The notion of a ‘Great Australian Silence’ about Australian history and the treatment of indigenous people might have been accurate when anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner coined the phrase in the 1960s. But in no way does it ring true with regards to current attitudes to indigenous issues and awareness of the realities of our history. However, this hasn’t stopped ABC Indigenous Affairs editor Stan Grant from seizing on the American debate about removing Civil War statues to call for an end to what he claims is our own ‘great silence’ about the inaccuracies in our understanding of indigenous history. In an analysis published on the ABC News website, ‘America tears down its racist history, we ignore ours’, Grant argued that what Stanner described as ‘the cult of forgetting practiced on a national scale’ persists today as ‘we find it all too easy to avoid’ the racist legacies of Australia’s past.
You cannot write seriously about a silence when it is rare for a public gathering nowadays not to feature a ritual Welcome to Country acknowledgement of the traditional owners of these lands. The decision by a second Melbourne council to opt out of Australia Day also clearly shows there is no silence or avoidance of the subject. Melbourne’s inner north Darebin Council has followed the City of Yarra Council in voting to move its citizenship ceremonies to a different more ‘inclusive’ date, because ‘January 26 is indelibly tied to dispossession and subsequent oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People’. The growing support among both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians for the push to ‘change the date’ of Australia Day shows that Australians are indeed ‘grappling’ with our history, and are anything but apathetic and oblivious to the tragedies of the history of ‘invasion’.
Nevertheless, Grant argues that we remain blind to our history because of supposed fictions such as the inscription on the Captain Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park that credits Cook for discovering Australia. But as Keith Windschuttle has correctly pointed out, this example of so-called historical ‘inaccuracies’ is wrong on the facts. Australia’s existence as a continent was not known until the arrival of Europeans possessing the technological ability to map it. This is not the racist mythology of a ‘white’ nation: it is a cartographical and historical reality.
But this latest outbreak of the history wars is about bigger issues than debating who did and didn’t discover Australia. There has been a long running campaign by indigenous activists to use the nation’s history to claim the high moral ground in contemporary policy debates about indigenous disadvantage.
Grant’s 2015 book, Talking to My Country, claimed that indigenous Australians still suffer from gross under-privilege and appalling gaps in social outcomes because we have yet to address historic wrongs.
According to Grant, Australians are yet to honestly confront the racist realities of dispossession and oppression from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 that robbed indigenous Australians of their traditional lands and smashed their traditional culture. Yet the book’s statement that non-indigenous ‘Australians know so little about what has happened here’ and tell themselves a different story about its darkest parts, is impossible to accept, given the broad community support for the High Court’s native title decisions, the reconciliation movement, and, in recent times, for constitutional recognition.
Not only have the truths of our history long been owned up to, but so also have earnest and extended efforts been undertaken to account for the historical record. Since at least the 1970s, the major thrust of indigenous policy has been focused on righting the historic wrongs of imperial dispossession and colonial oppression. First by granting land rights to Aboriginal peoples, and second through the policy of Aboriginal self-determination, which was specifically intended to allow Aborigines to return to live traditional lives and practice traditional culture ‘on country’.
Grant’s take on the nation’s history not only gets the recent history of indigenous affairs wrong; his claim that the unaddressed racist legacies of our history remain the root cause of indigenous disadvantage is also terribly flawed and misguided.
In reality, the real causes of the worst indigenous deprivation in modern Australia are the long-running and well-meaning, but ultimately failed efforts that have been made to address the legacies of racism, imperialism and colonialism. The well-known and shameful social problems and dysfunction that blight remote ‘homeland’ indigenous communities are a product of the ‘separatist’ policies of self-determination. They are not a product of the nation doing too little to address history’s sins, as Grant claims, but a product of the nation having tried and failed — disastrously — to make amends for history.
It is ironic that Grant is drawing attention to the ultimate ‘symbolic’ issue in indigenous affairs – the future of statues honouring explorers, governors and settlers – at a time when the Western Australian coroner is conducting an inquiry into the suicides of 13 young Aboriginal people (including five children aged between 10 and 13) in remote towns and communities in the Kimberley. If it stopped abused and neglected Aboriginal kids from killing themselves, I would tear down every statue of Captain Cook in the country. But this wouldn’t make any difference. The intractable disadvantage, dysfunction and despair in indigenous communities like the Kimberley is not a product of Australia’s history of colonialism, but of the ‘anti-colonial’ indigenous policies that have prevailed for the past 40 years.
If we want to reflect on the silences in our history, and promote a national debate about the inaccuracies in our history, we should start here. We should foster greater historical understanding of how the indigenous policies designed with the best of intentions to make up for our history have ultimately made life worse for those indigenous Australians who suffer appalling living conditions and tragically short, brutal, and nasty lives in rural and remote regions.
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