August 2007



By Raimond Gaita
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

More even than Margaret Thatcher, John Howard is an ideologically driven prime minister. At the 2006 dinner celebrating Quadrant’s fiftieth birthday, he spoke admiringly of the magazine’s campaign against black-armband history, against the political correctness it expressed, and against the (allegedly) empty gestures that constituted much of what was called reconciliation.

Though his ideological agenda may not have been part of his (I suspect complex) motives for his recent national emergency, Howard must have hoped that it would advance that agenda. His fellow combatants had no doubt that it had. Writing in the Australian and other places, they proclaimed that the need for such a “draconian” intervention in Aboriginal communities marked the decisive defeat of more than 30 years of left-liberal policies on Aboriginal matters, policies that had focused on Aborigines’ calls for self-determination. Worse than merely failing, those policies, they claimed, played a significant role in creating radically ‘dysfunctional’ Aboriginal communities. (I put ‘dysfunctional’ in inverted commas because though its use is almost ubiquitous, it is devoid of even human, let alone humane, resonance. If responses to the humiliation, alienation, despair, cruelty and worse to which it refers are humane, then that must be despite its use rather than because of it.)

To an important extent the intellectual Right has been right about the fact of policy failure and right too, I think, in its claim that Howard’s intervention made many people finally accept the fact. I imagine I am not alone in being glad of that. For too long defences of existing policies were half-hearted. Reluctance to admit openly that they were exhausted generated despondency. Little energy could be found to develop new ones. That encouraged the Right to suggest (with virtually no supporting argument) that any policy that expressed a sense of collective responsibility for past wrongs done to the Aborigines would cause the debilitating condition that goes by the name of ‘a sense of victimhood’. But there are no general psychological or moral laws connecting the pain of having been wronged and the demand that it be acknowledged with atrophy of initiative and the destruction of a sense of responsibility.

Did progressive policies play a significant part in causing the terrible things revealed in the Little Children are Sacred report and its many predecessors? Suppose for the sake of argument that they did. That concession would not satisfy the combative Right. Its case was not merely an empirical one about the effect of this or that policy. It was about the underlying political values that informed progressive policy. Those values were the ones that defined reconciliation, as it was called before John Howard and his then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, John Herron, distinguished it from “practical reconciliation”. At the core of those values was a sense of collective responsibility for the wrongs committed against the Aborigines by our political ancestors. The call for an apology was its most publicised but perhaps least important expression. Far more important was the acceptance of the justified desire of many Aborigines for self-determination.

With what in retrospect looks like impressive political savvy, Howard and his supporters among the intelligentsia undermined the considerable public support for an apology by undermining the values underlying reconciliation itself. Howard denied that Australians had any reason to assume collective responsibility for wrongs done by their political ancestors (you cannot be responsible for things you did not do, he said), and therefore denied there is any reason for apology. He described the demand for an apology and much of what it implied as merely symbolic - when it was not dangerously divisive - and contrasted it with practical measures to ameliorate the misery evident in many Aboriginal communities. Adopting such hard-headed practical measures, he said, was the “truly moral” response to that misery. Yet - and this showed his cunning - by calling the implementation of those measures “practical reconciliation”, he made it look like a form of reconciliation, even though his denial of collective responsibility made nonsense of that description. If there is no need for an apology, then there is no need for reconciliation, which is a form of political atonement if it is anything. Howard managed to exploit much of the goodwill associated with reconciliation, while eroding its conceptual basis. The real target of “practical reconciliation” was not impractical, symbolic gestures: it was reconciliation itself.

The unintended consequences of Howard’s incursion into the Northern Territory will be many and some will be severe, but perhaps the most surprising and far-reaching of them will be the exposure and defeat of this deliberate attempt to create moral and political confusion. It is obvious that there need be no tension between the defining values of reconciliation and anything properly called practical reconciliation, obvious that if one can feel proud of one’s country then one can also feel ashamed of it, and obvious that love of country is not only consistent with, but can find expression in, the pained acknowledgment of its crimes. Failure to acknowledge such morally obvious points is surely an attempt to disguise the means to advance a political project.

Howard must have been astonished that most commentators pretty much agreed with his claim that the immediate fate of Aboriginal children in remote settlements necessitates, morally, the kind of action he took. True, many did it reluctantly, because there are plenty of reasons to be fearful of action that is as ill-thought-through as it is dramatic. But it was an accomplished fact that nothing could undo, and Noel Pearson insisted that the urgent need to protect children should silence those fears. He did it with such passion and moral authority that he won the day.

It probably couldn’t have happened without Pearson: not the intervention itself, nor the broad consent to it. Repeatedly on radio, television and in the newspapers, he spoke as though it should be morally impossible to oppose the only action on offer that would protect children from their persecutors and create the lawful order necessary if other hopes are to have a chance of fulfilment.

Understandably, though, people, including many other Aboriginal leaders, felt morally bludgeoned. Without doubt Pearson takes seriously most of their reservations, but he made a good show of appearing not to do so. He accused critics of willing the intervention to fail. Later he called them “naysayers”. He mocked those who, with Pat Turner, feared the intervention was a “Trojan Horse” to enable a land grab, and those who feared the consequences of abolishing the permit system. His observation that many critics of the intervention were people whose children slept safely in their beds (as his did, he acknowledged), suggested that because the suffering of the abused children had not really entered their hearts, they found it hard to understand that their criticisms counted for virtually nothing compared with the urgent need to stop the abuse. It would have been better if he had complained with the same moral passion that Howard had badly muddied the waters by not explaining why the government’s seizure of communal lands and its abolition of the permit system was necessary to protect the children. Pearson’s failure to do that, together with his arrogance concerning the reasons why people expressed serious reservations, diminished the moral authority of his plea that the government’s critics keep their eye on the only thing that matters: the protection of the children and the establishment of lawful order.

Every Aboriginal leader I heard or read who was interviewed about Howard’s intervention lamented the lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities. Without such consultation, almost everyone agrees, things will go badly. The deepest reason for that is not to do with the relevant expertise and wisdom necessary for success. It is that the failure to consult betrays a lack of respect, as deep as it could be, for the communities on whose behalf the government claims to be acting. It showed in the inappropriate military language with which the intervention was first described (the Australian outlined the measures Howard was taking under the heading “An Iron Fist”). Howard later chose to liken the urgent need for drastic action to the need for it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (perhaps because he had ignored many reports detailing much the same horrors as were described in Little Children are Sacred). But in any case, neither military similes nor similes of natural disaster help soldiers, police and volunteers - most of them untrained - to understand the delicacy needed to establish whether a child had been sexually abused by a close relative, perhaps even by her father.

No plausible description of the plight of the Aboriginal communities can justify the condescension shown for them and their leaders by the lack of consultation and the reckless disregard for the consequences of such dramatic but ill-prepared intervention. Even to describe the intervention as “draconian” does not capture the nature of the condescension, because it does not distinguish between tough laws imposed after due consultation, and tough laws imposed without it.

Could such disrespect be shown to any other community in this country? The answer, I believe, has to be no. If that is true, then it betrays neither cynicism nor insufficient love of country to suspect that, to a significant extent, Aborigines and their culture are still seen from a racist, denigrating perspective. From that perspective, the (sincere) concern for the children is concern for them as the children of a denigrated people, just as it was when children whom we now call the Stolen Generation were taken from their parents. Yet such has been the effect of years of talk of black-armband history, years of denial that Australian society still has racist aspects, that the racist precondition that enabled Howard’s intervention is barely mentioned. True, there have been complaints that this or that aspect of it violates both international law and the Racial Discrimination Act. But political correctness surrounding the Act, illiberal tendencies within it and its failure too often to distinguish action that discriminates between races from action that is motivated by racism, ensured that violations of it often cut no ice with Howard and his cultural warriors, and probably not with much of the electorate. Pearson’s justified, passionate support for the urgent purpose of the intervention, as he and Howard identified it, enabled people to hide from themselves the contempt the intervention showed to the community on whose behalf it was undertaken, and to evade the realisation that it would be complacent not to fear that racism made it possible.

Pearson, of course, is no political toady. He is no Uncle Tom. He uses the government just as it uses him. It’s a risky strategy for him, because his demand for the retention of significant aspects of customary law, realistic in its response to contemporary conditions but deepened by what is “precious” (his word) in the tradition, is at odds with the government’s assimilationist agenda. He knows it and the government knows it, but I doubt that the government is worried. Perhaps it should be, however. Now that we have more of the practical side of practical reconciliation than we can cope with, we are free to attend to how it should be a form of reconciliation.

In Australia, reconciliation is the name given to the acknowledgment that past and present injustices committed against the Aboriginal peoples generated for the non-Aboriginal inhabitants a sense of collective responsibility for the wrongs committed by their political ancestors. (It was never a good name because it implied, among other things, that non-Aboriginal Australians had a legitimate complaint against the Aborigines.) As one would expect, there has been disagreement about the nature and extent of collective responsibility. Generally, however, those who welcomed the diverse movements that came together under the head of reconciliation agreed that if contemporary Australians could speak intelligibly of what ‘we did’ when ‘we’ pioneered the land or fought at Gallipoli, then appealing to that same sense of collective agency they could speak, as Paul Keating did at Redfern, of what ‘we did’ when we dispossessed the Aboriginal peoples of their lands or took their children from their mothers. In whatever way one finally unpacks, morally and conceptually, all that is contained in that ‘we’, its use implies that we can be called upon to be responsive to the moral character of what we have been caught up in, though we had no causal part in it. It is as true of pride as it is of shame. The former can decline into jingoism and the latter into morbid self-abasement, but neither decline is necessary, which would not need saying were it not that much of the talk of black-armband history implies that the latter is.

It was not much more than 50 years ago that WEH Stanner wrote that Aboriginal culture possessed “all the beauty of song, mime, dance and art of which human beings are capable”. The discovery by much of the Western intelligentsia of moral or spiritual depth in practices and beliefs that had previously seemed to express only the superstitions of scientifically backward savages is one of the finest achievements of the latter half of the twentieth century. In a generation raised on entertainment (the old Tarzan films, for example) in which blacks were portrayed as brutish and ridiculous, this was a revolutionary change in sensibility. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that it sometimes declined into romantic muddle.

It is muddle with baleful effects, the Right has claimed, because it encourages Aborigines to cling to inferior and doomed cultures - “illiterate, vocationally disabled, unpresentable outside the ethnographic zoos they live in, these tragic people are Australia’s contribution to the New Stone Age”. Those words are from The Culture Cult (2001), by Roger Sandall. Their tone suggests he despises romantic muddle-heads more than he cares for the “tragic people” whom he claims are their victims. What else could make him describe the pitiable condition of those victims with such ferocious disdain? But that kind of failure to see the wood for the trees - in this case the failure to see that romantic muddle is less deserving of such fierce criticism than is the racism it displaced, and that the consequences of the former are not nearly as bad as those of the latter - is often the cost of cultural combat. Yet when Sandall’s book was published, the major quality papers received it as a contribution to a much-needed rethink about the virtues of assimilation.

On the part of left-liberals, the recognition of the depth to be found in cultures that had routinely been called primitive went together with slow and sometimes ambivalent acceptance of the importance of roots, of ethnic and national identity. Simone Weil describes our need for roots as a need of the soul. She said that “just as the burning of cornfields in wartime is a crime because corn is food for many human bodies, so the destruction of a people’s distinctive culture should be a crime because that culture is food for many souls.”

Such thoughts underlie many of the ideals of multiculturalism. It became evident to many people, however, that insofar as the rootedness - such as it remains - of Aboriginal peoples in their distinctive cultures should be honoured and allowed to flourish, those peoples could not be treated as a multicultural group among others. The call to self-determination by Aborigines and its acknowledgment by many Australians was, among other things, recognition of that fact. Aboriginal leaders invited non-Aboriginal Australians to discuss forms of political association that would be true to the history of their dispossession, forms that would almost certainly be novel to the history of Western political thought. Even to enter such a discussion seriously requires great generosity on the part of the non-Aboriginal population. The impatience associated with ideological combat makes it impossible.

It is inconceivable that the Aborigines will stop thinking about their past, about how to describe it adequately, about which concepts are necessary for the task. That will not be a scholarly exercise with results destined for scholarly journals. It will be, in the broad sense of the term, political, an effort to find themselves in relation to the non-Aboriginal body politic - to ‘us’. In this we will be identified (only in part, to be sure, but in undeniable part) by our truthful acknowledgment of what it means that “We took the traditional lands, committed the murders, took the children.” The results are unforeseeable, but they will determine the ways that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples of Australia will be able to say, “We Australians”.

Raimond Gaita
Raimond Gaita is a philosopher and writer. He is the author of Good and Evil and Romulus, My Father.

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