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The truth about our generation
We can prepare for our future while waiting for a Prime Minister who can say sorry, writes Mick Dodson.
We have had a lot of silly talk recently about what and what does not constitute a generation or generations. So for a start today I intend to talk about my generation. A little over a month ago I turned 50. I know some of you are sitting there in disbelief. He looks too young to be 50. But I have the birth certificate to prove it. It is the truth of my generation I want to touch on today.
I was born in April, 1950, in the small town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Our Prime Minister was in his 11th year when I came into the world. According to Commonwealth and State policy at the time, my destiny, as a native of Aboriginal descent, lay in my absorption by the people of the Commonwealth.
Fourteen months before I was born a magistrate in the court at Broome refused my grandmother's application for certificate of citizenship under the Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act. Part of his reasons were that she had not adopted the manner and habits of civilised life.
By the time I was 18 months old the new Commonwealth policy was assimilation. Mr Howard would have been about 12 or 13. Removing kids was all the go when I was born and it persisted well after my birth. The Commonwealth director of native affairs had at about that time informed the administrator of the NT that the Commonwealth policy had been set down in 1931: to collect half-castes and train them in institutions.
My grandmother was taken from her father at a young age and placed in a mission in Western Australia. My great- grandfather had been pestered over several years by native welfare authorities to place his daughter in a Catholic mission. He was an Irish Presbyterian who was forced to give up his daughter to a Catholic mission run by German priests. My mother and two of my sisters all finished up in the same mission.
My father was jailed for 18 months for breaching the Native Administration Act of Western Australia in that he was "co-habiting" with my mother. I will never understand a social political and legal system that could jail my father for loving my mother. What sort of system is it that condemns love as a crime? As required by law, when he was released from prison, he managed to secure the permission of the chief protector of natives to marry my mother.
Both my parents died in 1960. I was 10. Mr Howard by then was a young man at university and, I'm informed, a member of the Young Liberals. After the death of my mother which followed that of my father, my aunt and uncle came and took us to Darwin on the back of my uncle's old Chevy truck. They had both been former mission victims and knew well the ways of the native welfare authorities. They did not wish the same fate to befall their young nieces and nephews.
What ensued was a protracted battle with the authorities, in and out of court, with my family winning. We were permitted to stay in the guardianship and custody of family. I became a "State child" in my family's care. What kind of system is it that would define the ownership of a child by the State, while the child is in the care of their kin?
In 1963 I agreed to go to boarding school in western Victoria. Mr Howard was in his 24th year and a solicitor of the Supreme Court of NSW. In 1965 Charlie Perkins led the freedom rides through western NSW. I was 15. A year later The Australian denounced him and other slightly coloured people for identifying Aboriginal as only for sympathy.
In 1967, a referendum was held which arguably killed off the assimilation policy and the sinister laws supporting it, but it did not stop the removals and it did not stop assimilationist thinking.
During the '60s Aboriginal kids were still being taken and put in institutions like Retta Dixon home in Darwin. I knew many of them. In NSW Aboriginal boys and girls were still being removed from their families and placed in institutions like Kinchela and Bomaderry. According to Who's Who, Mr Howard was a member of the NSW State executive of the Liberal Party at this time. I can find no record of him voicing his disapproval or objection to this continuing practice.
I was 21 in 1971 and Billy McMahon promised land rights for recreation, ceremony and economic enterprise. Too many of us are still waiting. In 1972 I voted for the first time and Mr Whitlam became PM. Federal policy on Aboriginal affairs altered considerably. Yet still kids were being removed. Two years later Mr Howard entered Federal parliament. He was about 35.
In 1977 I graduated from law school, Mr Howard was a government minister and vice president of the NSW Division of the Liberal party. He was 38 by then, I was 27.
In 1978 a sign appeared in the pub at Daly Waters: Keep Australia Clean. (Kill a Coon). There wasn't exactly national outrage at this call to racist homicide. The Queensland Act, which controlled and regulated the lives of Aboriginals, was still in force and it was to be a further seven years before it was fully repealed.
In 1984 I returned to the Northern Territory. Mr Hawke was prime minister by then, and self-determination had been official Commonwealth policy for at least a decade. It meant very little. At least then there was a willingness to call its name.
Mr Howard, at 45, was now shadow treasurer. In that year the infamous Retta Dixon home in Darwin finally closed its doors. A monument was erected not in honour of the children who suffered there, not to the mothers who grieved the taking of those children but to the people who ran the place. It was a passing monument to a very partial view of our history.
Between that time and 1996 the nation received reports on customary law, deaths in custody, the stolen generations and John Herron became a senator. And, of course, the Mabo decision was handed down by the High Court. Since 1996, the racially discriminatory Native Title Amendment Act became law under John Howard's stewardship. And we have seen the enactment of the compulsory jailing laws of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
In 2000, I'm now 50, a shock jock tells us to get off our lazy black arses and it is taken off air. Well I'm happy to announce I'm not going off air. I expect to be broadcasting the reconciliation message for some time to come.
These are but a few things about me that have touched my life. They occurred in my lifetime. Just as importantly, they occurred in the lifetimes of the two Johns, Howard and Herron.
Where or who is this generation of Australians Mr Howard blames for the removals and the assimilation policies. Are my sisters part of this generation? Are not John and John part of this generation? Indeed, am I not part of this generation? If we are not part of a generation that took Aboriginal kids then who is Mr Howard talking about?
Who did these things to my grandmother, my father, my mother and two sisters? Who was it that tried to take me from my kin in 1960? What generation do we look to if Mr Howard says it wasn't this generation? Where is this mythical group of Australians who made these laws, adopted these policies put them into practice. Who took the kids? I'm at a loss for an answer.
I know there are many decent and honest Australians who accept the truth of our history. They have demonstrated enormous collective courage and decency in accepting honestly our collective historical reality. Not out of a sense of blame or guilt but from a deep sense of shame and loss. A sense that seeks to share and heal the pains of our past and then to move on together.
I bare no grudge against those who made the policies and laws that took my grandmother, my mother and sisters and placed them in missions, orphanages and government settlements. I don't hate those who made my father's love for my mother a jailable offence. But no-one who lived through these times is entitled to deny they happened. Or, perhaps more accurately, suggest they happened at some other time in our history a time in history that is too distant, too far in the past, for us to have a shared responsibility. Denialism is the enemy of reconciliation.
I'm sorry for sounding as if I have a fixation on the present Prime Minister. This is not one of the messages I wish to convey today; in fact the opposite is true. Our obsession with one man's incapacity to say sorry and the ruination of any meaningful apology with excuses and denial will forever distract us from lasting reconciliation.
Reconciliation is about the blood and flesh of the lives we must lead together. There are those who will come along and try to denigrate and obstruct reconciliation and our efforts. We must try our best to bring them along on our journey. And, if they are not willing to walk with us, we must leave them behind. The central importance of our national task is too great to be derailed by pettiness and denial. We can do much to prepare the groundwork for our future co-existence, while we wait for a Prime Minister who can say sorry and will proudly lead us in the right direction.
I urge you to see this day as the beginning of the reconciliation process. There is much work to do. We have to stoke those fires in our bellies, get our hearts burning and yearning for reconciliation. Let us smash the mould of assimilation that afflicts my generation of politicians. The capacity to embrace the past honestly, and acknowledge its truths, goes to the very depths of our national identity and what we stand for as peoples. We must rid ourselves of this psychological cloak of darkness before it becomes our shroud.
If we cannot acknowledge the truths of our past, there is no hope for our future as a nation. We are all Australians and call this home. Let us rejoice in our diversity and difference because it is they that will enrich us. It is who we are and where we want to be that will ultimately give us the strength, wisdom, inspiration and the generosity to get the job done.
So let us begin this journey. A journey of healing the body, soul, hearts and spirit of our nation. In the words of Sir Gustav Nossal, reconciliation must go on as a people's movement. It must go on with the education of young people. It must go on with telling the truth about Aboriginal history. It must go with fights against racism on the ground. We can't fold up our tents and go home just because John Howard won't apologise. This is something for ordinary Australians.
Finally, we must have a treaty. That should be the central objective of the Reconciliation Foundation. It will build on the people's movement and I hope in my heart of hearts it will bring forth the people's leaders we so desperately need. Above all, it will finish the unfinished business. It' s not a big ask. It's something that Australians are eminently capable of doing. It is abundantly clear to me that a lasting reconciliation can only be secured by going down this path. Let us begin that journey, the people's journey, no matter how long it takes.
Dr Mick Dodson is chairperson of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit. This is an edited text of his address to Corroboree 2000.
I table this article to show that in OZ today great minds are confronting difficult social issues. I also table it to give you a hint about why the present government will fail soon; it simply is out of touch with the people and our aspiration for fairness and equity for everyone.
In our Sydney Olympics year Americans will be bombarded with many images of OZ, including those of Aboriginal joys and sorrows. I hope you'll be presented with a balanced fair view.
Regards from Down Under
-- Pieter (email@example.com), May 28, 2000
Nice article, Pieter. Thanks for posting it. I, too, will be interested to see the "spin" the Olympics puts on your fair country. I will watch with this article in mind.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), May 28, 2000.
I am a 5th generation 'white' Australian and I totally concur with Dr Dodson. We MUST accept what has happened in the past and keep moving forewards to a treaty. Otherwise, all the terrible things that have happened to so many of our Aboriginal people will never be addressed nor put right.
An American friend has asked me whether Dr Dodson's account is factual and I can say, without hesitation, albeit with a lot of shame, that it is totally accurate. I was born in 1951 and I still remember a 'stolen' aboriginal child the authorities and his adoptive family were trying to assimilate into my secondary school. He became my friend and I still feel his pain and anguish at being torn away from his family and placed in a 'white' suburban area of Melbourne, Victoria. We remained close friends until his untimely death at the age of 40. I still believe his death was a direct consequence of being torn away from his natural family.
It is my good fortune to have known people from many backgrounds, whether friends or colleagues. I am privileged to have worked and lived amongst people of Aboriginal descent. An Aborignal Australian friend in Queensland told me some wonderful stories about possum hunting with his Father and serenading his wife with a didgeridoo. He also taught me how to feel comfortable with silence, the need for thinking time and non-body language, such as wearing a white vest to show off the colour of his beautiful dark skin on days when he was feeling 'tribal' (his word not mine). As employees of the Australian Government we had a lot of fun together on his 'tribal' days, especially when he started playing 'black'(his word) voice on the telephone on 'tribal' days. This friend is a full blooded Aborigine.
I have other friends who are part Aborigine and we have spent many fruitful hours discussing the rights and needs of indigenous Australians.
We are ordinary people yet we have been able to agree that a reconciliation and treaty are what is required; having someone like John Howard say 'sorry' is not really an issue because we already know that an apology from him would just be empty words. John Howard does NOT represent the ordinary person in Australia - no racist ever could or ever will.
It is interesting that 250,000 Australians staged a protest yesterday and walked over the Sydney Harbour bridge in support of a treaty. Mr Howard was conspicuously absent - he had gone into hiding in Canberra.
With a population of only around 18 million I think it is the largest protest Australia has ever seen, yet it received limited media coverage. I only hope that our Aboriginal brothers and sisters see yesterdays protest as a sign of what the ordinary Australian is thinking.
I know what I want, what most of my generation wants and I certainly know what my children (adults) want. We are not politicians nor do we have power and wealth but there are a lot of us. We NEED to present as a UNITED front and bombard people like John Howard until he loses his job or sees reason. We need black activists to be willing to work with white activists for the good of all.
The thinking Australian wants a fair system that isn't based on the colour of your skin or the language that you speak. We also want to make generous redress for past injustices.
SHAME, John Howard, SHAME !!!
-- Kerry Maszkowski (email@example.com), May 29, 2000.