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.