The Incivility of Marcia Langton: Two

[Part One of "The Incivility of Marcia Langton is here…]

Old Hatreds Sustained

Langton may have learned something from Bob Hawke and Paul Keating: often, when they pursued policies detested by many on the ALP Left, they launched especially vitriolic attacks on the Coalition, as an assurance that they were still loyal to socialist principles.

Typical of Langton’s venom is a chapter entitled “Indigenous Affairs” in Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia, edited by Robert Manne. Examples from its fourteen pages include:

The “Apology” was a national acknowledgement of the wrong and harm done by previous governments to an entire race on the grounds of race-hate …

The Commissioners [of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission] found that the race-based child-removal policies were a special instance of genocide under the definition in the convention. This is crystal clear, for instance in Western Australia, where the instructions and justifications were aimed at eliminating the entire race …

 … the race-hatred wielded with callous deliberation and deviousness by Howard’s regime …

It is the failure of all within the Australian governments which we have to understand is at least partly responsible along with history for this terrible situation. Really to blame was the terrible violence inflicted on Aboriginal people by colonial officers, police, missionaries and the general citizenry in an orgy of race-hatred …

Whatever scurrilous nonsense is bandied about by the unsavoury characters who inhabit the murky purgatory between amateur history and fascism that is Australia’s own denialist history school, there can be no doubt that some Australian governments deliberately and knowingly set out to eliminate the “Aboriginal race”. Informed by proto-Nazi eugenicist thought, or put more simply, fruitcake ideas about racial purity and the duty of the white man to destroy the lesser races for the good of the nation, some governments set up breeding programs to ensure that no so-called “full bloods” ever “mated” with “half” or “quarter” castes, and that “part Aboriginal” people “mated” only with lesser “castes”.

 … harm done by previous governments to an entire race on the grounds of race-hate …

 Howard’s regime debilitated our [the indigenous] social and economic capital and the political structures that might have enabled us to participate more effectively …

The denialists will not stop terrorizing the victims, nor does perverting the nation’s history, but Rudd’s leadership has the potential to relegate their falsehoods to the margins of the debate about our past.

Even if it were true, which it is not, that those of us she labels “denialists” had perverted Australian history, Langton ought to have provided evidence for terrors we have supposedly inflicted on indigenous Australians. Her comparison with Nazi racial policy was ludicrous as well as offensive.

the victims of the child-removal policies of earlier Australian governments … had suffered years of abuse and humiliation … first as a result of being taken from their families and second as the targets of Howard’s cheer-squad for White Australia.

Members of the supposed “cheer-squad” included “Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson and their ilk”, said by Langton to have “engaged in abominable highly personal baiting” of, among others, Lowitja O’Donoghue and Professor Michael Dodson, and to have “polluted Australian political debate with a vicious account of the nation’s history”. Others picked out for special treatment were Gary Johns, Louis Nowra, Warren Snowdon, Ian Tuxworth, Shane Stone and Harry Giese.

Langton claimed that Louis Nowra “could very well contend for the ministry. He has all the qualifications: moral vanity, loose reporting, lack of evidence and lack of action.” All of this seems to have been provoked by Nowra’s failure to act when from a hospital bed in Alice Springs he heard two Aboriginal men talking about raping an Aboriginal girl.

Langton mocked Warren Snowdon because he had:

apparently recently discovered after living there [the Northern Territory] for 30 years that there are no high schools for Aboriginal children to attend except in the mining towns and the highway towns. There are no schools. The little schools that exist in the remote communities are basically a one or two room affair. The Aboriginal teachers’ aides are part-time. A teacher might travel around a group of communities once every two weeks dropping off workbooks and pencils. This is the kind of education that these children are receiving.

Langton alleged in the Sydney Morning Herald (February 9, 2008) that former chief ministers of the Northern Territory, Tuxworth and Stone, “contributed more than their fair share of race hate to the community”. Worse still was “The man who signed so many of the orders to remove children, the late Harry Giese … I once stared at Giese from across a room wondering how he could have been so cruel and why he was a kind of demi-god to the Country Liberal Party hard men.”

Presumably after suitable recantations, the still-living Tuxworth and Stone received part-pardons:

they both have thought deeply about their Aboriginal friends and finally, free of the shackles of electoral politics, recanted their petty hatred. They have expressed as genuine an understanding as I can imagine of the damage done to Aboriginal people by the policies of child removal.

Giese, however, died too soon to qualify for a Langton pardon. He had been the longest-serving member of the Legislative Council of the Northern Territory, foundation director of its Welfare Branch, and a Churchill Fellow who made serious studies of policies concerning indigenous groups in Canada and the United States. He headed the Darwin Disaster Welfare Council after Cyclone Tracy, and became the first Northern Territory Ombudsman. He held office in Crisis Line, the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation, the Historical Society of the Northern Territory, the Northern Territory Council for the Ageing and the Marriage Guidance Council. He was a life member of organisations such as the Northern Territory Spastic Association, the Royal Life Saving Society, the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration, and the Marriage Guidance Council. He was held in esteem by many Aboriginal traditional owners and their families. He recognised the need for training and education that would allow Aboriginal people to acquire skills for self-management and self-reliance. The policies of assimilation and integration that Giese pursued, as did Paul Hasluck at Commonwealth level, were thought by many at that time too radical.

Langton described Gary Johns as “another opinion columnist” who “supposedly thought he had the right to write about Aborigines”. Langton believed that Johns had “some qualifications”, but she was “not quite sure what they are, but apparently belonging to the Menzies Research Institute is one of them”. Johns had been “invited by a previous federal Minister for Education to a meeting about Aboriginal education led by community members … his principal recommendation in a public report that he wrote was that Aboriginal children be removed from their families.”

Johns was an ALP Member of the House of Representatives between 1987 and 1996 and served in several governmental portfolios, including Special Minister of State, Assistant Minister for Industrial Relations, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, and Parliamentary Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister. He had wide experience in negotiations between the Commonwealth and the states and the private sector native title regimes, on construction and housing industry reform, and the registration of hazardous chemicals. For the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, he was part of the review of the Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme and the Review of Illegal Workers in Australia, and was a member of the Australian Citizenship Council. Yet Johns, unlike his former cabinet colleague Paul Keating, had apparently no right to comment on Aboriginal affairs.

If Robert Manne exercised some editorial control over Langton’s contribution, one wonders what the passages he eliminated were like.


Langton asked:

Is it so hard to understand how much an apology means to the thousands of Aboriginal people who were removed from their families? What it would mean for me as an Aboriginal person who has consoled and encouraged friends is simply this: I want to be in a relationship with them without the heartbreaking pain of the past 10 years, knowing that there has been a just acknowledgement of the crimes against them. There are no words that could heal the wounds of those people who were taken from their families by the Commonwealth and other Australian governments with no reason other than to deny them their Aboriginal legacy and hence the future of Aboriginal society.

She did not reveal when and where this heartbreaking pain was inflicted during the 1990s and early 2000s which were by then “the last ten years”. She sought, she claimed, “To do justice to the historical facts and speak above the din of the spiteful people who want to cause more suffering to Aboriginal people.” She thought that “The nation would be healed if we could consign this history to our past by admitting that it was wrong to take children from their families in order to prevent Aboriginal ways of life and traditions from continuing.” But what if children were removed for completely different motives?

The campaign for an apology generated much rhetoric. At a 1992 rally in Redfern, Paul Keating declared, supposedly on behalf of all non-indigenous Australians:

it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.

Langton rhapsodised:

‘The Redfern speech was a turning point. It was one of Australia’s greatest speeches. He was the man who modernised the Australian economy. His concepts were always big. I think Paul Keating remains certainly as one of my heroes. He was one of our greatest Prime Ministers. I would say the greatest.’

The Rudd Government

Langton had, initially at least, high hopes of John Howard’s successors. She wrote in New Matilda that

With Howard and his class of haters now on the sidelines, it is finally possible to … rationally and calmly consider the potential benefits that might flow from shortening the funeral “sorry camp” periods of confinement or limiting the impact of traditions such as “house-cursing” … and both respect traditions and provide a path to a safe and secure life

None of the numerous occasions for Aborigines’ absence from work or school resulted from government policies, so it was not clear how they might be affected by changes in government in Canberra.

She regretted that the Rudd government had been persuaded to dispense with some aspects of the Intervention. She scoffed at what she represented as their view: “we can’t do anything about child abuse until we fix the housing or until we heal Aboriginal people of their colonial oppression”. Langton sensibly recommended some devolution of authority, notably an area-based opt-in or opt-out system, under which a community or group of communities with common languages or history could choose from a range of policy settings aimed at encouraging healthy behaviours and discouraging unhealthy and wealth-reducing behaviours.

Langton called upon Kevin Rudd to set up a new federal watchdog to prevent misuse of Commonwealth funding, particularly in the Northern Territory. She condemned the “consultancy class” that was profiting hugely from their rides on the current “hopeless gravy train” with “six-figure salaries derived from Commonwealth grants”. “Labor mates” and members of the Territory bureaucracy were, in her view, very prominent beneficiaries. However, persons likely to be appointed as Rudd’s watchdogs are already members of, or affiliated to, that “consultancy class”. Langton also called on the Commonwealth to grant contracts for Aboriginal housing and school building to “well-run, highly accountable Aboriginal bodies such as local housing associations”. Unfortunately, few such associations exist.

Soon Langton was attacking ALP ministers for, she alleged, taking advice from lobbyists who claimed that allegations of child abuse were a fantasy invented to insult Aboriginal men. She also attacked indigenous leaders such as Michael Dodson who claimed that they opposed the Intervention because they believed it violated human rights. Langton distinguished between two broad camps:

‘those who claim that several measures, particularly compulsory welfare quarantining and five-year leases to the Commonwealth over Aboriginal township areas are ineffective and racially discriminatory, and those [like herself] who … are concerned that drastic measures are necessary to close the gap in the differential life expectancy of indigenous Australians as against the national average.’

Langton’s expanded program included:

Welfare quarantining and income management for child neglect, abuse, failure to send children to school, domestic and other violence, drunkenness, drug and substance abuse.

Penalties for school truancy and incentives for school attendance (such as funding for school-based activities, dormitories, culture camps and swimming pools).

Regular child health checks.

Compulsory reporting of child neglect to a locally based commission, modelled on the Families Responsibilities Commission presently operating successfully in Cape York Peninsula indigenous communities.

Township and living area leasing and titling arrangements held by traditional owners in conjunction with government and private sector housing construction projects.

The replacement of the Community Development Employment Program with job and training subsidies combined with workforce mobility incentives that ensure that the households of working men and women are not disadvantaged by periods of working away from home, such as loss of rental accommodation.

Severe restrictions on access to alcohol, other licit substances such as kava, and pornography.

Criminal penalties for drug and alcohol abuse-related violence, vandalism, theft, improper use of motor vehicles in relation to grog-running and affray.

Paul Hasluck himself would have approved of such a policy.

When Germaine Greer offered her explanation for extreme violence among Aboriginal men, Langton condemned it as a “cleverly disguised but nonetheless racist attack on Aboriginal people”. According to Langton, Greer’s “panoply of protest slogans deployed as social theory was dismissed long ago by the research and policy community as incapable of explaining the present day levels of huge disparities in life expectation, morbidity and mortality rates and other socio-economic indicators”. What a wilful woman Greer must be to have failed to seek permission from Australia’s “research and policy community” before talking or writing about Aboriginal matters.


Marcia Langton has become a prominent role model for indigenous Australians, particularly students and women who wish to engage in academic or political debate. She has shown great energy over the years and there is, in itself, no disgrace in changing one’s mind, but it is bizarre that she should be seen as a champion of “Reconciliation”. Civility in controversy is a virtue that she has displayed only rarely.

On her website Langton states that she “conducts anthropological work to support land claims by Aboriginal peoples, and their negotiations with mining companies and the state” (my emphasis). No nonsense there about academic impartiality or treating with respect opinions contrary to our own.

When we are engaged in highly contested and controversial issues and decide that we no longer hold our former beliefs, we ought to provide an adequate explanation for our change of heart. This was done by Professor Antony Flew, who had been for half a century one of England’s most prominent atheists, but has in his eighties become a deist. Flew gave an account both scholarly and courteous that is itself a significant contribution to a debate that has lasted so far for two and a half thousand years and more. Marcia Langton has to date given insufficient explanation for her radical changes of position, but time is still on her side.

It is easy for me in my eightieth year of life to offer arguments uncongenial to “the research and policy community” of which Langton is a luminary, but very difficult for young people with careers to make. Still, Marcia Langton has changed her mind over the years on several very important issues and it’s never too late to mend. One can nearly, but not quite, forgive her disservice to “Reconciliation” for her tricks with the Big Bunga men. However, whatever may be her positions on various questions she should try to moderate her ad terrorem mode of debate. In particular I very much hope that she is less confrontational in her teaching roles than she is in public controversy.

Geoffrey Partington’s book Hasluck versus Coombs: White Politics and Australia’s Aborigines was published by Quakers Hill Press in 1996.

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