Abbott, Indigenous Australians and the politics of invisibility

Nikita Simpson
July 20, 2014

“I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign  investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um,  scaredly settled, Great South Land.”

These words were spoken by the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, as he delivered a keynote address  at the Australian-Melbourne Institute conference earlier this month.  His slip of the tongue reveals the embarrassing fact: the noble savage  who conquered Terra Nullius is still very much alive in the Australian  popular imagination. The “sacred settler” is a fetishisation of  Indigenous culture, delegitimating their rational claim to the land and  marginalising their interests.

Abbott’s statement gives us two interesting insights into the  conservative ethos that marks current Australian politics and popular  culture. First, the pig- headedness of the everyday Aussie to revel in  the ‘land of milk and honey’ that we are supposed to live in and a  directly ensuing obsession with economic stability. Growing up in a  primarily white upper middle class suburb of Sydney, I can hardly deny  the plenty that has been my childhood. Perhaps best summed up in our  national anthem – “We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil; Our home is  girt by sea; Our land abounds in nature’s gifts; Of beauty rich and  rare”. Followed by a shout out to our Commonwealth founders to whom we  ‘owe our existence’.

But the second insight perhaps shows the amnesia that this ethos  necessitates. ‘Unsettled’ – by whom? The colonial British male? His wife  and three sons? The farmer? The miner? The merchant? Abbot’s apologetic  use of the term “sacred” also demonstrates how the Indigenous first  settlers are implicitly viewed by both the colonial, and a large  proportion of the current Australian population implicitly see him to  be. As part of a long gone chapter in our mystic past that has been  thankfully closed by the incessant and inevitable march of economic  progress. Certainly, they are not the party with sovereign right over  Australia.

In this context, it becomes easy for Abbott to cut half a billion dollars over five years in the 2014 Budget  allocated by the previous Gillard government to the development and  sustenance of services for the severely impoverished Indigenous  population: to consolidate the previously 150 Indigenous welfare service  areas into a neat five; and to detract the promised $13.4 million from  Aboriginal legal aid services. Abbott ran for office on the platform of  being the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’, which seems to have  been rapidly and unceremoniously sacrificed for the economic stability  of the middle class, white male who voted him into office. In parallel  with his escalation of the exclusive refugee policy, it leaves one  wondering if we are seeing the resurrection of the infamous White  Australia policy, a policy of assimilation established in 1901 and not  dismantled until 1973 that sanctioned both exclusive immigration and the  removal of Aboriginal children from their parents before their  placement in foster homes.

Tony Abbott at the ‘books and mortar’ working bee, with students at Cape York Aboriginal Academy in Aurukun. Picture: Brian Cassey Source: The  Australian.

But why has it become so easy for Abbott’s conservatism to again  capture the Australian public mood? The shortest answer is also dismally  obvious: that the Aussie voter doesn’t feel bad about what he can’t  really see.

Coming back to ‘The Great Southern Land’ after six months in Europe, I  landed in the middle of NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day  Observance Committee) week. NAIDOC is the week of sausage sizzles and  school assemblies to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. My nine-year-old sister  came running home to tell me of the Indigenous dance they were taught by  ‘real aborigines(!!)’.

I enjoyed the art exhibition, ‘Hereby we make Protest’, put on at a  local gallery to commemorate the conception of a National Day of  Mourning by an all-Aboriginal conference in 1938. The gallery had  commissioned artists Karla Dickens, Nicole Foreshew and Jacob Nash to  create “new works evoking the fighting spirit of these Aboriginal  political activists.” The important period for Indigenous activism is  celebrated through the works and archival documents on display. One can  read the resolutions of the 1938-conference, personal testimonies of  police brutality and the statements of mission communities who sought  self-determined governance.

The works are surely outstanding and I can see them foster respect  for the indigenous community. But I hardly felt engaged with Indigenous  contemporaries who today still protest at the ‘Tent Embassy’  on the lawns of parliament house for a government address of the  welfare gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian  populations.

Let me give you just a snapshot of this gap across indicators (more on the Australian Human Rights Commission website. The gap exists in  welfare – Indigenous males’ life expectancy was estimated to be 59.4  years over 1996-2001 – in comparison to approximately 77 years for other  male Australians. In prisons – Indigenous youth make up 5 per cent of  the total youth population and yet 50 per cent of the juvenile prison population compared to the general Australian population for the same  five year period. In health – an Indigenous person is 11.7 times more  likely to contract Hepatitis A. In welfare – approximately 25% of the  Indigenous population of the Northern Territory is homeless. In mental  health – in 2005–06, Indigenous Australians were three times more likely  to be hospitalised for intentional self-harm than other Australians.

Instead of actively engaging with these facts, instead of reflecting on potential solution, an art exhibition, such as ‘Hereby we make  Protest’ turns the political activists into mere figures of history.  It  somehow implies that  such need for protest is located in a time past.  The approach of celebration seems to become dangerously tokenistic. The apparently rosy picture of honouring the ‘sacred’ settlers doesn’t quite compensate for or acknowledge the on-going struggle of the Indigenous  population. When we swap protest for celebration, we support the  political ignorance of the everyday Australian. We also perpetuate the  fallacy of equality that sustains ‘true blue mateship’, so dear to the  every day Aussie. The politics of ‘Terra Nullius’ are the politics of invisibility.

The fight is still there, even if sidelined by the government. On  July 11th, residents and activists set up a protest in the Sydney suburb  of Redfern (to mirror that in Canberra) to contest the proposed  redevelopment of ‘The Block’, with banners sporting slogans such as  ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Black Land, Black Law’. The ‘Block‘ is an urban site  home to 63 Indigenous residents and was the first and largest Indigenous  land rights claim in Australia. The site was purchased over a 30-year  period by the Aboriginal Housing Commission with money attained in 1972  after the lobbying of the Whitlam administration. It was also the  epicentre of the 2004 Redfern riots, sparked by the police chase of 17-year-old T.J. Hickey, which ended in his impalement on a fence. Now, this historic space of Indigenous visibility is at threat of being  turned into a 70 million dollar development that includes a commercial  precinct and student housing but excludes affordable housing for the  Indigenous population.

The sanctity of this land is not part of time past, nor even time  immemorial but a current and legitimate need to be seen, heard and  accepted as the first Australian people. In tokenistic celebrations of  the ‘sacred settlers’, Australian public culture does not make room for  Indigenous interests. Instead, it provides us with a facade that allows Indigenous issues to be further marginalised as a mysterious chapter of  Australia’s history that does not contradict but is complimentary to  ‘Terra Nullius‘.


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Nikita Simpson