I wonder if privileged Indigenous figures, such as Gold Coast Titan’s captain Ryan James, realize the extent to which their narcissistic insistence on victimhood is alienating mainstream Australians. I have only goodwill for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and hope with all my heart that genuine inequality – appalling child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, less than Third World academic attainment and a grim list of other dysfunctions – can all be overcome.
However, I find myself increasingly intolerant of “indigeneity” as a political movement and have to guard against a tendency to project my antipathy for these activists onto Aboriginal people in general.
Let’s look at one of Ryan James’ claims, as quoted in The Australian:
Some of the lyrics [of the National Anthem] are references to ‘the free’ and you only have to look back to when my mum was born. She was born indigenous to this land and she wasn’t even born recognised as a person. That is not that long ago — she was born in 1960.
Was his mother born a slave in 1960? Was she issued with a birth certificate? As to her not being recognized as a person, it’s not clear to what he is referring. It could be to the widely held belief among Indigenous communities that, until the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal people were managed under the ‘Flora and Fauna Act’ – a fallacy hanging on an entirely fictitious act. Even Professor Marcia Langton recognises and has stated that this is an urban myth, yet it is still pervasive; I recently read an Aboriginal elder woman making this claim in my local newspaper. Labor MP Linda Burney, in her maiden speech in the NSW Parliament in 2003, claimed that for the first ten years of her life she was subject to this ‘Act’. She also claimed to have been born a non-citizen
I am a member of the mighty Wiradjuri Aboriginal nation. For the first 10 years of my life, like all Indigenous people at that time, I was not a citizen of this country.
On the other hand, James may be referring to Section 127 of the Constitution which was removed in 1967. This section stated that:
In reckoning the numbers of people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.
That section has been widely interpreted to mean that Aborigines would not be included in the Census and that therefore they did not count as people. This interpretation is incorrect. The most authoritative interpretation of Section 127 is that it was intended to prevent states such as Queensland and Western Australia from artificially inflating their populations, and consequently the number of House of Representative seats to which they would be entitled, by estimating large remote Aboriginal populations. Section 51(xi) gives the Commonwealth power to conduct censuses but does not qualify this power by explicit reference to Section 127, which one would expect, were the intention. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is true that, from 1905, the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics took the view that Section 127 did preclude them from counting full-descent Aborigines. However, it is hard to see how this would have disadvantaged Aboriginal people in any meaningful way.
There certainly was effective discrimination against Aboriginal people in 1960, as there was against Chinese, Indians, Japanese and many other ethnic groups. Similarly, there was discrimination on the part of full-blooded Aboriginals towards mixed-race Aboriginals, which is why manyfound themselves in institutions. From my personal experience I know of a Chinese woman, the daughter of a prominent Darwin business family, who was ostracised by her family for marrying a white man. It was all part of the human condition of the age. Discrimination, at a personal level, still exists. It always will. But it does not exist institutionally in Australia today.
However, at the same time we note the following events:
# In 1968, World champion boxer Lionel Rose was named Australian of the Year.
# Pastor Douglas Nicholls was knighted in 1972 and again in 1977. He was appointed Governor of South Australia in 1976.
# In 1959, singer Jimmy Little commenced a career that lasted until 2010, and in his heyday was named Australian Pop Star of the Year in 1964.
These were not ‘non-persons’.
James also said:
We have definitely come a long way since then but some of those words don’t connect to us as people. We just don’t stand for it.
Come a long way? Dead right. Let me count the ways.
# With great goodwill, ATSIC was established in 1990 to give Indigenous people a ‘voice’ to government in the management of their affairs. As an example of such bodies, it does not fill us with confidence, having been abolished in 2005 in the aftermath of dysfunction and allegations of corruption and nepotism.
# Indigenous culture has been mandated as a cross-curriculum element in all school subjects throughout Australia.
# Since Lionel Rose was named Australian of the Year in 1968 a further seven Indigenous persons have been granted that honour.
# Indigenous culture has been prominent in the opening ceremonies of all significant national events since at least 2000.
# Indigenous communities are granted special exemptions from state law to allow them to hunt and fish outside the restrictions placed on other Australians — up to an including the cruel stoning to death of a wombat.
# Special academic programs and grants have been instituted in all universities to give indigenous students a leg-up.
# Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags fly alongside the National Flag at every public building in the land.
# Australian governments spend more than twice as much, per head, on indigenous people as they do on non-indigenous.
# At every civic event across the nation we hear an acknowledgment of traditional owners and elders and, often, pay for a ‘welcome to country’ ceremony.
# Indigenous people now hold native title to over 30 per cent of the continent and another 30 per cent is subject to claims.
That list is not exhaustive but you get the point.
If Ryan James and others – who are doing quite nicely out of colonisation, thank you very much – cannot bear to sing, or even hear, the anodyne lyrics of the National Anthem, why the hell should I suffer the sight of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait flags being given equal prominence outside so many public building in the land? Those flags don’t represent me. Why should I have to endure the vacuous acknowledgements of traditional owners and elders on very nearly every public occasion? I don’t acknowledge that Aborigines have any special or unique claim on the land in which I was born.
Ryan James, Latrell Mitchell and their well-heeled mates are giving Australians — all Australians, black and white alike — the middle-finger salute.
Right back at you, boys.
Peter O’Brien is the author of Bitter Harvest, which can be ordered here