More on “Tony Abbott was right: we really should move on”

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There have been so many viewpoints expressed about this – even, if not surprisingly, in a homily last Sunday at South Sydney Uniting Church. By the way the 100th South Sydney Herald is now out. Get a copy!

But today I want to commend an article in The Guardian by Tom Keneally, which was republished in today’s Illawarra Mercury.

In saying that I have conflicting views about the hustling of Julia Gillard, the prime minister, to her car through a cordon of Aboriginal demonstrators and police on Australia Day last month, I am merely reflecting a genuine confusion many of us feel. The protesters later said that their anger was directed at the opposition leader, muscular, all-surfing, all-bicycling, former Catholic seminarian (like me) neocon (unlike me) Tony Abbott. Yet I have to say Abbott’s remarks about the determinedly ramshackle Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, founded 40 years ago, did not seem to me racist or wild.

I assert this though I am not an admirer of Abbott’s. The idea of his winning the prime ministership from the unpopular Labor leader, Gillard, makes me fantasise about political asylum in Scunthorpe. But this is what Abbott said about the Tent Embassy: "I think a lot has changed for the better since then [the setting-up of the Embassy]. I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian … I think it probably is time to move on from that."

I don’t utterly agree with him, but his is an arguable opinion. When the Tent Embassy was founded outside federal parliament in 1972, it was established by four Aboriginal leaders planting a beach umbrella in the turf. There they stood to protest the refusal of a conservative government then in power to recognise Aboriginal land rights claims. When that brave beach umbrella was raised, the obscene doctrine of terra nullius was still accepted as Australian common law; a legal fiction that Australia was land belonging to no one. This made seizure of Australia – and the continuing possession by settlers – utterly legal…

One Aboriginal leader I have had something to do with is the formidable Lowitja O’Donoghue. She is a former nurse who – on her merits and not on the basis of sentiment – would have been a frontrunner for president had we become a republic in the late 1990s. Her present programme is to do away by referendum with a clause in the Australian constitution she calls "potentially prejudicial" to Aboriginal rights. O’Donoghue seeks a 2013 referendum to eliminate it, to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples as original occupiers of the continent, and to express the duty of the commonwealth to attend to the advancement of indigenes. Sadly, shock-jocks, exploiting what happened on Australia Day, might defeat her dream.

Just as Abbott’s remarks, though untactful, are defensible as free speech, there is an obvious case for the right of Aboriginal activists, wisely or not, to retain the Tent Embassy on the same basis. Even if it does not represent majority Aboriginal opinion, and even if it might annoy more people than it persuades, it stands for justifiable complaint.

Aboriginal deaths in custody are still not unknown. The death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on a cell floor in Palm Island in 2004 remains the focus of endless inquiry and racial bitterness in Queensland. Aboriginal life expectancy is still 20 years behind that of non-indigenous people. Nearly one out of two Aboriginal males is dead by the age of 65. Aboriginal people account for just under a quarter of jail inmates though they are only 2.5% of the population. In the past decade one-quarter of indigenes in the cities have completed high school, and fewer than one in 10 in remote Australia. Fewer than one in 10 urban Aborigines achieves a university degree, and fewer than 3% of those in remote Australia. The figures are improving but so far by small increments…

…The Australia Day Council, led by the former Test cricketer Adam Gilchrist with considerable imagination and competence, emphasises immemorial Aboriginal occupation as one of the elements of the day. But this anniversary of the founding of the penal settlement in Sydney Cove, of modern Australia’s extraordinary beginning as an Eden for pre-fallen and pre-condemned Adams and Eves, was also the beginning of what proved a tragic dispossession of Aboriginal peoples.

So nothing will finally allay hostility until Aboriginal equality is achieved by white goodwill and, above all, by indigenous education, political skill and leadership. Until then, the mourning and the howling continues.