JIM COOMBS. Doing right by our First Peoples needs a little understanding but a LOT MORE RESPECT.

As my Dad, “Nugget” Coombs, said in his Boyer Lectures years ago, though still ringing true, we are all demeaned by our treatment of our aboriginal people. Even back then, he implored our leaders to consult with, listen to and empower our first peoples to have not just some say, but some control over their destiny. 

After years of patronising, a national conference of all the nations of our first peoples came together to make their case for a proper place for them in the Australian nation. It was not easy for them, as they are not of just one voice or language or culture, but they came up with what they thought any reasonable person would have to accept: a body representing them to advise the parliament.

What was this government’s response ? Without any further consultation, the Prime Minister and Cabinet rejected this struggled for compromise, saying that we, the Australian people, would reject any such constitutional amendment. Who did they ask ? Pauline Hanson ? Cory Bernardi ? Tony-The-Wrecker Abbott ? They certainly did not show this effort the respect of a parliamentary vote, let alone a wider debate in the community.

In any event, where is the moral leadership on this extremely important aspect of our national character. None. Just a weak-kneed, gutless caving-in to morally bankrupt, corrupt, self-appointed “leaders” like the hate-filled Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. Malcolm Fraser, at least, could see the point. People like to point to John Howard as a “man of principle”, but he connived at the dispossession and disempowerment of our first peoples.  What little we have in the way of land rights is due to Dr Coombs’s deep sense of shame at the treatment  of aboriginal people which he passed on to Gough Whitlam. He was not ashamed to sit on the ground and hear what they wanted, sometimes leading to a fair share of the nation’s wealth in mining. Some legal redress (but not much) arose out of that. Remember the terror in the country over aboriginal rights over the lands they had occupied for thousands of years ?

Kevin Rudd, however much he is now despised and reviled, had at least enough guts and moral leadership to utter the long overdue apology. This prime minister-without-credibility just walks away. But it is not just him, although he and his cabinet could make an enormous difference if they weren’t such as they are.

But the buck does not just stop there. At all levels, doing right by the aboriginal people is the responsibility of us all. In previous posts to Pearls and Irritations I have made proposals for the ways that the legal system could do better by our first peoples. Based on the “Circle Sentencing” model, which gives aboriginal community members a say in how their people are dealt with in court (once they plead guilty!), the idea is broadened to make that consultation a part of the  charging process (it happened in Menindee). Let’s call it “Circle Charging”, to make it part of the bail/incarceration process (it happens at Balund-a (a NSW Corrections Establishment) near Tabulam in northern NSW). Let’s call it “Circle Incarceration”, and what I call “Circle Bail Hostels” which would be managed by indigenous staff and would keep people out of gaol, but more likely to meet court dates and have somewhere to live. These were submissions to the Don Dale enquiry. No response, too busy for looking for culprits. But we do have to look at ways to have aboriginal management of aboriginal problems.

But moral leadership goes much higher. The judiciary in Australia cries out for leaders who will tell their courts to behave better. At magistrates and judges conferences over the last twenty years, much material is placed before them from the bureau of crime statistics and aboriginal legal and welfare organisations, and attendees either don’t attend or scoff at the facts provided. The chiefs of these courts have a moral responsibility (as part of their judicial oath) to call the scoffers to order. But they don’t. They could, if they had the moral character, make considerable inroads into the conviction and incarceration rates.

But it goes higher. If judicial appointments, especially to the lower courts, had a reasonable proportion of aboriginal incumbents, it would be no surprise to see the conviction and incarceration rates of aboriginal people decrease. Instead we have white anglo-saxon head-kickers. But the buck stops even higher, Gladys! Until appointments are made which make a difference, instead of cementing the status quo, the sorry tale of aboriginal mistreatment will continue. NSW has had one aboriginal judge, Bob Belear, and NO aboriginal magistrate, let alone a supreme court judge. In 200 years.

The saddest thing about all this is that it does not cost money, just getting our morals right.

But Turnbull’s rejection of the aboriginal constitutional proposal is insensitive and gutless. As Nugget put it, we are ALL demeaned by our treatment of our first peoples. Twenty years on, nothing has changed. We still, seemingly, don’t feel the shame. Aborigines, refugees, climate change, though it stares us in the face, we just don’t care. Well, I do.

Jim Coombs is a retired magistrate.



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3 Responses to JIM COOMBS. Doing right by our First Peoples needs a little understanding but a LOT MORE RESPECT.

  1. ‘Nuggett’ had a chance to stand beside the plaintiffs in P18/1991 as an ’eminent’ friend. His status might have helped impress Canberra bureaucrats with funds-allocation (legal aid) responsibilities. That ‘aid’ could have assisted recovery of what Drs. Catherine & Ronald Berndt called the ‘muted’ ‘voice’ of ‘the speaking land’. He declined.
    Eventually, the irregularities of Canberra decision-makers’ conduct (that is: violations of administrative law/ and criminal conspiracies) led to a grant of some monies to these Lawmen-andWomen hoping to assert their authority to speak for land in Australian courts : too little & too late – many Witnesses had died in the meantime (delay is,demonstrably, denial of justice). Much violence was enacted, by a governments’-sponsored ‘leadership’, and its proxies, to prevent the matter, steeped in blood and deception, from proceeding inside the legal system; forced to enmove to the muddled ‘Native Title’ Tribunal system, more died before the remnants of the plaintiffs’ families were at last granted an ersatz title created by our post-colonial legislatures. ‘Nuggett’ should have been honoured to have been invited to stand-by those plaintiffs. He turned his back.

  2. Bill Burke says:

    My respect for Nugget Coombs has not lessened over a fifty year awareness of his varied contributions, insights and good natured commitment to facing urgent concerns. And I would agree that the Turnbull Government’s perfunctory dismissal of the First Peoples’ requests was insensitive, inadequate and guaranteed to offend as well as disappoint.
    But, I doubt whether Jim C ‘s high octane advocacy and oversimplification of issues will assist the cause he wishes to promote. ” …give First Peoples an ADVISORY role attached to the federal parliament.” did not represent the opinion of a significant number of the participants. Moreover, in the days and weeks following, proponents of the recommendation differed on the specifics of its competence and operation.
    It had all the hallmarks of a cobbling together of something that could get through a referendum by not appearing to be too threatening. But this rush to have something to go was its own undoing. The are a legion of specifics which need predicating before voters could have any concept of what they were voting for or against.
    One of my take’s on Nugget Coombs legacy is that he spent a long period of his professional life working and interacting with politicians and public servants who neither shared his ethos or his ethic – but he kept working with them. I suspect more working together is what is needed if respectful engagement and progress is to occur.

  3. Alastair Harris says:

    A good piece Jim and many thanks! My father, Stewart Harris, worked with Nugget over many years, establishing the Aboriginal Treaty Committee to advocate for a just negotiated settlement between the First Nations and newer arrivals in Australia. It’s hard to believe that the work of our fathers, and other Australians of good will, to convince the white community of the need for a negotiated settlement seems to have come to nought, with our PM and cabinet rejecting out of hand a very modest and sensible proposal to give First Peoples an ADVISORY role attached to the federal parliament. It appears that despite the best efforts of Aboriginal people themselves and their white supporters Australia has hardly advanced in its attitude towards the idea of any effective Aboriginal voice in our national political processes, let alone a treaty.

    I have worked in this same area myself for more than three decades now and am increasingly convinced that what is holding us back from progress is the almost DNA-deep belief held by most non-Indigenous Australians that Aboriginal people are fundamentally incompetent and lacking in capacity. How else are we to explain the current political relationships between Aboriginal and other Australians characterised by Noel Pearson as one where, those with 95% of the power have 5% of the knowledge (white people) and those with 95% of the knowledge have 5% of the power (Aboriginal people). This lack of trust in Aboriginal capacity is not the exclusive terrain of overt racists but in fact infects even many of those non-Aboriginal people who work in Aboriginal organisations and, ostensibly, for Aboriginal people. In my experience it infects those who walk across bridges for reconciliation as much as it does overt racist politicians like Pauline Hanson. It infects the white managers of Aboriginal art centres as much as it does the red-neck publican of a Queensland outback pub and it infects our politicians equally (with one or two notable exceptions) whether from the Coalition, the ALP, the Greens or One Nation.

    This view of Aboriginal incompetency is coupled with a deeply ingrained “deficit view” of Aboriginal people, families and communities which always concentrates on the “things that are wrong with Aboriginal people”, rather than looking for the inherent strengths in a people that survived on this continent for more than 60,000 and the brutal British invasion of their lands.

    These two dual beliefs unite nearly all non-Aboriginal Australians and are, in my view, the main obstacle holding Aboriginal people back from overcoming disadvantage created by the legacy of the past 200 years.

    Aboriginal people are as competent, smart and capable as any other human beings and like all other human beings best able to understand their OWN problems, design solutions to those problems and implement those solutions. It is white intransigence and a refusal to relinquish even a modicum of power, not Aboriginal incompetency which is keeping Aboriginal people captive in their disadvantage. As Noel Pearson concluded in his comments referred to above and I paraphrase, “Until we turn this power imbalance around it won’t matter how much we invest we will not find successful solutions”.

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