We just don’t get it, unna?

Tony Smith, The University of Sydney

Three developments in August demonstrate that when it comes to the status of Aboriginal people, we gubbas just don’t get it. All three involved efforts by the indigenous peoples to communicate with us and in response we in the dominant culture imposed conditions that refuse to recognise Aboriginal uniqueness.

First we declared that political protests would not be allowed on the site of the Aboriginal cultural centre at Homebush. This prohibition seems reasonable enough although any attempt to place politics and art into separate conceptual or physical spheres would be greeted with derision in the western art world.

We assume that we make rules that have equal and just effect on everyone.

And while imposing distinctions on Aboriginal people that we would not accept ourselves, we fail to recognise that the very survival of anything remotely recognisable as indigenous is the most telling form of protest possible. When Aboriginal people take pride in a culture that is distinct, they demonstrate effective resistance to policies of assimilation. Only a people seeking to rationalise two hundred years of domination could fail to appreciate this.

Secondly, South Sydney Council decided to seek a court order to remove the Tent Embassy from Victoria Park. As ordinances forbid ‘camping’, Council was concerned that an undesirable precedent was being created. But camping is a luxury engaged in by we who have western style housing. We do not bother to ask the people at the Tent Embassy what it is they are doing. There is no need. We assume that we make rules that have equal and just effect on everyone.

In the mid-nineties, the Tent Embassy people squatted in the Old Parliament House on Australia Day and were removed eventually by the force of the executive government. That clash made it clear that we gubbas are determined to contain Aboriginal protest and to force it into areas we find acceptable. Over the road was all right just as the mission was out of sight. Here is a political fence like the wire ones erected for the management of sheep but that inhibited the movement of native animals essential to the survival of indigenous peoples.

A compromise was negotiated over the Victoria Park Tent Embassy, but only after a Greens Councillor had publicly threatened to withdraw her crucial support from the Mayor.

When the 'mainstream' fails to consider the real needs of a powerless minority, the entire system is weakened.

Thirdly, an application for compensation by two members of the stolen generation was dismissed in a Darwin court. The judge was sympathetic and open-minded, but his hands were bound by standards of evidence that demonstrate a profound lack of inter-cultural communication. The reference to the thumb-print of a presumably non-literate mother symbolises this dislocation. We gubbas regard this thumbprint as a valid signature to a document that the mother could not read, let alone understand. We have been shown repeatedly the suffering we have caused and yet continue to treat all persons as equal before the law despite knowing that our policies have made equality impossible.

Refusing to treat with Aboriginal people on their own terms might seem like the legitimate prerogative of the dominant culture. But there are two distinct problems with our attitude in this pre-Olympic period. The first is that when the ‘mainstream’ majority fails to consider the real needs of a powerless minority, the entire system is weakened. A socio-political system that claims to be a democracy must expect to be judged not by the brightness of its sporting stars but by the wellbeing of its most powerless citizens. The second is that the specific position in which Aboriginal people find themselves is not of their own making. It is the result of two centuries of policies formed in exactly the same myopic way that we are exhibiting today.

Non-indigenous Australia makes outcasts of the indigenous peoples and then compounds the disadvantage when they do not comply with our norms. If we really do have good will towards Aboriginal people, we must accept the necessity of their protests during the Olympics. We must understand why they are in Victoria Park. We must set about finding a way to assist the stolen generations without imposing unsatisfiable legal criteria on them. It is our refusal to do these things that threatens to damage our international reputation during the rites of spring.

Tony Smith is Associate Lecturer in Government and International Relations in the School of Economics and Political Science, The University of Sydney.

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