Voices of Summer: Australia Slouches Towards the Millennium

A Northern Note by Peter Jull

(The Northern Review #15/16 (Winter 1995/Summer 1996): 221-241).

The Tropics and Subtropics of the Southern Hemisphere have a surreal beauty at year’s end. The stillness, sunshine, deep greenery, many flowers, and quick afternoon storms in the city are made more enjoyable by the near total absence of serious work or human population as the latter disappear to thousands of miles of ocean beach. It is a time in paradise each year.

Last year, I immersed myself in the poetry and life of Marvell, “Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.” This year it has been Samuel Beckett keeping me company, pleasurable for his recollected walks and cycling forays in the Irish countryside no less for his famous bleakness. The sense of life and time suspended continues till Australia Day, January 26.

Buried in the news today—a day dominated by the docking of a warship which has rescued Antarctic sailors for the “Screaming Fifties,” after sea sickening swells have dominated all TV channels for many days—is an item of no likely impact, and yet, it tells outsiders much. “Big heart fails park dweller Harold Hopkins,” it is headed, with a small photo of a grieving woman sitting on a large tree root by a part bench. “Big heart” is an Australian (and British?) term for a big attempt or brace try in sport, usually applied to a racehorse or athlete, although here it seems also to have the North American sense of a generous nature. It begins:

      Brenda Mickelo, 27, will today farewell her partner of six years, Harold Williams Hopkins, 50, who died last week after suffering a fatal heart attack in one of the Brisbane parks he called home.

      Ms Mickelo said although Mr Hopkins had suffered several heart attacks in recent years and knew he was sick, he kept going back to the parks in which he had spent most of his life.

      Mr Hopkin’s funeral will be held today at Cherbourg, 160km north-west of Brisbane, where both he and Ms Mickelo were born and raised and where most of their family live.

      Murri [i.e., Aboriginal] Watch co-ordinator Noel Blair, a close friend of Mr Hopkins, said he tried to warn Mr Hopkins to look after himself after his previous heart attacks.

      Mr Blair said more than 20 Aboriginal people living in the parks died each year, many of them aged less than 30.

      He said even though many agencies provided accommodation and support for Aboriginal people, Mr Hopkins chose to continue to live with “park people” he worked hard to help.

      Mr Blair said Mr Hopkins left Cherbourg at 15 to escape from the restrictions Aborigines faced.

      “Harold went to live in the parks where most of the people went at that time,” he said.

      . . .

      Mr Blair said Mr Hopkins could have been a world-class boxer [like other Cherbourg men who went on to Olympic and Commonwealth Games] and had fought a bout against Johnny Famechon in 1966.

      . . .

      He fought Johnny Famechon in Newcastle and the fight was stopped in the fifth round. But I can assure you that during the first three rounds, Famechon knew he was in a real fight. Harold was one of the top counter-punchers in the world.”

      . . .

      Mr Hopkins is survived by Ms Mickelo, 27, their two sons Alfred, 5 and Harold, 1. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 13 January 1997)

There is a great row across the country, naturally enough, because a white infant has died after contact with an un-immunised child transmitting a dangerous illness. “Protecting our children” and white health are always big news, and if 20 such children died in Brisbane in a year, there would be blood in the streets and politicians hanged from the lamp-posts. However, Aboriginal life continues to be cheap, and Aboriginal death, largely unnoticed.

Two or three years ago my wife tried unsuccessfully to have a collective preparing a community Christmas play remove the flippant and insensitive references to Aborigines spending the night in the part. Even the half-dozen university students in the troupe couldn’t or wouldn’t see the point.

Meanwhile, funding of services to indigenous people falls far short of basic needs. Some Australian governments calculate the cost of indigenous jail inmates, a very large group, in their totals for indigenous services, dollar amounts flaunted to critics at home and abroad to prove this is a caring society. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander anger at the manipulation of funds and administration by State and Territory governments was the most widespread and deeply felt issue during the national hearings for the “indigenous social justice” process and reports of 1994-95 (Jull 1995; 1996a).


This year’s Christmas season has not been entirely newsfree, however. There is the usual infotainment, of course—mostly the cricket, in which an arrogant and self-satisfied Australian team have patronised their “third world” guests, the West Indies, or “Windies,” until these latter found form and began trouncing the home team, even when the home stars were batting well. We have followed the tennis rallies and off-court soap opera of a host of adolescents, and we wonder if this is the year 16-year-old Czech-Swiss Martina will send German star Steffi to overdue oblivion. The big south-east Australia yacht raced saw our news media falling off docks and out of helicopters to catch every bust boom and sprained ankle. But the circumnavigation of Antarctica has become the national obsession, and that’s not counting a now-lost Canadian who may give us many more hours of ghoulish pleasure.

Into these pleasures of the Great Australian Summer was flung on 23 December, like a dead cat, the Wik decision of the High Court. The Wik are people of the eastern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, i.e., the western side of Cape York Peninsula, an area like the High Arctic, which is a national symbol of the final wilderness and equatorial rainforest purity. Wik dispossession and subsequent problems have been the subject of fine and moving documentary films and published studies (Leveridge and Lea 1993), as well as landmark court decisions (which did them little good at the time, however). Together with other Cape York peoples they have defused mounting racial tension threatening violence with their Cape York Land Use Agreement, a set of guidelines for peaceful resolution of disputes and respect of vital interests among indigenous peoples, cattle graziers, and environmentalists. This was a breakthrough which drew a prime ministerial photo opportunity early in 1996, a photo which may have sewn the hostility and opposition among new cabinets in power in the state of Queensland and federal Canberra.

In Wik the court found that while the dislocating and intrusive mining operations for RTZ-CRA’s bauxite mine at Weipa are rock solid, native title continues to exist on pastoral leases. Such leases cover c. 40 percent of the continent, notably the north and west, although the main front-page story of the 13 January 1995 edition of The Australian says that “Up to seventy percent of Australia could be subject to native title claims as a result of the High Court’s Wik decision, according to State and federal government officials. . . . The Wik decision overturned conventional legal wisdom that pastoral leases extinguished native title.”

The hysteria which has greeted Wik is largely misplaced. Land titles are not under threat; rather, some indigenous land use such as traditional hunting and gathering, holding ceremonies, etc., may now be deemed not incompatible with grazing leases. These leases are usually very large; some are larger than European countries. Aborigines may now be able to carry on age-old practices on some parts of these traditional lands which are now the white man’s cattle stations. They would not be able to interfere with any grazing lease practice, however, although the Queensland government has made ministerial comments to the contrary, words viewed by many as whipping up a racial furore for political gain.

Motives aside, the issue has needed little fanning by governments. Land tenure in general, and the mystique of pastoralism which was the typical form of white “settlement” across large areas of the continent, are sacred symbols of the white man’s Australia. What has become clear in the past year is a new definition of “reconciliation,” the official Australian term for mutual acceptance by indigenous and non-indigenous Australians of each other’s interests, cultures, and place in the scheme of things. Reconciliation now seems to mean the minimising or removal of lingering indigenous rights and “special status” in return for favourable consideration in respect of health, education, welfare, and employment and economic programs. When the new government’s words and actions are criticised, the Prime Minister replies huffily that critics just don’t want to accept a new government has some new ideas.

But these are not new ideas. They are, rather, the same old ideas which were proven earlier to be failures in Australia (and every other country). Treating indigenous peoples as social cases who need help to fit in to what is implicitly viewed as the superior culture f the majority is a step backward. This return to a welfare approach has been accompanied by a virtual war on what the Prime Minister and colleagues have called “Aboriginal industry,” viewing the proliferation of indigenous political organisations and service agencies as illegitimate, as virtual Labor cronyism. The implication is that whites know best —and let’s not have any nonsense about indigenous sensitivities! Not everyone is fooled by the new government’s supposedly hard-headed approach. In The Australian Magazine included with The Weekend Australian newspaper (4-5 January 1997), The Australians chief political reporter, Michael Gordon, writes his predictions for 1997, including the following: Will the Coalition’s radically different approach to Aboriginal affairs a) begin to show results in terms of health, housing, education and employment? AND b) will it set back reconciliation?

Answer; a) Unlikely. b) Probably.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s avowed desire to have indigenous affairs off the main newsagenda has failed spectacularly; on the contrary, these issues have not left the front pages or TV news bulletins since mid-way through the election campaign of February and March when Coalition candidates raised them. (The government is a formal Coalition of Liberal and National Parties, although the Liberals won a lower house majority in their own right at the 2 March 1996 federal election.)

The Prime Minister is unlikely to soften. This is not because he is unkind—most reports are that he is personally decent and considerate. Rather, he doesn’t understand or accept social or cultural diversity in its contemporary meaning. As his former chief of staff emphasised centrally in a book published the year before the election (Henderson 1995), and as many others have said all along, Howard mythologises and universalises the cultural experience of the hardworking Anglophone “forgotten people” of the modest post-war suburbs to whom Menzies had appealed and who made him Australia’s longest-serving prime minister.

Another factor may be even more important. Howard has survived bing written of politically half a dozen times, being cruelly abused by opponents in his own party and across the parliamentary chamber to a degree which would fell an ox, and victim of the general phoney tough viciousness with which Australia’s business, political, and intellectual élites like to be seen to be doing their daily business. (The fact the Australia’s considerable actual achievements in the modern world result from creative flair, ingenuity, and open freshness have not yet replaced the redneck outback bloke as national archetype, even though that image was itself largely an urban myth. For discussions of such matters, see White 1981 and a rapidly expanding field of studies since.) Like survivors of terrible world events who become social reformers, Howard is unlikely to be easily deflected on important matters by what must seem mere summer storms of protest, events which will clear quickly, without trace.


During the 1996 federal election campaign, a striking red-headed woman, Pauline Hanson, who owned and worked daily in a fish-and-chip shop in Ipswich, Queensland, an old mining and industrial city outside Brisbane, ran for the Liberals. The Ipswich district was the safest Labor seat anywhere. During the campaign, Ms Hanson made disparaging remarks about the supposedly privileged position of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in respect of public benefits, and was dropped by the Liberals. However, the ballot papers had already been printed. An polling day, therefore, she still had the appearance of Liberal endorsement. More importantly, however, she was the sole high-profile alternative to the Labor status quo. Labor was annihilated in Queensland at the election. What is more, Hanson has voiced the frustrations heard on street corners and over back fences with a Labor government which had appeared to many to have become remote and élitist, a government seen to be talking about grand designs rather than the small insecurities of struggling people on modest or fixed incomes.

“The Hanson Phenomenon,” as it is often called, was only beginning. Since March the new MP has kept up a steady stream of comments disparaging indigenous people and Asian immigrants in particular. Her maiden speech to Parliament urged populist grievances including the need for Australia to quit the United Nations because, she said, it was reputedly a world version of the Australian national indigenous affairs bureaucracy, ATSIC. ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, was already under siege from the new government which was freely tossing around accusations of incompetence, failure, self-aggrandisement, financial mismanagement or worse, and insensitivity to the needs of the very indigenous people who were its clients. ATSIC is not merely a federal government department; it is a semi-independent entity with an all-indigenous executive board of Commissioners and elected regional councils. It is in a difficult position at the best of times, juggling its duties as an arm of government with its responsibility to the people who elect its regional council and national Commissioners (Sullivan 1996). The failure of special government audits to prove a case against ATSIC leave the suspicion that the attack was a sop to racists.

This is just one example of the sense many commentators have had that Hanson and the Howard government were fellow travellers. One letter the editor called Hanson the Howard government’s “real minister” for indigenous affairs, and indeed, it has appeared that xenophobia and racial resentment in the general community rather than indigenous well-being or aspirations are guiding government policy. While that would not be a new experience for indigenous people, it is a serious reversal of what seemed a promising trend as Australia joined the world’s progressive countries on indigenous policy.

Pauline Hanson has crystallised national debate in a far larger sense. She is also visible in a very immediate and tangible sense; her flaming red hair and familiar facial features have become key elements of Australian iconography, seen everywhere from political cartoons to T-shirts. In one large canvas she is being burned as Saint Joan in a ceremony presided over by an archbishop with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) logo on his mitre, the ABC being the vile guardian of “political correctness” in some circles of the Coalition faithful. (Some ABC supporters call Hanson “Joan of Dark.”) By Howard’s understated response in the face of many calls from all sides to repudiate Hanson’s views, he has appeared not only to give credence to those views, but to legitimise loud and xenophobic rant. He has defended such noise as “free speech” and denounced its critics. Not surprisingly, incidents of racial abuse and assault have been reported to be increasing all around the country. The Labor opposition managed to win Coalition support for a bipartisan resolution in federal parliament deploring racism, supporting indigenous “reconciliation,” etc., although the Prime Minister’s contribution in debate was almost diffident. When a Labor senator well-known and respected for her work on racial and indigenous issues was having some success in quietly working with all parties to develop a parliamentary code of race ethics, Howard’s office issued a statement dismissing the project, sayingHe [Howard] learnt all he needed to know about ethics from his deceased parents. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 10 December 1996)

One might note that in the childhood of Mr Howard, as in that of his parents, Australia had no race ethics. Rather, the White Australia policy barred non-European immigration and indigenous peoples were denied most rights of citizenship and human dignity.

In a piece, “Howard’s New Populism,” in The Weekend Australian (4-5 January 1997), a wise elder commentator, Donald Horne, who wrote The Lucky Country and intended that epithet ironically, said of Howard’s use of “mainstream” values, etc.,It’s a strategy taken from Ronald Reagan’s election campaigns, in which he sent signals to Democrat voters with a bit of red neck showing above their blue collars that has was a social conservative just like them. This concern with the perceived electoral importance of social conservatism among a relatively small but electorally significant group of voters is why there was a pause of silence among our political leaders after Pauline Hanson made her maiden speech in federal parliament. It was that pause, not the speech itself, that produced the social destructiveness and the damage to national interests of the whole Hanson episode.

In late November, the expatriate Australian author of the world-renowned book on Australia’s origins (Hughes 1987) blew into town from New York, condemning the by now intense and unremitting racial debate as “burps and farts from the deep gut of Australian racism” (The Aus tralian, 2 December 1996). Rather than dispute his views, locals attacked his right to express them—after all, he lived abroad and supposedly did not understand Australian circumstances. This is a strange tack for a society dominated by a political and legal system, moral values, language, economic theories, lifestyle, various religions, clothing styles, foods, food animals, trees and flowers and pussycats, all imported from overseas.

Another November visit, by the Clintons, saw a more successful line of attack. Instead of criticising overtly, they enthused about indigenous arts and culture, and praised the openness and cultural diversity of contemporary Australia at every possible opportunity. They were relaxed and expansive, and drew a warm Australian reaction. Many of us who had felt besieged now knew we were neither wrong nor crazy after all; that in the wider world the values now under threat in Australia were the majority view, the mainstream of civilisation. This was important because the Prime Minister and his friends had been explicitly redefining “mainstream” to mean provincial seclusion. The Australian cartoonist on three successive days drew attention to what we could all see clearly enough on TV: President Clinton was as relaxed and fresh and open as the Prime Minister was cautious and ill at ease. It was an important signal, like the three writings on the wall at the Asian dinner usually remembered as Belshazzar’s feast.

Asian dinners had played a large part in national consciousness through 1995 and the two months of 1996 preceding the election. Every time one turned on the TV news, there was John Howard enthusiastically enjoying another dinner with Chinese or other Asian Australians. Perhaps he has a passion for lemon chicken, but the media believed all this activity related to an 1988 gaffe when he questioned Asian immigration levels, thereby producing a storm which soon led to his removal as Opposition leader. In short, he spent 1995 and early 1996 repairing his race relations credentials. No sooner was he in power in 1996 than his foreign minister, immigration minister, indigenous affairs minister, and he, himself, as prime minister, were saying things which raised doubts throughout Australia and Asia about his government’s understanding of and commitment to ethno-cultural harmony at home and abroad. When Belshazzar was weighed in the scales and found wanting, in the famous words of Daniel, he was abruptly replaced, not by the person named in the Bible, as it happens, but by Cyrus the Great. In recent years the Iranian community in Australia erected a statue of Cyrus to celebrate the multicultural accommodation and tolerance for which he was justly famous. No early or dramatic deliverance from ethnic tension seems likely in Australia today. Rather, a great deal more political argument and conflict are likely in 1997.


The Australian situation overall must concern all “First World” indigenous peoples and their friends. Is this startling roll-back of indigenous progress and social attitudes symptomatic of wider world trends? By and large, the Australian situation is unique to Australia, but that does not mean it will not threaten others.

For instance, the mining industry is very powerful in Australia in a way which contemporary North Americans would not and do not accept. Major Australian mining interests have moved into Northern Canada in recent years, most conspicuously with diamond ventures in the Northwest Territories. The mining industry is doing its own comparative studies and networking internationally, and obviously not with the aim of strengthening indigenous rights,although a more amiable patter about working with local people has replaced some of the old blunt self-interest. Canadian have every reason to keep up to date with the excellent Australian academic and other literature on these subjects (e.g., Howitt et al. 1996).

The main flaw in the Prime Minister’s current approach is his assumption that policies of indigenous rights and recognition, and many other policies, were just a fad of an adventurous Labor élite and were foisted on Australia by self-selecting self-serving trendies. He is wrong in the indigenous case, as in several others. He believes that Labor “lost touch,” and yet he betrays the political paranoia of one who has lost touch himself. of too long suffering the slights and one-upmanship of other political professionals. No doubt his rivals were often unpleasant and unkind, or too clever by half, but the public by and large doesn’t give a damn. They didn’t elect Labor to be nice to John Howard but to run the economy and deal with social issues and the other challenges which arise in national and international life. True, the Labor team had to work long hours in Canberra negotiating the outcomes while Howard could freely travel the land identifying with the usual community and personal anxiety expressed as anti-government noise on everything from drought to drug costs, but the day he became prime minister he automatically became the lightening rod for all irrationality and insecurity in the country. It’s just part of the job. These are the laws of nature. Howard’s team has already thrown away any claim to moral superiority with various ill-chosen tactics, gaffes, petty dishonesties, outright lies, and corner-cutting. What the Howard faithful choose to see as a vast 13-year Labor conspiracy was, in fact, no more than the present-day look in late 20th century Australia. If they feel strongly about it, let them hand in their mobile phones, fax machines, and laptop computers which also came into vogue during Labor’s tenure!

That being said, there was at least a ragged little debate on basic indigenous policy principles in 1996. A book launched by Howard’s minister for indigenous affairs became controversial (no less than did his act in launching it). The book drew a somewhat false dichotomy between the views of two nationally renowned and respected senior civil servants of the post-war era, and was simply titled, Hasluck vs. Coombs (Partington 1996). Although Hasluck has said a great many things at different times, his assimilationist remarks were set up as one pole in the book, while Coombs’ views were caricatured as “separatist.” Readers of The Northern Review should be better informed, Coombs’ essays having been reviewed in these pages in combined issue No. 12/13 (Jull 1994).

The argument was made be the author, Partington, and his partisans that assimilation had produced more benefits for indigenous peoples than the present phase which, in the misleading official terminology, had often been styled “self-determination.” “Partial and controlled self-management” might be a more accurate term for the reality of policy in the recent past. The pithy comment of the decade may belong to outgoing ATSIC chair Lois O’Donoghue, however, when she said that the Australian federal government’s indigenous policy was “to throw money at problems it scarcely believed can be resolved” (O’Donoghue 1996).

The Partington book and a spate of media excerpts and responses saw a fundamental discussion, however briefly, but it only polarised misconceptions. It was made to appear that the alternative to patronising indigenous peoples and doing good to them was to split the country, and that if whites were not carefully doing the good, mischievous blacks might run away with the money. It was especially bitter for indigenous people because at this time in 1996 they were painfully baring their souls around the country in hearings on the “Stolen Generation,” the national policy of removing indigenous children from their parents and putting them in institutions or white homes. Howard’s indigenous affairs minister, and others who should have known better, opined to the media that such people had often obtained great benefits and werebetter off, citing some of the very indigenous leaders of today as cases in point. Indigenous leaders were privately outraged by this characterisation, not surprisingly, but generally controlled in their public responses. However, when one of the best and brightest of the young Aboriginal leaders, Rob Riley, hanged himself in a hotel room in a miasma of pain and confusion about the reliving of his personal experience of such a past, it made a point which words could not. The ABC government-owned television network quickly made a clear and affecting documentary of his life and showed it in prime TV time.

1996 was a very long year in indigenous affairs, and fraught with tragedies and trivia, most of them played out on Page 1 of the major newspapers and breathlessly in TV bulletins. Perhaps some day we will recall it all, with the benefit of hindsight, as a turning point in public attitudes, but to have lived through it one is merely numb. (I have necessarily mentioned only a few episodes in this report for reasons of space and coherence.)

One other small item seems important in this matter of social and political context, however. Howard chose as indigenous affairs minister a fine distinguished-looking snowy-haired Brisbane surgeon. Part of the reason for the choice was to highlight health as the government’s indigenous priority—and nobody would question that indigenous health is a national crisis. However, the minister, Senator Herron, was in trouble right from the outset with his client group for unwise or naive comments. The problem was not his good intentions but rather the nature of indigenous affairs in national and international politics today—they are tough and highly charged, and all about politics rather than charity. Useful qualifications would be experience settling waterfront strikes, or separating the feuding armed irregulars in the Balkans or Somalia. Each time the minister was having an especially bad patch, the governmental response, or one floated by media commentators as a reply, was that the minister had, as a surgeon, served a stint helping Rwandans in the aftermath of the recent genocide. To my astonishment, nobody has said, “So what?” Sadly, it seems to imply that Australians continue to see “blacks” indiscriminately as a category of people, people to be patronised from afar, rather than a patchwork of distinct cultural and political communities to be accommodated and worked with at home.


The political status of the Northern Territory (NT) and its indigenous peoples became a national issue in 1996. This was brought about not by land rights politics, active though those were, but by the NT’s new euthanasia legislation. Many in the Aboriginal community, whose older members recall the massacres of not so many decades ago, quite naturally feared that euthanasia was a euphemism for getting rid of “blackfellas.” Ill people in remote communities began refusing to go to the local clinics, and hospital visits became a source of terror for some. Those concerns have been largely ignored in the ensuing fuss, however.

Concerned MPs in Canberra, including the Prime Minister and Opposition leader, began to respond to the idea of a federal override bill. That is, federal legislation could override the powers of the NT legislature. The NT’s Right populist government and cowed Labor opposition campaigned against this alleged intrusion into NT democracy and self-rule, and managed to win the support of the state premiers. However, constitutional issues were never going to be determinative; as the vehemence of the debate grew, especially after the first legal death under the NT law, life and death became the central issue. It now seems all but certain that federal parliament will strike down the NT law through the device of a private member’s bill rather than a formal government measure.

The scant importance attributed to the religious and social convictions of Aboriginal people in this matter is worrying. There is no reason to believe that the NT and federal governments will be much more responsive to Aborigines in their current behind-the-scenes moves toward NT statehood, although Aboriginal groups have tried to put forward some talking points with the assistance of a publication drawing heavily on Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alaska experience and precedent (Jull 1996b). If Canberra attempts to hand over the present federal Aboriginal land rights laws to the NT government, as seems likely, it may well prompt an international indigenous rights campaign by NT Aborigines.

The situation of Islanders and Aborigines is nowhere very strong right now, but as national indigenous peoples ombudsman Mick Dodson pointed out on national TV, the easy assumption put about by the Howard government that Aborigines had a comfy life under Labor is false. Aboriginal leaders may have had somewhat more access to government than previously, but every issue and bit of progress was hard fought. The commitment of Prime Minister Keating from late 1992 to indigenous policy reform was almost unique; he brought along relatively few of his cabinet and caucus with him, and very few officials. It has now become conventional wisdom in many Labor circles that Keating’s approach was a major factor in losing the 1996 election. The danger is that Labor will now back away from indigenous peoples, leaving them as isolated and vulnerable as in times past.

One issue certainly did damage both Labor and indigenous political fortunes. At Hindmarsh Island near Adelaide, South Australia, the Aboriginal and environmental opposition to a bridge and associated developments led to the federal indigenous affairs minister using special indigenous heritage powers to stop construction. He was relying on expert advice that secret Aboriginal women’s beliefs would be violated, but the courts ruled against the validity of processes he had followed in making his finding. The issue turned into something of a national circus with Aboriginal people and academic experts turning against each other and making claims and counter-claims about the women’s beliefs, the most spectacular accusation being by some Aborigines that there were no secret beliefs and that the story had been cooked up to stop the bridge. Inquiry hearings by judges and others events kept the issue bubbling, and the possibility of a conclusive or convincing answer slipped away. This whole fracas did untold damage to the credibility of indigenous rights recognition in the short term. It is already beginning to yield a literature of cultural and other studies which rehash the whole business from varying angles. Perhaps this will lead to better outcomes in future disputes—a pious hope!

Other high-profile issues have included the on-again off-again negotiating of local Aborigines in north-west Queensland with the RTZ-CRA mining operation, Century Zinc, potentially the world’s largest zinc mine. This has flared into open federal-Queensland dispute at times, and at other times the Queensland premier is seen shouting toe-to-toe with a young Aboriginal leader who is shouting back. RTZ-CRA is committed to providing substantial benefits to the Aborigines, opening the talks with an offer of $60 million worth of benefits and some land, but many issues including difficult environmental ones have not been resolved. Furthermore, some early hopes that federal and state governments would join in and turn the whole business into a model agreement like the Northern Canada claims settlements have faded. RTZ-CRA has now sold Century, conditional on successful completion of the Aboriginal negotiations. After all, as a huge mining interest in Australia and world-wide, this company which has taken the big leap toward better indigenous relations has good reason to want to achieve a positive model for many other such sites in the future.

Late in 1996, apparently in response to growing demands from the news media that the Howard government explain what it was doing, the minister was dispatched to the AustralianNational University to deliver a policy speech (Herron 1996). He had a rough time from protesters outside, but cheerfully told that he had worked with black casualties in Rwanda (and suggested that they might try doing the same). The speech was not a great success as a policy framework, although its main substantive point—that the army would go into indigenous communities and build basic infrastructure—received much attention. Indigenous leaders around the country asked loudly why money should be given to the army when it would make more sense to train or employ indigenous people to do the work, the more so in light of the earlier announcement of government cutbacks to indigenous community work-for-welfare schemes. The main policy element was a new term, “self-empowerment,” which was to replace “self-determination” and usher in a brave new world. (Complaining media were later told that this had not been the real government policy speech, after all, and that another, perhaps from the Prime Minister, could be expected someday. Nobody is counting on it.)


Over the Xmas period the news media have floated, apparently based on excellent sources, rumours of four possible elements of a federal or federal-state-territorial response to Wik. One would be to amend the race Discrimination Act of 1975 to weaken the protection afforded indigenous rights. Although this Act is not, strictly speaking, a constitutional enactment, it is a cornerstone of the modern society and values which Australians have wished to be know for, not least as a tangible rejection of the White Australia Policy of old, As indigenous commentators and others note, there is no point having race discrimination and minority protection laws if one chooses to amend them as soon as they prove inconvenient to the majority.

Another proposal is to extinguish the common-law native title, rights first and belatedly identified by Australia’s High Court in the 1992 Mabe decision (Bartlett 1993). A third proposal is to expropriate native title rights without compensation, a principle which the Australian Constitution appears to reject with its clause on “just terms” in cases of expropriation. A final proposal is to hand over powers relating to native title to the States and Territories.

Each and all of these concepts should be unthinkable, and should be no less unthinkable to conservatives than to social reformers. Such is not the case. As one of my friends keeps telling me, he being an Australian native rights lawyer who has been at the centre of such issues for many years, legal principle and human rights for most Australians stop short of “blackfellas.” This has been all too painfully true in the past year, and yet, there are also significant positive factors.

For one thing, there is and has long been in Australia much more than a “righteous remnant” who strongly support the principles of autonomy, cultural respect, and compensation for indigenous peoples. Many academics have played a distinguished role here, for instance, as well as some politicians in all parties. Also evident this past year, for the first time, has been strong national élite support, including in the major news media, for a new understanding of indigenous rights, needs, and aspirations, an evolution in attitudes caused in part by the shock, discussion, and policy disputes following the Mabo decision of June 1992, and in part by evolving social attitudes.

Third is a growing awareness that there is an international dimension to indigenous rights and politics, and that such a dimension could be brought into play unpleasantly in respect of Australian’s political credibility in an Asia which has not yet forgiven the White Australia policy long directed against it. It is understood that this could have spectacularly damaging effects on the growth industry of tourism in general and the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000particularly. It may be hard for Canadians to understand the cachet of the Sydney Olympics. The expectations of two weeks of games and accompanying foofaraw are something like the American Declaration of Independence and British Crystal Palace Exhibition rolled into one, i.e., nothing less than a declaration of mature nationhood, technological and socio-economic modernity, and excellence in many fields (of which sports is only one).

Finally, there is the restiveness of some ministers and other politicians in Coalitions ranks at the appearance of mustiness in government attitudes towards race, cross-cultural relations, and cosmopolitanism. Simply put, many of them are impatient with the Prime Minister’s caution, even when they take into account his political view that there are votes which were won in the election and which may be kept for future elections in steering clear of what he and his friends view as “political correctness.” Just as the Trudeau government began its reign with the notorious 1969 Indian policy paper and left office in 1984 amid feelings of heartfelt loss by indigenous leaders, so the Howard government may well be changed by experience and circumstance over time.

To repeat, there are some positive signs and resources amid the gloom. However, they cannot be turned into real political assets without indigenous leaders articulating clear and persuasive alternatives, and standing firm on a rock or high place of principle. They have a very great potential asset in the national consensus agenda developed through the indigenous social justice work of 1994-95 and published in three resulting reports (ATSIC 1995; CAR 1995; HREOC 1995; or for summaries see Jull 1995 and 1996a). That process was surely the most comprehensive and credible indigenous policy development exercise, and most legitimate because of its conduct by indigenous personnel themselves, ever carried out in any “first world” country. It findings were practical, precedented, and sound. They provide an ideal base for political work with any government in Canberra, and given the Howard team’s many difficulties in the field, it should soon be ready to start listening to constructive proposals.

But indigenous leaders under siege from the new federal government—as well as from governments in Western Australia, Northern Territory, and Queensland newly energised by this apparently indigenous-unfriendly government in Canberra—have been able to do little more than try to hold a few hard-won gains. Also, while indigenous leaders are skilled at dealing pragmatically with white politicians, often with great panache, they are much less experienced in negotiating the constitutional-type political agendas required now, agendas required no matter which party was in power in Canberra. Such negotiations and outcomes take time and steady firmness, sometimes over years. One of the most obvious characteristics of Australian political life to a Canadian observer, on the other hand, is short attention span, by no means only a result of 3-year parliamentary terms. The Australian motto appears to read: Politics by reflex, not reflection.

Just as Australian indigenous policy and political reform require informed discussion, explanation, and negotiation, rather than total reliance on the reflexes of the status quo and conventional wisdom, they also require an international dimension. Although this has been recognised by some, and proposals made, not much has happened (Dodson 1995; HREOC 1995, Vol. 1, 41-48). In particular, overseas experience can show that the Australian indigenous social justice consensus is precedented, workable, and has none of the dire consequences feared by Australian reactionaries (e.g., Crough 1997). Overseas attention, support, and encouragement, especially from Europe and North America, will probably be necessary to help convince Australian governments that indigenous rights and autonomy are not simply a domestic Labor factional plot or passing fancy but an emerging universal standard to which Australia, like other peaceful and prosperous countries, is expected to subscribe.


The sense of isolation and siege one feels today in Australia vis-à-vis international and especially “first world” social attitudes and human rights observance may not disappear any time soon. The neighbourhood is hardly conducive. The pleasant and very civilised prime minister newly re-elected in Singapore this Christmas season boasted in his victory speech that in reducing the almost non-existent opposition vote even further, the people had rejected Western liberal democracy and notions of individual rights. Singapore is only a small city-state, of course, but it is the one place in eastern and southern Asia where recognisably “first world” society and values are in full bloom—apart from Hong Kong, that is!

Australia is determined to be a part—in every sense possible—of the Asian community where its economic present and future so clearly lie. In this regard Australia is far ahead of Canada and the North Atlantic world where action and attitudes lag far behind platitudes on “the Asian century.” This strikes any first-time Canadian visitor forcibly (e.g., Jull 1987). The debates about the future of politics, society, and culture now going on in Australia may well be the wave of all our futures, and all of us in the “first world” should pay close attention.

The massacre in Dili of unarmed East Timorese civilians by the Indonesian military in 1991 would probably have been ignored by the world but for the presence of a writer from The New Yorker, and for one or more video camera operators whose footage of blood and terror is replayed constantly on Australian TV. Those of us living nearby in Darwin at the time, a city with a sizeable and active East Timorese diaspora community, felt especially numbed and helpless.

In late 1996 the gentle East Timorese bishop Belo returned from Oslo where he had received the Nobel Peace Prize, to lead a Christmas service. A large crowd had gathered outside his cathedral in Dili to welcome him back and welcome the prestige conferred on him and their common plight by the Nobel committee in Oslo. But some of the crowd detected several persons by the door concealing arms. They drove away these persons, kicking one of them to death in the process, presuming them to be assassins sent by the Jakarta government.

A similar tale97-and one in which the assassins return to finish their work—is told in TS Eliot’s poetic drama, Murder in the Cathedral. Indonesia is an Islamic country with a leadership notable for its large military component, a leadership not much given to reading verse dramatisations of medieval Christian religio-political confrontations, one assumes. That is unfortunate because the episode in Dili may be a sleep-walk into disaster just like the ritual inevitability of the Eliot play. As the play’s public chorus says,The New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers in darkness.

. . .

Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait,

And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.

Australia, too, seems to be waiting for disaster in its relations with indigenous peoples—or even courting it. One should really say renewed disaster, because what has befallen most indigenous peoples in the past two centuries can hardly be called anything else. The window of hope provided in recent years by various political actions and the clumsy beginnings of indigenous-government dialogue now appears to be closing. Unless available positive elements are quickly mobilised and a concerted long-term (rather than quick-fix) indigenous strategy developed around an identifiable and articulated program of reforms, such as the indigenous social justice consensus, very serious trouble lies ahead. Until the degree of positive change is sufficient to overcome inertia or resistance in the wider system—and at this time it is not—rural and remoteindigenous communities, no less than urban indigenous communities, face renewed hostility from a society whose government is, in effect, giving nudges and winks to racists and other reactionaries. Meanwhile, there is not long to wait: the Acting Prime Minister is spending the January holiday period touring remote and rural areas talking up and providing a forum for dire implications of the Wik decision to the white community, assuring them it will be the government’s big priority in 1997. The Queensland, Western Australia, and Northern Territory premiers are meeting to concert their views in advance of a meeting with the Prime Minister, always a grim signal on indigenous issues. One might say, indeed, thatThe New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers in darkness.


Postscript (17 January 1997)

Today the lead news item on the ABC television World at Noon was the revelation by the Catholic Bishop of Melbourne, New South Wales, of more details of the alleged assassination attempt on East Timor’s Bishop Belo on his arrival at the Dili cathedral from the Oslo ceremony where the Nobel Peace Prize had been conferred on him. Members of the crowd overheard conspirators and attacked them, killing one person alleged to be the main assassin. This person was a Timorese known to be a member of the Indonesian military. When his body was checked inside the cathedral, it was found that he had large sums of Indonesian money on his person, leading some commentators to conclude he was paid by the army to kill Belo.

In domestic news, a principal item on a commercial network is an opinion poll showing 64 per cent of Australians ready to extinguish native title. There was 56 percent disapproval to 36 percent approval of the Wik decision, rising to a high of 72 percent disapproval in Queensland. Figures from the other states were mixed: Tasmania, 63 percent disapproval; New South Wales, 54 percent; Western Australia, 51 percent (a surprisingly low figure); South Australia, 50 percent; and Victoria, 49 percent. Disapproval overall was higher in country areas (61 percent) than urban areas (52 percent). The national sample of 530 polled seems small. No doubt, too, additional questions would have elicited contempt for politicians as a class, the slashing of their pay, and other measures to prevent the spread of their infection and genes, but unfortunately such questions were not asked. (Politicians and journalists regularly score at the bottom of surveys of respected occupations, with druggists at the top.)

Meanwhile, my wife and I are heading off to the sunny pleasure-dome of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast, there to wait, in the Beckettian phrase, “the old round of unhappenings” beginning again after Australia Day.


The main sources relied upon have been the daily newspapers The Daily Australian and Brisbane Courier-Mail, and their weekend editions, The Weekend Australian and The Sunday Mail, as well as daily TV news from the commercial networks Nine and Ten, and state-owned networks ABC and SBS. Other Australian broadcasts and publications, as well as documents and press materials, and much oral communication, have also been used.

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Bartlett, R (ed). 1993. The Mabe Decision, with commentary. . . and the full text of the decision. . . . Sydney: Butterworths.

CAR. 1995. Going Forward: Social Justice for the First Australians, A Submission to the Commonwealth Government. Canberra: Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

Crough, G. 1997 (forthcoming). Indigenous Organisations, Funding and Accountability: Some Issues from Canada and Australia. Draft monograph. Darwin: Australian National University, North Australia Research Unit (NARU).

Dodson, M. 1995. “International Perspectives,” Second Report, 1994. Sydney: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, 203-219.

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––––. 1996a. “An Aboriginal Policy for the Millennium: The Three Social Justice Reports,” Australian Indigenous Law Reporter, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1-13.

––––. 1996b. Constitution-Making in Northern Territories: Legitimacy and Governance in Australia. Alice Springs, NT: Central Land Council.

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Partington, G. 1996. Hasluck vs. Coombs: White Politics and Australias Aborigines. Sydney: Quaker’s Hill Press.

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White, R. 1981. Inventing Australia: Images and Identity, 1688-1980. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

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