How can we discuss the ‘indigenous issue’ rationally?

There is such a thing as the ‘indigenous issue’. A crisp summary of the context is that a whole of people have come to this land, without invitation from and without asking permission of the indigenous inhabitants. They set up another kind of society here, and squeezed the original inhabitants out of their customary ways, and out of their territory. More than two hundred years later the descendants of those newcomers greatly outnumber the original inhabitants, occupy positions of privilege, and see the country as ‘theirs’. The original inhabitants resent this, and though they are building and improving their own position in the larger society, they are generally in positions of disadvantage, and resent that too.

A crisp summary of the issue is this: what should be done about that situation — and who should do what? For the majority of Australians, I feel sure, there is an abundance of good intention, but of a passive kind. It is not passive for many Aboriginal people, or for people like me. As I wrote in my book What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia (Allen & Unwin), while there has been a great improvement of the conditions of Aboriginal Australians in the last sixty years, ‘there was no great satisfaction anywhere about either the present or the future’.

Our governments have the primary responsibility, but whatever they do is likely to be attacked from all sides, and there is no unanimity within Aboriginal communities either about what should be done. But we all have a vote, and we all have elected representatives, and we all ought to have some sort of view, because since 1965 Aboriginal people have been ‘Australians’ too. Once the 1991 Reconciliation Council Act was passed I became a member of the ACT Council, and served on it for several years until it faded away, mostly because the various Aboriginal communities lost interest in it. As a political scientist and historian, not to mention a university vice-chancellor with a hundred and more Aboriginal students, I had and still have an abiding interest in good social policy. And in the indigenous domain, we seem so often to move one step forwards and then two backwards.

I mention this history and context because I have discovered that an Aboriginal elder has taken exception to something I wrote in the earliest of these essays. I am exceedingly sorry that he feels that I have insulted him and his Aboriginality. There was no such intention, and indeed I said that he had been an effective, good-humoured and breezy speaker. My essay then, and those that have followed, have been written with the intent of improving understanding of both the context and the policy alternatives.

My background is mostly Scottish, and though there is little hard evidence of where my ancestors came from, it is both likely and consistent with family tradition that they were once crofters in the northwest of Scotland, displaced both by the English, after 1745, and by later enclosures. That was a long time ago, and my families migrated to Australia in the 19th century, early and later. I see myself as Australian, and my Scottish origin is of little practical significance to me.

I argued in my essay that in the long run a comparable change will very likely be true for most people of Aboriginal descent. That does not mean at all that such descent is not important now, or that those struggling for greater recognition for their fellow Aboriginals are somehow in error. I did not intend to suggest that, and feel that I cannot have expressed myself well if that has been the effect of my words. I pay every respect to the elder.

At the same time, it is important that we work collectively to provide better outcomes for Aboriginal people everywhere. For someone like me, a writer, that means writing on the subject, and engaging with those who also have an interest, whether or not I have Aboriginal ancestry. None of this is easy, because governments always find it hard to plan for the long run, and the pace of change from one week to the next is so slow. I intend to continue writing and  talking about these issues — and I hope also to do it without upsetting anyone else!

I think  great deal of good is being done in fields like education, but it is plain that in the remote settlements, where education is both precious and hard to achieve, there are serious problems. I believe that Noel Pearson’s sense of the next step is the right one, which is to bring Aboriginal people in these settlements, and generally, into the world of work. Though I am less sure of his other important objective, at the moment I feel that he is also probably right to press for constitutional recognition of the Aboriginal peoples.




Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • mondo says:

    One of the books (a gift from my Mum) that impressed me greatly some 20 years or so ago was The Times Atlas Of World History. Examination of that book makes it very clear that human history is an account of one race overrunning another, again and again, many many times over the past few thousand years. It has always been so. And ultimately intermarriage blurs the racial distinctions, as you suggest.

    The difference that has developed over, say the past 50 years, in the developed western nations at least, is that one of the benefits of prosperity is that the wider population are beginning to find compassion and concern for the plight of the indigenous peoples. This has the benefit of delivering political power to the indigenous people, that if used wisely, can help them to achieve their objectives. The corollary of this is that if some of the indigenous peoples act in a way that causes concern in the broader population, an outcome could be that they might lose widespread support and their capacity to achieve their goals will be reduced. Fortunately we have seen the emergence of some wise indigenous leaders taking responsible positions. This can be instrumental in increasing political support for their initiatives.

  • Sam says:

    Hi, I would like to point out my experiences as a late twentys Aboriginal male, I consider myself a nice, hard working person who’s first priority is providing for my beautiful children and (aboriginal) wife, we both work full time, contribute to society in real meaningful ways and do nothing to warrant demonisation, although thats just what we both get, I walk into shops and hear “security check” far to often, I get abused while walking down the street and pulled over and serched by police even though I have never done anything wrong, and all of this while the mis informed public tell aboriginals if they work hard and blah blah blah we will be accepted, well thats all lies, I have watched my great grand parents, grand parents and parents (all still together) fight and sacrifice their wellbeing for bacis rights for thier children, it has affected me and now its starting to effect my children and I have realised we havent gain much at all, the days of blaiming the victims should be stopped, Aboriginal people have had a 100% failure rate of government policies under every government, if anyone is a failure it isnt Aborignal people, My family have been focusing on education for 4 generations (phds, masters, adv degrees) and it amounts to nothing if the people in power are not serious, I have become hesitant to trust People who continue to put pressure on Aborignial people to solve a problem that can be changed by our “so called leaders” if they want to, Im over the lies of “acceptance” as I have been shown many times over that I will never be accepted by white australia, the fact the UN can criticise Australia for its breaches of human rights and then get a seat at the table says Aboriginal people are on their own, as has been shown in the past, with a 2% population your vote counts for nothing, no political party promotes good Aborignial policy or trys to win our vote, Aborignals are used to harness the redneck vote as they significantly out number Aboriginal people, forget all the spin as voting amounts to nothing in regards to us, unless they need to whip up fear like howard over native title (straight out lies about people lossing their backyard), Aborignal people feel on their own, I feel on my own, we are a political tool thats allowed to be subject to human rights breaches, Im at a loss to understand the governments logic, I think a two party prefered politiccal system is backward, they both have the same policys and gives us no choice or chance, I as an Aborignal cant continue to be told its us when I have mountains of experience to see it for the dishonesty it is, P.S people like Noel pearson and Waren Mundine are for assimilation, Aborignal people dont see the benefit of cultural denigration and these people on TV and in the papers are not Aborignal leaders, they are paid advisors to government, the real Aboriginal leaders are on the ground figting for basic human rights, for no money, no storys in the paper or on TV and is at a great personal cost, they are the leaders, the ones in the media are solving nothing, just getting rich

    • donaitkin says:


      I feel for you and your family, and I agree with you that all the policies that have been tried in the past have been much less than successful — other than education. But, as you say, there have to be the right jobs after education, or it counts for nothing.

      Do you have a suggestion? Is there a policy or a way forward that you feel ought to be given a try? Put it forward here, and I’ll build a post around it, if I can!

  • Peter Warwick says:

    Don, would appreciate an essay of your finest on why and how causes and issues transmogrify into “Industries”. I can think of The Aboriginal Industry, the Foreign Aid Industry, The Sexual Abuse Industry and many more. Often the originating cause or issue gets lost in the mists when the Industrialists get hold of it.

    Google: “Why I burned my ‘Proof of Aboriginality’.

  • donaitkin says:


    I’ll add it to the list!

  • […] do we do then? I have written before about the politics of the Aboriginal situation (perhaps start here). And from that essay I take this text: ‘As I wrote in my book What Was It All For? The […]

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