Russell McGregor’s Indifferent Inclusion

Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

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On a recent edition of the ABC’s Q&A, Senator Nova Peris was discussing the proposed acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. ‘As Aboriginal Australians,’ she said, ‘we are excluded. For such a long time we were regarded as flora and fauna. It’s about making a wrong right.’

Paradoxically, the 1967 removal of the Constitution’s two mentions of Aboriginal people (and, by implication, Torres Strait Islanders) was a significant step towards inclusion.

According to Russell McGregor, those two references resulted from indifference. He argues that the first, which prevented the federal government from making laws with respect to ‘the aboriginal race’, dates from the 1891 draft where it was inserted in order to protect the rights of Maori if, as then expected, New Zealand joined the new nation; when New Zealand withdrew, nobody cared enough to take the clause out. The other mention – ‘In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal [sic] natives shall not be counted’ – rested on the assumption, he argues, that Aboriginal people counted for little. ‘Neither section,’ he continues, ‘formally excluded [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] from the legal rights and entitlements of Australian citizenship, but both implied that Aboriginal people were outside the community of the Australian nation.’

Indifferent Inclusion charts the decades of debate and changing attitudes among settler Australians, and activism and argument on the part of Indigenous Australians, that led up to the 1967 Referendum, in which an unprecedented 90 per cent of the electorate voted for change. It hardly needs saying that the Referendum was not the end of exclusion. Four years later, in what might have provided an epigraph for this book, a FCAATSI report described racism in Australia as mainly ‘cold, callous indifference to Aborigines, rather than intemperate hatred’. Punctuated by momentary expressions of good will such as the Walk Across the Bridge, the Sea of Hands and the Apology for the Stolen Generations, that indifference has persisted and non-Indigenous Australians have been largely silent in response to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Northern Territory Intervention, and straws in the wind such as our Prime Minister’s recent description of the continent as ‘unsettled or, um, scarcely settled’ before 1788.

All the same, the story told here is one of progress. On one hand the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists gain progressively more effective platforms, and the narrative introduces any number of passionate and eloquent individuals who ought to be household names: William Cooper, Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson, Stan Davey (author of a pamphlet on assimilation titled Genesis or Genocide?), Faith Bandler and more. On the other, settler Australia’s self image grows and develops, and with it the image it projects onto Indigenous Australians.

McGregor begins with the policy of ‘absorption’ which, though never official government policy, dominated the thinking of government departments charged with Aboriginal affairs in the 1930s, underpinned by what now looks like a bizarrely irrational emphasis on the importance of white skin to the Australian identity. This policy was a cold-blooded plan to control the relationships of people of part-Aboriginal heritage so that they had children only with white partners. This was called ‘breeding out the colour’: within a few generations, Australians would all have white complexions, and the treasured myth of ethnic homogeneity would prevail. ‘Full-blooded’ Aboriginal people would either die out or be kept cordoned off in the Western Desert, on tracts of lands to which the only non-Aboriginal people with access would be scientists. Most alarmingly, the dominant public opposition came from people who objected that the plan would corrupt the purity of the white race.

However, the self image of settler Australians did change, ‘blood’ (aka skin colour) giving way to ‘way of life’ as the main defining factor (as the White Australia Policy came to feel more anachronistic). In a number of ways, non-Indigenous people began to appreciate something of Indigenous culture: the Jindyworobaks had their doomed idea of finding a true Australian national identity by appropriating Aboriginal culture, but even kitsch tea-towels and wallpaper with ‘Aboriginal’ motifs reflected this growing appreciation. The voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists began to be more widely heard – the 1938 Day of Mourning was a landmark event; men served in World War 2 (though their enlisting had been resisted by conservatives who feared rightly that if they fought for Australia their claim to inclusion in the national community would be strengthened); Albert Namatjira and others demonstrated that artistic creativity wasn’t the sole preserve of non-Indigenous people; perhaps more influentially, Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong and others demonstrated that Aboriginal people could excel in sport.

‘Assimilation’ became the key policy word, which, although it has a bad odour these days, was supported in the 1940s and 50s by leading Aboriginal activists. According to McGregor, the assimilationist policies didn’t always, or even most of the time, entail the loss of Aboriginal identity and community: the distinction which came later, between assimilation and integration, was really an attempt to differentiate between two tendencies within the assimilationist movement. On the one side, for example, Paul Hasluck, who was Commonwealth Minister for Territories from 1951, proposed a version of assimilation in which

the Aboriginal cultural heritage would not disappear, but rather would dissipate into folkloric remnants, and Aboriginal identity would not be erased but privatised, contracting to little more than an individual’s sense of personal ancestry.

On the other side, anthropologist A P Elkin wrote:

The Aborigines are racially different from us, and recognizably so. In spite of the economic, religious, social and political assimilation at which we aim, they will be a distinct group, or series of groups, for generations to come. Indeed, they will develop pride in their own cultural background and distinctness while at the same time being loyal and useful citizens.

Elkin’s language was to change, but when he wrote this, he was using the language of assimilation. By 1961, most supporters of assimilation policies were towards Elkin’s end of the spectrum. It was generally understood that assimilation (or integration) did not mean the end to distinctive Aboriginal identity, culture and language. It was a question whether something was being done to Indigenous people, or with and by them.

I had vaguely supposed before this eminently readable book put me right that the 1967 Referendum gave Indigenous Australians the vote. But it turns out that the reading of the Constitution that led to their disenfranchisement had been successfully challenged before then. In spite of the rhetoric of the Yes campaign – ‘Right Wrongs, Vote YES for Aborigines on May 27’ – the Referendum didn’t change very much at all, and the federal government of the day under Harold Holt chose not to use their new powers, not to rock the boat. In the domain, its as if every change, seen to be huge as it approaches, turns out to be tiny.

These pages are full of odd and admirable characters, and any number of curious incidents. One truly odd moment was a piece of legislation ushered in by Paul Hasluck, the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance 1953, subtitled An ordinance to provide for the care and assistance of certain persons. The striking thing about this legislation was that, while its concern was entirely with Aboriginal people, it never once used any version of the term ‘Aboriginal’, because Hasluck believed that no distinction should be made on the basis of race in legislation: it was easy enough to work out what distinct group was being declared wards of the state, of course, but somehow not using the name was meant to make it less discriminatory.

Many of the debates and attitudes covered here feel weirdly alien now but, as Nova Peris’s choice of language illustrates, the issue hasn’t gone away, and it’s sobering to reflect that what was once believed and spoken out loud is still lurking somewhere in our minds, unacknowledged even to ourselves. One one hand, The past is another country. They do things differently there. On the other: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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