The Politics    Friday, September 15, 2023

A denial of reality

By Daniel James

Image of Jacinta Nampijinpa Price

Shadow minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price addresses the National Press Club in Canberra, September 14, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The dangerous erasure of Australian history by Jacinta Price cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged

This surely must rank as one of the tawdriest weeks in national politics. Any optimism about our ability as a nation to have a mature, nuanced discussion on matters of importance has been totally and utterly shattered, as the “No” campaign has picked the scab off the national wound, revealing a pus that threatens to infect the way we do politics in this country. At the heart of the mean-spirited, reality-denying “No” campaign is the seed of a dangerous, yet quickly propagated, idea: that intergenerational trauma does not exist. Senator Jacinta Price said as much at the National Press Club yesterday. When asked whether the history of colonialism impacted modern-day Indigenous people, her answer was emphatic: “There is no ongoing negative impacts of colonisation … A positive impact? Absolutely. I mean, now we’ve got running water. We’ve got readily available food … if we keep telling Aboriginal people that they are victims, we are effectively removing their agency and then giving them the expectation that someone else is responsible for their lives.” Her comments were met with applause by members of the opposition, including Nationals leader David Littleproud. The senator continued, “That is the worst possible thing you can do to any human being, to tell them that they are a victim without agency.” What is the Uluru Statement from the Heart if not a step toward self-determination and an act of agency?

There have been hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence-based reports written about the ongoing impacts of colonisation for First Peoples all over the world, and just as many written on intergenerational trauma (or, as Tony Abbott calls it, “a neo-Marxist fiction”). Read the “Bringing Them Home” report, or the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody final report, or even the Yoorrook Justice Commission report into the child protection and criminal justice systems in Victoria, and then tell the world that intergenerational trauma doesn’t exist and that trauma preproperated by the colonial state isn’t having an ongoing impact – remembering of course that royal commissions are the epitome of the institutional investigative power of the Establishment, and not just some lefty love-in. But as we’ve seen throughout the course of the Voice to Parliament referendum campaign, the conservative “No” camp has been seeking to sell even our most venerable institutions down the river to gain political traction. There is no conservatism in that – it is Trumpian.

The children and grandchildren of those who were stolen from their families by the state, interned into servitude or abused by their new “guardians” – those who have seen members of that generation struggle to find reason in the life they were given and watched them suffer an insufferable sense of loss for the life they could have had – know all too well the ongoing impact that the trauma of their experience has had, both on the initial victim and those closest to them.

What do the “just get over it” crowd say to the last of the survivors from the Kinchela boys’ home? A horrific episode in this country’s history and one whose horrors are yet to be fully uncovered. Will we embrace these survivors and their families? Or will we continue to turn our backs on them because their experience doesn’t fit with the “fair go” narrative we’ve been sold?

But what about the trauma suffered by convicts, conservatives ask. The argument goes as follows: those who were transported here by the British, almost always for merely stealing a loaf of bread (so the mythology goes), experienced trauma in being uprooted and transported under arduous conditions to a colony on the other side of the world. No doubt there was trauma involved, but here is where the trauma is different. Most convicts after completing their sentence were able to purchase or “take up” land, usually about 30 acres. Whose land? The stolen land and the intergenerational wealth built on that land was something never afforded to First Nations people. It enabled loaf thieves to become fully fledged members of the colony – to go forth spreading smallpox, influenza and alcohol, and, in so many instances, to murder, rape and pillage. Throughout it all, “settlers” cleared the land, and disrupted water and food supplies, which in turn destroyed the traditional way of life, including Language itself.

Running water was put forward by Price as a reason to be thankful for colonialism, with the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians seemingly forgetting that we had running water back in the day – they were called rivers. They used to flow through to the oceans until, like the Murray, they were turned into no more than stagnated ponds full of invasive species, home to mass fish kills and blooms of algae, which are a hot reminder of the mess we’ve made of our most precious resource.

How do the history-denying zealots explain why young Indigenous people are killing themselves at around twice the rate as their contemporaries from other backgrounds? Maybe they and their bereft family members just need to suck it up, show a bit of backbone and all that?

The binary question being put to us at the referendum on October 14 is becoming more existential by the day. The fact that this referendum campaign is inflicting trauma on First Nations people across the country should give pause for thought. But that’s not the way Australian politics is played out anymore. Thought, reflection and honesty are seen as weaknesses, and the saddest fact is that fear seems to resonate the strongest with Australians.

And as for those progressives who are thinking of voting “No” in October because they don’t think a Voice to Parliament goes far enough, it’s worth considering where a “No” vote leaves us. If the attitudes of Jacinta Price and the conservative “No” campaign are accepted as mainstream, we won’t be able to have a welcome to Country, let alone a treaty. Something to think about.


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Daniel James

Daniel James is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He hosts the radio show The Mission on 3RRR FM.

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