Necessity: The plea for every infringement of human freedom

An article by Des Griffin, Director, Australian Museum

At Government House in Sydney on 24 April the British Council and guests celebrated 50 years of the Council’s activities in Australia. As we came in from the lawns to the ballroom we were greeted by Young Australian Aboriginal (Bundjalung) performer Cedric Talbot. He was seated beneath portraits of English Kings and Queens. He played a number of items on the didgeridoo; at a signal from Director Jim Potts he sang a special welcome song in his language to Council Director-General Sir John Hanson. At its conclusion Jim Potts told us of Cedric’s country and his recent achievements as a Young Australian and performer. I was struck by both the sensitivity that had been displayed by the Council and by the symbolism of the event, by the recognition it gave to Aboriginal people in a setting so redolent of the last 200 plus years.

I was reminded of another story. At the 1992 Australian Rugby League Grand Final, Yothu Yindi’s ‘Treaty’ was played, and the cheerleaders performed to it. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in its 1994 publication, Valuing Cultures: Recognising Indigenous Cultures as a Valued Part of Australian Heritage (Canberra: AGPS) says, "This piece of ethnographic trivia from modern Australia, and many other examples like it, tell us that there is something happening between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and that it has something to do with the arts, music and dance, and their power in healing the old antagonisms, in moving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the ‘primitivist’, exclusionist imperatives of old Anglo-Australian culture into a modern, multicultural, tolerant Australia, forging its social and economic place in the international arena."

Thirty years after Australian people changed the constitution to allow Aboriginal people to be counted in the population census - in their own land - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and issues concerning them are amongst the dominant topics of contemporary politics. The historic High Court judgement on Mabo changed forever our perspective of whatever justification there might have been for the process of occupation of Australia. Or it was thought it would. Now the follow up judgement on the Wik people’s claim for traditional rights in respect of pastoral leases has unleashed vitriolic claims against the High Court and the judges themselves. No matter that the Wik judgement further confirmed the Mabo judgement that the land was not "terra nullius". No matter that previous judgements of the High Court including the case for nationalising the banks in the 1940s led to no such antagonistic reaction from leading politicians, as Geoffrey Bolton has pointed out. No matter that the "existing" rights of pastoralists on leases are under no threat as Noel Pearson has said time and again. Bryan Keon-Cohen, a QC with long experience in Native Title cases, has said the proposals, emanating from pastoralists and their parliamentary advocates in the context of "all that anger out there about the lack of certainty", to achieve a wholly different regime for pastoral leases, is "in one .... legislative stroke of the pen ... creating another Terra Nullius paddock-by-paddock". John Purcell of the Queensland Cattlemen’s Union has pointed out that certainty can mean certainty in time, not a change in use. (Purcell was one of the negotiators of the Cape York Land Agreement between conservationists, pastoralists and indigenous peoples facilitated by Rick Farley, previously of the Australian Farmer’s Federation.)

There is increasing recognition by all Australians of the extraordinary significance to indigenous peoples of land and landscape with its symbols of spirituality forming the very basis of indigenous life. (Which is absolutely not to deny links with the land by non-indigenous people through their presence on it over generations and the kinds of struggles which Jill Ker Conway so graphically portrayed in "Road from Coorain". Living in one’s own country is a fundamental element of self-determination which allows the building of pride and independence necessary for all people to go forward with confidence: a more viable alternative than continued reliance on social welfare. Surely we can acknowledge that!

Attempts to find a common path leading to reconciliation, something endorsed unanimously by both houses of the Australian Parliament, have been met in some quarters with a claim that we should build on the pride of our achievements. Fundamentally the reconciliation process has to involve recognition of what happened rather than simple acceptance of it. No recognition, no reconciliation! There are some strange views of history here, some odd perceptions of what constitutes memory. The ‘black armband’ view that indigenous peoples are interested primarily in making contemporary non-indigenous people all feel guilty diminishes us all. More stereotyping and convenient generalisations. In (arguably) one of the most important speeches of recent times, Noel Pearson speaking on "An Australian History for Us All" at the University of Western Sydney in November last described this guilt as a ‘hot button’ issue like Political Correctness, Aboriginal Industry, lines "that resonate, work on the evening news grabs... on the radio airwaves... brain-damaged dialogue... passing for free speech and public debate. The politics of mutual assurance". Pearson also observes, "It should not be necessary for the truth to be distorted for white Australians to be able to live with themselves... [a response which rejects history] is quite inappropriate, now when at last we may be approaching a state of ‘live and let live’. It is at odds with the quest to discover ‘what unites us as well as what separates us’." No demand there that whites feel guilty but the kind of history we have seen in "The West", one which indeed helps us to understand the past and its parallels for all people.

Right now, the Inquiry into the "Stolen Children" is in danger of becoming another opportunity to reject the wrongs of the past because we didn’t commit them - any attempt to make us bear the burden of the past is an affront. After all, white children were removed from their mothers and white people die in prison. Of course they were but that doesn’t cancel out what happened to indigenous peoples. There is something terribly illogical and so particular in all this. We in Australia are encouraged to remember that day over 70 years ago when young Australian and New Zealand men with all their future in front of them landed on the beach at Gallipoli to be mown down by Turkish guns: so strong a symbol is it to many that there is urging for 25 April to become the National Day. We are encouraged to never forget the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of Nazis. Many Irish people still remember ‘98, that day when "fighters for Irish freedom" invaded Vinegar Hill. And today we remember terrible events at Port Arthur a year ago, a place where terror is no stranger. These memories are not something that people try to thrust aside. The events have a powerful influence on their world view, on them as people.

But we turn away from the Myall Creek Massacre, the Conniston massacre and many more including the destruction of many Tasmanian Aboriginals "so fierce" that in the 1820s there was doubt they should be allowed to move from Flinders Island (to where they had been transported) to Victoria; and the deliberate hunting and shooting and rape of Aboriginal people that went on into this century - within the living memory of today’s Australians, the removal of people from their land to missions all mixed up together so that historically antagonistic tribes were thrust together.

Aboriginal people played since 1788, and still play, a vital part in every aspect of Australian life, as explorers, as stockmen, as policemen (against their own as in Ireland and everywhere else), as soldiers, as sportsmen, as artists. Henry Reynolds has shown just how reliant on them new Australians were. But in recent memory claims for decent wages were denied in many places, especially on the Pilbara and Wave Hill. Oral tradition was not admitted in courts because it wasn’t written! Valid claims for traditional lands were and are diminished because of ambit claims. A Prime Minister who promised a Treaty allowed a Premier a year later to run an election campaign against land rights with the false assertion that it would mean Aboriginal people in everyone’s backyard in a State where anthropologists were instructed to rewrite their findings about sacred places so that oil drilling could proceed.

Now every time we want to show our face to the world we show Aboriginal designs and we have "Festivals of the Dreaming". We do all know that Aboriginal traditional art in a contemporary setting is recognised through all the world for its beauty, our planes are decorated with indigenous designs, we celebrate painters (men and women), rock music groups like Yothu Yindi, singers such as Christine Anu, design companies such as Balararinji, writers too numerous to mention, dancers, leaders like Galarrwuy Yunupingu , Pat and Michael Dodson, Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton, Pat O’Shane, footballers. Indigenous peoples are at the negotiating table: 30 years ago it would never have been.

Reconciliation means understanding the past, not excusing it. So much of what was awful in the interaction between the original peoples of the land and non-indigenous people has been excused as "it was thought to be right at the time". Particularly of the removal of children, especially children of mixed parentage. It can never be considered right! Removal was not some sort of kindly gesture in the best interests of the children but a forced removal to domestic work where wages if any were inadequate, where female children were sexually exploited. Like most "adoptions" children were not told of their real identity. Anyway, so many indigenous people in towns were encouraged to deny their identity and everyday life was often the result of removal of people from their country and suppression of their language and their beliefs. The removal was based on a travesty of Darwinian evolutionary theory, on assumptions about the rights of one people to mandate what is ‘right’ for other people. Now the real magnitude of the terrible hurt and injustice, the loss of family connections, the cultural and social deprivation and its consequences for parenting is becoming apparent to others: indigenous people’s sense of destruction is becoming part of our understanding. Are we to sweep it all under the carpet, paper over all the cracks so that we can live comfortably whilst no attempt is made to show the compassion that we as civilised peoples think is right in other circumstances?

We can never be a whole people, let alone a nation with a sense of itself, whilst the past is put aside, whilst politicians assert as truth what they know to be untruth, whilst judgements of the High Court are treated as little more than political manifestos and judges attacked, whilst people are made virtual prisoners in their own land with their own sense of their own future denied. Two years ago we were supporting United Nations Security Council resolutions against countries that mistreated its citizens, five years ago we were campaigning against apartheid. And so on and so on. William Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister of England 1783-1801, 1804-1806), speaking in the House of Commons on 18 November 1783 said, "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves." Are we to fulfil Manning Clark’s observation that Australia would become just a place of ‘uncommonly large profit’? Is it just too hard for us to reach that future that many have said is close, a tolerant, compassionate society, a diverse nation? Can we look to 2001 when we stand tall in the world as a nation which can in truth justify its stand on human rights, on universal human rights? Can we?