As the drama over the Wuhan flu subsides, expect to see the question of Aboriginal sovereignty re-emerge as a topic du jour among the luvvies. My purpose in this essay is to toss a few caltrops in the path of the relentless march of the increasingly fantastical myths that buttress this aspiration.
Let’s start with Marcia Langton, who says, “Sovereignty, as I see it, is the legal personality of the Aboriginal polity ― and that social complex that is sometimes called sovereignty should be recognised.” I’m not sure what the second part of that sentence means but the first part is instructive. What Langton terms the Aboriginal polity (and what she herself represents) – a vocal, self-appointed convocation of activists educated in the Western tradition – did not exist in 1788, particularly if you consider that this polity is increasingly dominated by strident women, a situation that would not have been tolerated in traditional and infamously misogynist Aboriginal culture. And the sovereignty that is now claimed – the sovereignty now exercised over the entire continent by the nation state of Australia – simply did not exist in 1788 nor anything like it.
Aboriginal clan groups exercised a form of governance that was roughly, very roughly, equivalent to the local councils of today. That is the sovereignty which was ‘never ceded’. Aborigines never exercised sovereignty over the geography of what were any of the original colonies, let alone the whole continent. A very small percentage of the Australian population is arguing for a special status that would allow Aborigines to set their own rules, the rationale being that their ancestors were here first and/or that they were the targets of “invasion”. The first proposition (‘we were here first’) is specious and most Australians would reject it out of hand, even while accepting terms like ‘First Nations people’ — nicked from Canada, just by the way — the now ubiquitous Aboriginal Flag, and being welcomed to their own country. By the same logic, descendants of the First Fleeters could also claim some special status over those whose antecedents came later.
The ‘invasion’ theory is a complex and contested topic that I don’t intend to deal with here except to reiterate my point that colonisation did not supplant Aboriginal “sovereignty”, such as it was. In fact, the initial policy was to live and let live. Aboriginal Protectors were appointed to further this aim. But, eventually, interaction between the two societies – not all at the instigation of the colonists – rendered this approach futile. Colonisation superimposed an overarching sovereignty that was (a) inevitable and (b) incapable of being developed by Aboriginal society.
Demand for decolonsation and the ‘restoration’ of Aboriginal sovereignty is now almost deafening, at least in the breadth of its advocacy by the mainstream media. It defies belief that a significant proportion of Australians (as yet unknown, but probably less than activists would have you believe) would go along with this notion. The reason they do is because they are wallowing in a guilt trip laid upon them by virtue of an incessant recitation of the twin evils of “systemic racism” and “colonial atrocities”.
To begin with, let’s dispense with the idea of ‘systemic’ racism. Systemic means embedded within a system i.e. integral to it, in this case, presumably, the Australian system of governance. There is just no way our system of governance could be described as systemically racist. If it were, why would we accept the ingress of thousands of people from non-European cultures to our shores, let alone encourage and welcome them?
So do we have racism at the individual level? Undoubtedly, as does every other society on the planet. It is part of the human condition. But is it endemic in Australia? I would argue emphatically that it is not, for the same reason that I outlined above.
Well then, are Aborigines the targets of a special racism reserved only for them? Again, I would say not. There is no doubt many Aborigines and people of Aboriginal descent have suffered discrimination over the years. But how much of it is based on their Aboriginality and how much on behaviour and lifestyle? Aboriginal disadvantage is due more to socio-economic factors than racial ones, and the toxic factor in this disadvantage is that, too often, it is intergenerational. In this respect, Aborigines are like any other marginalised group. The way out of this vicious circle is education — and Aboriginal communities have demonstrated that school attendance is not a strong suit.
Racism is not prevalent or even expanding in Australia, but I suspect antipathy towards Aborigines as a group is increasing, thanks almost exclusively to those entitled demagogues who harangue us at every opportunity. It is hardly an endearing act to proclaim on Australia Day that the country needs to be burnt to the ground, a comment made by a Melbourne blacktivist Tarneen Onus Williams, who was at the time serving on a consultative committee established by the Victorian Labor government to craft a treaty with the state’s indigenes.
I disapprove of Ms Williams and other grievance mongers — playwright Nakkiah Lui and Greens senator Lidia Thorpe spring immediately to mind — not because they are Aboriginal but because I find them strident and intolerant. At the same time, I have great admiration for Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine, for example. And, although I differ from Mundine in regard to his support for constitutional recognition, I am fully on board with his and Price’s aspirations for Aboriginal people in the areas that really matter. I suspect I am typical of the vast majority of Australians. Inevitably, this perfectly human reaction is represented as racism and, regrettably, too many people unthinkingly accept it as such. It is no more racist than the disdain in which conservatives hold, for example, Malcolm Turnbull or Kevin Rudd.
Regarding atrocities, yes they occurred and have been acknowledged, with apologies made, for decades. But the number of living Aborigines directly affected (either personally or through parents/grandparents) is vanishingly small. I might deplore the way in which the British treated my Irish ancestors, but I can let it go. I am not traumatised by Oliver Cromwell’s ruthless military campaigns and the Potato Famine of 1848, just as I doubt that many Aborigines are genuinely and personally traumatised by events that took place long before they were born. By the same token, I am also one-eighth German and feel absolutely no guilt for the actions of the Nazis regardless of how much I deplore them.
The ‘First Nations’ guilt trip deployed by the woke brigade is augmented by an emerging narrative that takes Rousseauian notions of the ‘Noble Aborigine’ to a new level. An example of this is the idea of Aboriginal spirituality and ‘connection to country’. I do not wish to belittle Aboriginal spirituality, but realism and balance is required, meaning we need to separate the aspects of genuinely held beliefs, the religious element, and the preservation of cultural knowledge and traditions, the anthropological element. There is nothing inherently unique or virtuous in traditional Aboriginal animism. All primitive cultures developed animistic religious beliefs which aided their understanding of and survival in their environments. But as scientific knowledge advanced, and temporal explanations for observable phenomena emerged, Western religious belief was fine-tuned to accommodate such advances — for example, the efforts of French Jesuit Pierre Tielhard de Chardin to reconcile scripture with the evidence of paleontology and other disciplines. Arguably, believers who can cite, say, Noah and his ark as a Divinely ordained metaphor for preserving species are no less spiritual than Aborigines referencing the Rainbow Serpent. There may be some Aboriginal people who maintain a literal adherence to traditional religious beliefs, but why would we accord them any greater respect than we do modern Druids? That is not to say that Aboriginal people should not strive to preserve these traditions, to incorporate them into their ceremonies and to present them to the world as aspects of an ancient and proud heritage.
As to ‘connection with Country’, much the same consideration applies. Presumably, ‘Country’ applies not only to the natural bush but to the communities themselves. Aboriginal caring for Country seems to consist largely of leaving it alone – the only serious intervention being the use of fire – and extracting from it what bounties it bestows from time to time, much as has been the case for millennia. Certainly, there are educated and articulate Aboriginal people who are knowledgeable about their local ecology and work to maintain it, as we see in almost every outback travel documentary – and good on them. But, as it is in the white community, these people are the exception rather than the rule. To put it simply, they are conservationists who happen to be black and whose spirituality owes as much to modern Western theory and practice as it does to traditional culture.
Need it be said that Aboriginal people are no different in essence to white people, sharing the same strengths and weaknesses, virtues and faults. Most of those calling for ‘decolonisation’ would not exist, either physically or intellectually, without colonisation. Most blacktivists reside in modern cities, raise families and have paying jobs. They are doing quite well, thanks very much. However, the popular meme insists that even the merest scintilla of Aboriginal blood is enough to confer some special spirituality and connection with Country, to saddle the owner with the trauma of past atrocities and to do this while simultaneously granting absolution for black-on-white misdeeds.
I accept that my observations above are somewhat abrasive and will offend some people. I apologise for being the bearer of unsettling tidings, but it serves no useful purpose to perpetuate patronising myths – such as those of a sophisticated Aboriginal agricultural society, as propagated by Bruce Pascoe in his book Dark Emu, or painting James Cook as fascist invader too obtuse to see the reality of Aboriginal accomplishment, as recently misrepresented by Sam Neill in the ABC series In the Wake of Captain Cook – and all the while ignoring the real issues that plague genuine Aboriginal communities. It requires a particularly noxious brand of sophistry to rationalise the sexual abuse of infants and children as a consequence of the arrival on January 20, 1788, of ships loaded with convicts and guards who, we can only assume, didn’t want to be there in the first place. Some ‘invasion’!
By all means move heaven and earth to bring remote and disadvantaged Aborigines into the 21st Century but let’s not elevate myth almost to the point of deification.
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