More Than Personal


Emma Dawson, in her piece ‘ Playing the Race Card ‘   in New Matilda 108, efficiently blows away the dust of the so-called values debate, and rightly attacks Opposition Leader Kim Beazley and the Shadow Immigration Minister Tony Burke for letting the Prime Minister set the terms. But in her support for Amanda Vanstone’s view that Australians aren’t racist (‘spot on’ writes Emma), and her own belief that Beazley ‘is clearly not a racist,’ there are some troubling assumptions, and Australia’s continuing racisms are disposed of a deal too easily.



It would be more accurate to say that most (middle-class, White, Anglo-) Australians wish to be anti-racist. That desire is one reason why the Sydney-based Indigenous dance company Bangarra packs them in, and just about everybody buys Aboriginal art. Few of us, however, know Aboriginal life at close quarters, and if Indigenous people are visible in our agreeably multicultural shopping centres, it’s often because they’re begging on the streets. That has to do with the racism of social structures boundaries which seem persistently immoveable because they’re made of silence and ignorance. It’s not about individual hearts and minds.

In his essay ‘Abo-Proof Fence,’ the Indigenous poet and essayist Dennis McDermott writes of how, as he sees it, both White and Aboriginal people and, no less, White governments must take responsibility ‘for the legacy of the past, the contemporary playing-out of trans-generational trauma Healing the violent present is inextricably tied to the acknowledgement, not the avoidance, of the violent past.’

McDermott also writes of how White Australia is ‘in recovery from a long habit of removing blackfellas from the scene.’ He sees that such recovery is a difficult business ‘for the nation, as much as for those dispossessed, taken, sidelined, whitewashed or airbrushed out.’ Being a poet, he produces a great metaphor:

This country has a long, pot-holed track, where a road should be, between where we are now and reconciliation with our own history, let alone any real Indigenous and Gubba [White] embrace.

The general idea that the White Australia Policy came to an abrupt stop in the mid-1960s, and that anti-Aboriginal discrimination has been comfortably tidied away, are parts of the John Howard-Keith Windschuttle fantasy. Meanwhile, we struggle along that pot-holed track, and history continues to be lived.

Thanks to Paul Batey

The heartbreaking saga on Palm Island shows that the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission on Black Deaths in Custody have been taken lightly by some of the Queensland police. A man was wrongly arrested, then kicked to death. In response to the Coroner’s findings, Premier Beattie (whose record in these matters isn’t all bad) delivers a fumbling, conciliatory response. If there’s any comfort for the anti-racist cause, it’s in the fact that the state of things on that island is now a very public story and perhaps too in the way the Palm Island community, reaching urgently toward the rest of us, speaks out and refuses to give up.

Since Emma Dawson wrote her New Matilda piece, we have seen the Federal Government, the West Australian Government and Kim Beazley all falling into line with their responses to the Noongar people’s successful native title claim in Perth. Those responses Philip Ruddock’s most notably are grudging, obstructionist, and unforgivably ignorant.

As the leader of a supposedly progressive Party, Beazley at least should have known better. In the years since the High Court’s Mabo and Wik decisions, we should all have learnt that successful claims don’t threaten our office buildings or suburban gardens. Driving into the ACT, you meet the signs: ‘Welcome to Ngunnawal Country,’ and then find Canberra’s sleepy suburbia completely undisturbed. But tokens and rhetoric matter. Native title means, above all, symbolic recognition and acknowledgment it is not, as some want to attest, primarily about compensation money.

The multiculturalism Emma Dawson enjoys (‘living in communities with Australians from many and varied backgrounds’) should be clearly grounded in the biculturalism of our foundations, and the Perth decision should be taken as a step toward greater clarity. If Beazley is trying to conciliate elements of his own electorate, he is again failing to be a leader he should be educating his people out of their worries, not colluding with them.

The fact that native title can still incite flutters of panic is evidence of the continuing deep divisions between Indigenous Australians and others. Unacknowledged racism underlies those political responses, just as it underlay the turning-away of the Tampa, the installation and continuing inhumanity of the so-called Pacific Solution, and not least, the Australian Government’s present indifference to the plight of our close neighbours, the Indonesian-dominated Melanesian Papuans.

Against these, the so-called values debate is so much vacuous moralism.

The quotations are from Dennis McDermott’s essay ‘Abo-Proof Fence,’ in J Muk Muk Burke and M Langford (eds) Ngara: Living in this Place Now (Wollongong, Five Islands Press, 2004)

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.