Don't listen to those who despise us

Opinion Article

2006 June, 26

Indigenous cultures can adapt, just like any other.  


Today’s ministerial summit about violence and child abuse is a commendable initiative by Minster Mal  Brough. Many people have reservations about whether yet another summit will lead to anything.  


But that is not the only problem. The necessary current focus on humanitarian emergencies and  educational failure makes us as a nation less and less inclined to reflect on the relationship between the  peoples of Australia and Aboriginal Australians’ ultimate place in this country.  


Almost every sovereign state is shared by two or more peoples, usually a strong majority people and  vulnerable minorities. Most democracies grapple with how to accommodate national minorities.  


In Australia we have had two great debates about national issues: the debates about the rights of  Aboriginal Australians, and about Australian history.  


Conservative Australians have lent considerable support to contributors Keith Windschuttle and Gary  Johns. Windschuttle has been appointed to the board of the ABC, and Education Minister Julie Bishop  has endorsed the Johns’ Menzies Research Centre paper Aboriginal Education: Remote Schools and  the Real Economy.   


I fear that Australia’s conservatives do not understand the dangers for our nation of this endorsement.  


Before I make clear what these dangers are, I want to explain why Aboriginal Australians can have a  dialogue with the conservatives about policy and history.  


First, we should be able to agree with conservative and liberal people that Aboriginal Australians need  modernity, geographic mobility, full command of English, education and economic integration.  


Second, cultural relativism should be rejected in favour of embracing modernity when it comes to the  fundamental economic and social organisation of societies. It is natural for peoples to advance from  hunting and gathering to agriculture to industrialism. What peoples retain from earlier stages is a matter  of cultural and spiritual choice.  


Third, in the debate about Australian history, rigour and revision of history is essential. Whilst the first  three books by Professor Henry Reynolds are seminal contributions to Australian history, his later  books are not immune from challenge. I would argue however that historian Bain Attwood has  articulated more telling critiques of Reynold’s oeuvre than Windschuttle.  


Fourth, much of the political right’s criticism of the progressive consensus about policies for  Aboriginal Australians is correct, particularly in relation to welfare and substance abuse.  


However, I am very concerned about the damage which conservative Australians are doing to the  prospects of reconciliation through their uncritical endorsement of people like Windschuttle and Johns.  


Windschuttle’s and Johns’ influence has decreased the empathy with Aboriginal Australians. Johns  and Windschuttle would probably reply that it is their critics who lack empathy because the left  defends flawed policies that ruin Aboriginal Australian’s lives. However, the lack of empathy which  Johns and Windschuttle exude is more insidious than indifference to humanitarian disasters. The  coldness that characterises Johns and Windschuttle is an inexplicable antagonism to Aboriginal Australians’ wish to remain distinct.  


Windschuttle defence against the charge of lack of empathy is that “[t]he responsibility of the historian  is not to be compassionate, it is to be dispassionate…to try and get at the truth”. But Windschuttle’s  and Johns’ antagonism to Aboriginal Australians means that they are unable to remain dispassionately  objective.


For example, Windschuttles generalisation that the early stages of dispossession “was not against [the]  will of…most Aborigines” is not a correction of leftist distortion of history, it is distortion in the  opposite direction.  


The influence of Johns’ and Windschuttle’s irrational contempt is causing their powerful conservative  audience (and thereby Australia) to move further away from the modern, enlightened view that  minorities have the right to agreements with the central power about securing the survival of their  identity and about appropriate political rights.  


In his recent government-endorsed paper, Johns argued that Aboriginal Australians have no right to  government-funded education about their culture and languages. His irrational argument was that a  modern Western education system by definition cannot maintain a preliterate, nomadic culture. Of course it cannot. But we have a right to government support for a modern, literate, prosperous version  of our culture. This right to cultural continuity is exactly the same right which the non-Indigenous  conservatives demand for their people when they fight to prevent postmodern gobbledygook from  pushing knowledge about old Western culture out of the curriculum, and when they suggest that school  chaplains maintain our pre-modern Christian heritage.  


The difference between Australia and most other shared Western states is that the Australian minority  peoples until recently had a pre-modern culture and no connection with the world economy. To secure  Aboriginal economic development, it might be necessary for us to make far-reaching concessions to the  dominant culture. For example, English should perhaps be the regular language in school and  government-funded teaching of our languages should be an extra-curricular complement.  


Aboriginal Australian culture and economy have changed and must change. But it seems that  conservatives increasingly believe that the difficulties of this transformation justify or necessitate a  complete denial of Aboriginal Australians’ national rights as minority peoples.  


There has been nothing more dispiriting for me than the prominence of Windschuttle’s and Johns’  ideas in conservative political and cultural circles. Windschuttle’s thesis about the absence of a notion  of land ownership in Aboriginal Australia, and Johns’ notion that our culture is unable to change and must therefore be left to die, are threatening the prospects of successful cooperation between  Aboriginal Australians and the conservatives.  


Today’s ministerial summit illustrates the dilemma we are facing: the extreme crises in Aboriginal  Australia and the low capabilities of Aboriginal Australians make non-Indigenous Australians and our  political leaders lose sight of the natural ultimate goal, which is that Aboriginal Australians become a prosperous constitutionally recognised First-World national minority.

Don't listen to those who despise us