The struggle for indigenous recognition and equality has been a hard road for Indigenous Australians. Unfortunately, says David Donovan, the battle is far from over.
This article was published on ABC's The Drum website on 15 November. Read the comments after the article to see how much resistance Indigenous recognition will receive in Australia by the entrenched opposing minority.
A RECENT Constitutional Values survey conducted by Newspoll showed that 75% of Australians believe that Indigenous Australians should be appropriately recognized in the Australian Constitution. This poll may have been the factor that gave the Gillard Government the confidence to launch its recent proposal on Indigenous recognition, since 75% is normally seen as about the level going in that is required to achieve a successful referendum. Unfortunately, contained within the other 25% are many who vehemently oppose this idea. The struggle Indigenous Australians have to ensure a referendum on this issue is successful will be something they are expecting — each gain they have made in their struggle for equality since colonial settlement has always been bitterly fought and resisted.
An example of the sort of opposition they can expect was to be found in last Saturday’s The Australian in an article by Gary Johns. Johns is a former Keating Labor Government Minister, but since leaving politics has headed right, working for several years at a neo-conservative think tank — the Institute of Public Affairs. Since 2009, he's been the President of another conservative think tank, the Bennelong Society, whose main purpose is to promote the view that Indigenous Australians should not be done any favours.
On this theme, Johns launches an extraordinary broadside against Indigenous Australians and their culture. Indeed, as far as Johns is concerned, Aboriginal culture has gone and what’s left is wrong, and none of it should be taught to our children, at least not in a positive way:
'Aboriginal culture, in any sense in which the original inhabitants practised it, is long gone. Elements of the original that remain, such as polygamy and underage sex, are illegal or, in the case of sorcery, re-emerging around places such as Yuendumu and Groote Island, is just plain evil. Aboriginal identity and culture …should not be force-fed to the rest of the nation....If children are to be taught Aboriginal culture, I want for them the full unexpurgated version, not the pretty commemoration of recent invention that one can pick up on the bookshelf at the ABC shop or a university politics department.'
Johns proceeds to revive the prevailing 19th and early 20th century view that Indigenous Australians will either die out or be subsumed by the larger population. He indicates that all the gains made over the last 40 years by Indigenous Australians have been meaningless and that Aboriginal leaders are corrupt, with a subversive overarching agenda:
'The long-run trajectory for Aborigines in Australia is integration. The experiment with separate development in the past 40 years has been a dismal failure….To make up for this failure of separatism, the Aboriginal lobby, led as it is by wholly integrated Aborigines of mixed descent, is desperate to have every Australian recognise their culture.'
Firstly, saying “mixed-descent” as if it was something to be reviled is completely beyond the pale. Secondly, anyone with a scant knowledge of Aboriginal culture can easily dismiss any attack on it as being “evil” or promoting anti-social practices. In fact, for Johns to even make such a comment is irresponsible as it actively encourages latent prejudice already existing within the community.
As for Indigenous culture being totally different from that which existed at the time colonial settlement — of course it is. Just like white culture is also completely different from what it was in 1788. It’s not as if non-Indigenous Australians are walking around in tricorn hats and pantaloons singing sea shanties in log cabins and using rum as legal tender, is it? All cultures change and adapt with new influences and Indigenous culture is, of course, no exception. This doesn’t make it any less worthwhile, valuable, meaningful and unique, however.
White Australians like Gary Johns have been predicting the demise of Aboriginal people and their culture almost since they day they arrived on these shores, but Indigenous people and their culture are still here, growing. And Indigenous people’s pride in their culture seems to be greater now than it has been in many years.
As for the so-called failure of policy in the last 40 years, no-one would suggest that Indigenous Australians are fully fulfilled or that there are not significant challenges to overcome. However, the situation 40 years ago was far worse than the one confronting Indigenous Australians today. Johns is downright irresponsible for suggesting the situation has not improved markedly, especially in the area of human rights, equality and fair treatment. Johns talks about the failure of segregation in the last 40 years, ignoring or ignorant of the fact that Indigenous Australia were actively and very positively discriminated against before that time.
Before 1965, for example, it was actually illegal to pay Aboriginal workers more than a specified amount in goods and money. From 1918 Aboriginal workers were meant to paid a minimum wage of just 5 shillings a day. By comparison, non-Indigenous males were receiving £2/8/- a week in 1945.
In 1965, an attempt was made to introduce equal wages for Aboriginal workers. It failed because pastoralists argued that equal wages would ruin the industry. In the end, the Government decided to defer a decision for three years, sparking the 1966 Aboriginal strike at Wave Hill station. The Wave Hill Walk-off saw Gurindji Aboriginal stockmen walk off their jobs with Vesteys, a multinational owned by a British Lord, in protest over discriminatory and inhumane pay and conditions.
Back then, Vesteys had an empire that included a string of million acre properties in Australia’s north and the country's biggest abattoir at Rockhampton. They maintained their stranglehold over the Australian meat industry largely through the exploitation of Aboriginal stockmen.
A Northern Territory Government inquiry held in the 1930s said of Vesteys:
'It was obvious that they had been...quite ruthless in denying their Aboriginal labour proper access to basic human rights.'
An Aboriginal stockman on Wave Hill Station at the time of the strike, Billy Bunter Jampijinpa, said about their conditions:
“We were treated just like dogs. We were lucky to get paid the 50 quid a month we were due, and we lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out of on your knees. There was no running water. The food was bad – just flour, tea, sugar and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock. The Vesteys mob were hard men. They didn't care about blackfellas.”
The Aboriginal stockmen finally received equal pay in 1968, a year after the 1967 referendum amended the Constitution to finally include Aboriginal people in counts of Australia’s population. The Wave Hill walk-off morphed into a battle for land rights and, in 1973, after a bitter and protracted 7 year struggle, Gough Whitlam finally made Vesteys hand over much of their land in Northern Australia to the Gurindji people.
The strike was a landmark event in the struggle for Aboriginal rights in Australia. For the first time, recognition was given to Indigenous people, their rights and responsibilities for the land and their ability to practise their law, language and culture. The current proposal for recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution is simply the latest battle in a long line.
Indigenous people will be prepared for opponents like Johns, as they were for the Lord Vesteys before him. People like Gary Johns, who mock Indigenous culture and belittle its attempts for recognition and equality, do the original inhabitants of this country – and us all – a grave injustice. Luckily, like in 1967, the majority of Australian people will undoubtedly reject such mean spirited tactics and overwhelmingly embrace this worthwhile attempt to properly honour Indigenous people in our Constitution and society.
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