The Voice

Going Nowhere with the Lingua Franca of Failure

Well-worn sayings are often well-worn for a reason. They put an abiding truth in a nutshell. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” is a well-worn saying of uncertain origin. It comes to mind when I think about past policies designed to improve the lives of those Aborigines living in desperate circumstances – perhaps 20 per cent, according to Gary Johns (The Burden of Culture). One of the difficulties is that not everyone has the same end game in mind. To wit, assimilation versus cultural preservation. A stark dichotomy.

At my Anglican church last Sunday, the sermon was delivered by the principal of Nungalinya College, now in its fiftieth year, and located in Casuarina, a northern fringe suburb of Darwin. It’s an interdenominational training college for indigenous Christians. It aims to spread the Christian Gospel to indigenous communities. That is a worthy aim in two respects. First, it brings the truth of the Gospel to those who otherwise might not hear it. Second, Christianity is a force for economic progress. It contributes to interpersonal trust, to regard for other people’s wellbeing, and to a lawful respect for other people’s private property. On these three preconditions hangs the possibility of widespread prosperity. Yet, other things are also needed; including, a common language fit for modern life, numeracy, and personal ambition.

I mention the Nungalinya College because its approach to serving the Aboriginal population in northern Australia is emblematic of those who see worth and virtue in preserving indigenous languages and cultures. This is a sample from the College’s 50th Jubilee Booklet 2023:

At Nungalinya we respect Indigenous cultures and sovereignty over country.

♦  Around 95 per cent of Nungalinya students speak one or more Indigenous First Languages – often English really is quite far down the list.

♦ It is currently the United Nations Decade of Indigenous Languages – at Nungalinya we continue to strive so that no Indigenous voice will be lost.

It goes without saying, all of this is well intentioned. But does it have unintended adverse consequences? That is the question.

In the end result, speaking one or more of hundreds of indigenous languages fluently while having poor English, will not get you a ticket out of a community which offers no possibility of fulfilling work. In that sense, championing the use of indigenous languages, except as a curiosity, is unhelpful. Some people in Wales like to talk in Welsh. But they know, even with a population of over three million (not just a few hundred), that English must have primacy unless they want to live in a Welsh backwater.

It’s not only language which can hold people back, it’s clinging to cultures which have long gone. What does “respecting indigenous cultures” mean? Are there tribes still foraging and hunting for their needs? If there are, well and good. But there aren’t. Living off welfare is distinctly part of modern Western culture not indigenous culture. Certainly, aspects of past cultural practices can and should be retained. Corroborees, for example. Morris dancers still do their thing, I understand. Well-off Scots are insistent on wearing kilts on ceremonial occasions, eating haggis and throwing cabers. All good stuff but it doesn’t pay the rent. A viable culture is more than its ceremonial trimmings.

My point is almost as well-worn as is the saying with which I began. There is no mystery; we don’t need a Voice to tell us what the problem is. Aboriginal communities out of sight of employment, speaking their own limited languages, having halting English, clinging to the remnants of defunct cultures have no promising future. While they remain as they are, so will the so-called gap.

All Australian children and young people must be taught in English and use English as their first language. English shouldn’t be “quite far down the list,” as the Nungalinya College puts it. That simply perpetuates disadvantage, and the despair which often follows. Assimilation is the only path to relieving the plight of a minority segment of the Aboriginal population. That’s not a cruel solution. The history of the modern Western world is full of assimilations. A cruel solution is to keep people in circumstances which prevent them from fulfilling their potential.

Of course, identifying the solution and implementing it are two quite different matters. I don’t have the answer. Neither, obviously, does Linda Burney or Anthony Albanese. Never mind. Apparently, there is an answer. And those appointed to the Voice will become privy to it upon being sworn into office. That’s the reason nothing has yet been done to solve the problem. Namely, the knowledge is secret, waiting to be unsheathed by the 24 ‘big men’ (and women). I hope you understand that. Chris Kenny evidently does, even if you don’t.

24 thoughts on “Going Nowhere with the Lingua Franca of Failure

  • IainC says:

    We all know how to close the gap – integration and assimilation with modern society, where there are schools, jobs, facilities, services that everyone, from poor Vietnamese to poor Sudanese refugees to poor whites, to poor Aborigines (imagine that!), can access and utilise to make their lives better.
    We all know what doesn’t work – cultural separation, and physical distance from modern society, or both. Those who most need a helping hand (around 20%) are in this isolationist category, cheered on by activists who want to them to preserve their culture in amber. Those who have integrated (the other 80%), like every activist, parliamentarians, footballers, professors, TV presenters, are all doing as well as everyone else.
    The Gap is not a myth, it’s worse – it’s a deliberate social policy.

    • Necessityofchoice says:

      The Gap is not a myth, it’s worse – it’s a deliberate social policy.
      And so is ‘gender affirming’ child mutilation. However the perpetrators of this horror are starting to be shut down, by the victims taking action through the courts. Perhaps this avenue against the ‘Big Men could provide the solution Peter Smith is looking for ?

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    All over the world people want to learn English if they don’t already speak it.
    It is a universal language now, and central to the major technological development of our times: the internet. Due to its universality, it is also the language containing an absolute wealth of cultural imports from many other languages around the world, integrating vocabulary and sometimes grammar into its richly diverse interpretive melting pot of human communication. I’d bet that like Welsh, and just about any still in use language, those ‘traditional’ aboriginal languages still in use have themselves imported a lot of vocabulary and syntax from English.
    Teach them English, to read it and write it, then encourage movement to areas of economic growth and employment, and any people will flourish. Corroborees and didgeridoos are fine for weekend entertainment and beers, just as haggis and sword dancing can suit the Saturday nite Scots with their wee tots of whiskey. But the superb opportunities brought about by the modern world of the West, by individualism, sobriety, worthwhile work and by English, can and should be seized by those whose heritage is as Australia’s earliest arrivals. Immigrants, all of us, as is the case everywhere history has unfolded.

  • Gerry Van Hees says:

    As per my earlier post:
    “The main issue probably relates to the fact that the assimilation policies begun in the early sixties were dismantled in the 70s thus encouraging people to live in remote communities with the consequent and foreseeable lack of resources. Also the fact that the union movements agitated for increased pay for aboriginal people working as stock and station hands even though they had food and lodgings commensurate with the work they did. Owners and employers could not afford to defer to these conditions, consequently the sit down generation began.”

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    Both Ms Beare and Mr. Van Hees hit the nail on the head for just about everyone everywhere has some form of English as I discovered in many years of wandering the World and finger pointing and raised voices are no longer needed to get the message across in most places. As a bush raised person where property owners fed and clothed the whole tribe until they were forced to pay an aboriginal “ringer” the same wage as a white single “ringer” and still support the whole tribe it became uneconomical and thus many of the aboriginal “ringers” were put off and the people came to towns as fringe dwellers on the dole with the ensuing consequences of grog and substance abuse, more domestic violence, vagrancy etc. the whole nine yards. A lady at Aurukun, they call them “Aunties” these days, told me at a meeting we had with the locals that she and her people wanted a large fence erected around the place to keep we whites out and when I asked her if that same fence would keep the dole money out, the RFDS out, and various other white services out, she stalked off. The probable answer is that there isn’t one and won’t be until the aboriginal people themselves lift their game OR the supposed leaders as in Mr. Pearson of the Sunshine Coast, the good Senators as in Ms. Burney et al, actually go into the fringe dwelling communities and Messiah like, lead those people into modern life. They won’t of course and so their supposed people or the pawns in the game they are playing won’t benefit one iota no matter how many voices there are.

    • geoff_brown1 says:

      It was accepted that it took three Aboriginal stockmen to do the work of one European – one of the Indigenous would be away on ceremonial business, another might just not be inclined to go to work, leaving the third to be “down at the stock rails” to start work. One station in the Kimberlys employed twelve Aboriginal stockmen to do the work of four Europeans, and supplied rations, clothing and basic medical care to eighty four of the extended families.


    Our humanity is the story of assimilation. Mixed ethnicity/race people are often perceived as more attractive. Hybrid vigour is the reason. Racial apartheid has a greater propensity for inbreeding and the ‘us and them’ paradigm of loser aspirations to entitlement. Assimilation: lets get on with it. Vote NO to apartheid.

  • lbloveday says:

    Quote: Chris Kenny evidently does, even if you don’t.
    In Kenny’s latest spiel he, inter alia, dissed Mundine and Price (I did scan it, not read in detail):
    “After I detailed eight myths of the No campaign in these pages last month, Jacinta and Mundine responded in these pages in personal terms but without refuting a single point”.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Chris Kenny has seriously damaged my opinion of him. Indeed The Australian has taken a significant swerve t the left under its new Editor in Chief. Not happy!

  • Alistair says:

    The “Canberra Mob” – those in the Aboriginal Industry who want to see all indigenous decision-making centred in the Federal Circle – NEED remote area mob held captive by their lack of literacy in order to leverage power and money. The last thing anyone in the Aboriginal Industry wants to do is to solve any Aboriginal problems! Where’s their future in that!

  • john.singer says:

    I arrived in Australia at age 6. I had no English. My mother almost immediately packed me off to a small boarding school where I didn’t (for a short period) understand the people or the language. Not long after that I did.
    I have thanked my Mother everyday for the last 83 years for what she did. I am sure it was a sacrifice for her. The gift she gave me is that I now think in English and I count in English.

    In my opinion, you can only advance to your potential within the confines of the language in which you think and count. There is not a single Aboriginal Language that has the breadth of any European language and that limits its speakers.

    In Australia you can only close the gap by teaching children in English and the children will advance further if regardless of the language spoken in their household they always answer in English, at least until they are adults. This also helps parents with little English.

  • padraic says:

    I wonder what language the new Aboriginal ambassador will speak when he attends international meetings and will they provide a translation for other attendees via the earphones?

    • Blair says:

      I doubt whether he speaks any language other than English. Perhaps he may speak Arabic.
      “Mr Justin Mohamed is Australia’s inaugural Ambassador for First Nations People.

  • padraic says:

    Botswana has also hit the nail on the head with the story about the Aurukun auntie and the fact that the urban elites need people kept in remote disadvantaged communities to justify their activist raisin d’etre and to encourage dislike and rejection of the system by both the adults and children which then leads to antisocial behaviour which is then used to justify “separate development” – now where have I heard that expression before?

  • pmprociv says:

    Driving along the backroads of Indonesia some 35 years ago, I kept coming across large billboards advertising a language college, with the message: “Teach your Child English, Gateway to the Future!” I haven’t been back to check if they’re still there, but somebody at least then knew something that we here apparently still don’t. It’s criminal to deprive our kids, regardless of colour or ancestry, of a future.

  • Occidental says:

    “ I don’t have the answer.“

    We all know the answer, the same answer that saved those of our ancestors who survived the Romans, Vandals, Angles, Saxons etc – miscegenation. I doubt if ever there has been a point in history prior to now, when a dominant advanced culture has encouraged a more primitive culture to persist, as some sort of museum exhibit. Miscegenation speeds up the process of assimiliation by giving the subjected or marginal group’s individuals, a personal mentor or guide in the dominant culture. It is very difficult if you are a young man from mornington island or Doomadgee to survive the modern world while your indigenous relatives drop in, camp in your home or humbug you. With a white wife you can get a job, keep it and negotiate the modern world, more importantly it frees you from the relatives. Growing up in NW Queensland I saw the transformation of full blood aborigines occur overnight, all that it took was a spouse.

  • call it out says:

    In SA, the Mitcham Council is about to open a new library and community centre. It has been named “Tiwu Kumangka”, which translates as “the gathering of the black cockatoos.”
    The intellectual prowess of a council that chooses a (pre-literate) Kaurna name for one of our most important institutions, a library, staggers me.
    Except the mayor and a few complicit councillors wanted to shine their virtue. Needless to say, the community consultation was contrived and inadequate. They were not gong to let anything get in the way of their good idea.

  • joemiller252 says:

    Peter and Elizabeth identify a major problem, part of Gary John’s “Burden of Culture”. Has anyone seen a good argument for preserving pre-modern languages and cultures as living entities, rather than as museum exhibits?

  • vickisanderson says:

    Assimilation was always the only solution to providing employment opportunities for Aboriginal youth. Unless it was argued that Aborigines could viably live “on country” which had been affirmed under Native Title, remunerated employment sensibly requires an adapted European lifestyle.

    What has developed since the 1980s in remote Australia are hybrid communities in which language groups are often mixed (causing hostilities), provided with both conventional and “cultural” education, community housing, welfare payments and health clinics – all at the expense of Australian taxpayers.

    Yet, Aborigines and those of Aboriginal descent have been assimilated into urban centres throughout settled Australia with great success. But, with the exception of activists who have a political agenda, or those who seek to profit from the current controversy, very little is heard from these Australians.

  • Ken McNamara says:

    “No language, no people” – so said a well known as Irish activist when Irish was in danger of dying out.
    I’m sure that he’d had a few choice words for Peter Smith, who sees the world through a narrow monolingual framework.

    There are also millions of Indians, Japanese, Germans, and French who would point out to Peter, in no uncertain terms, that it is possible to learn English without having to suffer assimilation.

    Being a cheerleader for cultural genocide is a bit passe, Peter.

    • Peter Smith says:

      Ken, I’m all for preserving cultures, even remnants of cultures, if their adherents are content with them and can pay the rent.
      Speaking Indian or Japanese, German or French, as your first and primary language is perfectly fine. It works for most of the time. It allows you to earn your living. It isn’t fine to speak only fluently in a language known only to a few hundred people. That is very limiting.
      Assimilation is the only loving option, if you want all Aborigines to have scope for personal fulfillment. Separatism produces despair. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have a problem, would we?

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