Talking to My Country
by Stan Grant
HarperCollins, 2016, 240 pages, $29.99
If you read Stan Grant’s much-publicised new book, Talking to My Country, it is as if the transformation of the indigenous debate and major policy shifts of the past fifteen years had never happened. The strongest impression created by Grant’s underwhelming book has been to make me recall my feelings when I first read Noel Pearson’s pioneering revisionist account of the nature and causes of entrenched indigenous disadvantage: what a tragedy, but what a relief! There, finally, set out in Pearson’s landmark series of essays, lectures and commentary pieces in the early-to-mid-2000s, was an explanation for indigenous disadvantage that enabled those of good faith to discuss the subject openly, honestly and—most importantly—escape any suggestion of indulging in racial stereotyping and victim-blaming.
During the prime ministership of Paul Keating in the first half of the 1990s, attempts to draw attention to the social problems that plagued many indigenous communities had been shut down by condemning any mention of these issues as “racist”. The indigenous debate had centred instead on the historical issues brought into sharp focus by the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision: how to address Australia’s founding national shame of imperial dispossession and colonial oppression of Aborigines through official dialogues between non-indigenous and indigenous Australians about sovereignty and a treaty. These were the topics, dealing with the political representation of, for and by indigenous people, which the overwhelming majority of indigenous leaders preferred to talk about, and which they demanded politicians and the media exclusively discuss.
Noel Pearson’s lasting achievement was to fundamentally change the emphasis of the national indigenous debate by focusing squarely on the impact of the indigenous policies established by the Whitlam and Fraser governments in the 1970s, and by analysing how these policies were principally to blame for the appalling living conditions of some people in some indigenous communities. Pearson’s unvarnished truth-telling left readers in no doubt that the failed policy of “Aboriginal self-determination” had reaped a bitter harvest.
Following in the wake of the 1967 referendum that gave federal parliament the power to make laws for the benefit of Aborigines, Aboriginal self-determination was introduced under the auspices of the newly-minted Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and replaced the official policy of assimilation that had been adopted under the post-war Menzies government—which envisaged that Aborigines would be absorbed into the Australian community through the extension of full civil rights to Aboriginal people. Self-determination was instead designed, in theory, to enable indigenous people to return to their “country” to live on their traditional lands in traditional ways, and practise their traditional culture. In practice, however, as Pearson argued, the prevalence of “passive welfare” dependence, along with the grog, drugs and pornography, plus the effects of “humbugging”, overcrowded public housing, and communal rather than private ownership of land, had combined to break down the social norms regulating work, family and community life in many “homeland” communities—a breakdown measured by the suffering of indigenous people, especially women and children, due to epidemic levels of violence and abuse.
Pearson’s account of the policy-led spiral downwards into the social dysfunction that blighted many indigenous communities marked the start of the debate about causes and cures for the big gaps in social and economic outcomes between the most disadvantaged indigenous Australians and other Australians. His writings helped to spur the development of “practical reconciliation”. The doctrine of Aboriginal self-determination maintained that in order for the nation to be held to account for its original sins of colonisation against Aborigines, “Aboriginal-controlled” organisations had to be empowered to deliver “culturally appropriate”, taxpayer-funded services in Aboriginal communities. The chief policy innovation of the practical-reconciliation era, in contrast, has been to abandon the separatist approach to indigenous communities (and thus challenge the hegemony of the “Aboriginal industry” of indigenous-specific service providers) and replace race-based provision with the principle of “mainstreaming” health, education, employment and other services so that ideally the same level and quality of services are available to indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike. This approach, which is designed to “close the gap” by better integrating and elevating the conditions of all indigenous people and communities by accessing the benefits and opportunities available in mainstream society, was first adopted under the Howard government, and has continued under subsequent Labor and Coalition governments.
All this recent history is nowhere found in Grant’s book. Instead, Talking to My Country is part memoir, part family history, and part personal meditation on Grant’s identity as an Aborigine and as an Australian, and on the tensions between these two identities. Grant is a well-known journalist and television presenter who has had a long and successful career in Australia and internationally. However, the publication of Talking to My Country has elevated him to national prominence as an indigenous leader, following a widely reported book launch at the Press Club in Canberra in February. The launch also served as the occasion for Grant to flag his intention to enter politics. The timing of this announcement suggests that the purpose of the book is to outline the kind of political leadership Grant wishes to offer the nation to address the continued plight of the indigenous Australians to whom he refers to as “my people”.
Grant’s political ambitions unburden the critical reviewer, and permit the kid gloves to be removed. Talking to My Country is not simply the heartfelt testimony of one man’s “lived experience” as an Aboriginal Australian composed to inform a more enlightened national discourse about indigenous affairs. It is also a manifesto of sorts, and thus its claims can be contested, as with any political tract. Grant’s central claim—and thus central political assertion—concerns the role that racism continues to play in keeping indigenous people down on the lowest rungs of society. Critiquing Grant’s account of the relationship between the long history of indigenous experience of racism in Australia and the primary causes of contemporary indigenous disadvantage is important: Grant’s book is the most recent, most high-profile, and potentially most influential restatement of the major misconceptions that, despite the detailed revisionist accounts to the contrary by Pearson and others, still muddle thinking about indigenous policy.
Identity and politics
There are many noteworthy features of Talking to My Country. These include the constant use of the terms “black” and “white” to describe indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, language that might unnerve, if the author were not Aboriginal. Grant, we learn, is a big fan of the 1960s African-American novelist James Baldwin. We also learn that he drew inspiration in his youth from a poster on his bedroom wall of the Black Panther-inspired black-power salute by two African-American medal-winning athletes at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Whatever its source, and whether appropriated from the United States or not, the self-conscious racial language used in the book reflects how self-conscious Grant himself is about his identity as an Aborigine. At one point he even writes, “I have dear friends who are white and I love them,” but explains that his identity separates him from non-indigenous Australians. The source of this separateness is that he cannot forget—let alone “forgive”—what has happened to indigenous people in Australia, and owing to what he sees as the lack of national accountability for the historical roots of their continued plight.
There are some other extraordinary statements expressing Grant’s sense of alienation from “white” Australians and from the nation. He reports, for instance, that while he is friendly with the non-indigenous fathers at his son’s football games on weekends, he feels isolated from these “strangers” because there is a “chasm here”; “I still can’t become one of them … [because] deep down I also know we are speaking a different language”, due to the different stories he believes that white and black Australians tell each other about this country. Estrangement from the nation, he also says, is acute every time the Australian flag is flown or the national anthem is sung, because all he can think about is the theft, murder, pillage, plunder and destruction of Aboriginal society. Hence when he attended the Sydney 2000 Olympics opening ceremony, the anthem sounded like a “death march” and the celebrations felt “like dancing on our graves”. He did not join in the singing because the anthem and flag were not the true ones of his “lost” country.
Such passages are indicative of the way Grant explores the racial history of the nation since 1788, and the way he tells us how this history, together with his and his family’s experience of poverty and racism, have shaped his identity. Grant’s account of Australian racism is rooted in the historical realities and prejudices of earlier times, and is grounded in his recollections of being Aboriginal and living on the fringes of society in western New South Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. Grant’s father was an itinerant rural worker who kept his family moving from town to town, before finally settling in Canberra. We are told of a rambling hard-scrabble existence; of the embarrassment of wearing second-hand charity-shop clothes; of the nerves of being the perpetual new Aboriginal boy in school; and of intrusive inspections by “welfare men” creating a deep-seated fear of becoming another stolen child. “This,” writes Grant, “was the space that history had made and the place it had reserved for people like us.” Yes; Australia does have a racist history of exclusion and domination—and Grant’s personal experience bears witness to this history.
Both his identity and his alienation, Grant tells us repeatedly, are a product of his grasp of history. The way he identifies as an Aborigine, and how he feels about the nation, are shaped by his deep awareness of the original sins of Australian colonisation. “In every way I am connected directly to the bloody birth of this country,” he writes. “The past is alive in me now. Its wounds rest deep and uneasily in our soul. I am the sum of many things, but I am all history.” Grant also describes how he perceives the connection between history and identity by explaining: “Time folds into itself and history isn’t history at all. It’s not something past—it is present.”
History, as a force shaping the present, is thus also used to explain the position of Aborigines in contemporary Australia: “This conflict helped determine our place in this country,” he writes. “We still suffer for its wounds.” He also writes that the “weight of history suffocates us”, shortly followed by the statement, “I have seen people crushed by whiteness.” This conveys the central message of the book—ever-present racism is the major cause of indigenous disadvantage in Australia.
Grant tells us that alienation from the nation has always formed the basis of his identity, for as a boy he began to question the myth of the peaceful settlement of Australia. This was partly a response to the privation and prejudice he and his family endured, but was mainly due to the stories he had learned about his people “at the feet of my parents” about the violent history of dispossession, which became the core of Grant’s identity and the source of his strong connection to his traditional country. Grant also says that these stories—of the smashing of the ancient culture of the Wiradjuri people by the coming of the whites, and of the massacres perpetrated by British occupiers that soaked his country with his ancestors’ blood—are also the stories of all Aboriginal people. “Now our stories are of people who came from another land and took what was ours,” Grant writes of the era of violent conflict on the frontier, which “is a time that shadows black lives still”.
He says, “To proclaim myself an Indigenous person is a political act … Our history shapes us and for my people there is the legacy of racism. But Indigenous identity has been especially fraught, something inherently political.” This does indeed seem to be so in Grant’s case. He tells us that his alienation began early when he realised that “something was rotten” in this country. During the morning flag-raising ceremony held in schools in the late 1960s, Grant, who was born in 1963, would recite the pledge to honour God and serve the Queen, and salute the flag. But he would also cross his fingers behind his back in “silent childhood protest” because he did not really mean it; for this was the flag under which his people’s land had been taken, their culture devastated, and the survivors such as his family marginalised. The flag ceremony was abolished in schools in 1970, making Grant’s crossed fingers a remarkable act of civil disobedience for such a young boy.
This anecdote (together with the general tone of the book) may be an example of what the indigenous academic Anthony Dillon has described as the tendency for the indigenous experience of racism to be shaped by biases in memory, which means that past events are reconstructed to fit current self-perceptions, and aggrandise the individual and the incidents recalled. The anecdote also appears to be symbolic of what the book really is: a politicised account of Grant’s identity as an Aborigine that is informed by the anti-colonial nationalist ideology of the Aboriginal rights movement of the 1970s. Grant was exposed to the ideas promoted by Aboriginal activists—and was clearly politicised and radicalised by these ideas—when as teenager he found a job in the mailroom of Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra. Grant tells us that at the institute he learned the language of Aboriginal dissent, and filled in the gaps in his knowledge of history by reading the work of the burgeoning university-educated indigenous elite, who were shining a light on the true, shameful and hitherto secret history of the country, and were demanding a full reckoning of—and compensation for—the toll on, and oppression of, indigenous people.
Grant’s time at the institute marked the beginning of his immersion in the wider world of Aboriginal militancy. Heading to university in the early 1980s, he found solidarity with his “fellow black students” and took part in the “demo” culture of the times by marching in the streets behind the Aboriginal flag. Grant says that the history he continued to read of white injustice fuelled his outrage and fortified his identity. It did indeed radicalise him, as he says he became a hardened racial warrior, who hated “the white blood in me” and who “fashioned an identity that opposed Australia”. He reports that he is no longer the same angry young man. However, elements of the hardening remain, at least as far as alienation from the nation goes. In a different kind of silent protest, Grant reports that he does not cheer for Australian teams at national sporting contests but for the opposition (preferring even to barrack for England!).
Racism or separatism?
Grant is entitled to hold and express his views about Australia, and about his identity as an Aborigine, based on his personal experience, family story and interpretation of the nation’s history. What he says about his identity, and about racism and history, are of relevance here only to the extent that they matter to the explanation he offers for indigenous disadvantage. He is also free to use his meditation on his identity to promote the politicised Aboriginal identity encountered throughout the book, even if—for the reasons stated here—the kind of political rather than practical solutions thereby envisaged for indigenous disadvantage represent a dead end in terms of tackling the real obstacles to improving outcomes for all indigenous people.
The reason we need to be aware of what Grant says about his identity is because he claims the historical forces that have shaped his identity are the same forces that still condemn indigenous people to poverty and exclusion. He maintains that just as Aborigines long suffered racism in the past, they still suffer today as victims of the same unbroken thread of racism that has perpetually run through Australian society since 1788: like him, Aborigines remain a people robbed of their traditional lands, or abused by racist sport fans, or enduring appalling Third World living standards on the margins of a First World nation. This is far, far too simplistic. While he can identify through whatever aspects of the past he chooses to, Grant’s distortions of the recent history of indigenous affairs, and overlooking of the real causes of present-day, persistent indigenous disadvantage, plus lack of discussion of relevant policy issues, cannot pass without comment.
Like too many indigenous leaders, still, it seems that Grant prefers to talk about identity and history because elaborating on these themes sustains the fiction that white racism is still the major factor in black suffering today. Hence his book plays the guilt card to assert that the lowly socio-economic position of a large number of under-privileged indigenous Australians reflects the continuing national failure to address historic wrongs. Not surprisingly, Grant thinks that Paul Keating’s 1992 “Redfern Park Speech” was the high-water mark of political efforts to achieve reconciliation because the then prime minister acknowledged the sins of colonisation, accepted the blame for what “we”, the nation, had done by murdering and stealing Aborigines, and acknowledged that what he called “our ignorance and prejudice” were responsible for the problems plaguing a significant proportion of the indigenous population. Hence Grant also fully endorses Keating’s more recent statement that Australia cannot be a great nation until “we have resolved the original grievances” and “found solutions to the problems that beset the First Australians”. Yet the reality is that the original grievances are hardly the true cause of entrenched indigenous disadvantage, let alone the unfinished and unaddressed national business Grant insists they are.
Grant’s claim that indigenous disadvantage can be explained by linking present-day indigenous misery to a chain of causation starting with the racist invasion of Australia by the First Fleet requires closest scrutiny. Problems arise with this interpretation because it misleads as to the real cause, and true history, of the worst indigenous deprivation. What Grant’s less-than-complete account of the national story of the relationship between black and white in this country has failed to comprehend is the vital truth and lesson of the last forty years of indigenous policy. The worst outcomes experienced by indigenous people have sprung from the best of intentions, and can be directly attributed to well-meaning efforts to address the historic wrongs of racism, dispossession and oppression by implementing the misguided separatist polices of Aboriginal self-determination.
History and policy
The central message of Grant’s book, stated and restated in many places, is that Aboriginal Australians have a different identity from other Australians, and experience different outcomes in life, because of the legacies of the past—because the history of imperial dispossession, colonial oppression and destruction of Aboriginal culture rests heavily still on the status and condition of indigenous people in modern Australia.
We learn all this immediately in the opening paragraphs. Grant says he is “angry”—angry about the “things that kill, that spread disease and madness … that drive people to suicide, that put us in prisons and steal our sight”—and that the anger “comes from the weight of history”. What follows in the opening section, and is then developed throughout the subsequent nine parts of the book, is an attempt to bring past and present together to explain the deep historical roots of problems besetting indigenous Australians.
Understanding the past in order to explain the present is necessary, we are told, because: “Our lives are pages of a history still unwritten, a story of a place and its people; the sins and triumphs and how all it has formed us.” All this history is a “living thing” because it constitutes the “darkest parts of this country” which has tethered “black and white” Australians together, and which must be accounted for “so we can learn who we are, and see ourselves as if for the first time”. This is necessary because “the past is alive” and “we are trapped in this history, all of us, and if we don’t understand it we will remain chained to it”.
What unfolds from these auspicious explanatory ambitions, however, is neither novel nor revelatory. The story Grant relates will be familiar to most readers. It is the tragic story of violence on the frontier between settlers and Aborigines—a tale of murder, retribution and extermination, and of the brutal severing of the connection between Aboriginal people and their traditional country.
What Grant demands of readers is that we accept that his retelling of the history of Aboriginal Australia is somehow breaking a silence. Unfathomable, therefore, are his claims that “Australians know so little about … what has happened here in their name” and that black and white Australians continue to “tell ourselves very different stories” about whether Australia is a “great country of good people”. The import of this, according to Grant, is that:
Being good and great does not absolve you from a terrible sin and pain inflicted on a people who did nothing to deserve it. Remember that: the first people of this land who have suffered for your greatness did nothing to deserve it. A truly great country—if we truly believe that—should be held to great account.
Grant maintains the nation is yet to be held properly to account for its historic crimes and injustices against indigenous peoples, and is yet to reconcile the shared history of black and white Australians. Does Grant really think he is the first to speak out on this? Has he never heard of the reconciliation movement? Doesn’t he realise, most importantly, that much has been tried along exactly these lines—and has failed to much help indigenous people. Not only have the truths of our history long been owned up to, but so also have earnest and extended efforts been undertaken to account for the historical record. Grant, however, writes, “You can turn away from our plight, but while you do your anthem will forever ring hollow. And I don’t believe that is who you are.” This is more than just questionable rhetoric—it is factually dubious. Of course this is not who “we” are. How many barrels of ink have been spilt, how much mental and emotional energy has been invested, and how many multi-billions of dollars have been spent on the quest to deliver justice to indigenous Australians?
This false reading of mainstream attitudes and understanding of Australia’s indigenous history is the major misconception at the heart of Talking to My Country. Grant writes that “Australia still can’t decide whether we were settled or invaded.” This is accurate perhaps in relation to the annual ritual that is the agonising associated with Australia Day and whether the national day should be moved to another date to promote inclusion. But for the purposes of national policy, the realities of colonial history have been admitted since the 1970s, and the operating principle of indigenous policy has been to try make amends. The history of dispossession does, as Grant says, still cast a shadow over indigenous lives, but not for the reasons he states. The real issue isn’t that the historic legacies of the past have gone unaddressed; it is actually what has gone wrong with the long-running and well-meaning efforts that have been made to address those historical legacies.
What is missing from Grant’s account is an awareness of how and why the great silence officially ended in the 1970s. What is remarkable in retrospect is how quickly the silence was broken when challenged by the rise of the Aboriginal rights movement, and how rapidly the historical grievances on which the movement campaigned were addressed by government policy. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the lawns of Parliament House in 1972; within four years the Land Rights Act had passed inside the parliament. In the same period, the original sins of Australia’s founding were acknowledged when they formed the basis of the policy of Aboriginal self-determination, which was specifically intended to right the wrongs of history by allowing Aborigines to return to live traditional lives “on country”. Completely unacknowledged by Grant is the chief means by which the nation has tried to make up for past sins by, in effect, making a concerted national effort to turn back the clock and “fix” history.
Grant’s evident lack of understanding of the aims and objectives of indigenous policy is linked to the gaping holes in his account of contemporary indigenous disadvantage; problems he attributes to a national failure to account for historical sins. The disastrous event that has caused the greatest suffering for indigenous people has been the implementation of the policy of Aboriginal self-determination to address the legacies of racism, imperialism and colonialism. The dysfunction that blights indigenous communities is not due to the nation having done too little to address history’s sins, but to having done too much—or rather, having done it in a way that has ultimately condemned too many indigenous Australians to nasty, brutal and short lives.
Grant does not see it that way—the lack of focus on the role of indigenous policy in a book ostensibly discussing indigenous disadvantage is astonishing. Instead he writes, as a means of attributing indigenous poverty to the original sins of colonisation, “Without land we have no inheritance. People with no land are poor.” This is profoundly untrue. As has been observed by the anthropologist Peter Sutton, who is another brutally honest revisionist in the Pearson mould, Aboriginal self-determination has meant the poorest indigenous Australians, who live in the homeland communities with the worst problems, are those who have continued to live closest to a traditional manner and on their traditional country. They are literally land-rich and dirt-poor. The richest indigenous Australians, like Grant himself, might not own their ancestors’ country (as Grant laments in his own case), but they are healthy, wealthy and wise because they have seized the opportunities of education and employment in mainstream Australian society. They have escaped what the most unflinching revisionist of all, Gary Johns, has called the “dream” of self-determination—a dream that long ago turned into a nightmare.
Australian dream denied?
So what answers do we instead get from Grant regarding the nature and causes of indigenous disadvantage? According to Grant, too many indigenous Australians are denied the opportunity to participate in the Australian dream of freedom, prosperity and the fair go because of the legacies of history and racism:
The migrant story is often hailed as the great example of Australian opportunity; how people can come here from foreign lands carrying nothing and build successful lives. They are praised for their hard work and sacrifice. Well, my people worked hard and sacrificed too but were still too often denied the Australian dream.
In another passage, Grant writes:
I was aware always that we were marked by something more than poverty; that no amount of hard work, honesty or decency would untether us from our destiny. We lived in Australia and Australia was for other people … they could grasp the dream—the Australian dream—to raise themselves up and through it all they would be Australians. Even migrants came here as “new Australians”, tested and taunted yes, but in a generation: Australians. But not us; Australia we were told was settled and so was our fate.
This assessment of Aboriginal exclusion from the Australian dream certainly reflects the prejudiced times of Grant’s childhood. So too does this statement: “Australia was hard on us. We came from a long line of people who had been battered. These people found themselves outside the grand sweep of this country’s progress. We were black and Australia was white.” Yet this statement does not serve, as it should serve, as the basis for a positive story of greater opportunities for Aboriginal Australians, as greater racial tolerance and understanding have developed throughout Australian society in the period since. It seems we are meant to believe that Australian life is frozen in time and there has been no change in attitudes to race and Aborigines since the 1960s.
Grant is aware that his personal success and status, together with the similar success and status of other indigenous Australians in many fields, make it appear that it is indeed possible for Aborigines to participate now in the Australian dream. But his focus isn’t on explaining the expanding opportunities enjoyed by indigenous people but rather on the role he claims that history—a “frontier marked with violence, disease and death”—continues to play in denying the dream to Aborigines. The Australian dream, he writes, might be true for many Australians, and for many migrants, but not for him and other Aborigines:
Here is how we—Indigenous people—see the Australian dream: here’s the worst of it. Aborigines rounded up and shot; babies buried in the sand and decapitated, women raped, men killed as they hid in the forks of trees, waterholes poisoned, flour laced with arsenic. The Australian dream abandoned us to rot on government missions, tore apart families, condemned us to poverty. There was no place for us in this modern country and everything we have won has come from dissent, it has been torn from the reluctant grasp of a nation that for much of its history hoped that we would disappear.
We know this history, my people. This is a living thing. We touch it and we wear it. It is written in the scars on the bodies of men like my father. It is carried deep within us, mental wounds that cannot heal. It is so close we can touch it.
“History” denies indigenous people their share of the dream, we are told later in absolute terms, because:
Racism isn’t killing the Australian dream. The Australian dream was founded on racism. From the first time a British flag was planted in this soil, the rules have been different for us. A convict could come in chains and die free, a rich man. But British law condemned us to a longer sentence.
To try to demonstrate how persistent racism explains indigenous communities’ downward spiral into persistent dysfunction, disadvantage and despair, Grant tells a story from the 1970s. His high school principal urged him and his fellow Aboriginal students to leave school and get a job rather than stay on and try for university. The school was close to the Aboriginal mission near where the Grant family was then living on their traditional country. The caste-based assumption behind the principal’s advice was that there was no place for higher-educated Aborigines. Here, indeed, was an echo of the old paternalism and bigotry of low expectations that once routinely applied to Aborigines, which can be properly labelled racial prejudice. Yet Grant also tells us that attitudes were in flux at that time: the government was sending Aboriginal families a cheque each term for books and uniforms to help keep kids in school, and Aboriginal students were also receiving $3 a week to encourage them to keep studying.
But for Grant this story is more than an example of the old attitudes clashing with the new attitudes. The supposed moral of the story is that “the shades of the prison house had not yet fallen over our lives, but it was looming” because the incident is typical of the way Australian racism denies Aborigines the opportunity to get educated and get their foot on the ladder of the Australian dream. The story supposedly proves that the same “entrenched racism” that Aborigines had experienced for the best part of 200 years was alive and well; for the racist principal “was handcuffing us to our history, reminding us that if we did have a place in Australia it would be on the margins”. This, according to Grant, was an example of the racism “which poisons our souls and kills us as sure as the waterholes poisoned on the frontier killed our ancestors”.
This hyperbole collapses the past with the present in a manner that prevents clear analysis of indigenous disadvantage. Racism is the only explanation the book offers for the violence, abuse, grog, drugs, disease, mental illness and death that blight indigenous communities because, we are told, “this is what Australia can do to black lives”. Grant writes of the Aboriginal boy with scabies sniffing petrol, of the Aboriginal woman in jail along with her son, and of the Aboriginal girl trying to read in her bedroom while a riot occurs outside in the community. We are also told of his visit to the notoriously dysfunctional Northern Territory community of Mutitjulu, and of having seen “better, more functional refugee camps in war zones”. We are further told that Aborigines have the lowest life expectancy, highest infant mortality, highest imprisonment, highest unemployment, and worst health, education and housing. But what we don’t hear are the reasons for all of this suffering other than “racism”, which is interchangeable with “history” as an explanation: the only explanation is that “This is what Australia has created” and “My people inherited the loss of our country. It has proven as incurable and potentially lethal as any cancer.”
The over-emphasis on racism and history is underscored by total silence on the impact of self-determination. The book contains minimal references to policy matters. As a throwaway line, Grant writes that Aboriginal communities will continue to fail so long as they have no “economic base”, without giving any proper consideration of the reasons why there is no real economy in these communities nor of the enormity of the task of promoting economic development. Finally, in Part 8, there is a mention of “poor government policies” but only to incorrectly assert that the succeeding policy eras of paternalism, assimilation and self-determination have all perpetuated the same old problems by failing to “empower” indigenous communities. Blaming poor outcomes for Aboriginal people on lack of community empowerment is a familiar dodge (and power and funding grab) straight out of the playbook of the Aboriginal industry. There is none of Noel Pearson’s pondering of the deeper causes of the malaise in indigenous Australia.
Aboriginal progress and victimology
Instead, we get pages and pages—and pages—of discussion of the significance of the booing of Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes by AFL fans during matches in the 2015 season, which is offered in support of the thesis that “the Australian dream was founded on racism”. In this long analysis of the “legacy of Australian racism rearing its head again” we are supposedly meant to see the proof that Australia, despite all the healing language of reconciliation and apologies, “was still fighting old battles. Still bound in old attitudes. Still harbouring a deep, festering racism.” But where is the discussion of the policy-focused work of Pearson, Sutton and Johns on the problems in the homelands? Where is the discussion of the work of our great historian John Hirst and of our great economist Helen Hughes on the flawed separatist experiments that have set back Aboriginal advancement? Where is the discussion of the views of Aboriginal Australians who have challenged the ideology of self-determination such as, among others, Bess Price, Anthony Dillon and Kerryn Pholi? And where, most glaringly of all, is the discussion of the most vital subject: the future of the homeland communities, and whether governments should continue to fund services to prop up failing social and political experiments on communally-owned Aboriginal land that have condemned generations of indigenous Australians to abject poverty? Grant is silent on all these questions.
Another rare mention of policy in the book is remarkable for the total confusion Grant displays in discussing Aboriginal self-determination:
By the 1970s self-determination became the buzzword for Federal Government policy for Aborigines. Gough Whitlam had established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. There were programs to try to keep kids in school, create employment and promote home ownership. This was an attempt to level the playing field, create pathways for Aboriginal families to merge more successfully with what we were told was “mainstream Australia”.
This is a complete misreading of self-determination—of what it meant when it was established in the 1970s, and of what it has meant in practice for the Aboriginal people subjected to it. Worse, Grant conflates his own family experience with his erroneous definition of self-determination. His parents applied for an Aboriginal housing loan, worked extra shifts and jobs to save a deposit, and were finally able to settle and buy a house in Canberra. By these heroic efforts his parents established the base camp from which Grant would scale the heights of the Australian dream, and achieve what those subjected to the real policies of self-determination never could. In his confusion, the significance of this escapes Grant, and he instead laments the lost existence of his “country”—the kind of existence that self-determination has turned into a misery for indigenous people in the homelands.
This is the key issue the book never honestly addresses: why the Australian Dream is a reality for some Aborigines, but not for others. Grant’s success is proof that in modern Australia, Aborigines can seize their opportunities and rise from humble origins on their merits, regardless of race. His story, despite everything he says to deny this, is the classic “migrant story”—and he has achieved genuine self-determination by avoiding “self-determination”. But Grant refuses to see it this way. He is conscious of the apparent anomaly: “I am aware that I may seem as if I have defied history … But we never do; do we?” The obvious answer to this question is, “Yes, we do”, because Grant, and other Aborigines like him, have well and truly outrun the history of Australian racism.
Grant says this is not so: he remains chained to history and can’t defy the past because of his identity. Yet the idea that for him Australia was “settled”—and so was his “fate”—is patently absurd. So too is his claim that the plight of disadvantaged indigenous Australians proves that Australia “can still bring my people to their knees”. Even more absurd is his claim that the booing of Goodes shows that racism and history still shadow Grant and his sons, with the implication being that the same shadow is cast across all indigenous people regardless of their widely diverging socio-economic circumstances. The booing supposedly showed that the “crippling poverty and death of our people hangs over their lives and mine” which prompted Grant to tell his sons that “they live in a world where we have not made the rules so we need to be better at playing the game”.
Grant is free to assert this kind of politicised Aboriginal identity if he wishes, regardless of how much his playing of the race card rings untrue on his own behalf by referring to the “daunting, sometimes insurmountable challenge of finding our place in a white world that we know can so easily and brutally reject us”. However, the assertion by Grant that despite all his success, he remains a victim of racism, might well be perceived as treading perilously close to indulging in victimology. He says his journey “has taken me far from the dark roads of poverty and fear” but that “I will forever be a boy suspended in time; a world back there.” In reality, by all objective tests, the chains of history impeding the social and economic progress of Aborigines have well and truly fallen from the wrists of urban-living, educated and employed Aborigines like Grant who, as the official statistics show, enjoy much the same outcomes in life as their non-indigenous peers.
The revisionary and the reactionary
The truth about contemporary indigenous disadvantage is not so black-and-white as Grant makes it out to be. The nation has changed dramatically and for the better over the last forty years, and racism is no longer the barrier to the advancement of indigenous Australians it once was. Grant writes that the chaos of the homelands is “The world that Australia prepared for me, and I evaded.” This statement is ahistorical, and it sums up all that is wrong-headed about Grant’s book: Grant has escaped the dysfunctional world that Aboriginal self-determination has made for some indigenous Australians, because he has lived the Australian dream by integrating into and succeeding within mainstream Australian society.
The real barrier to the progress of the most disadvantaged indigenous Australians has been self-exclusion from the Australian dream. By trying to make right the historical wrongs that Grant mistakenly insists remain the root cause of indigenous disadvantage, we have ended up worsening the circumstances of the poorest indigenous people. The Aborigines who are really trapped by history are those who have been trapped by “self-determination”—trapped not by the history of dispossession and exploitation, but rather by the efforts we have made to account for that history.
Because Grant does not understand this, his book does not go anywhere close to appreciating the irony. As John Hirst, that shrewd observer of the nation, commented:
The acute social problem that Australia faces is not the division between Aborigines and settler Australians. It is that many Aborigines in remote Australia live in communities which have appalling records on health, housing, employment, and rates of imprisonment. These are Aboriginal communities: the few settler Australians who live there provide services to them. Decent liberal-minded people worry enormously about this social malaise, but they keep mistaking its cure; they think that the moment of reconciliation which they desperately seek is necessary to fix this problem. In fact their attitudes have been making it worse.
That Grant still maintains that reckoning with history is the way forward for indigenous Australians is worse than ironic, given all we have recently learned about the real causes of the worst indigenous suffering. That Grant has chosen to ignore the lessons of the work of Noel Pearson and other revisionists, and has opted to regurgitate the stale and failed political agenda of the 1970s Aboriginal rights movement, makes Talking to My Country a deeply reactionary contribution to the literature on indigenous affairs. It therefore adds little that is either new or of value to national debate about how to overcome indigenous disadvantage and close the gap.
Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. He dedicates this article to John Hirst, 1942–2016.