When we were interviewing people for our new book, Ordinary People’s Politics, Judith Brett and I wanted to know what they thought about Aboriginal issues. We had looked at our archive of 40 or so interview sets from the late 1980s very long, free-ranging interviews with individuals talked to four or five times and noticed that there was very little discussion of Aboriginal people and issues. Apart from occasional comments for or against land rights, or about past treatment of Aborigines when people were asked about the Bicentenary and Australia’s history, on the whole the discussion was superficial and brief. Most people said they knew very little about the issues, and knew no Aborigines personally.
Given the publicity and debate surrounding Mabo, Wik, Native Title, the stolen generations and a national apology in the 1990s, we expected to find something quite different when we spoke to people from 2002 onwards. But again we found discussions petering out, admissions of ignorance, and most saying they knew no Aborigines personally.
While generally sympathetic, people despaired over what the solutions might be. Many expressed a wish that the lives and conditions of Aboriginal people would improve, that we could somehow find a way to solve the crises in Aboriginal communities in remote areas. With more people travelling in remote Australia on tours and holidays in the past decade or so, direct observations of violence, destitution and sickness have unsettled many people. These direct observations have been supplemented by extensive media exposure, especially in recent years.
Take Tjaart Reinkman, an entrepreneur in his mid-30s from a Dutch immigrant background, living in Melbourne. When he was interviewed in 1989 the only Aborigines he had seen were drunk and apparently homeless in Melbourne’s inner suburbs.
When asked back then about the position of Aborigines in Australian society, he was confident and forthright. Some would ‘become Westernised’ and come into modern society, but others would ‘just be drowned out, would perish, would be left behind.’ He was ‘reasonably comfortable about’ this perceived reality, a comfort based on an interpretation of the vast sweep of history with its many invasions and destructions of whole peoples, cultures and ways of life.
Then he travelled through Alice Springs and further north. He had been truly shocked by what he had seen, and when we interviewed him again as a 50-year-old in 2003, he was far from dismissive of the Aboriginal plight:
There are groups of people, or those like Pauline Hanson, who say that the Aboriginals are just leeches on our system. I don’t accept that for one minute. What I saw in Alice Springs was two groups of people living in totally, absolutely totally different worlds, but actually living in the same space. Just totally different worlds. We’re talking about revolution and casualties of war. These people are major casualties of all these changes. Their background may be educated, may not be educated, but their way of living in the community that they find themselves in, they have great, great difficulty.
Most of the people we spoke to thought about Aboriginal ‘problems’ in relation to remote communities, rather than looking closer to home. This reflects a wider Australian habit of imagining that ‘real’ Aborigines live in the outback, rather than the more closely settled areas and the cities.
Ordinary People’s Politics, Pluto Press
Similarly, it is often assumed that the problems for Aboriginal communities are mainly in those more distant places. Kelly Pappas, a young suburban mum who was against government provisions ‘based on race,’ had almost no sympathy for the plight of Aborigines in urban or rural Victoria who, she felt, have all the opportunities available to everyone else. She expressed some sympathy for Aborigines up north who she believed are still bound by ‘culture’ unlike Victorian Aborigines, in her view and may even need more funding. But they were seen as a diminishing problem: ‘I think that it’s just something that will phase out over time. I know that’s horrible to say. But I think that the real, true Aboriginals will just perhaps phase out ‘
Renee Simmons, a remarkable young Aboriginal woman we interviewed in 2004, and whose portrait is the last in our book, provides an important rejoinder. As her story powerfully illustrates, Aboriginal issues have not been resolved in Australia’s south-eastern states, and Aboriginal culture and community matter there just as they do in remote Australia. Renee had grown up in city suburbs and rural towns in NSW and Victoria, and told a story of racism, violence, broken lives and personal resilience.
Like many Aboriginal people, Renee’s first experiences of the State were of the police and the courts. She remembered her mum’s boyfriend being dragged round a football field, tied to the back of a police car, when she was eight or nine, and the policeman later lying in court. She remembered police bursting into the house yelling racist remarks, and her mum being strip searched:
The youngest experiences I had with the police were all negative. In the end, I thought all police were bad. I felt like if you were Black you were always in trouble, and you’d be sitting in the car, or at your aunty’s or uncle’s or in the community, and it’d be like ‘the pigs this’ and ‘the pigs that.’ Then at school we’d be told if you ever get in trouble, go see the police, and I would be really confused. As I got older I realised there’s good and bad on both sides.
Violence was so normal. Because I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my family I sort of learned how to manipulate the police. Someone would have called the police because of a domestic and I would have only been about 10. I would convince them that everything was alright even though Mum was out the back being choked, you know. I guess at the time I didn’t realise that violence could result in serious injury or death. In the end it was routine.
But sometimes, like, they saved the situation. There was one time when she nearly died. Like, she got shot at and her head bashed, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, Where’s the police?’ After they came it was, ‘Oh my God, they saved my Mum.’
Sometimes the State was out to get you, but sometimes there was nothing but the State to protect you that was one of the important lessons Renee took from her childhood.
Now, when she thought about the State she could see that ‘sometimes Aboriginals deserve policy intervention, because previous policies have left such damage that protection is needed by the young generation from their own communities,’ but ‘sometimes they get it when they don’t deserve it at all.’ She had a wariness of State action and the promises of politicians based on bitter experience of government callousness and failure. She had survived, but she knew many who hadn’t.
Renee’s mother was a member of the stolen generation, and had suffered terrible consequences as a result of her fractured biography, trying later in life to reunite with her family and Aboriginal community, but eventually drifting away to live on her own. Renee and her siblings had spent time in care as children; Renee now worked for government as a community worker, and was closely attuned to the issues surrounding child welfare and child removal. Her older brother, disillusioned by his experiences of Aboriginal life, and her troubled younger sister who was in care, wanted little to do with the Aboriginal community. Renee, however, kept close ties with Victoria’s Aboriginal communities.
For Renee, none of the answers were simple, but you couldn’t escape them by turning away. So she was in there fighting for the kids, the next generation, and looking for leadership, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal:
We’ve survived this long and I’m sure there’ll still be survivors down the track. But to be able to get the community into maintaining, to actually be that strong culture, I don’t know that that’s going to happen. At the moment I seem really disillusioned by it because the basic things are so hard to achieve. I don’t know what’s going to happen. At the moment it looks pretty negative, but I still hold hope that things could change.
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