Thursday, June 25, 2015

Shared identity, land rights and proposed changes to the Australian constitution to recognise Aboriginal occupation

Tuesday's piece was entitled What might be the Australian equivalent of the Haka? Because there was some risk that what I wrote I might be misunderstood, I want to repeat here a clarification I made in a comment.
Hi kvd. I absolutely agree with you on attachment to country. I would also agree that there are elements in Aboriginal culture and lore that could/should be incorporated into broader Australian culture. You have identified some of them.

Just re-summarising my concern, there is a bifurcation in Australia that goes back a long time, has increased in recent years, that essentially places Aboriginal culture in a ghetto. Both sides bear responsibility. 
Take art an an example. I was early attracted to Aboriginal art, saw it as Aboriginal but also part of my own heritage as an Australian. It became part of my own visual imagery. And then came a movement that said that Aboriginal art was uniquely and specially attached to the Aborigines. That is obviously true at one level. But the way that it was phrased seemed, at least to me, to say that you, Jim, as a non-Aboriginal person do not have a right to claim that art as part of your own heritage. That is appropriation. You mustn't do it. That places Aboriginal art in a ghetto.
Welcome to country or smoking ceremonies are important, a link between Australia now and the Aboriginal past, but they have become ritualised. Of itself, there is nothing wrong with ritual. The Haka is a ritual. There are equivalent Māori welcomes. But the meaning always isn't clear, despite the efforts of Aboriginal elders to explain it. 
In my own way, I have tried to address the issue by making elements of Aboriginal history more accessible to Aboriginal an non-Aboriginal people alike, but I do despair at the constant emphasis on distinction between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal space.
Recently I had to write a short piece on the importance of the 1967 referendum to following generations for inclusion in a poster. I wrote that the campaign came after an extended period of Aboriginal agitation, that it was successful for it combined Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. It then helped lay the base for further Aboriginal activism, including the now iconic Aboriginal tent embassy.

As I write, the Barkandji people, have received limited native title recognition over a large part of Western NSW. At both state and national levels, the native total process is complicated and legalistic, something captured in the graphic from  @jwwr.

On Monday, the Australian Law Reform Commission is releasing its report into native title legislation.'Connection to Country: Review of the Native Title Act'. I suspect that will highlight some serious issues. For the moment I just note that whatever the imperfections, we have native title legislation because of Aboriginal campaigning that drew support from the broader community.

Again as I write, the Commonwealth special Parliamentary Committee inquiring into recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution is due to report. I support constitutional recognition, although the best form is far from clear to me.

On 18 May 2015, Recognise released survey results suggesting that if the RECOGNISE referendum were held today, 75 percent of all Australians and 87 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say they would vote Yes. This was attacked by Indigenous X.who reported their own on-line survey suggesting that a majority of Aboriginal people would actually vote no. On 24 June, Recognise responded on their blog, suggesting that the on-line results were unrepresentative, that the methodology and promotion of the survey actually attracted those who were opposed. I suspect that's right.

This is an Aboriginal passport issued by the Aboriginal Provisional Government that some activists have been trying to use for travel purposes. And yes, as so often happens, there is a new England connection!  Callum Clayton-Dixon  has Anaiwan connections. I actually made a small donation to help fund his and  Boe Spearim's 2014 trip to Canada. It's not that I agree with him, simply that I wanted the voices heard. It also seemed rather fun.

Returning to my point, While I think that Recognise is right in their assessment of the on-line survey, the feeds that come constantly across my screen show that there is considerable diversity in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander views. That's hardly surprising.

In my writing, I have made the point many times about diversity in Aboriginal Australia. While the smaller Torres Strait Islander group gets annoyed about their sometimes non-recognition in discussion, they have an identified home that belongs to them all. That is not true of Aboriginal Australians beyond the total continent. You have many different groups with differing cultures and connections to country, groups that have been affected in many different ways by European invasion across space and time. Now we want to deal with them as a single unit based on varying current perceptions. They try to respond in kind. It's actually very hard.

 Trying, in conclusion, to bring this discussion together.

We need better integration of non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Australians, not integration in the way that word has often been used, but integration in the sense that gives me permission as a non-Aboriginal Australian, permission to share, to identify, to adopt. On a very personal note, working as a non-Aboriginal person in an Aboriginal space, I have sometimes felt very excluded.

We have to recognise diversity and allow time for views to evolve.The current discussion on Aboriginal recognition in the constitution is actually a top-down discussion.  You can see that in the wording used. It's locked in to current perceptions.

On the constitution, that's Australia's supreme law. If we are going to get anything through, it has to be minimalist. This is where I agree with Noel Pearson. Use the constitution as a minimum base, then get further changes through in declarations and legislation based on that base. Then, if necessary, look to further changes to the constitution.


You can find  the Parliamentary Committee report here. Meantime, the Yaegl people from the Lower Clarence have had their native title claim recognised.

Update 2

I mentioned that there were different views in the Aboriginal community. This is another example from First Nations Telegraph. .


2 tanners said...

My earlier comment about the lack of a Waitangi and your repeated comments about the bifurcation driven by both sides drive home the problem. I feel both ignorant of, and excluded by, any indigenous culture. The only bits I know about have already been interpreted through white eyes, however well-meaning. I see no signs of change.

And that, for me, is a tragedy.

Anonymous said...

This is a difficult thing to convey with appropriate respect, but I am not in favour of any change which seeks to identify or recognise any one specific group of Australians within our Constitution. I think the main reason for those opposed to any such recognition is actually summarised in Jim's own words:

Use the constitution as a minimum base, then get further changes through in declarations and legislation based on that base.

In all these things, it is not the original intent (well meant, gladly extended) which is the end; words given in goodwill can/will be bent to mean whatever they are needed to mean in other, later discussions - and I'm wondering if we really need that?

[US Supreme Court Justice] Douglas stated that the specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights have penumbras "formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance,"

From another time, and another circumstance - but those words are worth contemplating, I think.


Jim Belshaw said...

2t, very gently, haven't you just demonstrated the problem with your words "interpreted through white eyes, however well meaning"? What's wrong with white or other non-indigenous eyes? Isn't that bifurcation? It's how the interpretation is done and for what purpose.

I was delivering a paper to the Armidale & District Historical Society on New England's Aboriginal languages. I was as nervous as a kitten. Language is a sensitive issue, especially in Armidale with conflicting claims, and I had the various groups present even with conflict over who should give me the welcome to country. It was quite a big show. By accident, my Aboriginal mentee was in town and came. "Don't worry", she said. "You know more that they do.". She was right: people were polite and interested.

My point is, I guess, that if I accept that I cannot research, write and interpret on Aboriginal matters then the bifurcated ghetto becomes absolute.

kvd, will come back to you on your comment.

2 tanners said...

Jim, I was never suggesting that white people should or cannot comment. My point is that living where I do, I am welcomed in and told about cultural practices, some of which if simply read about could appear objectionable or offensive.

In the case of Australia's indigenes, I feel literally pushed away - I am ONLY getting the white interpretation which I have to feel loses something in translation.

It's hard - I don't speak any of their languages, I've not been inducted into any rites. I'm not emotionally invested in their success, which seems a horrible thing to say but I feel really alienated. I'll never stop feeling that the inequality is ghastly, but I will be working on other, similar, worse things despite the fact that these are Australians.

Yes, it is an illustration of the problem. I'm not sugar coating this. But I would LOVE to hear an indigenous comment on this thread.

Anonymous said...

Jim, just to clarify/modify my earlier comment - if, by a 'minimalist approach', you mean something along the lines of the NSW Constitution:

- and nothing further, then I will happily sign on.


Jim Belshaw said...

Thoughtful comments, Bob. I have had greater exposure than you in part because of my interests, more because I have been working with Aboriginal people on and off for a lot of the last seven years. I also have Aboriginal friends on Facebook. I know that some Aboriginal people do read my blogs from time to time or my FB posts or the Express column, but I rarely get direct comments. The only exception is some of my historical posts.

Your second and third paras sadly capture the problem. You can access aspects of Aboriginal thinking from where you are through the National Indigenous Times (, the Koori Mail ( or the First Nations Telegraph ( The difficulty is that so much comment on both sides is dominated by difficulties, divisions and the heavy hand of the past.

You don't get identification and joining through guilt and anger, but through the creation of shared views and common experiences. kvd actually referred to some of those.

Despite my own sometimes pessimism, the process we are going through now is a change process. This is something I wrote on my personal Facebook earlier in June:

"Minimbah, a primarily Aboriginal primary school, is TAS's friendship school in Armidale. I was going to say sister school, but that's not quite right.The links go back a long way. I take great pride in the work TAS has done. As the number of Aboriginal old boys (and later girls) grow, so will the links between TAS and the Aboriginal community. By its nature, this is a slow process. You don't turn entrenched disadvantageous around easily, I know that You have to work step by step, accepting failures without losing sight of the vision. We will get there."

TAS is my old school. Just at the moment I am feeling a little burn't out because of recent events that I won't bore you with. After this post, I had decided not to write anything more on Aboriginal issues for a while. It had become too difficult. But perhaps I could write a useful post looking at some of the cultural and historical issues, not arguing, just informing. Where did the Aboriginal flag come from? What is the significance of welcome to country or smoking ceremonies? Why attachment to country is important to all Australians? What is an elder? Just plain factual stuff.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a start, kvd, although I may want to go a little further.

Anonymous said...

Well, I hope you do keep nudging and pushing here, Jim. In my limited experience this continues to be one of the most thoughtful and respectful 'places' on the internet for open discussion. And I second tanners' wish to hear from some of your Aboriginal readers; without which we are probably talking into blank air - and I very much hope that is not so.

Anonymous said...

above anon 5.27 p.m. was kvd


Jim Belshaw said...

That's kind, kvd. You and 2t raise an interesting challenge. I may be able to get some specific Aboriginal response via my personal FB page. I generally keep this separate from my other writing, and can't guarantee a response.

Jim Belshaw said...

To kvd and 2t. With some trepidation, I have put up a request for responses on my personal FB page. I don't know that I will get any, I have never asked for this before, but its the only way that I know to deliver what you have requested.

2 tanners said...

Thank you Jim, for what I can describe without trepidation as a courageous move.

Maybe it will stimulate visits to this page and broader discussion with our nations's first inhabitants.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi 2t and thanks. As I said, the greatest feedback I get is on the historical posts. That's actually how I acquired some of my FB friends. I am pretty confident on my general historical and policy analysis, as well as my understanding of the NSW scene because of high exposure. I do not pretend to know the position outside NSW, beyond my general historical and policy knowledge.