumbled on a good thing this week: they opened up an honest discourse on Australian history. That certainly wasn’t the intention when the Daily Telegraph and others decided on Wednesday it was time to party like it was 1999 and re-open the culture wars. As Waleed Aly said the Tele’s front page was a longstanding part of the lies Australia tells itself about its history.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the grubby paper (later humorously renamed the Tele Nullius) and its story. The Whitewash headline, picture of Captain James Cook and its contention that the University of New South Wales rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia has been widely deconstructed and destroyed elsewhere. The story featured quotes from a right-wing historian, a right-wing lobby group and a right-wing politician. Needless Indigenous people were not represented. It was simply foolish fodder which the paper believes reflects its audience’s view.

There was a similar if more half-hearted effort I saw in the Courier-Mail aimed at Queensland universities and I would imagine the other capital city tabloids also joined in the dog-whistle exposing “political correctness gone mad.” But once the usual suspects of shock jocks, right-wing columnists and radio has-beens finished fulminating at “liberal” universities imposing their dogma, the story brought up many lively considered responses – including Aly’s, which accepted the obvious conclusion that Australia was, indeed, invaded. Even politicians stood up to the nonsense, for once. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal Australians was part of our history. “It must be taught and appreciated by all Australians,” she said.

Ignorance of that knowledge might have been acceptable 50 years ago when the Indigenous experience was still written out of Australian history. For almost a century, the established story had been of a peaceful settlement of an empty continent. The original settler stories were bowdlerised of all their resistance, violence and guns leaving heroic settlers whose only enemy was the land itself which they “tamed”. Anthropologist Bill Stanner was among the first to question this narrative in his 1968 Boyer Lectures where he questioned the Great Australian Silence about its Indigenous history. It was a structural matter, according to Stanner. “A view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape,” he said. “What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”

His talk was backed up by a sociologist, Charles Rowley, whose trilogy The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971) was a game changer in a presenting a new view of Aboriginal Australia. Historians were stung into action, led by Henry Reynolds who delved into the Queensland records and looked at first hand testimony in books and newspapers to show how the colony with the largest Indigenous population was invaded and eventually taken over, thanks to a political squatter class who directly benefitted from the takeover with the help of a native police force. Lyndell Ryan did a similar job for Tasmania, as did Heather Goodall in NSW, and gradually a picture built up across Australia of a land violently taken over.

Yet this picture was slow to infiltrate the mainstream and when it did it was fiercely resisted. The cult of forgetfulness was strong. A cosy image of a settler society was comforting and this new history was too confronting. Because it had been outside the official history for so long, many suspected this new narrative and questioned the motivations of the historians. In 1996 new Prime Minister John Howard tapped into those feelings saying (white) Australians deserved to feel “relaxed and comfortable” about their history. But the only way they could do that was to attack the new history (ignoring it was no longer an option). Howard was enthusiastically supported in this culture war by the stormtroopers in the Murdoch empire and for the next decade there was an exhausting and unsatisfying battle of tit-for-tat. But the effect was tangible as the new history was pushed to the sidelines with a preference on glorifying white military history at Gallipoli and elsewhere.

Just as in the “climate science wars” which followed a similar trajectory, few professional historians disputed the new narrative. The main one was the curmudgeonly Keith Windschuttle – the only historian News Corp bothered to contact in this week’s kerfuffle. The title of Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History said more about his research than the historians of Tasmanian history he was attempting to debunk. His counter-history of a land of little violence was soundly and rigorously rebuffed many times.

The political history wars gradually disappeared with the exit of Howard in 2007. Kevin Rudd was no Keating and his famous 2008 apology steered clear of an outright admission of invasion and war. But he gave no momentum to the culture war. Even with the return of Tony Abbott in 2013 it never re-gained traction. Abbott had a muddled view of history, his love of British culture occasionally getting him in trouble when it clashed with his obvious interest and empathy in Indigenous affairs. But politically it has not been an issue. Quietly in the background, historians go on with their research gathering overwhelming evidence. The university guidelines so derided by the Murdoch papers are merely an attempt to bring the language up to date. Murdoch will be dead sometime in the next 20 years and the influence of his rags will die with him. But the story of Indigenous Australia is only getting stronger. Like a stone in a shoe it will continue to nag Australia until it deals with the problem as an adult nation: with a foundation treaty between the federal government and its Indigenous people acknowledging 130 years of invasion and war, and another century of dealing with its painful aftermath.

Let them stay: Baby Asha and the Lady Cilento Hospital protest

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I was late getting to the party. I had arranged to meet my daughters for dinner on Saturday evening when it became obvious that something big was happening at Lady Cilento children’s hospital. A few days ago a young baby known as Asha (not the real name) had been transferred there due to injury at one of the Australian offshore internment gulags on Nauru. The baby had recovered but now doctors were taking a strong stance refusing to release her back to Nauru due to health concerns. There had a small public vigil at the hospital for days under the banner of “Let them Stay”. Suddenly on Saturday evening the word was out that the quasi paramilitary Australian Border Force would move tonight to remove the baby and parents back to Nauru. There was a call to arms to support the doctors who would resist any move to take her to an “unsafe environment”.

This was an incredibly brave move by medical staff paid by the government enforcing Australia’s brutal immigration policy. The Liberal hard line on refugees succeeds with the tacit support of a weak Labor Party desperate to avoid being wedged on an emotional issue. Here were doctors taking a human approach in direct opposition. However they were supported yesterday by Australian Medical Association president Brian Owler who tweeted that any attempt to forcibly move the baby was “a dangerous act for which there is no return”. He copied in PM Malcolm Turnbull on the tweet.

Others too were active on Twitter. Writer Andrew Stafford called it Brisbane’s most important protest since the Springbok tour of 1971. He urged people to come down and many people heeded his and others’ call for action. The swelling crowd at the hospital managed to cover off all three exits to the hospital searching all vehicles including police cars for signs of the baby. Well wishers overwhelmed protestors with the delivery of free pizzas. It was clear that a major stand-off was in progress and it was peaceful, at least for now. It was stirring stuff.

I switched off my mobile for an hour or so while I had dinner with my daughters but at the back of my mind was a plan to head to the hospital as soon as I could. Things would likely have moved on by then but Lady Cilento was becoming ground central in a grassroots campaign I agreed with and it was important to show solidarity. I also wanted to go as a journalist and record what I saw, in the role of first responder of history.

When my daughters dropped me home after dinner, I quickly went back to Twitter for an update. There was good news. Apparently authorities had agreed not to move the baby tonight. There was a strong feeling community action had foiled the crass plans of the government just as a Melbourne protest did last year when rumours the ABF were on the street doing racial profiling in a sinister move to track down illegal immigrants.

But nothing I read was final and while presumably the large crowd of protesters would disperse happily, the vigil would continue. With that in mind I got the train into town and walked across to the Southbank site of the hospital. The first thing I could see was a bunch of police talking together. But they were the only police there and there was no sign of any ABF personnel. There remained about two to three hundred protesters on site talking quietly among themselves. There was a sense of satisfaction of a job well done.

I walked over to a group of four and asked them what they knew. One man who was a union organiser told me that the baby and her mother remained in the care of Queensland Health and immigration officials would need to give 72 hours notice before moving them. The father was at a detention centre in Pinkenba near Brisbane port. I asked them did they believe QH assurances and they said they did. Asha’s ball was now in state government Health Minister Cameron Dick’s court and his leader Annastacia Paluszczuk had said she would welcome refugees. The protesters were happy enough with that. Most were now heading home but the vigil would continue. Most were cognisant this was a children’s hospital environment so it wasn’t raucous and there were as many signs asking cars not to beep their horns as those asking them to do it.

There were still plenty of scattered group sitting around the steps and the display of candles. Most people there were young but I approached a group closer to my own age for a chat. One of them was seated next to a sign which read “We’re better than this” and I began by asking what “this” was. The lady replied it wasn’t her sign, it was just where she was sitting and we had a laugh about it. Nonetheless she tried to answer my question. “This” was a shameful action by the government against a defenceless baby – one actually born in Australia. I mentioned that our immigration policies were supported by the two major parties. That didn’t make it right, they said, and the move for change would have to come from the people. If enough people protested, the major parties would take notice, they said.

It would be nice to think that people power might have an effect on public policy. Brisbane can take great credit from its activists who know the value of street protest. And it was extraordinary how a well behaved mob took control of the situation (including from a media perspective overcoming QH’s earlier concerns about “what about the children”). Certainly it might make the ALP question its wisdom of constantly playing Tweedle Dee on immigration that dates back to 9/11 and the Tampa. They need to have a strategy to overcome the easy scare campaign from the government and its shills in the Murdochocracy.

As for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, he is less doctrinaire on the matter than his predecessor Tony Abbott but can’t afford to alienate his own right wing by appearing “soft”. He appeals to the easy enemy of people smugglers without a discussion of the push factors from the Middle East or the hideous conditions in Nauru and Manus Island. So Australia’s expensive solution continues to hold sway without an exit policy. It is out of mind and out of its mind. Let us hope Baby Asha is a beginning of the end of this collective madness.

The Other Side of the Frontier

frontierAnother Australia Day has passed with the clamour growing for a change of date because of its pejorative connections for Indigenous Australians. I’ve written about this in the past. My view is simple: always make Australia Day the fourth Monday of January. It keeps the holiday at the end of summer and it removes the stigma of the connection with the British landing in Sydney in 1788, though it means Australia Day will still fall on January 26 once every seven years or so.

But the calls to remove the direct link are justified and those that cannot see that, are blind to Australia’s history. History may not be a popular subject in schools, but its resonance affects our lives in many ways and Australia’s continued failure to reach an accord with its Indigenous people remains the nation’s blackest stain.

I thought Australia Day was a good opportunity to revisit Henry Reynolds’ ground-breaking 1981 work The Other Side of the Frontier. The book was the first to systematically explore life on the other side of the frontier after the British arrived in Australia with the intention as Reynolds put it “to turn Australian history, not upside down, but inside out.” A lack of written evidence had always been used as an excuse not to use this approach to Australian history but Reynolds pored through official documents, first-hand accounts and oral testimony.

The book is “inescapably political” with profound conclusions still not fully accepted 35 years later. Reynolds destroyed the notion the Aboriginal people of Australia were passive in the face of the newcomers. It begins with the first contact with white explorers, ghostly figures who came on to country, usually carefully watched as they moved. They were often provided with local guides – as a courtesy, and also to ensure they moved on quickly. Trade routes criss-crossed Australia bringing news as quickly as it brought goods and explorers often found that European artefacts and animals had preceded them into indigenous lands. Knowledge of the mysterious and dangerous power of firearms was particularly quick to cross the continent. The invaders were greeted with a mix of curiosity and fear.

The biggest problem was how to include these newcomers in Indigenous cosmology. Many thought they were the pale ghosts of reincarnated ancestors so they could be absorbed into kinship networks, but the younger ones could see their behaviour made them all too human. Many white communities had their “foundations cemented in blood” as one Victorian protector of Aborigines put it. Violence led to resistance, which began in the early years of Sydney and fanned out through the continent as settlers moved in.  The period of warfare depended on the number of settlers and whether the local geography allowed the native population to hide easily and conduct guerrilla tactics.

Aboriginal people had sophisticated concepts of land ownership with strict laws on trespass, particularly related to sacred sites. Land use was complex with intermingling on territory and temporary hospitality based on the principle the visitors would eventually leave. The settlers, however, had no such intention. They ruthlessly asserted exclusive occupation, taking the flat, open land and monopolising the water. Private property allowed for no reciprocity. They also desecrated sacred sites and there was further conflict over lonely white men taking access to Aboriginal women. When Aboriginal men took revenge, they were denounced and attacked as villainous murderers. Conflict was driven by tension and misunderstanding, European possessiveness over land, competition for women and contrary concepts of personal property. Group punishment was common as was an ominous settler desire to end conflict “once and for all”.

Aboriginal civilisation was killed by a thousand cuts. Frontier conflict was “ragged, sporadic and uneven”. Indigenous people were courageous in the face of attack but there were only a handful of massed battles. Most large gatherings dispersed by use of armed police or arsenic poisoning such as at Kilcoy. When there was open confrontation such as in central Victoria in the 1840s, Aboriginal shields were useless against armed and mounted whites. By the time the frontier reached Cooktown, the natives were more cautious using the knowledge of their scrubby hinterland to keep the invaders at arm’s length. Native Police (usually from other parts of Australia under the direction of a white sergeant) used traditional bushcraft and knowledge of horses and guns to undermine resistance in Queensland.

With most of their land taken from them and on the verge of destitution, many Indigenous people came into the settlements. They ended up as cheap or slave labour or beggars living in fringe camps subject to disease, malnutrition, alcoholism and social disintegration. While disease was a major killer, Reynolds calculated the Aboriginal death toll in conflict as 20,000 across the continent. Queensland had the highest toll as its conquest coincided with developments in weaponry, use of the Native Police and a new colonial leadership with a vested interest in pastoral property on Aboriginal lands.

Reynolds said the evidence contradicted the widespread early 20th century view Aboriginal society was “pathetically helpless” to the European onslaught. Indigenous people were not passive objects of European charity or brutality. White explorers depended on them, early settlers feared them and it was only superior firepower and disease that eventually overcame them across the continent.

Reynolds asks when their dead will be accorded the same respect as the white Australian dead in overseas wars. Australian frontier violence was political violence and cannot be ignored because of its time and distance. It is something – as the Australia Day debate testifies – the nation has yet to come to terms with. “If we are unable to incorporate the black experience into our national heritage,” says Reynolds, “we will stand exposed as a people still emotionally chained to our 19th century British origins, ever the transplanted Europeans.”