Friday, March 18, 2011

Student activism, Aboriginal activism & White Australia

A discussion on Catallaxy Files led me to this paper examining the historical and geological record for Australian tsunamis.

I haven't commented on the unfolding nuclear events in Japan because I really haven't had anything to add to the discussion that was in any way useful. However, the thing that did puzzle me as it emerged was the failure of back-up power. That seems to be the single most important factor in the unfolding events. The answer here appears to lie in the failure to recognise the potential scale of possible tsunamis. The other major design flaw appears to be the unprotected containment ponds.

These things and possible answers will become clearer later. In the meantime, none of us can do more than watch and hope.

In a number of earlier posts, I discussed the history of the White Australia Policy, including its ending. One of the important issues there was the way Australian foreign policy interests affected the process. A second and linked issue was the Colombo Plan and the way that affected attitudes by bringing Australians into contact with overseas students. Here I used my own experience as an illustration.

Unexpectedly, I found myself looking at a different dimension of the same process. I say unexpectedly because White Australia was the last thing on my mind.    

The social, economic and political changes that affected New England in the second half of the twentieth century reflected global as well as national changes. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the end of colonialism and the rise of the US Civil Rights Movement, the emergence of hippies and the counter culture movement, the rise of women’s liberation were all global and were signs of an interacting process of social and cultural change.

These changes may have been global, but they played out across the New England landscape in ways that reflected local conditions. For that reason, I was looking at some of them of as part of the preparation of my social change paper.

In February 1965, students from Sydney University influenced by the civil rights struggle in the United States, organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns. Their purpose was threefold. The students planned to draw public attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing. They hoped to point out and help to lessen the socially discriminatory barriers which existed between Aboriginal and white residents. And they also wished to encourage and support Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination

I decided to use this bus tour as an entry point to discussion because it has achieved iconic status.  To do this, I needed more information about the tour, so started with Anne Curthoys’ Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2002). I got more than I bargained for.

To begin with, it drew me into the world of the Aboriginal activists and of the overall changes that had taken place in Australia following the end of the Second World War. I already knew that I had to write something on this.  

At the first census in 1971 recording the Aboriginal population, the number of NSW residents self-reporting as Aboriginal were heavily concentrated in New England. The total number of self-identified Aborigines was quite low, 23,101 in all. Of this group, 12,760 (55%) lived in New England. The proportion is quite startling, more so if the unknown but quite high proportion of New England ancestry Aboriginal people living in the Sydney metropolitan area is included. This means that the story of New England's Aboriginal peoples is actually quite important and not just in local terms.

I said that I already knew that I had to write something on this. I had been putting it off. I have written a lot on Aboriginal issues, and I keep burning out. This time I had no choice but to continue.

In turn, this drew me into the history of Abschol - the national university student Aboriginal scholarship scheme - and of the role that university students and staff had played in changing attitudes and approaches towards Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This was quite important. It also reminded me why I was so strongly opposed to the abolition of compulsory student fees. Without those, far less would have happened.

I will try to document some of this in a blog post, because it's actually quite hard to get a consolidated picture.

The students at Sydney University who ended up on the bus rise did not start by campaigning for Aboriginal rights. They were, as so many students were at the time, focused on the US Civil Rights campaign. It's hard to imagine now just how important this was, the way in which it attracted campus attention.

The students' problem in organising demonstrations in support of US civil rights lay in the international response; fix up your own house first came back. This stung. At Sydney University, this plus the evolving role of Charles Perkins and Gary Foley (both recipients of the first NSW university Abschol scholarships) switched focus from the US to Australia's Aboriginal peoples. The bus ride was a result.

   I may seem to have come some distance from the ending of the White Australia Policy. I have not.

White Australia ended because the then Government knew that changes had to be made, even though individual ministers still supported the policy in principle. White Australia ended because the Columbo Plan helped break down prejudice in the Australian community. White Australia ended, too, because of student activism that was driven by causes elsewhere, but then transmuted into local issues. Australian student leaders going to international student meetings experienced considerable discomfort as a consequence of White Australia.

How one breaks all this up is unclear. To Aboriginal activists, their role was central. Then student activists focus on their roles. My own work has a broader focus.

In the end, it doesn't matter. Major changes in social attitudes and policy are always messy when it comes to looking at causes and relative influence. Most of the time, we simply can't know. What is important is the simple presentation of the varying influences involved.        


Peter Martin said...

Somewhat puzzled by your statement that

"The students at Sydney University who ended up on the bus rise did not start by campaigning for Aboriginal rights."

As someone who was on the bus, and was involved in the very earliest meeting at which it was discussed (a bit of history which Ann missed out on), my clear memory is that a campaign for Aboriginal rights was absolutely the centre of attention from Day One.

Others present were Charles Perkins, Jim Spigelman, Kevin Martin (student) Jim Buckley (NSW Ccl for Civil Liberties) Peter Westerway (Channel 7 and former Politics lecturer at Sydney, and Bill Forde (lecturer at UNSW).
The meeting was in the coffee shop at the Union Theatre.
The US experience was relevant as a guide as to the strategy, tactics and philosophical underpinning which might apply to the aboriginal campaign, and whether and how a freedom bus ride might work. Bill Forde had spent some time with bus riders in the US, and explained some of the tactics employed there. There was a discussion of key strategies, including the need for on-the-spot research, consultation with locals, principles of non-violent confrontation etc. When doubt was expressed at the meeting as to whether there would be enough obvious evidence of discrimination to justify actions similar to the US freedom bus rides, Charles vehemently insisted there would be plenty, and that he and Chicka Dixon would be able to nominate towns and places where discrimination was rife.
At the time, there was a growing awareness of discrimination even to the legislative level.
Students had been collecting for the Abschol funds for years without any candidates coming forward (matriculating) until Charles arrived.

As for your interesting figures on those who came forward to classify themselves as aboriginal after the census laws were changed, you might consider a major factor which was clearly involved in many cases: in some places it was still possible for people to be "declared" to be, for example, "a person with an admixture of aboriginal blood", and to be placed in "protection".

This meant you could be confined to a mission, refused permission to leave or to have non-mission visitors, have your home entered without warrant, be refused permission to work, or if given permission, have your salary paid to a "supervisor" (often, sadly, a local policeman) and given an "allowance" for your trouble. In some cases, you could be refused service of alcohol without a "permit". And these were the legislative restrictions! Informal discrimination was rife even through churches and schools as well as pubs and cafes and barber shops etc.
So not too many people were willing to rush forward to declare themselves aboriginal, even when some of those laws and practices were changed.
Maybe New England had a better history of mission supervisors ?
Maybe not, although I note New England didn't feature much in the short list of places for the freedom bus to visit.
But a lot of factors were at play.

And on the general question of White Australia, you might note that largely as a result of the Columbo plan, most students at Australian universities had a chance to mix with thousands of Asian students, and to appreciate the stupidity of White Australia. They didn't need contact overseas... it was present on the campuses.

In fact, at a time when student politics (local and NUAUS) prided itself in being "apolitical", (late 1950s, early 60's) White Australia was one issue which they did take strong opposition to, at a time when neither Labor or Liberal would listen much at all.

Jim Belshaw said...

Peter, for some obscure reason you comment ended up in spam! I have saved and published. Will resond a little later.