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Using the present to understand the past

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Using the present to understand the past

Perhaps Australian culture is traditionally racist towards Aborigines or perhaps Australian cultural leaders caricature "Australia" as racist towards Aborigines as part of a way of affirming their identity as a protector of Aborigines.

If the first statement is true, it begs the question as to why the later have become so numerous in contemporary Australia. How the question is answered has a significant implications for whether the past can be used to explain the present and whether the present can be used to explain the past.

An example of the protector-of-Aborigines identity can be seen in the words of Phillip Adams ( a white radio talk back host and columnist) who wrote in 2007:

"Moreover, we will do our best to deny that they happened. Enter the historical revisionism of a Keith Windschuttle. Massacres of Abos? Where? When? Show us the documents! Show us the receipts for the corpses! If there’s no paperwork, it never happened. Oral histories of Aborigines? Vivid, detailed accounts of slaughter and atrocities can be discounted. They're not worth the paper they’re not written on. No need for sorries there."

Considering Adams' lengthy career in the public eye, it could be inferred that his views were very widely shared. If they were widely shared, how did they emerge from the culture of racism that he spoke of?

Adams and his supporters would perhaps define themselves as reactionaries against the racist tradition; however, such an identity is problematic considering that policies defined as pro-Aboriginal had a public prominence long become the likes of Adams gained a public profile. In other words, Adams would seem to be more in a traditional way of thinking than in a reaction to one. At the very least, there were generations that identified themselves as opposing racism long before Adams came to prominence.

The 1967 referendom in relation to Aborigines was one such example of a protector-of-Aborigines identity having a great deal of public currency. The referendum aimed to give the federal government the power to make laws targeted specifically for Aborigines (as states could previously). 90 per cent of Australians voted yes - although perhaps they didn't quite understand exactly what the referendum was asking. Specifically, rather than promote the policy detail, much of the yes case promoted an idea of voting yes as a reaction to past discrimination.


Aboriginal Vote

Much of the promotional material for the yes case promoted the idea of voting yes as a reaction to previous racism.

1967 Referendum Concerning Aborigines

Most Australians believed the 1967 referendum was about equality of rights, not extending the Federal government’s power to make race-specific laws.

Ironically, some of the past discrimination included laws promoted as being about protecting Aborigines from immoral non-Aborigines. For example, in 1869, the South Australian colonial government passed the Police Act 1869-70 which prohibited non-Aboriginal people from ‘habitually consorting’ with an Aboriginal person without a reasonable excuse. In 1939, the ideology was refined with the Aborigines Amendment Act, which explicitly stated that it was an offence for a non-Aboriginal male to have a sexual relationship with an Aboriginal woman.

One of the victims of the law was white man Tom O'Donohue , the father of Lowitja O'Donohue, the former head of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC). After the law was passed, Tom was convicted of carnal knowledge and fined £5 with 10 shillings costs. He was then forced to sell his lease, abandon his defacto wife of 20 years and move to Adelaide. Before he left, he placed Lowitja and her sisters in a mission.

Even though the laws were sold as being in the Aboriginal interest, arguably much of the impetus for them stemmed from a prejudice of one group of white Australians against another group of white Australians. In other words, they were driven by a form of socio-cultural prejudice rather than compassion for Aborigines. In many respects, the comments of Adams and his supporters could be interpreted the same way. They reflect personalities that are traditional in the sense they are custodians of old Australians values anchored in prejudice, but in myth they are reactionary, contemporary and compassionate.

Recognising the contemporary socio-cultural prejudice is a useful starting point in researching the past to understand where it came from and how Aborigines were used in the expression of it. In addition, the recognition of the socio-cultural prejudice is a useful starting point to understand how contemporary Australians, such as Adams, have selectively retreived information from the past in order to affirm their identity and cultivate public narratives about Australia. For example, South Australian Liberal Premier Sir Thomas Playford the IV can be held responsible for the South Australian Aborigines Amendment Act 1939 that broke up interacial relationships. Likewise, Australian prime ministers since the 1967 referendum (Harold Holt, John McEwen, John Grey Gorton, William McMahon, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott) can be held significantly responsible for the statistics of disadvantage that are used to define Aborigines today. Historians Robert Manne and Henry Reynolds can also be held responsible for the historical narratives that shape Aboriginal identities, the identities of those who interact with Aborigines and which have likewise contributed to Aborigines being defined by statistics of disadvantage.

Instead of naming government officials and academics who have devised the policies that have led to the present situation, as well as cultural leaders with power, the likes of Adams have sought culpability in the undocumented "frontiers" of colonial settlement and the Australian that is in "denial" about what happened on those undocumented frontiers. Again, it is a way of removing responsibility from those who have power and placing it on the "average" un-named Australian that is not empowered. The obvious motivation is cultural superiority for those who see themselves as a superior class in addition to an evasion of responsibility by those whose actions have left a lot to be desired. In regards to history, the consequence is myths of the past that do not provide an accurate reflection of the past but do provide a generation of empowered white Australians to feel a sense of pride about their approach to it.





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