Back to Coombs, or Forward?

Under the McMahon government, and during my time as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the Left took control of Aboriginal policy in Australia. The Great White Elder who drove Aboriginal policy from 1979 until the 1990s (he died in 1997) was Nugget Coombs, whose meteoric career in the public service dated back to Curtin, whose preference for socialism was manifest from his earliest days, and whose distaste for Western civilisation, as capitalism triumphed in the West, became increasingly irrational.

The Left policy of separatism based on self-determination, and from self-determination to Aboriginal sovereignty, was based on the belief that all cultures were equally worthy of respect, except for Western culture which was stained by the indelible taint of imperialism, the oppression of women, the exploitation and oppression of native peoples, the pervasive cruelty of capitalism, and so on.

Once this doctrine had replaced the civilising and assimilating doctrines of Paul Hasluck (and his generation) the work of destroying the authority structures which the missions and the various colonial, state and federal governments had created over the preceding century, proceeded apace.

Following the advent of the Coombsian era, steady educational advancement turned to rapid decline. Land rights legislation, beginning with the Commonwealth’s Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976, began the process of turning Aborigines from ordinary Australians into members of an hereditarily-privileged, racially-based class of rent-seekers, whose lives were to be maintained from the rents obtained from the mining industry, or perhaps the pastoral industry. All of the Land Rights acts gave Aborigines collective rights over access to land for exploration permits and thence to royalties for any mineral discoveries that became commercially viable.    

To make this process more credible the policy made it very difficult for Aborigines to do other than sit on their land, communing with nature and performing the ceremonies which were argued by Coombs and his disciples to be essential to the Aborigines’ spiritual and social well-being.

In the days of hunter-gathering all religious and ceremonial life was connected to food. As soon as food became available, on demand, at the missions or at the government out-stations, all of this ceremonial life lost its meaning.

The authority of the old men, the tribal elders, was maintained because they knew the secret ceremonial formulae which guaranteed successful food supplies. Authority moved from the elders to the missionaries and to the government officers as the new guarantors of freely available food. The elders were as much the beneficiaries of this new arrangement as everyone else, so they did not complain.  

In 1961 I was appointed one of the seven members of the Parliamentary Voting Rights Committee, established by the Commonwealth parliament to decide whether the Aborigines should be eligible for voting in federal elections. We had to go to the really remote communities of Australia, places like Kalumburu in the far north of Western Australia and Hooker Creek on the edge of the Western Desert in the Northern Territory.

We visited thirty-nine separate communities all the way from Cape Leeuwin to Thursday Island. We had with us Hansard reporters, so that we have a full Hansard report of about 500 pages which remains a very useful reference source. The main advantage of our hearings was that we spoke at length to a number of Aborigines who themselves had been hunter-gatherers, or whose parents remembered very well what the life of a hunter-gatherer life was really like, and who realised that Australian civilisation (as it was in the 1960s) offered a life that was far more enjoyable and abundant than the life of hunter-gathering from which they had only recently escaped.

Since Coombs’ ascension to Great White Elder status, Australians have been subjected to a relentless barrage of Rousseauvian fantasy about the lives which the Aborigines lived before European contact. A good example of this propaganda was the use of the ABC of a picture of an Aboriginal girl aged about eight, standing in a lagoon surrounded by rushes with a beaming smile on her very attractive face. This picture was used every time ABC television ran an Aboriginal story, regardless of the relevance of the picture to the story.

Two important accounts of the hunter-gatherers’ life are found in Theodore Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend—arguably the most important book to be written about the impact of the missionaries on the Aborigines in Australia—and in Geoffrey Blainey’s Triumph of the Nomads. Reading these books makes it impossible to take Rousseau and his fantastical description of the Noble Savage, and the Australian followers of Rousseau, seriously.

After visiting all these places and sharing our experiences, the members of the Committee, from both sides of the House, recommended that the Aborigines should have the right, but not the obligation, to vote. The Committee, by unanimous agreement, also stated the following:

“The declared policy of the Commonwealth Government towards the Aboriginal people is that they should gradually be integrated into the European community. Over the past five years the majority of the remaining nomads have of their own volition, come to the settlements and missions scattered throughout the Commonwealth, and your committee considers that there are now fewer than 2,000 Aborigines living in their traditional tribal cultures. As the nomadic Aboriginal adults are moving to the settlements and missions, gradually renouncing their nomadic and semi-nomadic lives, their children attend schools where their integration commences. It was demonstrated to your committee that any policy other than integration of the Aboriginal people into one Australian society would be impracticable.”

In the whole of the 500 pages of evidence that we recorded at those hearings, not once did the terms “land rights”, or “self-determination”, or “separate development” appear. These were all concepts that appeared a decade later, after the Left had seized control of Aboriginal policy at the Commonwealth level. (The 1967 referendum had given the Commonwealth constitutional powers over the states with respect to Aboriginal policy. Previously Commonwealth authority was confined to the Northern Territory. However, Paul Hasluck, as Commonwealth minister, kept up a steady stream of discussion, collaboration and conferences with state ministers and officials.)

The process of escaping from hunter-gathering into Western civilisation had then been going on for nearly a century, and is illustrated with all the failures and successes by the story of Hermannsburg, which began in 1887 with the arrival of the Lutheran missionaries, Pastors Kempe and Schwartz.

The transformation of Coombs the economist and central-banker into the Great White Elder of Aboriginal affairs began under McMahon and continued with greater speed and energy under Whitlam and then Fraser. The missions were dissolved, and the Commonwealth patrol officers were sacked. Under the new regime of self-determination, authority vanished from these places (except for the authority born of violence and intimidation); schooling was no longer important in the lives of the children; sit-down money became the economic engine of these places, and alcoholism, drug-taking, premature death, endemic violence, and horrendous sexual abuse of children became the norm.

The “leaders” who emerged at this time were, predictably, the leaders in violence and intimidation. For example, when the police went into Kalumburu in 2007 as part of the Intervention program, almost every member of the council was indicted for child abuse; they are still awaiting trial.

The Left is wholly responsible for this terrible situation. And the Left is not confined to the left wing of the ALP. Under Fraser, a succession of Liberal ministers—Ian Viner, Fred Chaney and Peter Baume—were completely in accord with Coombsian doctrine and pursued Coombsian policies without any check from the cabinet or the Prime Minister.

When Bob Hawke became Prime Minister in 1983, Clyde Holding, Gerry Hand and then Robert Tickner continued down the same cruel path. Their policies were never contested by the Opposition. Shadow ministers Michael Wooldridge and Chris Gallus competed in the bleeding-heart contest.

Now the fruits of nearly forty years of Coombsian doctrine cannot be denied, and attempts to reverse policy have begun with the Intervention in the Northern Territory initiated by Mal Brough in 2007.

With the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, those people who had devoted their lives to promoting the communist cause in the West never paused to say “sorry”. And in the case of Australia’s Aboriginal policy, those who are responsible have not said “sorry”. Indeed they continue with the shrill demands that the rest of us should say “sorry” and they run a national Sorry Day for that purpose.

Following the Intervention, in the Northern Territory there has been a shift, as Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Marcia Langton have backed the policy change; but in Canberra, Darwin, Broome and Perth there is stubborn resistance to it. A continuing theme is the demand for the preservation of Aboriginal culture, a culture allegedly threatened by the restoration of law and order within Aboriginal communities.

There is an irony here not understood by the Left. What is held up to us as “Aboriginal culture” is, in reality, nothing more than the culture of the concentration camp where brutality and horror are the chief attributes. The dances and corroborees put on for the tourists are manifestations of an ersatz “culture” where anything goes and any story will do. For example, Stephen Davis tells the story of being taken to an Aboriginal community, Corranderrk, near Healesville in Victoria, and listening to what was proudly presented as a traditional wedding song, but which he recognised immediately as a mourning song from Arnhem Land.

Aboriginal culture today is completely phony. Its purpose is to provide a secure pulpit from which preachers such as the Dodson brothers, Fred Chaney, John Sanderson, Peter Yu, and fellow disciples of Coombs from the remoteFOCUS group can berate Australia for not doing more to bring Aborigines into mainstream Australia where they can enjoy the same life expectancy, the same living standards, the same educational and career opportunities as the rest of Australia, but at the same time savagely criticise any attempts by governments to bring about that result.

Their latest attempt to absolve themselves from any blame for what has happened, and to justify the continuance of the rent-seeking culture they have imposed on the Aborigines, is found in the publication Revitalising Remote Australia, the lead author being former West Australian Governor, General John Sanderson.

There are three major themes in this tract, a document characterised by the most alarming ignorance of the economic basis which is necessary for any living town, community or city. The belief that a community can live supported wholly by government subventions, with the only output being dot paintings, is infantile. This extraordinary ignorance permeates the entire document, which is also characterised by a style of writing which is designed to bore the reader into submission.

The first theme is that “Remote Australia” (a new geographic concept invented as a peg on which to hang an argument) is strategically important to Australia because of its mineral wealth. Remote Australia is currently characterised by rising Aboriginal birthrates and declining numbers of white Australians, particularly manifest in the fly-in-fly-out policies of the mining companies.

The second theme is that economic development has stalled, and increasing government subventions will be required to maintain the services necessary to keep the present population intact.

The third theme is the necessity to keep the rents from exploration and mining flowing to Aborigines. As the report euphemistically suggests:

“opportunities for negotiating comprehensive framework agreements based on native title which might encompass multiple claims across a region, adopting a broader perspective on the basis for recognising native title in relation to single claims or particular types of lands, and providing for a wider range of economically usable outcomes.”

The Native Title Acts and the High Court’s Mabo judgment of 1992 were all constructed to create a rentier class of Aboriginal title-holders who would painlessly extract rents from the exploration and mining industries, and at the same time siphon off a continuing stream of fees to their lawyers. The problem with such a rentier class is that the lives of the members becomes pointless and given over to idleness and dissipation.

This is particularly devastating for the young men who were born and grew up in these appalling prison-like places. Men are different from women in many ways but the most crucial difference is that men can find satisfaction and meaning in life by pursuing careers as pirates, brigands, desperadoes, soldiers of fortune, or professional gamblers; or by providing for a family and taking part in economic, family and social life in a community where the role of provider is respected and encouraged.

The Coombsian policies have ensured that two generations of Aboriginal men have grown up not learning to read and write, have not learned any of the skills or habits required to earn a living in mainstream society, and are now committing suicide at an appalling, but not surprising, rate.

A recent article in the West Weekend Magazine (October 11) told the story of Aboriginal suicides in Narrogin, a wheat town two hours drive from Perth, where six young Aboriginal men have recently committed suicide. As Western Australia’s Aborigines drift from the remote communities into the small country towns such as Narrogin, they find that there is nothing there for them to do, and even if there were economic opportunities, they have no skills to offer. Steven Davis, corporate geographer for WMC, was involved in assessing the state of the Aborigines in the Western Musgraves, when WMC had a nickel prospect there. He found that there was not a single Aboriginal male in the region between the ages of twenty-five and forty-five.

Following the publication of Revitalising Remote Australia, a conference, “Australia Unlimited”, enjoying the patronage of the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, was held in Melbourne on October 28 and 29. The Left rolled out their old-time activists and preachers for this occasion: Patrick Dodson, Peter Yu, as well as newcomer John Sanderson who, as reported by the Australian, told the conference: 

“the Federal Government’s Northern Territory intervention had ‘stuck the knife’ into the heart of Aboriginal communities and bold reforms were required to include indigenous Australians in the governance of Western Australia’s northern regions.”

He went on to say:

“There is a whole range of issues at stake in the Kimberley, not the least of which is that the Aboriginals want to be sufficiently empowered where they don’t have to come cap in hand to us and beg us for money … They are sick of begging us for money; the experience of begging us for money hasn’t been very good.

“Aboriginal people had been told stand by your beds, we’re going to do this thing to you, it’s racist, but it’s going to be good for you.

“We’ve stuck the knife so deep into the heart of those communities, it’s going to take us a long, long time to climb out of it.”

John Sanderson and Pat Dodson have convened something called “Australian Dialogue”, which they claim is to move Australia into a post-reconciliation era. Dodson said the dialogue was “really about debunking the assimilationist model”.

“Dodson said he had been motivated in recent years by the question asked by former AFL footballer Michael Long during his quixotic walk towards Canberra in 2004, climaxing in a meeting with John Howard. ‘Where is the love for my people?’ Long asked.

“Mr Dodson said: ‘For him to ask the prime minister, “where is the love for my people?” and not to really get a satisfactory answer, or to get no answer at all, is at the centre of what the problem is: this inability to find love for the indigenous people, to find the space in the hearts of those that have taken over this country to actually love the indigenous people.’

“Mr Dodson said decades of government-leveraged assistance for indigenous people had ‘absolutely failed’ and that, despite a ‘multiplicity of good intentions’ and occasional breakthroughs in the relationship, such as the Mabo and Wik High Court decisions, ‘instead of us maximising, leveraging out of that a new foundation for a better relationship, we revert back to the fear and prejudice’.”

Peter Yu, the chairman of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Board, whose report was rejected by the federal minister, Jenny Macklin, asked whether it was the Australian way to “boot somebody in the guts when they are down”.

Yu said that, although there was serious dysfunction in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and a role for strategic intervention, indigenous people who had made submissions to his review team had consistently asked: “Why are we so repugnant to the rest of the nation … why are we being treated like this?”

After two days of this humbug Warren Mundine had had enough. Stuart Rintoul, reporting in the Australian (October 31), wrote:

“Ridiculing Mr Dodson’s call for Australia to ‘find love for the indigenous people’ Mr Mundine said: ‘They need to get off the 60s love train and get on with the business of getting Aboriginal people jobs and education and the tools for living in the 21st century.

“‘Our people are dying,’ Mr Mundine said angrily. ‘Report after report shows the abuse that is going on towards Aboriginal woman and children and they are living in poverty. There is no point people loving you, if you are living in dirt.’”

This, then, is the shape of the ideological battleground. Mal Brough’s Intervention policy was the first manifestation in nearly forty years that Coombsian doctrine had lost its political authority. The Left of course is desperately trying to restore the status quo ante. Their problem is that they are wholly responsible for the present appalling state of affairs and their defence is to blame it all on the “stolen generation”. This blame shifting is found in full measure in Revitalising Remote Australia.

The only way to the restoration of Aboriginal dignity and self-respect is to unwind the whole Coombsian structure of doctrine and the institutions created to uphold and enforce the doctrine. This began under Howard with the abolition of ATSIC (made possible by Mark Latham’s intervention) and Mal Brough’s response to the Northern Territory government report Little Children are Sacred with his Intervention policy. The Left of course, rightly seeing this as the thin end of a very effective wedge, went into overdrive in attacking Mal Brough and his policy, but the minister distinguished himself in his counter-attack. The Rudd government is under enormous pressure from the Left to reverse course but so far, apart from some important and unfortunate concessions, has more or less held firm.

But if the epidemic of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse is to be brought to an end, the repeal of the Land Rights acts, an end to Aboriginal rent-seeking, and the purposeful induction of the young men into contemporary mainstream Australian life will be necessary. How to achieve this ambition is something which will first require an onslaught on the values, the doctrines and the record of Coombs and the Left.

The symbols of Aboriginal sovereignty such as the Aboriginal flag have to be vigorously attacked and all government subventions for its use brought to an end. The declaration of respect to the traditional Aboriginal owners of, for example, the University of Melbourne, which is now proclaimed at graduation ceremonies and such occasions, has to be abandoned. This form of pseudo-self-abasement is straight out of Luke chapter 18 (“God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men—extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector”) and is nothing more than sanctimonious hypocrisy.

Work is essential to human happiness, particularly for men. Women can have babies, and this the Aboriginal girls are doing with all speed. Peter Costello’s baby bonus brought a significant injection of cash into Aboriginal communities, with appalling consequences. This is one of the causes of the increasing Aboriginal population in “Remote Australia”—mentioned in Revitalising Remote Australia but without comment on its causes, or the consequences of so many babies being delivered of so many girl-mothers.

What the Left has done and seeks to perpetuate for the Aborigines is freedom from the need to work. As this policy has succeeded since the 1970s, degradation, misery and squalor have fallen upon the Aborigines, recalling Joseph Conrad’s awful words in Heart of Darkness: “The horror; the horror.”

Because the Left controls so many opinion-forming institutions—the ABC, the Fairfax media, the non-Catholic churches, the universities—it will not be easy to mount the political campaign required to roll back the Coombsian legacy. But Mal Brough showed how to do it. Andrew Forrest and Warren Mundine have taken up where Mal Brough left off. They need to be given every support. The current shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs, Tony Abbott, is said to have complained at not having enough to do. Here is a task which would take up all his energy, all his intellect and all his faith.

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