by Sherry Sufi on 29 January, 2015
In 2008, when incoming Prime Minister Kevin Rudd provided Indigenous Australians the apology outgoing Prime Minister John Howard had long refused to, Australians were told:
“The time has come, well and truly come … for all Australians, those who are indigenous and those who are not to come together, truly reconcile and together build a truly great nation.”
While I don’t dispute the sincerity of these words, like many Australians, I remain skeptical of their fulfilment.
Eight years on, the evidence does not exist to support the idea that any progress has been made towards true reconciliation.
On the contrary, activists seem less satisfied and more assertive. Further campaigns have surfaced, which continue to reinforce existing disunity while doing nothing to address Indigenous disadvantage in life expectancy, child mortality, education and employment.
This year’s ‘Invasion Day’ protests in Melbourne and Brisbane mark the 8th consecutive year of Australia Day celebrations being sabotaged by activists.
In 2014, Captain Cook’s 259 year old Cottage was vandalised two days before Australia Day.
In 2013, over 300 rallied outside QLD Parliament with banners proclaiming Australia “always was, always will be aboriginal land”.
In 2012, a frightened Prime Minister Julia Gillard was swept off her feet by security at a disrupted ceremony and escorted to safety, losing her shoe in the process.
In 2011, over 300 gathered outside Tasmanian Parliament calling for Australia Day to be shifted to another date.
In 2010, over 100 marched at Tasmanian Parliament with protest organiser Nala Mansell-McKenna asserting she was there to “mourn those lives, the loss of land and culture” due to British colonisation.
In 2009, Australian of the Year Mick Dodson said 26th January alienated Indigenous Australians and urged for a change of date.
In 2008, more than 100 rallied in Launceston’s City Park with Indigenous activist Adam Thompson setting an Australian flag on fire with a cigarette lighter, followed by cheers from the crowd.
Rudd’s apology was expected to be a real game changer for race relations in our nation. It has been, except in the opposite direction. Apart from convincing the activists they can pretty much get anything they want provided they make sufficient noise, it has achieved little else.
The activists seem more interested in winning short term symbolic battles, rather than focussing on winning the greater war on Indigenous disadvantage. Their demands come from a seemingly endless political wishlist. Grant one, they move to the next. Grant none, all guns come blazing with accusations of coldheartedness, and lack of compassion and empathy.
Post-apology Australia has witnessed the rise of the taxpayer funded Recognise campaign seeking Indigenous recognition in the Commonwealth Constitution using exactly the same arguments as those deployed by the apology campaign activists.
Efforts have been made to produce an Indigenous rendition of our national anthem.
There exists a self-proclaimed Aboriginal Provisional Government that issues unauthorised aboriginal passports and people have attempted to use them to re-enter Australia.
Not only is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy still around, it continues to play an active role in causing further disharmony in the name of reconciliation.
Far from strengthening national unity, Rudd’s apology has opened up a political Pandora’s Box. These demands for greater sovereignty and constant protests are its consequences.
It ought to surprise no one that John Howard has long criticised Rudd for apologising.
This activism rests on the shoulders of exaggerated narratives about our colonial past which, in the absence of an alternative paradigm in our historically indifferent society, manage to get away with perpetuating politicised myths which legitimise their struggles.
The myth of Invasion Day is one of many such exaggerations that continues to mislead Australians. Now more than ever before, there is an indispensable need to go right to the core of these narratives and dismantle them for once and for all.
As someone who has enjoyed the friendship of many Indigenous Australians over the years, I am well-aware of the challenges some face on a day-to-day basis which can, at times, be difficult for non-Indigenous Australians to relate to.
There is no dispute that some of our fellow Indigenous Australians have had it tough. Not only due to the collateral effects of the often well-intentioned albeit badly implemented social policies of earlier Australian governments, but due largely to the harsh realities of survival in geographical isolation from the rest of the world for 40,000 years.
It is subconsciously taken for granted that the advent of agriculture, irrigation, domestication of animals, pottery, architecture, written language, literature and complex governments are the indicators of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’. Be that as it may, what is often forgotten is that throughout history, civilisation by that definition has been a direct by-product of interaction between different cultures, either through trade or war.
Sophisticated civilisations such as Christian Europe, the Islamic world, China and India have all participated in and ultimately benefitted from centuries of trade and war. Gunpowder, rubber stamps, rifles, cannons, telescopes, compass, medicine, alchemy, algebra, the decimal system, printing press and trigonometry are notable products of the exchange between these cultures.
The Medieval and early modern period was an undeclared race to the top which Europe ultimately won. Driven by an insatiable lust for exploration and discovery, Europe not only went on to conquering most of this planet following Christopher Columbus’ rediscovery of America in 1492 (Viking Lief Erikson had already been there 5 centuries earlier), it held on to most of its colonial possessions until after World War II.
Prolonged geographical isolation from the Afro-Eurasian world meant that Indigenous culture would develop along a remarkably different trajectory. Over 40,000 years of sustained existence, Indigenous Australians were able to develop their own techniques to hunt, gather, fish and trek their way through the vastness of desert and jungle. Theirs is an admirable tale of survival in the face of nature’s harshest environmental challenges. It would be absurd to expect that they should have been able to compete with the European, Islamic, Chinese and Indian stages of civilisation.
Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians will today agree that Australia is one of the finer by-products of European colonisation. Having never had a civil war, a revolution or an assassinated leader, our track record as the world’s bastion of political stability remains self-evidently pristine. Our societal values uphold the freedoms of thought, expression, association, choice and worship. We have equality of opportunity for all citzens, affordable access to healthcare and education, no conscription, no death penalty, no rigid class structure, no feudal hierarchy, no caste system and a very manageable population stationed on land abound in nature’s gifts of beauty, rich and rare.
Australia is, without much exaggeration, the closest thing to paradise on earth. A utopia as Sir Thomas More (the wise man beheaded by King Henry VIII) would have called it.
Yet the fact that paradise was to be built on an island already inhabited by humans from a stage of development the Europeans had overcome through trade and war many thousand years earlier, remains a happenstance of nature. Neither party had deliberate intention to inflict malice upon the other.
In fact, relations between early settlers and natives were far more cordial than most Australians realise. British perceptions of the natives of ‘New Holland’ as it was then known were primarily shaped by the sympathetic accounts of discoverer Captain James Cook, authored two decades prior to the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.
In a journal entry in his Voyages of the Endeavour, Cook wrote:
“From what I have said of the natives of New Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility which is not disturbed by the inequality of conditions. The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not magnificent houses, household stuff etc., they live in a warm and fine climate and enjoy a very wholesome air, so that they have very little need for clothing and this they seem to be fully sensible of, for many to whom we gave cloth etc. to, left it carelessly upon the sea beach and in the woods as a thing they had no manner of use for. In short term, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them, this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessaries of life and that they have no superfluities”.
This little known passage is an indication of the mindset of late 18th century British colonisers.
For most of his career, Captain Cook was fascinated by the cultures of lands he had explored and never saw the natives as ‘savages’ as often falsely assumed. (It remains greatly ironic that he was brutally speared to death by the natives of Hawaii during an expedition in 1779).
What would begin with the arrival of the First Fleet on 26th January 1788 was settlement, not invasion. It cannot be defined any other way.
Invasions are organised military expeditions launched after failed diplomacy. They involve an intention to subjugate followed by a declaration of war. They are usually met with sovereign resistance and return fire, until the army that suffers the most damage reaches a point where it can no longer keep up the fight and is forced into surrender.
Alexander the Great going into Persia in 330 BCE.
Julius Caesar going into Britain in 54 BCE.
William of Normandy going into England in 1066.
Sultan Mehmed II going into Constantinople in 1453.
Adolf Hitler going into Poland in 1939.
These are all invasions.
Poor old Captain Arthur Phillip bringing a group of disease stricken poorly fed convicts to their new prison country on the other side of the planet was most certainly not an “invasion”.
The natives initially identified settlers as ghosts returning from the dead. After a while, they realised these were just humans. Over time many noticed that Europeans had one thing the arduous life of a hunter-gatherer lacked, that was surplus of food. Natives chose to remain close to early settlers as they often ran out of food as it was difficult to obtain and the settlers provided what they could.
The first Governor of New South Wales Phillip developed a fondness for the Eora people when the colony at Port Botany. He befriended native man Woollaraware Bennelong who became the first Indigenous Australian to be escorted to England to meet King George III. (The Federal seat of Bennelong held by Prime Minister John Howard for 33 years from 1974 to 2007 is named after him). On one occasion, Captain Phillip was speared in the shoulder by the natives for merely reprimanding one for stealing one of his shovels.
Phillip survived the attack and ordered his men not to retaliate. He understood that in Indigenous culture people shared what they had with their family and friends, thus lacked a concept of personal belongings. Misunderstandings of this sort often led to mutual mistrust sometimes culminating in hostile encounters despite the lack of intentional belligerence on either part.
In 1816, Governor Lachlan Macquarie ordered for hostilities to be ceased at once. He welcomed the natives and appointed Indigenous tribal leaders to act as conduits between settlers and natives. Macquarie gave away many plots of land to the natives who chose to be a part of the newfound colony and encouraged them to view the benefits of becoming self-sufficient through the embrace of the European ethic. His efforts were often thwarted by native defiance of British law and order.
Cook’s sympathetic view, Philip’s close ties with the Eora and Macquarie’s inclusiveness all stand to dispel the false narrative that British colonisation was intentionally vile and sought to eliminate the natives like the Spanish conquistadors had attempted to do to their natives in the Americas.
No doubt, violent clashes between settlers and natives occurred on occasion. These are well-documented and close examination of the records reveals they were precipitated by a circumstantial context as opposed to some insidious government plot to wipe out the natives as falsely assumed.
Natives often attacked farmers and their cattles which led to retaliation. Even so, the rule of law did what it was there to do. When British settlers were found to be at fault, they were brought to justice. The Myall Creek massacre is a case in point. 30 natives were killed by 10 Europeans and 1 African on 10th June 1838 at Bingara, New South Wales. After two trials, 7 of the 11 involved were found guilty of murder and hanged.
From late Medieval to the early modern period, Britain was faced with unprecedented chaos and instability. The English Civil War saw King Charles I beheaded. England fell from one form of absolutism to another under Oliver Cromwell, until Monarchy was restored in 1660. Religious intolerance, poverty and crime resulted in overcrowded prisons. English exploration of the Americas had come with the option to transport convicts and religious minorities to the newfound colonies across the Atlantic.
In 1776, that option was taken away when American rebels disgruntled by the British Crown’s imposition of taxes without Parliamentary representation fought for and won their independence, giving birth to the United States of America.
Confronted by the need to find an alternative settler and penal colony, New Holland whose existence the British had prior awareness of due to Captain Cook’s voyages, became the obvious choice.
To suggest that the British Empire should not have colonised Australia would stand to contradict the reality that all societies are the result of human migration at some point in history. Some later than others.
If Creationism is true, then having descended from Adam and Eve we all migrated out of the ancient Near East to populate all continents of the earth.
If Evolutionism is true, then having evolved from prokaryotes and eukaryotes we evolved into bipedal hominids and migrated out of Africa to populate all continents of the earth.
Either way, humans have gone where necessity has taken us. The means by which we move around tends to reflect the norms and pressures of the timeframe in which our migration occurs combined with the relative power and resources available to us.
As for the question of sovereignty, the ‘nationstate’ is a 19th century political construct that emerged in reaction to the ancien régime aristocracy rooted in European imperialism. Until the aftermath of Europe’s decolonisation of its acquired territories, the creation of the United Nations in 1945 and the enforcement of international law, there was no globally applicable legal mechanism that prevented discovery, exploration, settlement, war and conquest. Grievances resultant from the perceived or actual effects of colonial activities undertaken by those who lived prior to this period cannot be held against their cultural descendants today.
Besides, this dynamic was already in force in pre-1788 Australia, albeit it never left its shores. The inhabitants of New Holland were as ethnolinguistically heterogenous as their European counterparts and as prone to territorial conflict. The Battle of Hastings (1066), the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) stand as proof of the longstanding rivalry between the English and the French despite both being a European people.
It is equally oversimplifying to think of the Eora, Noongar, Darambal and Gunai people as a homogenous Indigenous people. For the most part, they either knew nothing of each other’s existence or (to put it in contemporary terms) frequently violated each other’s ‘sovereignties’ upon contact like the various strands of Europeans had done.
Most nationstates on today’s world map are melting pots of diverse human varieties united by common boundaries, under one flag, in an exchange that renders the significance of ancestral chronology, irrelevant.
The Vikings arrived in England before the Normans.
The Berbers arrived in Morocco before the Arabs.
The Ainus arrived in Japan before the Nippons.
The Pelasgians arrived in the Aegean Peninsula before the Greeks.
The Etruscans arrived in Italy before the Romans.
The Incas arrived in Peru before the Spaniards.
The list is endless.
No piece of land or its sovereignty exclusively belongs to its perceived or actual ‘first comers’.
It is a job for the political order that triumphs in the end to treat all its citizens with justice and fairness, regardless of the chronology of their ancestral presence and that is a job modern Australia has done exceptionally well.
This nation was settled, not invaded. Our founding narrative is to be celebrated, not lamented.
That said, neither is our society perfect, nor is perfection our goal.
Rejoicing in what we got right, learning from where we went wrong and improving what we can do better tomorrow is the goal and its fulfilment is an eternal journey. One that does not involve formatting our national hard disk and installing a new operating system, but one that involves our readiness to run software updates when the occasion and justifications are right.
Our nation has run more of those updates than we give ourselves credit for.
If Australia was half the apartheid activists make it out to be, neither would we have had the 1967 Referendum that enfranchised our Indigenous Australians with the right to vote, nor the Mabo Decision and the Native Title Act which recognised native title, nor Rudd’s well-intentioned apology.
We ought to see as proof of Australian inclusiveness the success stories of many accomplished Indigenous Australians like Neville Bonner, Noel Pearson, Cathy Freeman, David Wirrpanda and recent Australian of the Year 2014 Adam Goodes.
We ought to acknowledge that Labor Senator Nova Peris and Liberal MP Ken Wyatt’s Parliamentary presence stands as proof of both our major parties’ committment to providing Indigenous Australians the support and representation they seek.
Constant activism and protests will not make this Commonwealth of ours renowned of all the lands. For that, we must resolutely banish our national obsession with hollow symbolic gestures and join forces to fight Indigenous disadvantage, for that would be true reconciliation embodying the spirit of Advance Australia Fair.
Today more than ever before, Australians will appreciate Prime Minister John Howard’s reasons for refusing to provide that apology:
“I have always supported reconciliation but not of the apologetic, shame-laden, guilt-ridden type.”
“I think in the past we have become obsessed with things like apologies and there are millions of Australians who will never entertain an apology because they don’t believe that there is anything to apologise for.”
“They are sorry for past mistreatment but that is different from assuming responsibility for it.”
Sherry Sufi is a Political Editor with qualifications in Politics, History, Philosophy, Information Systems and International Studies. He has worked as a Policy Adviser to both State and Federal MPs. Sherry’s PhD research investigates the role of first language in ethnic conflict and nationalism.
by Sherry Sufi on 29 January, 2015