Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Essay - the long term significance of the Tent Embassy affray

I have remarked before on the role commenters play in critiquing and extending some of my thinking. Sometimes my posts actually write themselves!

The Tent Embassy mess is a case in point. Here I have been able to add material, including a short eye witness comment from someone who was in The Lobby at the time. It was obviously a terrifying experience.

The role played by former Gillard press secretary Tony Hodges has become politically important. I quote from a piece by Stephanie Peatling in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Ms Gillard yesterday held a defiant press conference in which she described as ''grossly unacceptable conduct'' the actions of her now former press secretary, Tony Hodges, in relaying comments made by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, to the union official Kim Sattler.

She said the point of Mr Hodges's call to Ms Sattler - whose role in Thursday's events remained unknown until yesterday - had been to suggest indigenous leaders should respond to comments made by Mr Abbott about the future of the tent embassy.

That telephone call sparked a chain of events that led to the evacuation of Ms Gillard and Mr Abbott from a restaurant that was set upon by angry protesters.

Sometimes in politics, when things go wrong they just keep going wrong. Whatever the facts of the case, in acting in the way he did Mr Hodges added yet another distraction to the Gillard Government's woes.

In what may seem a very disconnected comment, back in November I reported (Giving up smoking) on my decision to quit smoking. For a number of reasons that I won't bore you with, that decision became somewhat problematic.

Anyway, the day before Australia Day I popped out of the office for a smoke. I have mentioned before that I am presently completing an assignment for an organisation with a large number of Aboriginal staff. Standing there, I listened to people talking about plans for Australia aka Invasion Day, with one person going to Canberra for the Tent Embassy demonstration. The outcome made me very sad.

To my mind, the tragedy of the Canberra events lies in the damage done to Aboriginal interests. I was going to write black-white relations, but that would have been be both incorrect (the idea of "black-white" relations is increasingly silly in modern Australia with its diverse ethnic mix) and misleading. Misleading in that the real focus should be on Aboriginal advancement; the relations between the Aboriginal peoples and the rest of the community is just one element in the equation.

If the conversations I hear or the things I read are any guide, many Australians have simply lost patience. Their response to arguments about the past is simply "get over it". Further, an increasing number believe that Aboriginal people get special treatment and are opposed to that.

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I believe that we need a new compact with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

I feel no personal guilt about the events that followed 1788, although some make me sad. I do not share the anti-British view popular among some on the left. I certainly don't share the a-historical stereotypes now enshrined in so much thinking among Aboriginal people themselves, as well as in the broader community.    

My focus is positive. Yes, we need to recognise past wrongs. But more importantly, we need to make Australia's Aboriginal past accessible to all, to create an integrated picture that knits past and present to the benefit of all.

I suspect, I am not sure, that an increasing number of Australians have little real connection with or understanding of the basic underpinnings of Australia's past beyond certain stereotypes.

This is not a comment on the teaching of history, nor is it a contribution to Australia's culture wars. I am making a practical comment.

Australia is changing rapidly. The proportion of the Australian population born outside the country has been growing. Add their children, and you have a very large group indeed. Increasingly, our migrants come from diverse countries with often limited historical connection to the those themes once central to Australian history. Then, too, our increasingly metro concentrated population has lost connection with broader country, something central to Aboriginal thought.

Let me try to illustrate with a specific example.

You live in Sydney and come from China. Your family connections and historical memories are with China. Your Australian born children mix with the Chinese community as well as their school friends. You send them to Mandarin classes and bring them on visits home to see family. Neither you nor your children see much of Australia outside the area of Sydney you live in. If you map your connections and interactions, you have a narrowly defined spider web that links Sydney to your original home.

There is nothing wrong with this. It's natural. However, I think that it does mean that there is a disconnect between a growing proportion of the Australian population and what we might think of as knowledge of and interest in Aboriginal history and issues.

To test this further, and I stand to be corrected, look at those participating in debate on Aboriginal issues in the broader Australian community. They largely come from the diminishing Anglo-Celtic majority group. Australia's newer migrant groups are missing from the debate. So, and if I'm correct, we have an increasing proportion of the Australian population simply disengaged from this particular discussion.

Fundamental demographic change takes time, but is also inexorable.

At present, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up around 2.6% of the Australian population. That proportion will diminish. The Anglo-Celtic share of the Australian population with some historical connection with the Aboriginal past will continue to diminish. I haven't tried to work out at what point it will become a minority, but I suspect that it will happen sometime in the next twenty years.

Where am I going in all this? I'm not quite sure.

I think that the Tent Embassy affair has damaged the efforts of those of us seeking a broader compact with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I think that  the chances of getting a referendum through awarding some form of constitutional recognition to our Aboriginal peoples have been reduced. Frankly, unless it's very carefully managed I think that any such referendum is likely to fail.

I also think that demographic change means that the importance of, the emotional significance attached to, Australia's Aboriginal past is diminishing. This also reduces possibilities for real change.

In all this, I have the uncomfortable feeling that, looking back, events in Canberra may prove to be a negative turning point.     


Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful analysis. Thanks Jim.

I left another eye witness link on your earlier post just to keep it all together. More oral history.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for this, kvd.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, I fear you are right.

I do think there is a need for non-aboriginal people to meet aboriginal people face to face. I do think post-Hanson the right has managed to shift the debate their way (Windschuttle seems to be taken seriously in the public debate - but maybe I'm mistaken).

In the modern world migrants can feel much more connected to their country of origin and even (while cheap oil lasts?) maintain physical connection to it. What this means for their relation to their new country must be different to the experience of migrants. Not sure if anyone has looked at this - I don't follow the issue closely.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree that more non-Aboriginal people need to meet Aboriginal people face to face. I have been lucky

Yesterday I had lunch with Jen, my Aboriginal mentee. The mentoring program is long finished, but the relationship continues. I have learned much from her.

I am not sure on your next point. It seems to me that both right and left are equally guilty, with the left setting the agenda for much of the time to the detriment of Aboriginal people.

I absolutely agree on your last point. It links to some of the things that I have argued on this blog.