Restoration, the future for remote Aboriginal people and the long-term survival of all Australians

by | Aug 30, 2020 | Opinion | 4 comments

From invasion through massacre, a Victorian attitude of “smoothing the pillow of a dying race”, through to assimilation, self determination and the schism between urban and bush Aboriginal people. CDU emeritus professor Alan Powell sees a future for remote Indigenous people that rejects neo-liberal projections and sees the creation of a special Central Australian environmental reclaimed zone that uses bush skills to put flora and fauna and culture above profit, and becomes a template for saving Australia from itself environmentally.

From Sun-Tsui in the The Art of War in the 5th century BC to Carl Von Clausewitz in On War in the 19th and John Keegan in A History of Warfarein the 20th and 21st centuries, generations of military historians have expounded critically on what Sun-Tsu called ‘the art of war’; and historians have, similarly, since the monumental studies of Arnold Toynbee in the first half of the 20th century, outlined the processes of world history, which usually, as in Toynbee, outlines the rise and fall of great empires: Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese dynasties, Mongols, Aztecs, Huns, Normans, Muslims and others; and, since the advance of technology which allowed European nations to span the whole world, the nations of Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and Britain. 

This can be considered the process of human history, not very edifying, to be sure; ever-changing but continuous and reflecting the  savagery of human conflict. History may be the process of change but human nature does not change. The great advances made in technology in recent years have merely converted primitive savagery to a more sophisticated savagery.

Consider the degree of ruthless hate exhibited in the Holocaust, the decimation of the Tutsis in Rwanda or the bitter savagery exhibited in the breakup of old Yugoslavia and now the cruel civil warin Syria and Yemen. Even the most advanced nations fail to rise above basically irrational fears. These possibly reached their extremes in the slaughter of their own peoples by Mao Tse-Tung in China and Stalin in Russia. But, as the eminent war correspondent Martha Gelhorn wrote of her own nation, the United States of America at the end of the Vietnam war in The Face of War: 

America has made no reparation to the Vietnamese, nothing. We are the richest people in the world and they are among the poorest. We savaged them, though they had never hurt us: and we cannot find it in our hearts, our honour, to give them help – because the government of Vietnam is Communist.  

 

So the ideology of war may change but the greed and hunger for power over others remains. Universally, human beings with power have used it to oppress those without, i.e., elite groups within each dominant society have always exploited those in and beyond their own society and will do everything possible to hang on to their power.  

In later years though, there appears to be a change in the attitude of the victors to the vanquished. Who gave them any thought at all during the long centuries of the rise and fall of nations? They were expected to die, to be enslaved or to fit as best they could into the conquerors’ new order. This was considered to be the norm by the conquerors of Australia in the 19th century – and why does anyone bother to cavil at the thought? That was what happened to the Aborigines in war or insurrection, as the case might be. 

CDU emeritus professor Alan Powell

Charles Darwin Uuniversity emeritus professor Alan Powell. Picture: CDU

They lost, and the thought of the conquerors was usually that they were doomed to die out, and therefore policy towards thecould be casual indeed, needing only, as the Victorian phrase had it, ‘to smooth the pillow of a dying race’. As the notable explorer Ernest Giles – quoted in M.C Hartwig’s PhD thesis, The Progress of white settlement in the Alice Springs district and the effects upon the Aboriginal inhabitants 1860-1894 – in a mixture of Christian thought and social Darwinism: 

The Great Designer of the Universe in the long past periods of creation pronounced a fiat to be recorded, that the beings it was his pleasure to place amongst these lovely scenes [the Musgrave Ranges of Central Australia] must eventually be swept from the earth by others more intellectual, more dearly beloved and gifted than they. Progressive improvement is undoubtedly the order of creation.  

Even that great friend of Aboriginal people, Frank Gillen, believed that strengthened powers for Aboriginal Sub-Protectors could lead only to a situation whereby cattlemen and Indigenous people could co-exist on Centralian leases. He wrote, as quoted in, My Dear Spencer: The Letters of FJ Gillen to Baldwin Spencer, “to make the path to extinction – which we all agree is inevitable and rapidly approaching – as pleasant as possible”. 

Much more common was the belief expressed by J L Parsons, Minister in Charge of the Northern Territory in the South Australian government in the early 1880s, later a long-term government resident based in Darwin and later still one of the first two members to represent the Northern Territory in the SA House of Assembly: 

 The intrusion of the white man is a declaration of war and the result is simply the survival of the fittest. 

In an English book, South Australia in History, Resources and Publications, backed by government, and designed to lure immigrants to South Australia, William Harcus wrote in 1876: 

It is a small matter to supplant the aboriginal inhabitants of a barbarous country and to secure possession of their land. The feebler race bends before the stronger, as the reeds bend to the sweep of the winds. 

 Well, that seems to dispose of the Colonial Office Instructions that were given to Governor Phillip nearly a century earlier: 

to conciliate the affections of the Aborigines, to encourage everyone to live in amity and kindness with them and to punish all who would wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in their several occupations

So, for most of the succeeding century during which the Colonial Office possessed any influence in Australian affairs, this sentiment underlay their instructions to colonial governors; but little real effort was ever made to enforce them. 

And the colonists on the frontiers of expansion continued to ignore these instructions and behave ruthlessly to suit themselves. Their behaviour was grossly unjust, it is true, but it was in no way unusual.   

Until the point reached at the end of the 19th century, as noted above, the courses of action and the rhetoric associated with it, were very much along the major lines taken in ten thousand years of known history. Winner take all, with the vanquished required to die, be enslaved or adapt as best they could to the conquerors’ demands. 

Indeed, it could be said that this position never really altered in Australia until the storm of southern urban protest after Aboriginal massacres became public knowledge in the late 1920s, specifically in the Northern Territory after the Coniston massacre of 1928 as referenced in Bill Wilson and Justin O’Brien’s Seventy Five Years on: Revisiting the Coniston Massacre, in Northern Encounters.

So where did this apparent change of heart come from? I suspect the answer lies in the new world view that became possible for the first time in the twentieth century; a world view dominated by the great majority of previously or currently oppressed states that made up the League of Nations, between the two world wars and later, the United Nations, which is still a major force in world affairs today. 

A newspaper report about the Coniston massacre.

While the leading powers of the earth have been able to deflect major criticisms of themselves through the Security Council veto granted to the victors of World War II, they have been unable to deflect often trenchant criticisms of bias and inequality in the dealings of the powerful with the powerless of the world — including the Australian Aboriginal people.  

 

It’s apparent that, initially, the non-conformist churches of Adelaide were at the core of the responses to the Coniston massacre. Even the mainstream Anglican church joined in the chorus of protest, but the Presbyterians, Methodists and other smaller religious institutions such as the Lutherans led the charge. This became apparent as soon as they were well and truly established in Adelaide and, similarly in the other great cities of the south in other states.

There’s an irony there. To put it plainly, they took no real action to preserve the original owners of the lands they and their supporters usurped, yet took a moralistic view of their fellow invaders who took the lands far away, in this case, in the Northern Territory.

It must be remembered that Australia and, particularly South Australia was then a thoroughly Christian community, and considered itself to be a pillar of British Christian civilisation, which they believed to be superior to all others. This found an outlet in church-led protest at the harsh treatment of the frontier Aboriginal people and, concurrently, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the establishment of church missions in the far parts of the continent.

The basic motive for establishing these institutions was evangelical to convert the local tribes to Christianity — and while success was limited indeed, they often became the de facto bulwarks of defence for Aboriginal people against the depredations of the white invaders. 

In the 20th century, several happenings in Australia and beyond began to change this picture. In the first place, the new Commonwealth government took over the Territory from South Australia in 1911 and thenceforth became the leader in Aboriginal affairs, with the states usually following. The influence of the churches and Christianity began to decline and be replaced by humanitarian emotions of a different kind, reflected after World War I in the scrutiny of the League of Nations. 

But I believe that the catalyst for real change came with the census results of the 1920s and 1930s which showed that the Indigenous population of the Territory was no longer dying out but was increasing. This rather startling (to the Commonwealth government) fact led to a re-thinking. How were the Aborigines to be fitted into the now dominant European-type society in Australia?

This question became urgent after the furious public reaction to the Coniston massacre which, though it didn’t end what the Aboriginal people called ‘the wild times’ on the NT frontier, did mean that never again could the Commonwealth sponsor a revenge expedition such as that of Mounted Constable Murray.

At this stage, I suggest, international affairs became prominent in the government’s deliberations. The carnage of the Great War of 1914-18 had spawned the League of Nations; and Australia, with a mandate from the League to tutor Papua-New Guinea to the stage of independence and with a subject population of its own, had to tread carefully.  

Coniston homestead, c.1930. Courtesy National Archives of Australia, NA: M4435, 155

As I said, the influence of the churches was already waning in the early 20th century; and in 1927, the year before the Coniston killings, the government had appointed Dr Cecil Cook, an opponent of the church missions, to the combined roles of chief medical officer and chief protector of Aborigines. To accommodate the survival of this Indigenous group who refused to conveniently die out, the Commonwealth was forced to develop a new policy, that of assimilation into the mainstream.

 

This was first enunciated by John McEwen, the relevant government minister, in 1938; and, largely put aside during World War II and its aftermath, was taken up vigorously by Paul Hasluck after 1951.The United Nations, first formed in 1945, has been a strong monitor and critic of Australian treatment of its Aboriginal population ever since.  

 

The ‘assimilation’ policy lasted until the Whitlam government of 1972-75 replaced it with ‘self determination’ but did the policy really change or merely slow down? The evidence suggests the latter. 

Half a century ago, in After the Dreaming; a paper presented at the 1968 Boyer lectures, Professor Bill Stanner outlined the anthropological transition from the early idea of salvaging the relics of a dying race to studying and trying to understand a living culture. 

But at that time, the last years of the ‘assimilation’ policy, he also pointed to clear differences between Aboriginal groups, dividing them, basically into bush and urban people. That distinction has continued to grow ever since. On the one hand are the ‘Outback’ people who live mainly in camps and government settlements — and who still possess traditional elements in their basic culture. 

On the other hand, we have fringe settlers in city and country towns, who provide the main recruiting grounds for another group, ‘city dwellers’ who, as Stanner predicted, ‘are growing rapidly in numbers and include people at all stages towards, within, or beyond that rather indefinable state of life we describe as “assimilation.”’

In other words, the traditions of Aboriginal culture survive in the bush: conversely, the city dwellers have become much more a part of the dominant neo-liberal mainstream and less connected to the concerns of the bush. This is particularly the case with those who have been most successful in that society. 

For that reason, Australian governments and the press tend to describe them as Aboriginal leaders but who do they lead? Are they, rather, representing only those of Aboriginal blood who have been notably successful in mainstream western society?

 

According to the 2011 Australian census, about half of the Aboriginal population is strongly influenced by, or living in, neo-liberal society. The other half is classified as living in ‘remote’ or ‘very remote ‘areas; and that applies to nearly all of the town and far-flung country settlement dwellers of the Northern Territory. 

What do urban issues such as constitutional recognition, demands for a change to the date of Australia Day and the establishment of a permanent Aboriginal advisory body to government mean to them? Very little, it seems. As a remote area Walpiri woman remarks, recorded in my book Forgotten Country, to anthropologist Peter Sutton about the famous apology of the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to the Aboriginal population that’s for urban people and white fellas.’ 

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the palm of Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari, in August 1975. (AGNSW: Mervyn Bishop)

This reflects a political truism. Aboriginal people form a mere 3 per cent of the population of Australia, much less than several other groups, and consequently are of minimal real interest to our political class, whose main concern is to  preserve their own voting base, subject only to appropriate gestures to convince a vaguely sympathetic Australian non-Aboriginal audience (and the United Nations) that the Federal Government is doing what it can for the native people of Australia.  

One aspect of this general attitude is to ignore the clear split in Aboriginal opinion, put bluntly (and with a notable lack of political correctness) by Walpiri resident of Kintore and Central Land Council member Tommy Conway, who told the journalist Amos Aikman in the Weekend Australian relation to ATSIC, the recently – terminated Aboriginal official body: 

‘All the half-caste people ripped the place … off. (Another representative body) would be dominated by half-caste people. If they get any money, it will be spent in the cities. We don’t want people in Canberra talking for us .We need community people who know how we think.’

 And Aikman himself commented: 

Along an almost 2,000km journey from Alice Springs to the Western Australia border and back … (we) did not meet anyone whose views reflected the mainstream assumption that a constitutionally enshrined voice in parliament is what most indigenous people have decided they want, or who thought that changing the constitution would significantly improve their lives.   

Without further entering the labyrinthine world of Aboriginal politics, it seems that Tim Rowse’s recent comment in Indigenous and Other Australians Since 1901, that Australia has been “a nation unsure, since 2000, about what to do” is a reasonably accurate summary of federal Aboriginal policy to the present. Concentration has been on largely ceremonial matters which are likely to catch the attention of southern voters and UN observers and the multifarious settlements of remote Aborigines in northern Australia have been treated to a policy best described as benign neglect leavened with temporary direct interventions.  

To remote dwellers, it seems, symbolic matters mean a lot less than those that can lead to a better life. When urban dwellers turn up at the behest of their fellows, including local and federal politicians, at remote settlements to ask a specific question usually one of ceremonial origin the locals will readily agree that that’s what they want; but turn up unheralded and ask for their priorities and a totally different answer comes. 

Urban interests such as forms of advice and governing rights, let alone the meaningless term reconciliation do not concern the remote Aboriginal people. They will invariably opt for prioritisation of practicalities in their daily lives, e.g. upgraded roads, renovated houses, better social services, more police, better educational opportunities; in short, better control of youth crime, drink and domestic violence. But these are neo-liberal aspirations and thus can be seen as assimilation by stealth — except for one outstanding feature which is a constant, and usually unmet, stipulation. 

Aboriginal guides at Kings Creek shows the bush plants used during the traditional ceremonies of local indigenous people.

These people want ‘looking after country’ to be a continuing part of their lives and education, yet that is not part of the curriculum taught in outback schools. In this generation, still closely connected to the bush, knowledge of country survives in a form that no one else but the original people can know it: intimate perception of every aspect of all the land and all the vegetation and the life to be found in it. 

Joe Morrison, until recently the long-term director of the Northern Land Council, noted last year in an opinion piece in the NT News, Future Indigenous leaders need a say to shape future, that about 80 per cent of north Australia is under some form of Indigenous tenure or native title interestBut he also underlined the contradictory nature of Aboriginal futures in these vast and very remote areas of Australia in asserting:  

Indigenous men and women…must live in a northern Australia that builds on their unique culture and guardianship of their country while engaging in commerce with global standards of education and entrepreneurship. 

Note the prominence given to neo-liberal assumptions about the global economy. 

But I think we have the order wrong: Aboriginal skills in guardianship of the land, I believe, should always take precedence and, if properly used, could earn for the remote Aboriginal people of Australia a much greater degree of respect from mainstream society than is available elsewhere. Our very survival may depend upon it. 

Our blind following of European and American agricultural practice in totally different climates and soils has brought about a grassroots reaction led by Charles Massy and a fast-growing number of others Australia-wide that aims to correct the immense damage done over the last two centuries by exploitive farming. Modern Australia has a particularly frightening track record for destruction of soils, vegetation and animal life. As Massy write in The Call of the Reed Warbler: 

What is alarming post 1788 is that Australian settlers to the present day have no cultural or historical perspective or record of what the landscape was previously like. This was and is exacerbated by being coupled with an exploitive as opposed to a nurturing approach to the land.  

And as Bruce Pascoe says in Dark Emu: 

If we could reform our view of how Aboriginal people were managing the national economy prior to colonisation, it might lead us to reform the ways we currently use resources and care for the land.

Here is where the unrivalled knowledge of the Aboriginal people who still live on their country in the NT, north Queensland and the Kimberley country of Western Australia can play a vital part. The outback Aboriginal people are descendants of the greatest land nurturers on earth. And their skills, so much superior to ours should, be utilised to preserve and redevelop the lands that they occupy to the nearest that can be attained to the pristine state that their ancestors created over tens of thousands of years. 

An encouraging start can be seen in the work of the north Australia Savanna Fire Forum.22 

Yet the obstacles are enormous. The ingrained conservatism of non-Aboriginal Australians, including almost the whole of our political class, is probably the worst of these — and farmers here and elsewhere are amongst the most resistant sections of society to change — and the brutal fact is that Aboriginal people now number a mere 3 per cent of the total population of this country. 

Only in the Northern Territory are they a significant part of the voting population — the only people that nearly all politicians care about — and while the local importance of the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory makes their needs well-known here, the Federal Government controls not only our principal national parks but also what is or is not done for our Aboriginal population.

A woman in the Northern Territory holds sandalwood seeds.

They alone have the monetary resources and legislative power to bring about real change. In fact, the situation of the Northern Territory Government reminds me very much of the saying, usually attributed to American politicians, from President Theodore Roosevelt to Henry Kissinger, that, “When you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds soon follow”.

That is just what happens here; and in spite of the routine bravado of the NT Government, while Canberra continues to provide more than 70 per cent of Territory funds, it will continue to be so. 

While the need to couple Aboriginal ‘looking after country’ with the vast and growing ‘regenerative land use’ movement in Australia continues to grow more urgent, there’s not much prospect of vital backing from Canberra yet; and there may not be, until climate change impinges much more on the Australian psyche than it does now.   

But if it is ever to happen, it has to be soon, before the bush skills are lost to the next generations — and I suggest that it could best be started in the vast area of Central Australia controlled by the Central Land Council. Could this area be declared a special zone possibly with the addition of the contiguous Aboriginal areas of South Australia and Western Australia for reclamation, as nearly as possible, of the original flora and fauna, as a first priority, above the profit aims of the neo-liberal society? 

That would need a strong and permanent force of Aboriginal rangers and carers drawn from the remote settlement people still living on their ancestral lands; and it would need the cooperation of the local whites to cope with the resultant government regulation and bureaucratic interference that would inevitably arise.

Above all, it would need a complete change of perspective from Canberra politicians — from the current policy: temporarfinancing of headline-catching projects, towards a real regard for the skills of the remote Aboriginal people. 

Give them a go, I say. Let them decide their own future, backed not by tokenism, but by real power and money from the Federal Government.  

The key point about this proposal is that restoration is needed for the future of both remote Aboriginal people and the long-term survival of all Australians. It is true that our carbon emissions are very minor on a world scale, but that is set to change with the development of huge new coal mines; and, even as it is now, for how much longer can we get away with being the worst  atmospheric polluters per head of population on the planet worse even than Trump’s America? 

But I’m afraid that this proposal and all similar plans to use the remarkable knowledge of our remote Aboriginal population on a permanent basis are likely to fail before the short-term greed and lack of vision of our political class, in which case I can only repeat the forecast I made at the end of my book Forgotten Country, on the history of Central Australia:  

It has taken us 200 years to get into this mess. It will take us another 200 to get out of it. 

Of course, there are other possibilities. As I noted in that book, the explorer Ernest Giles wrote of the white man inevitably sweeping the Aboriginal people of Australia from the face of the earth as part of historical progression. He also noted, as part of this progressionthat we, in our turn, may be supplanted by others. Could this be so? Are we in the last stages of western civilization? Will others rise and supersede us? Have we really halted the processes of history? 

Or there are the grim prospects of nuclear war, terrorism with new weapons, pandemics such as the coronavirus scare. A curious sideline of the current coronavirus problem has been the almost universal placing of human life above the concerns of power and money even if only temporarily; and of course the most fearsome problem of them all, drastic climate disaster, remains. 

So all our planning and speculation may be for nothing. It’s still a truism that we cannot know the future. But that does not mean that we should not try to plan for it; and plan with hope for, like Pandora’s box in Greek mythology, hope is the last refuge of human beings. 

 

 

                                                     

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