The Philistine

A Genuine Indigenous Voice. Scores, Actually

It’s not just your ABC. Smithsonian magazine, the flagship publication of America’s Smithsonian Institution, recently ran this headline: “Captain Cook and His Crew Stole These Spears. Centuries Later, They’re Finally Back in Sydney”. As the respected museum’s indigenous affairs correspondent explains:

When British explorer James Cook and the crew of his H.M.B. Endeavour first landed in southeastern Australia in 1770, they stole 40 spears from the region’s Gweagal people. It was the opening salvo of Britain’s brutal colonization of the continent, and for the next 250 years, some of the spoils of the expedition remained housed at the University of Cambridge in England, more than 10,000 miles away from Australia. Earlier this month, three of the four surviving spears finally returned home—at least temporarily. In a move hailed as a historic reunion, the weapons are being displayed next to 37 contemporary Indigenous spears at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum.

Sometimes this column just writes itself.

The Philistine appears in every Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

Back in Australia, actual Gweagal people seem more relaxed about Speargate than are their international champions. The chairwoman of the local La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council frankly acknowledged that “had these spears not been collected and taken to the UK, they likely wouldn’t exist today”. She would ultimately like to see the spears (and other first-contact artefacts) displayed “on country”, but understands that this would first require the building of an appropriate exhibition space. The Gujaga Foundation, a cultural association led by members of the La Perouse Aboriginal community, is similarly pragmatic. Its chairman agreed that if the spears hadn’t been “held in a museum-grade facility, we wouldn’t be able to look at them today”. He added that the Foundation would be “happy to send them back and then start to have those conversations around when they’re to come back here on a longer term basis”.

Surely there’s a deal here just waiting to be discovered. The La Perouse community could exchange thirty-seven new spears for two of the old ones. Cambridge apparently held one spear back for safe keeping, so sending one back and splitting the difference would tie the score at Gweagal 2, England 2. What possible advantage could the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology gain from having four spears instead of two? Just think of all the virtue that would be signalled by a return. Good press never came so cheap. As for the future, the chairwoman of the La Perouse Land Council wants people to know that Gweagal spear-making “is a continuing practice, that there are still spear-makers in our community”. That raises the prospect of a new arms export industry for Sydney’s south, with Aboriginal entrepreneurs hand-crafting spears for the Cambridge museum gift shop, where they would doubtless fetch a premium price. La Perouse: if you’re listening, the idea is yours for the taking. Quadrant promises not to ask for it back for at least 250 years.

No one shows so much good sense on Aboriginal issues as do actual Aboriginal Australians. And not only on Aboriginal issues. Before the plague, Sydney needed a second cruise ship terminal to accommodate the booming tourist trade. The Commonwealth plans to put it in Yarra Bay, affording arriving passengers stunning views of the airport, the container terminal and La Perouse from the top deck of their sixteen-storey mobile pleasure palaces. Wary of having their home country turned into a transport hub for the fifty to seventy buses that would meet every ship, the La Perouse Land Council very sensibly thought that tourists might prefer to arrive with a view of the Harbour Bridge and disembark directly into the cafe culture of Potts Point. Selflessly offering to forgo the prospect of corralling cashed-up cruise passengers into an on-country spear museum, the council opted for historic preservation over commercial gain. With Clover Moore, real estate developers, and sheer logic on their side (a rare coalition indeed), there was only one problem: the Navy.

The Royal Navy has been based at Garden Island since before it acquired “Australian” as a middle name, and it plans to stay long after it drops “Royal” as its first. Its officers own apartments all over Potts Point, their dress uniforms adding a continental grandeur to the sophisticated boulevard of Macleay Street on their early morning walks to work. Its enlisted personnel enjoy subsidised housing in one of the most expensive suburbs in the world, with glorious Harbour views—and on-site parking. Kings Cross nightclubs are conveniently within staggering distance, and the annual Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras fills the streets with rainbows. Potts Point is one of the few places left in inner Sydney where people still love a man in a uniform. Garden Island may be a thousand miles south of any conceivable maritime threat to Australia, but it’s conveniently close to the action.

A posting to Potts Point sure beats being sent to the gulag archipelago of Australia’s top end, and the Navy (motto: To fight and win at sea) is accordingly loath to leave its Sydney home. Thus it maintains a major military-industrial operation squat in the middle of a tourist harbour full of sailboats, party boats, ferries, and (yes) cruise ships. Safety first. That’s actually what the Navy said when approached about the possibility of sharing Garden Island with a new cruise terminal. The idea that they might move to Gladstone or Townsville instead never crossed their minds. Actual fighting navies have long since abandoned historic city-centre bases for far-flung industrial harbours with expansive security perimeters. Not the RAN. It has a parade to march in. Not that it does much marching these days. In 2021, it traded dress uniforms for “white or purple T-shirts” and went with “walking and waving instead of marching”. Nonetheless, the RAN was proud that “the hours of practice we all put in showed, with unbelievable coordination in presenting symbolic rainbow wreaths”. Fight and win!

 

SYDNEY may be a global city, but the great thing about New South Wales’s 120 local Aboriginal land councils is that they’re local. They’re also Aboriginal, which is more than you can say for many indigenous advocates. Last year, the Darkinjung Land Council referred the University of Sydney to the Independent Commission Against Corruption over its failure to check the credentials of its self-identified indigenous academics. The council argued that the university’s indigenous set-asides should go instead to “legitimate Aboriginal people who have experienced dispossession and disadvantage due to racism, not for people who have not experienced these and who have generally lived a life of advantage and wealth”. Unlike New South Wales universities, New South Wales land councils have a strict statutory test for indigeneity: prospective members not only have to identify as indigenous, but also document their descent. They have to live on country, or own property there, or otherwise maintain strong enough connections to be accepted by the people who do. Sorry, Bruce.

New South Wales may not have an indigenous voice to parliament, but in the land councils it has 120 independent indigenous voices to parliament. Free from government funding (and government control), Aboriginal land councils maintain their own membership rolls, and you have to show up to meetings in order to keep your vote. The government provided seed funding and mandates that the councils operate democratically; otherwise, it’s hands-off, and the land councils have been self-supporting since 1998. They raise their own money and set their own priorities. Most are more concerned about improving the lives of their members than with political posturing, virtue signalling, or finding plush government jobs in Canberra. Free from postcolonial preconceptions, the La Perouse Land Council’s headline cultural project is restoring a historic church. A Christian church.

Australia is a democratic country, and indigenous Australians should have a voice in it. In New South Wales, they already do. Like the union voice, the Catholic voice, the Jewish voice, the Muslim voice, the business voice, the doctors’ voice, the LGBT+ voice, and all the other voices, the New South Wales indigenous voice operates through formal, transparent, democratically-constituted membership organisations. In many ways, the indigenous voice is better-governed than any of the others; it truly represents the organised will of its constituents. In Canberra, legions of indigenous rights activists claim to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, on the theory that they can’t speak for themselves. That’s the theory on which communists claim to speak for world’s workers, and the Greens claim to speak for the Earth itself. It’s a theory that has no place in a democratic constitution. It smacks of Victoria, or worse, New Zealand. If Australia wants to keep its democracy democratic, it should listen to its many indigenous voices, not drown them in an Indigenous Voice.

13 comments
  • restt

    The land councils are not self supporting. They have made over 40,000 land claims on crown land since I risk funding … they progressively secure more and more land … they receive yearly government grants all on the basis of compensation fo dispossession.

    Mabo 2 decision by the High court is that there was no compensation due. They have collectively assets from the public exceeding $2 billion and expected to grow to $7 billion as claims are agreed.

    This a supposedly a Special Measure legislation to lift a race … but they sit on a huge property portfolio and cash reserves that could be used to radically change outcomes.

  • Michael

    Quite right, Salvatore, the idea that people can’t speak for themselves is an anathema in a democracy. And I loved your line, “If Australia wants to keep its democracy democratic, it should listen to its many indigenous voices, not drown them in an Indigenous Voice”.

  • Geoff Sherrington

    Salvatore, we differ.
    Whereas the various groups that you mention, “union voice, the Catholic voice, the Jewish voice, the Muslim voice, the business voice, the doctors’ voice, the LGBT+ voice, and all the other voices” the aboriginal voice is different because it is not voluntary. Under present rules, (Pascoe excepted) one cannot join the voice or leave it easily, if at all. I risk being too simplistic by writing that one can change a selected religion at will, but not a skin color. It is skin colour that is causing and has long caused a great deal of discontent in the USA, for example, under the heading of “racism”. Never mind that we are by definition all of one race, then think of how greater social harmony can be achieved. It is certainly not, IMO, by making laws and regulations based on “race” or in this case aboriginality.
    I have been around for long enough and have been involved for years in the wish for greater social harmony. There is very little under the sun that has not been tried w.r.t aboriginality. Nothing has had any success to skite about. That is a likely prognosis except for one future policy, being the one that leaves the concept alone and vacates the field of trying to invent and instigate the next new idea. Nobody wishes any social group to be disadvantaged, yet successions of do-gooders have failed all attempts to fix this aboriginality problem. There is no bad feeling on my part to suggest that the best, most kind approach is to forget the defined differences and simply treat all people as equal. It has not yet been tried. Geoff S

  • cbattle1

    Saying that Cook’s party “stole” the spears is a defamatory slur and an example of Anglophobic racism. As the Journals of the shore party reveal, the spears were taken as a precaution against any further hostilities occurring, following the initial confrontaion at the shore. Any lethal confrontation would end badly for the natives, the British having superior fire-power; the taking of those spears therefore was a humane act. Interestlingly, 18 years later, when the First Fleet Arrived at Botany Bay, relations were very cordial between the locals and the newcomers, but no complaints of stolen spears or demands for their return were expressed! Perhaps they were a completely different people that had no knowledge of what had occurred there 18 years before?

  • DougD

    cbattle1 “Perhaps they were a completely different people that had no knowledge of what had occurred there 18 years before?” That’s not at all impossible given how fragmented the First Nations were. This is illustrated by the experience of Bennelong of the Wangal people, well-known to Captain Arthur Phillip: Bennelong went into Parramatta in 1789 but he did not understand the language spoken there. Parramatta is close to the country of the Wangal people which was around the present Sydney suburb of Strathfield – now only 14 kilometres away along the M1 highway.

  • rosross

    And what would be the average percentage of Aboriginal ancestry in those who are on such Land Councils? I suspect that finding a 50 percenter would be hard if not impossible and most would be less than 10%.

    How can anyone alive today, some 10 generations on, be suffering because the British arrived in 1788?

    Because Australia is a democracy those with Aboriginal ancestry have a voice and have always had a voice – it is called the vote.

    Catholics, Muslims, Jews, do not have an additional or separate voice or extra vote and neither do Unions. Neither are any of them singled out in the Constitution.

    You are making comparisons which simply do not apply.

  • rosross

    “If Australia wants to keep its democracy democratic, it should listen to its many indigenous voices, not drown them in an Indigenous Voice”.

    Since Aboriginal peoples in 1788 could not and did not speak with one voice or even share a common language, which is why no Treaty was ever made, the concept of one voice is delusional. We would need 350-500 voices to cover the tribal groups here when the British arrived and with more than two centuries of intermarriage we would need thousands of voices today to represent all of this truly tiny group of Australians – roughly 700,000 out of 26 million and most of them so minimally Aboriginal in ancestry they could not register as such in any other country on the planet and any ‘Aboriginal’ voice they might have would be a whisper.

    We are a democracy and our voice is our vote. End of story.

  • ianl

    I leave the issue of Aboriginal interaction alone – there is no resolution with the activists that I have ever seen with anything longer than fleeting implementation. I have experienced sensible negotiations with a Local Land Council, though.

    That of the RAN at Garden Island, however … subsidised housing with off-street parking in Potts Point, yet no space will be yielded for another terminal ?

  • Farnswort

    rosross: “Since Aboriginal peoples in 1788 could not and did not speak with one voice or even share a common language, which is why no Treaty was ever made, the concept of one voice is delusional.”

    Indeed, before the British arrived, there were 500 to 600 different tribes scattered across the continent speaking different languages. They did not have a common name or share an identity; they regarded each other as enemies and often fought each other. They also did not form political units with which the early British settlers could readily negotiate. Different figures came and went. Early governors found a lack of local authority figures who had the ability to represent the local tribes or enter into any sort of binding land agreement.

  • Farnswort

    cbattle1: “Saying that Cook’s party “stole” the spears is a defamatory slur and an example of Anglophobic racism. As the Journals of the shore party reveal, the spears were taken as a precaution against any further hostilities occurring, following the initial confrontaion at the shore. Any lethal confrontation would end badly for the natives, the British having superior fire-power; the taking of those spears therefore was a humane act.”

    Yes, Cook sought to cultivate respectful and cordial relations with the Aboriginal people he encountered and seemed genuinely fascinated by them – a point made in Geoffrey Blainey’s brilliant book “Captain Cook’s Epic Voyage”.

    Cook was a giant – those maliciously smearing him are sad, twisted people.

  • Peter Marriott

    The only self support the land councils would get into would be the same tired old stuff, the same sort of tired old dot paintings and endless copying of past painters of inland ghost gums etc. plus the silly artifact business and things in that vein. There is no genuine work activity ; where are the aboriginal mechanic’s and electricians in the towns , construction workers, fitters and turners, taxi drivers, doctors, lawyers, engineers , teachers, cafe operators, newsagents, service station operators, check out girls, all the normal jobs in life. There could be if only they did what everyone else does, simply goes out into the world and earns a living and uses their own money to buy a house etc. and then give some of their own hard earned money to their own people if they want to, those sitting around doing nothing but causing big mobs of trouble wherever they happen to be. The only sort of thing they do seem to get into is playing rugby league and aussie rules, outside the normal working life stream, for huge amounts of money and developing an even bigger chip on their shoulder as far as I can tell.
    Of course there are some who have quietly disappeared into main stream life and get on with it, but we never seem to hear of them and if we do it’s in a disparaging way….from other aborigines.
    I only have one voice in parliament, if you could call it that…..my elected representative. The same representative we all have, including the so called ‘aborigines’ and they definitely do not need any more than me, because it will only lead to more trouble, big mobs more trouble.
    In my opinion of course !

  • rosross

    @Farnswort,

    Yes, from my reading not only was the lack of a common language and often lack of a common language source a problem, but Aboriginal tribal/social structures were not developed enough to allow even where communication was possible, for someone to be appointed to negotiate a Treaty in ways for instance, the Maoris and American Indian tribes could.

    What complicated things even more is that many of the Aboriginal groups were no more than family clans, which came under a tribal ‘umbrella’ in some instances and in others not. One presumes a major instance was suitable females for marriage since within the groups the little girls were given to the old men of the tribe who ran things, thereby creating a shortfall for the young men. Although with so many reports of kidnap, rape and force used to ‘gain’ a wife no doubt there were a variety of mechanisms.

    The ‘number’ guess ranges from 350 to 600 different Aboriginal groups, descended from different waves of migration and colonisation, mostly at war with each other, but it would seem that in Australia the British would have needed 350-600 different Treaties which was just unworkable.

  • Farnswort

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.