Features Australia

Who or what is a fair dinkum First Australian?

Recognising Aboriginal people in the Constitution throws up a multitude of problems

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

27 September 2014

9:00 AM

The last thing that Aboriginal people need is affirmation in the Australian Constitution that we are in some way ‘special’ and ‘different’. Instead, we need help coming to terms with the fact that we are not.

It is understandable that Australians might support the idea of some form of recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution. Australians are constantly facing accusations that we are in denial about our origins as a nation, that the Aboriginal experience is ignored in our historical narratives, and that Aboriginal people continue to be neglected today. To include a statement of recognition of the ‘First Australians’ in our Constitution would demonstrate to the world, and perhaps to ourselves, that we are not as awful as everyone seems to think.

In practice, however, the idea of recognising some members of the Australian populace as a separate and distinct group of ‘First Australians’ raises a number of interconnected problems, not least of which is the problem of distinguishing who counts as a ‘First Australian’ and who doesn’t. Senator Jacquie Lambie’s claim to Aboriginality is only the most recent cause for consternation amongst those who regard themselves as authorities on such matters.

Further problems lie in defining the qualities that all ‘First Australians’ share, and in describing those particular qualities that should be acknowledged and respected by all other Australians. Then there is the problem of deciding how any such expressions of respect should be implemented. After all, it means little to say you respect something, or someone, if you do nothing tangible to demonstrate this sentiment.

If Australians feel a need to recognise something in our Constitution in order to feel better about ourselves, it is preferable that we acknowledge simple facts, rather than express vague sentiments that serve to reinforce outdated notions of ‘race’. For example, the Constitution’s preamble could simply include an acknowledgment of the historical fact that there were people living on this continent before it was claimed by the British. We could also acknowledge that a proportion of the Australian population are descendants of these so-called ‘First Australians’, and that some (although not all) of these descendants maintain some elements of the traditional culture of the original inhabitants.

It makes no sense to meld under the title of First Australians those people who originally inhabited this continent and their modern-day descendants, as the two groups are vastly different people. While many – too many – people of Aboriginal descent continue to live in conditions of Dickensian squalor and deprivation, they are nonetheless modern people, as much a product of modernity as am I, and as are you. These descendants of the original inhabitants are heirs to ancient cultural values and practices that have largely been eroded by time and corrupted by the exposure to outside influences that modernity inevitably brings – just as those of European descent are heirs to the remnants of other ancient cultures. Yet Aboriginal Australians today are also heirs to the same cultural values, technology and practices that govern all of us who live in this country: those of a modern, democratic nation-state.

Responsibility for the corrosive effects of modernity on traditional Aboriginal culture should not be shouldered by guilt-ridden ‘whitefellas’. Back when I was an active participant in the Aboriginal industry, I bought into the prevailing culture of blaming Whitey for denying me access to the culture that was my birthright as an Aboriginal person. Everything that I found disagreeable about the world around me – from the obligation to work and the cost of living, to parking fines and reality television – was the product of someone else’s modernity that had been unjustly imposed on me. As an Aboriginal person, I felt that I belonged to something different, and that I was entitled to something more… authentic, than the late-20th century Australian life in which I found myself.

With maturity came the realisation that my complaints about modernity made about as much sense as the disgruntled teenager’s complaint that she ‘had never asked to be born’. The reasonable response to such complaints being that none of us asked for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and all of us find our circumstances unsatisfying to some degree, because that is simply the human condition. My Aboriginal heritage does not grant me exemption from the demands and dissatisfactions of modern life, nor does my heritage mean my feelings of dissatisfaction are more substantial or meaningful than anyone else’s.

For too long this nation has indulged the crippling conceit that the exigencies of modernity do not, or should not, apply to people of Aboriginal descent. As a result, many Aboriginal people today need assistance to cope with the basic demands of daily life. Constitutional recognition of an exclusive group of people who regard themselves as ‘First Australians’ will not bring about ‘healing’, nor satisfy a sense of entitlement or appease a sense of injustice, because the unbridgeable gulf between Aboriginal dreams and present-day realities will inevitably remain.

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  • Jean Jackson

    THANK YOU Ma’am.
    In the 1970s my tribal chairman in the South Island, NZ, postured at meetings of curious part-Maori descendants of early chiefs and others, claiming ‘We are going to get our land back.’ He was given great funding, there were conferences and claims – not to a common law court when public assets were at stake. No, a half-pie Tribunal with no oath, cross-examination &c. Instead claimants could choose to blame Govt. and settlers for everything, use metaphysical or superstitious gimmicks then claim millions in ‘compensation’ or ‘redress’ in land. An oath-taking business fellowship took over all public assets bar a few, all available for ‘compensation’ etc.
    A part-English Bishop was made a judge; the (sworne) Church of England Archbishop, still ‘frocked,’ was overloaded as NZ ‘s Governor-General. He didn’t know his own tribe’s inhumanities, in the North + South Islands – and offshore in tjhe Chatham Islands. My Mother assisted me to, at least to deliver basics. Hard copy, maps. His knowledge of enough law wasn’t good.

    I’ve been given hours and days of interviews, when ‘we’ found quite a good number of points anthropologists don’t use, or rarely do. ‘We’ found documents and details and public records of surprising value that make you keep going and making sure other people of any race aren’t left out. It’s too costly at any level; more so when media aren’t keen enough to use.

    We found the true reasons for Government decisions. ‘Confiscations’ were either ‘resumptions’ of real property, or they were ‘suspensory’ for a purpose. When a witchery movement took over from coast to coast of the N.I., the Gov.-Gen. made a Proclamation in 1865. The bad old days returned, pumped up by aliens from rival jurisdictions. Effects are still with us, in fact one country laid the foundations of bad-ness in the 1820s. So much new evidence is available it’s both laughable AND quite often, a social and political let-out.

    The U.N. has most of my books on one disk.
    The New South Wales Government did some remarkable things to assist N.Z. Maori – on Nov. 9, 2014, it will be not only 200 years since Rev Samuel Marsden
    brought Christianity (with ‘forgiveness, etc.’) to this country, New Zealand became a dependency of NSW. And using an ancient writ, from the Latin, Gov. Macquarie
    raised up three powerful chiefs as J.P.s, = publicservants.

    My tribe, in 1838, 1839 and 1840, desperately looked for buyers of empty land in the S.I., and wanted foreigners to marry tribal girls – for greater health. That worked slowly, as the tribal foods and ‘medicines’ had left a terrible legacy.So did the olde ‘priests’. So did inbreeding, or Fernroot, both causing mutations.
    Inter-tribal warfare, raids and slavery had dislocated half of the Maori population. Missionaries helped Government to repatriate the HALF of them whom chiefs let go. Slaves ‘ran with the land’ to a large extent, and after MOST of the early contracts were proved not valid due to sites being mistaken, and landmarks overgrown, or other details, about 44,000,000 ac had to be resumed (unwillingly) by chiefs who (willingly) sold.

    For RANSOMS, nominally (true intent), when lands were resumed by chiefs, their own protocols meant they must next OFFER places for sale or gift, to a third party.

    Government banked 10% of the on-sale prices, to hand to chiefs as their gratuities = annuities, also for medical visits (against tribal priests’ will), and deposits for schools – then subsidised.
    Foreigners have undermined Government for 20-30 years, using several methods, some new types of ‘magic… especially in Town Planning. We find our early chiefs
    actually sold ‘sacred sites’ for a pound or two. So places of casual, passing interest
    cannot be worth anything unless there’s a useful business angle, or plain charity.
    Only education and Time helps close gaps. 20 years ago a letter to the P.M. WAS SHARED WITH THE DEPT OF ABORIGINALS.
    If anyone likes to write, my ADDRESS : J Jackson, PO Box 6411, Wellesley Street,
    Auckland, New Zealand, 1141. Good wishes, Jean Jackson.