JERRY ROBERTS. Change the date of the day by all means and change Australia

Jan 23, 2018

Let’s change the date of Australia Day, not just for Aboriginal public relations, but to prove that we can do something – anything – to cast off the chains of our pusillanimous politicians and their little mates, the boofhead media commentators.

The Australian Aborigines I know best are the traditionally-oriented people of the north-west.  They have never heard of Captain Cook, Malcolm Turnbull, Queen Elizabeth, Pat Dodson or any of the other usual suspects and talking heads.  That’s one of the many things I like about them.  They are not interested in us.  Why should they be?  They have their own society.

In the decades that I have spent in the north I can safely say that we have never discussed Australia Day.  The subject has never arisen.  This is not just the old divide between Sydney and the bush.  The north is different.  You can feel it the moment you step off the plane and it is not just the weather.  When you’re in the north the south doesn’t exist and vice versa.  They are different worlds.  I think the north is more fundamental.  From that distance the concerns of the southern cities look like one trivial pursuit after another.

Despite longstanding involvement in the bunfights of Aboriginal affairs I have to confess that I was taken by surprise when the Fremantle City Council kicked off the Australia Day controversy last year.  I had not given the matter a moment’s thought but instinctively I supported the Council’s position.  Fremantle has a tendency to be bolshy and I like bolshy.  Australia needs bolshy.  We are becoming a nation of crawlers.

The first indication I noticed that Australia Day was about to become a multi-media hoo-ha came from Mark Latham, the trajectory of whose career charts the decline of Australian politics.  In 2004, Mark, author of a serious book on economics, led the ALP in a powerful election campaign with good policies.  He won the campaign on the ground with a superb effort but was undone in the final fortnight when the Liberals panicked and resorted to scare tactics on interest rates.  Mark and his parliamentary team had no control over the Party’s paid advertising which should have been used to counter the Liberals.  This lack of strategic flexibility proved fatal for Labor.  I could have written an ad in five minutes, cheap and quick to produce, using the economists Mark Latham and Simon Crean talking to the camera to allay the fears engendered by the opportunistic, right-wing lawyers, John Howard and Peter Costello. Labor was defeated that year by Mark’s hero, Paul Keating, who gave us the recession we had to have and those obscene interest rates that remain controversial to this day in the sacred counting house of the Reserve Bank .  And Mark joined the media boofheads.

Meanwhile in Perth The West Australian newspaper has fired up on the Australia Day story.  The paper gave an acre of space to the silliest comment yet published on the issue.  It was written by the State’s Minister for Local Government, Terry Krsticevic, loaded up with a platitude in every paragraph and aimed at local government, getting too big for its boots, buying into social policy and at the Greens for infiltrating local government.  Why should not local government enter this arena?  Local government councillors and employees are closer and more accessible to ratepayers and voters than are members of State and Federal parliaments.  Why on earth the WA Government should lock itself into a conservative position on this issue, or any position, is a mystery.  The young Government is putting on a gala performance of amateur hour at the colosseum. As predicted by John Menadue, it is cursed by its original sin when still in opposition of failing to support the National Party’s move to increase revenue by lifting charges on BHP and Rio Tinto.

To its credit, The West Australian also gave space to Liberal MHR Ken Wyatt, who has made the most intelligent contribution to the debate, linking a new Australia Day to the republic.  It is not just Australians of Aboriginal descent who are mystified by our attachment to Queen Elizabeth and Captain Cook. There must be a substantial proportion of today’s population who have no ancestral links to Britain or even to Western Europe.  My ancestors hail from Devon, Cornwall and Schleswig Holstein and I spew every time the six o’clock news trots out another public relations hand-out from Buckingham Palace.

Sue Gordon is a great lady who has done the hard yards in Aboriginal affairs and she has a point when she says that changing Australia Day will not make a practical difference in the lives of Aboriginal people.  The same argument was used against land rights.  Australia Day is not a bread and butter issue.  It is not about economics.  Nor is the change from constitutional monarchy to republic.  Ken Wyatt is on the right track.  This is about Australia’s national identity.  We need to do a lot more than change birthday dates and amend the constitution if we are to stand up on our own feet but it is a start.

It was the young Adam Smith in his Glasgow Lectures on Jurisprudence who gave us “the four distinct states that mankind passes through” and these categories are used by social scientists to this day.  First came the nomadic hunters and gatherers, then the pastoralists, or shepherds, as Smith called them.  Third came settled agriculture and fourth our present state which Smith called commerce.  Karl Marx came along a century or so later and made a similar analysis but Marx was always looking at labour relations.  He called hunting and gathering “primitive communism.” Then came slavery with the Greeks and Romans, followed by feudalism in the Middle Ages and finally, today’s capitalism, a word Marx did not use much.  He called it “the bourgeois mode of production.”

My anthropologist mate, Ian Tarrant, in “Under the Carlie Tree”, looks more deeply into the society of the hunter-gatherers and finds much to admire from his academic research of the Kung bushmen of the Kalahari and his personal experience teaching at Lake Nash in the Northern Territory with the Alyawarra people.  He contrasts the “human survival values” of the hunter-gatherers with the “exploitative syndrome” of today’s commercial world. “The holistic world view of the hunter-gatherers, the last people to retain survival values, is clearly the epitome of our humanity,” writes Ian.  “Although our technical advances have been astounding, it is these old values, or the core of them at least, on which our final survival depends.”

Australia is a place like no other.  It is an island, nation continent.  Adam Smith’s hunter-gatherers in their “distinct state” survive here, despite all the poison our settler society has thrown at them.  They maintain their culture, make babies and paint beautiful pictures in scattered outback settlements.  We need to be more protective of our special privilege and less profligate with our precious human resources.

A word on language and political correctness. When I started reporting we still had a Native Welfare Department in WA.  The word “Native” is derived from nato, natare, the first declension intransitive verb “to be born.”  I am a native of Iowa City, Iowa, in America’s mid-west.  Native is a beautiful word.  It became politically incorrect in Australian Aboriginal affairs, possibly because of the treatment of the natives by the Department, the settlers and the police.  The Department was folded into the Department of Community Welfare, which became Community Development and is now known as the Department of Child Protection.  I preferred Community Development.  It sounded more positive and less Orwellian.

The politically correct expression then became Aboriginal people.  Now the word is indigenous.   At a rough guess I would say the origin of indigenous is genus, generis, third declension if I remember my schoolboy Latin correctly, meaning of a kind or type, as in homogeneous.  Aboriginal affairs is not homogeneous.  There are the traditionally-oriented people referred to above and the indigenous spokes-people whom we see on television who are increasingly acculturated into mainstream society.  To further complicate matters, most Australians live in coastal cities and few of them have met the traditionally-oriented people.  On top of that, even Don McLeod admitted that they only tell us as much as they think we need to know.  That is wise policy.  We have betrayed them so often in the history of white settlement.

The Roman Catholic Church would be well advised to ordain women priests.  Om Sunday morning, Wendy Gilbert, the Minister of All Saints Anglican Church in the Perth suburb of Dianella, gave us a super-brilliant sermon on Mark 1. 14-20, where Jesus recruits his fishers of men on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  I loved the sermon because it confirmed my views about the radical, egalitarian character of Christ’s teaching.  Wendy quoted “Binding the Strong Men” by the theologian and activist, Ched Myers, who argues against a narrow interpretation that distorts the radical nature of the text.  Jesus was harking back to the Hebrew scriptures in which “the hooking of fish” is a euphemism for judgement upon the rich (Amos 4.2) and the powerful (Ezekiel 29.4)

“In other words,” said Wendy, “when Jesus asked Simon, Andrew, Janes and John to ‘fish for people’ he was asking them to cast aside the existing social order of power, privilege, exploitation and domination and to help usher in God’s kingdom – a kingdom of justice for the poor, mercy for the oppressed and abundance for all.”  As Myers summed it up, Jesus was inviting commoners to “a fundamental re-ordering of socio-economic relationships.”

In the autumn of 2016 I was walking with Bruce Thomas through the shopping centre of Mirrabooka, a northern suburb of Perth, where all the nations of the world meet, every shade of skin colour and costumes from the burqa to the elegant, long dresses worn by tall African women, all mingling happily.  I said to Bruce: “You and I are a disappearing species.”  I am a white, Anglo-Saxon Australian and Bruce is a full-blood Aboriginal Australian from the East Pilbara. He looks the part, with his dark skin and flowing, snowy-white hair and beard and he is the part.  He knows the songs of his ancestors. Bruce is a national treasure.

We were in Perth to attend a May Day meeting to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the 1946 Pastoral Strike organised by Don McLeod to highlight the recognition of Aboriginal rights enshrined in Western Australia’s original Constitution. As a non-negotiable condition for the granting of responsible government the Imperial Government insisted on the insertion of Section 70 to the new State’s constitution, setting aside one per cent of Western Australia’s gross annual revenue, beyond the reach of Parliament, for the benefit of the Aboriginal population.

My brother Paul showed his film of the 1946 Strike – “How the West was Lost” – featuring many of the Aboriginal strikers re-playing scenes from their adventures.  Then Bruce and Paul and I and others acquainted with Aboriginal policy matters sat on a panel before an audience sympathetic to the Aboriginal cause, many of them Greens voters and lots of lawyers and anthropologists who are busy bees in the native title era.  Before Bruce concluded proceedings with an electrifying performance of his grandfather’s rain-making song in Nyungamarta language I made a couple of points that are personal views and not politically correct.

I have never liked the word or the idea of “reconciliation.”  A better word and a better idea is “respect.”  I told the audience about Chicago activist Saul David Alinsky’s view. “One side wins and the other side gets reconciled.”  Why should the Aboriginal population be reconciled?  Who says they should be reconciled?  I’m not reconciled.  To hell with reconcile.  Dylan Thomas was not reconciled.  “Do not go gentle into that good night.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I have noticed that John Menadue does not like naughty words in Pearls and Irritations but I’m quoting myself in direct speech and it all went on camera for the record so I hope I can get away with it.  I told the audience that I thought the Aboriginal people should never have asked us to say sorry.  “They should have told us to get rooted!”

After the formal meeting ended Anne and I mingled with the crowd and caught up with our old friend, Jo Vallentine. I reminded Jo of the time when we were a generation younger and she was preparing her maiden speech, having won a seat in the Australian Senate on the nuclear disarmament ticket.  I persuaded her to bring the issue of social justice into the speech.  In Australia that means the Aboriginal issue.  There will always be bombs and missiles, I argued, machine guns, cannons and bows and arrows.  The key to peace is in our human relationships, in equitable societies, in honest dealings at home and abroad.  Jo took it up but she told me on that May Day night that many members of her Party were not happy about it.  They wanted to stick to bombs and missiles.

The relationship between Australia’s Aborigines and the rest of us is important.  It is more important than sending astronauts into space to colonise Mars.  It is more important than air-borne delivery of pizzas to the door step by drone.  It is more important than the latest squillion dollar fortune made by some nerd finding yet another way to make mega quids by farting around on the Internet.  Indeed, the only issue of comparable importance is Senator Vallentine’s project of preventing nuclear annihilation and the two projects are closely related – peace and mutual respect between different peoples.

Ernie Bridge was an immensely talented, pioneering Aboriginal member of Parliament in Western Australia.  After a tortuous legal and political struggle, he won the northern seat of Kimberley for the ALP and became one of the best Ministers for Agriculture we have seen in the West and a legendary Minister for Water Resources.  I think the comment I am recalling here came in a speech Ernie was making to the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Victoria who funded the Kimberley service in a longstanding arrangement that is one of those nice chapters of the Australian story.

Ernie said throughout our history since early settlement the Aboriginal people had consistently offered the hand of friendship to the new arrivals.  I think it a fair comment and it tallies with my experience in the bush.  They are  shy but friendly.  They are beautiful people.

Changing the date of Australia Day is not a big deal.  It is a mere bagatelle.  I am sure it would not bother Captain Cook.  He would be happy to know we are all getting our daily measure of Vitamin C. Nobody gets hurt but it is a gesture of friendship and respect.  It is the sort of thing human beings do when we are on our best behaviour, like shaking hands over the net after a game of tennis on Rod Laver Arena. Let’s do it.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter.

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