Editor's Column

White Man’s Dreaming

If there’s any hint of unintended consequences—for example, an untidy debate about who exactly qualifies for the description “indigenous”—then the proposition [for constitutional recognition] will be defeated.
            —former Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, 2012

There was consternation in Tasmania last month when its government was told it could not change the wording of a UNESCO document that declared the state’s wilderness a “World Heritage” area. The document on the wilderness, which has long been a drawcard for green tourists, contains a statement that Tasmania’s Aborigines are now extinct:

With distinctive landforms, outstanding examples of cool temperate rainforests, important aboriginal sites (the Tasmanians are now an ­extinct race of humans), and many endangered species … the area is unique and special at a world scale.

As might be expected, the well-known activist and chair of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Land Council, Michael Mansell, denounced UNESCO for making this statement and for its insensitive refusal to change the words. He was joined by the Tasmanian Minister for Parks and Aboriginal Affairs, Roger Jaensch, who told the Australian that he was “deeply disappointed”, as did the federal Minister for the Environment, Tanya Plibersek, who said: “We now know how wrong, insulting and hurtful it is to say that Tasmanian Aborigines are ‘extinct’.”

Of course, most readers of this story would realise UNESCO was referring to the extinction of the original Tasmanian Aborigines, not their mixed-descent offspring. Many would have been taught in school that the last full-blood Aborigine, Truganini, died in 1876. Yet the issue remains a sensitive one in Tasmania because no one has been able to work out how to distinguish people who are genuinely indigenous, even though only of mixed heritage, from blatantly false claimants.

This is a problem not confined to Tasmania but one that has so far made little impact on the debate over the constitutional recognition of the Voice. These days advocates try to push the issue aside by pointing to the three-part test defined by the Commonwealth government thirty years ago to determine genuine Aborigines. They have to: (i) be of Aboriginal descent, (ii) identify as someone of Aboriginal descent, and (iii) be accepted as such by the community in which they live.

However, Tasmania was the site where this three-part definition was subject to the most exhaustive legal case to determine its efficacy, but which failed to do so. In 1997-98, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre went to the Federal Court to challenge the eligibility of eleven people to vote in elections for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Michael Mansell said there were “more phoney than real Aborigines in Tasmania, and more than half the voters in the 1996 ATSIC election were not Aboriginal”.

Mansell said that, if properly investigated, about 60 per cent of Tasmanian “Aborigi­nes” would be rejected, and nationally up to 70,000 self-proclaimed Aborigines would be denied their claimed identity. He said members of the rival Liah Pootah community in Tasma­nia were not Aborigines but simply white people identifying themselves as such in order to gain access to greater welfare benefits and to make claims for land rights.

After a two-year hearing, Justice Ron Merkel (a former barrister well known for act­ing for Aboriginal clients) accepted as genuine most of the electors in dis­pute. Even though they were unable to provide proof of their biological descent from tribal society, Merkel accepted all but two members of the Liah Pootah community as being Aboriginal, primarily on the grounds of self-identification and recognition by other Liah Pootah members. None of them could provide a complete gene­alogical record that connected them to the original Tasmanian tribes and they were not required to submit to DNA tests. Of the two people ruled ineligible, one was a man who failed to file his evidence on time, and the other a woman who was the only per­son whose status was disproven by immigration records found by the Mansell faction.

In other words, the three-part test does not stand up legally. As a result of this case, anyone who claims to be an Aborigine and can muster some friends in support will be accepted by the Federal Court as genuine—no blood tests required.

Up to now, the costs of bogus Aboriginal claims have been largely confined to welfare payments and easy access to sought-after tertiary education courses. But if the Voice wins the Yes vote in the coming referendum the costs for the national government will multiply many times over. The opportunities for fake Aborigines to cash in on the treaties that constitutional recognition will instigate will be unstoppable. As the academic lawyer Megan Davis has long emphasised in her articles, if the Yes vote wins, there are potentially big rewards on offer in political power and monetary compensation:

Treaty is not an end, it is the beginning of the state acknowledging our grievances … Treaties are foundational constitutional agreements between First Nations and the state that involve a redistribution of political power … Treaties are about reparations for past injustices and about land and resources.

As the Aboriginal figure currently engaged in most dealings with the Albanese government, Davis knows what she is talking about. Moreover, her own background is a telling example of how elastic the criteria for government acceptance as an Aborigine has become.

Ever since 2018 when she was named by the Australian Financial Review as Australia’s most influential woman in its “100 Women of Influence” award, Davis has enjoyed a series of soft-interview long lunches with newspaper reporters where she has described her family background in Queensland.

She was born in 1976 to a white mother who was a school teacher of English. Her father was an itinerant railway worker who was part Aboriginal and part Pacific Islander. She grew up as “a Queensland rail kid” moving with her father’s employment from Monto, where she was born, to Mulgildie, Eidsvold and Hervey Bay in eastern Queensland. Her parents separated when she was very young and her mother took her and her four siblings to Eagleby in Logan City, south of Brisbane, where she brought them up as a single parent.

These days, Davis identifies herself as “a Cobble Cobble woman of the Barrungam nation”. However, the territory once inhabited by the Cobble Cobble people is a long way from any of the places where either she or her indigenous father grew up.

Cobble Cobble was once the name of a district on the Condamine River in the Western Downs of Queensland. The white pastoralists who settled there in the 1840s changed the name to Warra Warra (now Warra). Davis says her grandfather was a Cobble Cobble man who left the area with his brother in 1902 to live at the Cherbourg mission, founded by the Salvation Army but later converted to a government institution under Queensland’s separatist policies.

Around the time of Davis’s grandfather’s departure from the local community, the Cobble Cobble people disappear from the Aboriginal literature. They are not mentioned in either of the two most authorative lists of Aboriginal tribes and clans, Norman Tindale’s Aboriginal Tribes of Australia (1974) or David Horton’s Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (1994). If you google “Cobble Cobble”, the only results you receive are those of Megan Davis and her siblings.

Davis’s grandfather and his brother eventually left the Cherbourg mission and went to live in Hervey Bay. The area must have given them well-paid employment because her grandfather was able to buy land at Hervey Bay and build a house. He met a Pacific Islander woman there who gave birth to Davis’s father.

Davis tells journalists that she still keeps in contact with both parents. “I feel deeply connected to Hervey Bay; each Christmas I visit for a few weeks. It represents a continuity with my childhood, my dad and his land. I feel deeply connected to Eagleby and Logan too and get home as much as I can.”

However, neither Davis nor her indigenous father grew up within anything that could be called an Aboriginal community. The “continuity” she talks about with her dad and “his land” is not a uniquely Aboriginal sentiment, since most normal Australians feel much the same about their own parents and the country towns or suburbs where they grew up. There is nothing particularly Aboriginal about it.

Davis’s connection to the Cobble Cobble people is solely genetic. In her interviews with the press, she has described her real cultural heritage well. It was determined by her white mother’s large home library, by her own childhood education in Queensland schools, and her tertiary education at the University of Queensland law school. In none of her interviews or numerous articles does she mention any cultural inheritance from contact with an Aboriginal community. She never spoke an Aboriginal language fluently and has never discussed any of the beliefs that sustained the Cobble Cobble people.

The remarkable feat of social mobility that she, and many other Aboriginal identities like her, have now managed to achieve is entirely dependent on the very cultural assets provided by the white society that she and her fellow activists have spent their adult lives denouncing.

In other words, Davis is a legal academic and bureaucrat who does not have, and never had, a place within an Aboriginal community that might give her a special insider’s view of their needs. She is no better placed to understand Aboriginal problems, or to develop policies for Aboriginal people, than those white legal academics and bureaucrats employed in Aboriginal affairs but who are now labelled the problem not the solution.

What her position means is that Davis, and the great majority of those who have travelled a similar careerist road, are living contradictions of the principal argument behind the Voice and the constitutional referendum that is supposedly necessary to fix it in its rightful place. This is the claim that Aboriginal people will solve all their problems if their communities are given self-management and self-determination, or as Davis put it herself in an interview:

One thing I think most Australians don’t know—because it’s all so managed—is just how powerless people in communities feel. Everything is ruled by bureaucrats in Canberra. They don’t want Aboriginal people having any responsibility or say.

But Davis is an example of the very same problem. Although she is employed in Sydney by the University of New South Wales, her constitutional writings and reports are all aimed at reform in Canberra. In real terms, it is she who is yet another Canberra bureaucrat. She might answer this charge by saying that the Voice itself that she endorses represents the emergence of an authentic Aboriginal opinion. But, again, the reality is that the Voice is primarily the product of the theories, hopes and dreams of white bureaucratic political operators.

There is now plenty of evidence that this is so. In fact, as it has become clear from the public debate in the press in recent weeks, the whole idea behind the Voice came from propositions put together a decade ago by three white men—Greg Craven, Julian Leeser and Damien Freeman—and one Aboriginal man, Noel Pearson. This quartet are now very angry that their proposal, which was designed to advise the parliament about Aboriginal ideas for reform, has been transformed by Davis and her colleagues into a demand for access to the executive government, a dramatic shift in the political power the Voice would wield if the constitutional referendum is won.

What is also now apparent, thanks to the excellent research done by Nyunggal Warren Mundine, is that the grand assembly at Uluru in 2017 was not a get-together of genuinely independent representatives of the Aboriginal people of Australia but a specially selected gathering of those who the organisers knew would vote the way they wanted. Writing in the Daily Telegraph on April 26, Mundine said that delegates were hand-picked from twelve “dialogues” and one “information day” over the previous six months. The Referendum Council says attendance was by invitation only, which ensured each session reached consensus. Mundine observed: “I take this to mean dissenting opinions were deliberately avoided. Referendum Council Co-Chair, Pat Anderson, reinforced my view recently when she said ‘naysayers’ were intentionally excluded.”

Mundine said he had personally spoken to well over three hundred Aboriginal people from around Australia, including remote and regional locations. “Almost without exception,” he said, “all have told me they either oppose the Voice, don’t understand it (or haven’t even heard of it) or are deeply cynical about it.” He adds:

The only Aboriginals I know who support it are academics and lawyers, people from the organisations campaigning for it and some city-based, affluent Aboriginals whose views usually mirror other city-based, affluent Australians, so that’s hardly a surprise.

Now, this whole approach to Aboriginal affairs is patently misguided. Australians are being told they should permanently lock in through constitutional change an approach to policy that has never been tried before, that has never had a test run or even a temporary experiment. This is another reason why it would be easily exploited by bogus operators. It is not a revival of an ancient tradition that has stood the test of time but simply the latest fashionable idea that had its origins in the indigenous politics of North America, as I argued in some detail in Quadrant in March 2019.

In short, what the radical leftists who now dominate the Australian Aboriginal industry are really offering in the Voice is yet another product of white man’s dreaming. None of its predecessors, such as the Homelands movement that gave birth to land rights and remote communities, have worked, except for transferring wealth to the members of the Aboriginal academic and bureaucratic elite. The Voice is all for the latter. The same elite will be its only legatees. The tragic inhabitants of the remote communities will be left in just as bad a position as they are now.

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