Tak­ing a de­tour on in­dige­nous rights

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Robert Mur­ray

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

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