The divisive myth that the Australian nation is composed of three population waves – Aboriginal, British, and post-war immigrant – has seduced many, most recently Paul Kelly, who believes it ‘true and inclusive’. We should acknowledge the nation we inhabit today is the product of only one of these social assemblages
Morrison should reference the best recent formulation of Australian identity and history, courtesy of Noel Pearson, who argues the nation embodies three traditions: the first Australians, who roamed this continent for 65,000 years, long before the ages of Babylon, Athens and Rome; the British inheritance dating from the voyages of James Cook, the initial colony at Sydney Cove, the rise of British-derived laws, values and institutions; and the immigrant tradition, the arrival of people from many nations that so enriched the culture and led to a multicultural nation. Pearson’s concept is true and it is inclusive. It should appeal to the entire nation, from conservative to progressive.
—Paul Kelly in The Australian, September 26, 2018, on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call to retain Australia Day on January 26 but also observe a new public holiday to commemorate indigenous people.
There are a number of problems with this proposal from journalist Paul Kelly. For a start, it is wrong to say the concept originated with Noel Pearson; second, it provides a seriously mistaken view of the formation of the Australian nation; and third, it is not hard to show the notion fosters division not inclusion.
Nonetheless, Kelly is right to say the idea should appeal to both conservatives and progressives, since it has already done so for almost twenty years now. John Howard used the same terminology in 1999 when he sought to include in the preamble of the Constitution the words ‘honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people’. I have heard both John Howard and Tony Abbott repeat this terminology several times since then, providing the same ‘Three Waves’ version of what they call the ‘national story’, though without knowing its real origins.
The idea that Aborigines are the nation’s first people is a version of Australian history devised not by Noel Pearson but the left-wing economist Herbert Cole ‘Nugget’ Coombs in 1982. As president of the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, he addressed the National Press Club on Australia Day that year, giving a speech titled ‘The Three Waves and Australian Identity’. Coombs said Australian history was defined by three distinct human migrations: the Aborigines who arrived some 40,000 years ago; the Anglo-Celtic migrants from the British Isles who came in 1788 and thereafter; and the third wave, the more ethnically mixed migrants of the period after the 1939-45 world war.
Coombs did not go to the National Press Club to lecture his audience about Australian demography. His aim was to score moral and political points, and he laid down a narrative that many people have found compelling ever since.
On the one hand, he described the continent when Aborigines dominated it as a paradise where people were in harmony both with nature and one another.
The Aborigines developed a relationship with the land which protected their society from the ravages of territorial conflict … The resulting habitat was capable of perpetual reproduction and enabled mankind to live in harmony with it. Within it Aborigines gained an adequate subsistence from activities themselves both stimulating and satisfying, with ample time for cultural and ceremonial pursuits.
On the other hand, Coombs described the arrival of the British as the ruination of all this bounty:
By contrast, the second wave of Anglo Saxon Celtic invaders, with honourable exceptions, regarded the land primarily as a resource to be exploited. They occupied the land by force, driving off or exterminating the previous residents frequently by the most shameful means. They treated the land itself as if they hated it — laying waste its forests, silting up and polluting its waterways and exhausting its pastures.
For their sins, Coombs prophesied that Australia’s awful Anglos, and the postwar immigrants who imitated their culture, were doomed unless they had a change of heart of biblical proportions, confessed and repented their sins, and purged themselves by apologies and other acts of contrition. Salvation lay in submitting themselves to the love of the land, which the Aborigines had graciously preserved for us:
Those of the second, third and subsequent waves, if they pause to look with unprejudiced eyes on the strange beauty of this land, if they open their hearts to what it offers and what it demands of them — they too will come to share this deep Aboriginal identification with the sacred earth of this continent.
In our Post-Christian age, such religious language and allegory offered both moral and spiritual hope to Australians on the Left who were then abandoning their faith in the once equally hallowed virtues of the working class. Nonetheless, the myth they accepted was historically untrue. I am not talking here about what Coombs says about the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, whose harmony with nature is dubious to say the least, but about what his interpretation says about the Australian nation.
The Coombs myth and the Howard preamble both succumbed to a confusion between the history of the continent, on which Aboriginal people originally set foot more than 50,000 years ago, and the history of the nation, an institution legally created in 1901 and whose origins go back no further than Captain James Cook’s discoveries in 1770. The Aboriginal people were possibly the first people of this continent (there is a current debate among geneticists about who was here between 57,000 and 65,000 years ago) but they were definitely not the first people of this nation. The nation was produced by the federation of the six colonies established on the continent by Britain in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and cemented by the Constitution adopted on 1 January 1901. Its institutional glue was an amalgam of Westminster politics, English rule of law, American federalism, Christian religion, and the almost complete acceptance by the population of the principles of English traditions of liberal democracy and commerce.
The liberalism, democracy and commerce of the Australian nation was completely incompatible with the social structures of traditional Aboriginal society, which was ruled by self-appointed elders instead of democratically elected representatives, and of Aboriginal customary law, which was dedicated to controlling the behaviour of kinship groups of hunter-gatherers rather than the management of a multifaceted society with varied interests and intricate means of production. In short, the political, legal and religious basis of Aboriginal society was incommensurate with the principles and practice that made the Australian nation.
Hence the notion that Aborigines are the nation’s first peoples is unsustainable. To argue this is not to insult or demean the Aboriginal population. They are in exactly the same position as those Australians of Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern and Continental European descent, who don’t find their own ancestral political or legal structures embedded in the nation either, yet who still prize their attachment to Australia and pledge their loyalty to it.
The post-1945 immigrants did not contribute any major reforms that changed the nation in an identifiable way either. Many of them showed, of course, that when put on an equal footing with descendants of the Anglos they were more than a match for them in many occupations and activities. Moreover, the old pre-war Australian society has certainly been changed by international trends and fashions in culture, politics and the law, of which the opening of borders to ethnically diverse immigration has itself been one of the more obvious. But the basic institutions, including the Constitution, have not been changed by immigrants. Instead, the immigrants have been changed by the Australian experience, which was the very reason most of them came here, if not for themselves then for their children. The Three Waves version of Australian history is demonstrably untrue.
But the most important reason to reject this model is because it does not do what Paul Kelly hopes. In Coombs’s hands, and among those who accept a similar version of Australian history, the real people who made the nation — the political and cultural leaders who came together to produce the Australian Constitution in the 1890s — are now regarded as the bad guys because they were all white males, either born in or descended from the people of the British Isles. This is cause for great offence today for just about everyone who takes identity politics seriously enough to see themselves as one of an oppressed minority group. Read the following assertion from someone who has benefited enormously from our constitutional arrangements and the institutions it has generated, the Aboriginal activist, university pro-vice-chancellor, professor of law, land and environment court commissioner, and permanent chair of the UN Council on Indigenous Rights, Megan Davis:
It is well known that the federal Constitution was drafted and adopted by the narrowest section of Australian society. Our ‘founding fathers’ were white, male, Christian, middle-aged and drawn almost exclusively from Australia’s ruling classes. The homogenous underpinnings of the Constitution are, to some extent, hidden from view by the preambular reference to ‘the people’ [which] is remarkable more for those it cast outside of the polity than for those it included. This was and is a preamble tainted with racism, sexism and xenophobia. That is, in determining whether to fuse the separate colonies into a unified federation, women, Indigenous people, Chinese and Kanak labourers were all denied the right to vote and thus excluded from the collective ‘people’.
Davis wrote this in an academic legal journal in 2010 and the article concerned got her appointed to Julia Gillard’s Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition the following year. Yet it is not only an ungracious attack on those who created the arrangements that allowed her to become who she is now, but what it says about the right to vote in the new federation is patently false: Aborigines in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania, and Chinese born in British overseas territories all had an unfettered right to vote in 1901, and Australia gave women the same voting rights as men in 1902, the second country in the world to do so. In other words, none of Davis’s categories were excluded from the collective ‘people’. But her language, moral tone and disdain for historical truth clearly demonstrates the line you should now take if you want to advance your career in academia, the law, and most of the other professions (including much of contemporary journalism) in an era dominated by identity politics, unrelenting grievance, and the false promise of inclusiveness that Nugget Coombs and his ilk have bequeathed us.
Keith Windschuttle is the editor of Quadrant