Andrew Bolt, Nova Peris, And The Politics Of ‘Walkabout’


In attacking the outgoing Senator in the way he did, Bolt tapped into an old dual standard, writes Dr Liz Conor.

Andrew Bolt has Bolter heritage. If his ancestors are European I’m afraid they did a runner from their homeland. Unless they were actually transported as convicts (could Bolt have crim-heritage?) his heritage is one of flight, we might call it evasion, even skirting, shirking, ducking, darting, dodging, side-stepping, bypassing, eluding and equivocating.

We could call the migration of his forebears any of those things but these characterisations aren’t exactly ready-to-hand because Bolt is white. Instead we tend to describe settler’s movements as pioneering, as leading the way, breaking new ground, laying down tracks, forging and initiating.

We reserve the less adulatory terms for mobility for refugees and Aborigines – you know, displaced people.

We most certainly won’t call Bolt’s forebears’ rather unsettled pattern of settling walkabout. Because this is a racialised colloquialism that properly describes the semi-nomadic movement of Aboriginal people.

Now we all know that for men like The Bolter, Nova Peris is a ‘fast’ woman – since black and licentious tend to also go together in the lexicon we inherited from settler-colonialism. But when The Bolter argued it was she, not he (that’s shifty!), that reinforced the stereotype of Indigenous Australians ‘going-walkabout’, and of ‘not-sticking to it’, by declining to contest her place in the senate at the coming election, he may have overstepped the mark, jumped the gun or even the shark.

While the Bolter’s forebears, probably from around 1850, were gallivanting around the globe with free abandon, Nova Peris’ ancestors were harvesting within defined territorial limits with such persistence they are now the longest continuing human society on the face of this earth. I’d call that ‘sticking to it’.

So averse were they to being shunted off their land they rose up and fought for it under what must have been gut wrenchingly manifest and unbeatable odds. Those who survived the marauding death squads and the transported pestilence were rounded up and shipped to reserves for their ‘protection’.

And when the white farmers peered in and envied their abundant crops of, for example hops, they lobbied or got elected to the councils or the state protection boards and moved these people on, again, and again.

Most recently they locked them out of the extensive pastoral runs they had coexisted on, using the fences they themselves had built, when Howard scuttled the High Court Wik decision. And now they’ve closing down the ‘unviable’ communities and creating administrative ‘hubs’ (read fringe camps) in the NT and WA.

You wanna talk about feckless, aimless wandering Andrew Bolt? Ok let’s.

Historians have noted the irony of a nation initially based on convict transportation, and settled through assisted passage (funded, for instance, through the Australian Waste Lands Act of 1842), and migration, admonishing the native for their ‘roving propensities’.

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds have shown how ‘the perfect liberty of locomotion’ was enshrined in international treaties of the nineteenth century, as a doctrine of freedom of movement. It was, however, the preserve of Anglo-Saxon working-men who tied it to the assertion of their democratic rights (the mass movement of millions of Chinese and Indians from the 1850s challenged this assertion).

It was thus within the context of international arguments over free migration and trade that Australian newcomers looked upon the cyclic movement of tribes through horde countries as ‘the natural restlessness’ of a ‘shiftless, aimless life’. They saw it as simply ‘the disposition of the savage mind’. “Locomotion”, it was observed in 1842, “seems essential to their very existence.” (Yet as Lynette Russell has documented, Indigenous whalers and sealers had also long been ‘roving mariners’).

Just as white men were asserting their rights to untrammeled movement as exclusive to themselves, they turned to the idea of nomadism almost with the sense that it tread on their immigrant toes.

Due to nomadism Australian Aborigines were said to have marooned themselves in a temporal dead end, their wanderings failing to effect any progress through time – unlike those of the newcomers – and paradoxically fixing them in a lost primeval past. They had ceased passage and were now, with the ethnocidal imprimatur of Daisy Bates’ 1944 book title, ‘passing’ (the full title is ‘The Passing of the Aborigines). Accordingly, one 1949 pictorial atlas asks how this most ancient race remained “in such a primitive state?”

The answer is probably to be found in the fact that he is, above all, nomadic. Of all the great steps which mankind has taken in his climb to higher standards of life and greater mastery of natural forces, the act of settling down in one place and tilling the soil has not been the least.

And therein lies the foundational paradox of colonial ‘settlement’, the unresolved contradiction that continues to unsettle colonial discourse (and still rather upends Bolt’s argument): settlement is a great ‘step’ in the pathway of historical progress, while nomadism is not just the stand-still but the backward march of a people. That is, migrants (Bolt’s forebears) travelling often thousands of kilometers between European metropole and colonial periphery accused Aborigines – harvesting, trading, initiating, marrying and burying within defined parameters – of wandering aimlessly.

The critical import of the settler appropriation ‘Walkabout’ becomes clear. Let’s allow the atlas to spell it out (for you Mr Bolt):

the true native Australian black simply cannot settle down for long in any one place. He is a wanderer. And though his wanderings, complete with family and tribe, follow a general route or are confined to the same general areas, he is a true nomad none the less. This native desire to “go walkabout,” as the black describes it, has deprived the aboriginal of the opportunity of gaining a knowledge of house-building, agriculture or other of the fine arts.

The authentic ‘native’ is revealed by his/her modes of comportment, all “evidences of arrested development”.

So Mr Bolt, we just want to confirm, this stereotype of Indigenous Australians as prone to ‘going-walkabout’ – it’s one they circulate is it?

Can we just leave you with another story concerning the movement of Aboriginal women – that of an Aboriginal woman manacled near Lake Kinross by dog-chain in 1850. It’s an unusual story isn’t it Mr Bolt. I doubt you’ve heard it. Mostly such stories were never told, or shared, or printed, except by the rare humanitarian outraged by the various constraints placed on the movement of Aboriginal women – and the reasons why.

Or how about the story of Nelly, reported by the Brisbane Courier in 1875. William Indane was charged with her murder at Kilkivan. Indane had accused her of stealing money and was seen “dashing her down on the muddy ground” again and again for an hour and a half despite her cries for help. He then hung “the unhappy creature” over a fence by her knees, her head almost to the ground, holding her in place by her knee-caps. After she was released through the entreaty of onlookers she tried repeatedly to run but fell. Her body was found behind one of the witnesses’ house on a bark sheet the next morning. Indane was acquitted, the author remarking, “You will not get a jury, at least in Maryborough, to bring in a verdict of murder for the killing of a black.”

So when Aboriginal women rise to their feet, in spite of this history, and comport themselves in any direction they bloody well chose – when they pick up a few Olympic medals along the way, actually after years of dogged ‘sticking-with-it’ training, endurance and steadfastness – how about you show a little respect Mr Bolt, from your staid, swivel, studio chair, for the freedom of movement they fought every inch of the way for.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.