This is about now, not then

Wednesday, 13 February 2008 

Given the state of the media on this day, it is unlikely that when Messrs Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating arrive at Parliament House today they will be asked why, in the quarter of a century that spanned their governments, they did not get around to making the apology they have come to watch and support. It is a shame, as it is a good question. It hardly needed to wait until the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997 to know what was going on (unlike for the political class it seems) and the practice was considered no less acceptable back in the early seventies, when it was stopped, as it is now.

But let’s leave that for the moment and focus on what this is supposed to be about. The welcome return of Insiders on Sunday gave us two examples, from joggers and journalists, of how this debate around the Stolen Generation is being conducted. It was emotional and tense, and with the journalists, it could barely be argued with a cool head. This emotionalism should be a clue that what we are really talking about is not some historic incident in the bygone past, but something to do with today – and it is today that neither Bolt, who opposed the apology, nor Annabel Crabb and Lenore Taylor, who supported it, really wanted to talk about.

Andrew Bolt inadvertently put his finger on it when he noted that indigenous children are eight times more likely to be taken away from the parents today than non-indigenous children. He was making the point to argue that claims of racial discrimination in the past were not true as they were being taken away for as justifiable reasons as they are taken today. The fact, if true, is interesting, but to this blogger suggests the opposite conclusion.

It would be nice if indigenous children being eight times more likely to be removed from their parents was purely a social worker’s objective assessment of the danger in which indigenous children find themselves compared to non-indigenous children. The trouble is, and this is the amazing irony of today’s apology, that we are only months from one of the most graphic examples in decades of how different standards apply on this question.

It is inconceivable that if a report, like the one that sparked the NT intervention, came out claiming there was systematic sexual child abuse in western Sydney suburbs, that people would not be requiring proof before any action was taken, let alone cutting off welfare payments and sending in the army on the streets of Parramatta. Yet they didn’t for the NT intervention, the claims of the report were virtually unquestioned outside the communities.

Is this double standard because of racism? Well maybe. However, there is an even more telling aspect of the NT intervention that suggests something else is going on. Even more astonishing than a report that had no proof and no need to get it, and an over-the-top response backed by both parties, was the fact that after the intervention happened nobody was interested in the result. After all the graphic horror stories, with rare notable exceptions like a series in Crikey and the NIT, and an occasional article in the mainstream press, there has been an extraordinary lack of interest in the absence of arrests, perpetrators caught etc.

To this blogger, the unsubstantiated horror stories, the over-the-top action and the lack of media interest in its consequences is resonant of a foreign intervention. It was why the NT intervention had more parallels with the recent one in Iraq than anything else. It also suggests why indigenous affairs and the apology is such an issue for the political class and why it is possible to suspect there was more attention paid on their sensitivities to the apology’s wording than the people it was ostensibly aimed at.

The fact is that the state of indigenous people is where the Australian story goes wrong. Australia was developed as a colony and that means there are colonisers and the colonised, and the political class have been grappling with that fact ever since. For most of the last century they made it formal, the colonisers (and their descendants) were citizens, the colonised were not. When international and domestic standards made such formal discrimination impossible (as it did in the US South) a more informal solution had to be found. When Whitlam poured dirt into the hands of Vincent Lingiari in 1975 he marked a shift to a more informal ‘two nations’ of segregation based on land ‘rights’ and a permit system that meant permission needed to be got for an outsider to attend a local’s funeral. A set up that still had unequal voting treatment with no compulsory voting for this second ‘nation’ in law until 1984, and which is still not fully enforced to this very day.

These two nations are now less discussed in terms of race or skin colour but more as culture. Well-meaning supporters of indigenous people are always keen to celebrate indigenous cultural differences but never like to acknowledge the double-edged way it is discussed in Australia. We have had two examples, not only the way the lurid tales from the NT report were so readily believed but also more recently, the wisdom of the Queensland legal profession in the Aurukun case. Here we had a magistrate and a prosecutor apply a more lenient interpretation of Australian law for rapists of a 10 year-old girl on the basis that such practice was more culturally acceptable in the Aurukun community. This was despite the unsurprising protestations of the girl’s family and others in that community.

The last Prime Minster never believed in the cultural compromise and his intervention not only exposed that two nations existed, with a military intervention that would be unthinkable anywhere else in the country, but undermined the basis of it, something land right supporters never got to grips with. He is now succeeded by a PM who probably has more in common with Howard on this question than the media likes to think. Not only by his ready support of Howard’s intervention but by his lack of appetite for a return to the indigenous policy of his predecessors, especially on a national campaign for reconciliation.

One wonders how much the former PMs coming to Canberra appreciate this. Certainly Fraser seems oblivious. He said:

The more strongly this apology can be expressed, the more Aboriginal people believe that this really is supported by the nation as a whole.

But if Rudd wanted this to be on behalf of this nation as a whole he would be saying it, instead of just confining it to Parliament, and if need be, his own side of it. The fact is that over a third of the nation do not support today’s apology and Rudd is in not much mind to do anything about it. Instead he prefers to move on to practical measures. What he is doing today is burying the issue rather than reviving a national identity project, which may have made some people who care about such projects feel good about themselves, but still left communities in squalor. Today’s symbolism effectively marks the end of that whole modernising project pursued by those Prime Ministers over the last thirty years. What they will be seeing today is something politicians don’t always get to observe – their own political funeral. Despite appearances, Rudd follows Howard more than these former PMs in what he says. It would be nice if he followed none of them in what he does.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 13 February 2008.

Filed under The Australian state

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