Sunday, October 14, 2007

Why we (Australia) need a new compact with our indigenous people

I concluded my last post with this statement:

One outcome from my research and writing, and this was a position that I did not expect to reach, is that I now believe that the creation of a new compact with our indigenous people is the single most important issue facing modern Australia. In my next post I will try to explain why.

A definitional point first.

I have deliberately used the word compact meaning agreement because I think that we need as a people to develop an agreed position across a range of areas. I am also trying to avoid the problems, legal and otherwise, that have been raised by the use of the word "treaty".

Bluntly, we Australians -indigenous and non-indigenous alike - have stuffed things up.

Back in the dim and distant world of the sixties I had no idea that we would end up where we are today.

Then under the influence of Isabel McBryde I had just discovered the wonder and complexity of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander past. I watched the civil rights movement in the United States. Listening to Charles Perkins speak at the University of New England I absorbed the view that there was not an Aboriginal problem but a European problem because of our treatment of the Aboriginal people. Oceania taught me about mirroring, the way in which Aboriginal people's attitudes to themselves came to reflect attitudes and prejudices in the broader community.

Brian Harrison was doing his thesis on the Myall Creek massacre, so issues associated with black-white relations and the moving frontier were current. The idea of writing from the other side of the frontier fascinated me.

I took all this very seriously. As someone who loved - still does - alternative history, I experimented in my mind with various alternative versions of the past along what-if lines. I started planning a history of New England that would start with Aboriginal settlement.

In all this, I felt and still feel no sense of personal guilt about European settlement. History was all about the movement of peoples. If the British had not settled Australia, the French would have. In Europe, the previous fifty years alone had seen wars and peace settlements that shifted boundaries and forcibly displaced millions of people.

While I felt no sense of guilt about European settlement, I did believe that issues created by European treatment of the Aborigines needed to be addressed. Here, naively as it turned out, I expected certain things to happen.

First, I expected that our Aboriginal heritage would be integrated - merged - in some way with the history and culture of modern Australia. I thought that Aboriginal linkages would become a matter of personal pride in something of the same way as links to Scottish clans. I expected Aboriginal culture and history to be taught in schools as an integral element of the overall curriculum making it accessible to all.

Secondly, I expected education and economic development to bridge the gap in incomes and living conditions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. I did not expect this to happen over night, after all Charles Perkins was the first Aboriginal graduate, but I did expect to see accelerating progress. I regarded this as critical.

Finally, and unclearly, as part of the overall process I was interested in the way in which Aboriginal cultures themselves would evolve. I say unclearly because I did not have a clear picture. However, I did expect to see new Aboriginal forms of expression develop that would then flow on into the broader Australian culture.

I may have been naive, but if you had told me in 1967 that in 2007 Aboriginal conditions in some areas would be no better, in fact arguably worse, that something like the NT intervention would take place, I would not have believed you. If you had described to me the current state of discussions on indigenous issues, I would have been appalled.

As I said, we have all stuffed up. The issue now is just what to do about it.

My view is that we have to put the past behind us so that we can move on. If we do not, then it is going to continue as a poison in the Australian community. I use the word poison advisedly. It's not just the scandal associated with the conditions of some of our indigenous peoples. It's also the way in which the ulcer created by the current position affects the way in which we think and talk about ourselves. Among other things, we pick and pick at the ulcer itself.

So I see a compact as a circuit breaker, a way of starting to put the past behind us.

In my next post on this topic I will suggest what might go into such a compact. However, this will be next weekend because I need a solid slab of thinking and writing time.


Just for the record, I made the following comment on an earlier post on this topic:

Neil, I will read your new material with interest. Looking at the blog posts on Howard Aborigines, I checked them again this morning, it's not going to be easy to get any new thinking up. This where Mr Dodson is wise. We are not going to get anywhere if we keep recycling old positions, and that includes my own.

A word to those on both the right and left of politics. Given that your respective positions have not worked to this point, surely it's time to try something new?

1 comment:

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the pretty ones

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( lapa)