By Michael Mansell, Tasmanian Aboriginal leader and lawyer.

Acclaimed Tasmania author Richard Flanagan, wrote about the "problem" of Aborigines in Tasmania. More particularly, Flanagan gave his assessment of the current dispute about who was eligible to vote in ATSIC elections, the body established by the Australian government to be a vehicle for Aboriginal expression.

Flanagan has had little or no involvement with Aboriginal people, and can therefore be seen as observing from a distance. Perhaps he is too distant for his account of the issues to be at all reliable.

First of all, the ATSIC election process is not deciding who is Aboriginal. Apart from some several thousand of Flanagan's white colleagues trying to falsely claim to be Aboriginal for the purpose of rorting the system, the question of who is Aboriginal is not in dispute. There are 6,000 Aborigines in Tasmania, made up of people of the Aboriginal families whose ancestors were Aboriginal before the British invasion and who, in the two hundred years since, have known no other identity. The ATSIC process is an exercise by the federal government to find the legal mechanism to rid Aborigines of white imposters seeking an advantage.

Flanagan attempts to portray the current dispute as being something other than a race issue between black and white (does he fear his state being branded a racist backwater?). For his purpose Flanagan claims the dispute is internal to the Aboriginal community: a battle between Aborigines from the "Bass Strait" islands and "mainland" Aborigines. He ignores the fact that of the 6,000 Aborigines in Tasmania only 200 live on the Bass Strait islands. The rest of us are from the mainland!

He claims the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre is part of the problem because it identifies " only those allied to its politics as the Aboriginal community, and those opposed to the TAC and its politics as not being Aboriginal". It's a low blow, and a desperate argument.

It is also blatantly untrue. Of course there are Aborigines who disagree with the biggest Aboriginal group in Tasmania. In 1996, 20 Aborigines publicly protested against the Centre. The TAC did not say they were not Aboriginal. It is also true two Aborigines (one of whom I am ashamed to say, is a close relative of mine) used Aboriginal remains as political leverage against the TAC, and indeed the whole of their people. The TAC did not say they were not Aboriginal.

Not surprisingly, Flanagan was unable to give a single example in support of his contention that the main Aboriginal organisation would stoop to deny one of its people their true identity. Political differences is a healthy part of a vibrant, democratic community. For any Aboriginal, or Aboriginal organisation, to use politics as a ground to deny a person's Aboriginal heritage is akin to heresy. The Aboriginal community would simply not tolerate such a stance.

But it is not entirely clear what Flanagan is actually putting. He refers to modern Aborigines as "descendants", implying we are something less than the real thing. He highlights the fact that I have light skin and blue eyes suggesting real Aborigines are black and have brown eyes. Aboriginality must be sorted out , Flanagan says, because "access to the public purse" is at stake. What a put down of the legitimate struggle by Aboriginal people for our rights.

Flanagan shows his disdain for Aboriginal self determination by slighting the push for Aboriginal government. Fair enough. Whether we all are destined to be governed in Australia by white governments or whether a treaty would see some easing of this dogma, is a legitimate public issue.

But Flanagan's bias in favour of a "one Australia" (shades of Pauline Hansen) gets confused with his claims about who is Aboriginal. Flanagan allows his disapproval of those who support Aboriginal government on Aboriginal lands to spill beyond politics. He uses the fear of political separation as a basis for attempting to discredit the TAC approach to Aboriginality. The funny thing is, it was unnecessary to make his point, namely that he disagrees with the Aboriginal definition of who is Aboriginal.
There are some absurd claims in Flanagan's arguments. According to Flanagan, the issue of Aboriginality is so hot in Tasmania that houses will be burned down. Flanagan is prone to exaggeration, but this seems pure invention.

The article was hardly well researched. On the contrary, it is full of unsubstantiated claims about Aboriginal organisations; contradictions (he begins arguing it was racist the way whites tried to deny our existence but ends up adopting the same position- we are "neither European nor Aborigine" he claims); and bias. As an attempt at providing an audience with accurate information (given they do not reside here), it was disappointing.

Aborigines knew nothing of Flanagan's intentions to write about us. And he couldn't care less. He could have provided us with a copy of his article, given the sarcasm he directed at us. He didn't do that.

Like Henry Reynolds, another Tasmanian writer of note, Flanagan takes up the theme that today's Tasmanian Aborigines are not Aborigines at all. The argument is plainly racist. The premise for this argument is that all Aborigines in Tasmania have had white people marry into our families. For some white Tasmanians it seems, to be Aboriginal you must have "purity of Aboriginal blood".

This claim seeks to contain our people's existence to a laboratory. Sanitised from the outside world, our ability to adapt to it while maintaining our existence as a distinct people, is denied. It is okay for white Tasmanians to have mixed racial backgrounds but still identify as Tasmanians, but it is different with Aborigines. The double standard.

The consequence of this romantic and recycled view (Aborigines thought we had put such racist views to bed in the 1970s) is that if we are not really Aborigines then we are not entitled to Aboriginal rights, including land. The beneficiaries of this outcome are the white Tasmanian families. Is it a coincidence that Richard Flanagan is a white Tasmanian?

Flanagan chose to write for an international audience who had no information to compare with his. The audience was unfairly prone to exploitation. Instead of Flanagan responsibly writing in light of this, he instead lashed out with the full venom of his personal prejudices.

The worst feature of the Flanagan article is its mocking of Aboriginal people. It is easy for a writer to fall for this trap, especially when they write from the perspective of the dominant over a minority. Whites took our lands, and have returned .001% to us. We must be grateful for that! Our imprisonment rate is 6 times higher than that of whites, our kids cannot get through high school like the white kids can, and all the wealth in Tasmania is in the hands of whites. Oh, how we Aborigines wish for the privileged life that allows one race to judge another, and enforce that judgement.

Richard Flanagan has been held as a progressive social writer. His other accounts of Tasmania in books and articles display well researched and sincere writing. None of this is evident in Flanagan's first foray into a discussion about Aborigines.

Michael Mansell
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre
21st October 2002