I dropped in the other day to the Sydney Writers’ Festival to hear Stan Grant deliver his autobiographical and sometimes sepulchral polemic against Australian racism. It was called ‘Talking to my Country’, the same title as his recent best-seller. The audience of 900 in the Roslyn Packer Theatre loved every word of it. They gave him a standing ovation and cheered to the echo. There is no doubt how they will vote in any forthcoming referendum on Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples.
But Grant was preaching to the converted. Others are more cautious. The sympathetic journalist Chris Kenny, for example, found ‘unease’ the best word to describe the continuing relationship between Aborigines and the rest of us – between ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ Australians. The relationship, he says, is symbiotic and indelible but there is no fundamental reconciliation. How can there be when, every day since 18th century British settlers arrived in Botany Bay, ancient Aboriginal life has retreated to the point of extinction. Some say it is the inevitable result of the march of history and has been replicated all over the world whenever ‘civilisation’ impacts ‘the Stone Age.’ But Social Darwinism and the gifts of ‘Western civilization’ do not eliminate the regret or guilt which so many spokesmen for the West bring to what Daisy Bates in her prophetic memoir called The Passing of the Aborigines. We may do our best in policy after policy (Protection, Assimilation, Self-Determination), conference after conference, subsidy after subsidy, to make amends for the dispossession of the indigenous nations of Alcheringa , but we never entirely succeed. and never will. Hence Kenny’s ‘unease’.
But the unease goes beyond Social Darwinism through the age of what Bates called ‘the half-caste menace’ to the era of apparently successful Assimilation on to the post-Mabo years of Practical Reconciliation. Take Stan Grant. Despite his spectacular career in the media and his love of the land, non-indigenous Australians remain strangers to him. When the Australian flag is unfurled, he thinks of murder, plunder and the smashing of his ancestral Aboriginal life. He cannot forget or forgive what he sees as the bloody birth of the country. ‘The past is alive in me now.’ He has come to hate ‘the white blood in me.’ Aborigines today, he says, have the lowest life expectancy, highest infant mortality, highest imprisonment, highest unemployment, and worst health, education and housing. The national anthem sounds like a death march. He writes simply and movingly, and he would be more persuasive if he acknowledged the great debt he owes the West and ‘white’ Australians for giving him the opportunity to become one of the greatest and most famous broadcasters in Australia. (He dedicates his book to the ‘white women who have loved us’.)
But we don’t give up. The current hope is for a referendum amending the federal Constitution to fully and formally recognise and integrate Australia’s indigenous peoples. It would be held next year on May 27 – the 50th anniversary of the grand and overwhelmingly successful 1967 referendum which mandated the inclusion of all Aborigines in the national census. The main problem facing its sponsors is that there is still little or no agreement about what question the Constitutional referendum will or should put to the electorate. Some want a preambular acknowledgment of the indigenous or First Peoples. Some want a new clause outlawing discriminatory legislation. Still others want a Constitutional advisory council to consider any legislation touching Aborigines. Some want a Declaration of Rights. Some scorn all these ‘beads and trinkets’ and will only settle for an Aboriginal State within the Federation and a treaty or series of treaties.The variety of opinions can be seen in two new collections or symposia from MUP. One – It’s Our Country edited by Megan Davis and Marcia Langton – is more-or-less radical; the other – The Forgotten People edited by Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris – is more-or-less conservative. Both collections urge a Yes vote, although there are sceptics in both symposiums who doubt that the carriage of any referendum will make any difference ‘on the ground.’ Some think that only a few Australians are even aware that the Constitution exists. Many have no sense of Chris Kenny’s ‘unease’ in their attitudes to indigenous peoples and remain indifferent to them, convinced that continuing assimilation will solve whatever problems they have.
Incidentally, the current controversy over the meaning and usage of the word ‘indigenous’ is a pointless distraction. Andrew Bolt considers himself to be indigenous (born and bred here), but Shireen Morris of the Cape York Institute believes that only Aborigines can claim to be indigenous. Both may be right. A few decades back Prime Minister Gorton (or was it Harold Holt?) created a film committee of the Australian Council for the Arts. He appointed me chairman. Other members included Phillip Adams and Barry Jones. Our riding orders were simple. We were, quick and lively, to come up with policies – especially for a film school – that would encourage and help indigenous film-makers, such as Bruce Beresford or Peter Weir, and indigenous writers such as David Williamson. No one had any doubt what the word indigenous meant. But the meaning of the word was gradually changed by apparatchiks -‘thieves in the night’ as the formidable Lowitja O’Donoghue put it. She stuck with Aboriginal.
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