Taking a detour on indigenous rights
Keith Windschuttle’s new politically incorrect book on Aboriginal issues is all too likely to be cold-shouldered or quickly dismissed as racist, which would be a pity. It is a rigorous critique of most current thinking that on less sensitive subjects would be welcomed for dinner party and educational discussion.
Windschuttle’s main thrust in The Break-Up of Australia is that the call for a reconciliation with the indigenous people through a national treaty and recognition of them in an amendment to the Constitution would be so difficult and risk so many bad, if not always intended, consequences that it would not be worth it.
By looking at the recorded aspirations of activist Aborigines, he sees a desire not just for bland “recognition” but to turn land rights territories, singly or even collectively, into semior even largely independent homelands under Aboriginal rule. The means would be an activist High Court interpreting a seemingly low-key constitutional amendment this way across time. The problems of such a change to what is really a booklet of rules, dull to read, hard to change by referendum, indeed rarely read at all but extremely effective across more than a century, are well known to those involved, but Windschuttle is saying that even the experts at times seem unduly sentimental.
An equally important part of this book is a rigorous attack on much of the fashionable way of perceiving Aboriginal issues during the past 50 years. In short, Windschuttle is saying that whatever the other misfortunes, racist governments have never oppressed Aborigines to any extent; that they usually did their best in sometimes difficult practical circumstances, as London directed in the 1787 instructions.
He chops away at some tall poppies, including the present and former prime ministers. Malcolm Turnbull he quotes as saying the Constitution should reflect “all our history … in a way that unifies us”. Tony Abbott has called the quest for constitutional change “an important national crusade” to make Australia “whole”. This, Windschuttle implies, is romantic tosh.
Chief Justice Robert French of the High Court is taken to task for showing signs of incipient judicial activism on constitutional recognition. HC “Nugget” Coombs, adviser to both sides of politics from the 1960s to the 80s, is attacked, not for the first time, for destroying the previous approach of steadily assimilating Aborigines in favour of ambitious attempts to maintain or restore the old culture.
Windschuttle’s old adversary, Henry Reynolds, influential guru of the “invasion and resistance” model of writing frontier history, comes under fire. What Windschuttle calls the “Aboriginal political class” or “establishment” of politicians, academics, activists, writers and publicists, receives unaccustomed criticism. He accuses them of having over-ambitious, if not grandiose, ideas for largely independent Aboriginal communities, guaranteed by the Constitution forever, but also not being as accurate as they should be in public statements alleging past oppression.
In particular allegations, often aired on TV, that the Constitution is or was historically “racist” and ignores Aborigines; that they did not have citizenship until 1967; were not counted (but sheep were); and did not have the vote are wrong or twist the facts.
As an example, the indigenous people had been officially counted at least as far back as 1828, but until 1967 a minor part of the Constitution excluded them from being counted for electoral or financial purposes (because of the practical difficulty of counting tribal people in the outback). An amendment to the 1902 electoral legislation denied them the vote in Queensland and Western Australia (where the state vote was already denied) because Labor feared squatters would control the station vote. In other states, including the future Northern Territory, Aborigines already had the vote and the Constitution actually guaranteed it.
The constitutional fathers, rather than ignoring Aborigines as often claimed, spent a lot of time in the 1890s debates on the indigenous role but generally opted to continue the practice initiated in 1788 of including them administratively as British citizens like everybody else.
Windschuttle also points to the unhelpful misunderstanding due to the rigid practice of recent decades of not differentiating between the remote community people, mainly of full genetically indigenous descent, and the majority, mostly genetically part-European, who live in the cities and farming areas in ways little different from whites.
To shorten another difficult subject, until recently governments have usually treated these as whites. Windschuttle points out that only 21 per cent of the almost 700,000 Australians who identified as Aborigines in the 2011 census lived in remote areas and 79 per cent elsewhere.
This form of integration or assimilation goes back more than 200 years and Windschuttle finds it hard to see how homeland ideas could benefit these people living and working with whites throughout most of the country.
Traditional indigenous “high culture”, he says, worked only in small, isolated groups related by kin. With the coming of Western society, it deteriorated into a disintegrating, poorer quality “low culture”. He doubts that even with the best intentions high culture can be returned to the outback.
For what it is worth, I have no strong opinion either way about the homeland proposals and views will differ, but I am familiar with most of the records and Windschuttle is generally right with his facts, which are the greater part of the book.
His arguments should be treated as a respectable search for the best way forward, not as yet another clash over left-right ideology. is the author of The Making of Australia: A Concise History.
Joe McGinness, Charles Perkins and others campaigning to change the Constitution, at the University of Queensland in 1967