Sydney Morning Herald


Primal fear

Race, politics and respectable Australia

John Howard @ the Reconciliation Convention: photo by
Noel Pearson spoke and the room was very, very still. He was not pleading, nor was he bothering much to charm, but a couple of hundred Sydney lawyers crowded into the Supreme Court were listening to him with something like relief. He was speaking a language they understood. QCs forgot to fidget. Old Sir Harry Gibbs, last but one Chief Justice of the High Court, sat forward in his seat. This was as close as some of these men and women had ever been to a black Australian.

 Pearson's voice is pure North Queensland softened by the Lutheran cadence of St Peter's Brisbane then ironed out by the years he spent at Sydney University Law School. Pearson spoke of his time in that legal factory, where one day he discovered in one of the underground lavatories graffiti that read "True land rights by '88". And underneath in another hand, "But can fauna own land?"

 Experts on the subtleties of racism in this country believe that racism in its primal form - the notion that Aborigines are a lower order of life, more another species than another race - has all but died out except in pockets of far distant Queensland. Pearson spoke of old aunts and uncles at Hope Vale up on Cape York who not so long ago quizzed a visiting anthropologist about the "scientific" theory they'd grown up with all their lives: that they were not entirely human. "How was it regarded these days?"

 Well, traces survive in the clever graffitti of a university in the middle of the city of Sydney. Pearson wasn't moaning about this. He was making the point that terra nullius sprang from that same notion: an assumption that the original inhabitants of the continent were not quite human. "We occupied the land, but we were fauna."

 Pearson chuckled but the banks of spectators were silent. We were assembled under the ermined portraits of dead chief justices to open Law Week with an eccentric public discussion about the Constitution. Pearson was the only reason for the crowd: a stocky young man, a black from the north still a few formalities short of qualifying as a solicitor. This was not a bad turn out for an articled clerk. He sat there, at ease with his own authority, chuckling away at the little shock he'd delivered this crowd by reminding them how persistent, how close to home white racism is - just over the road at the Law School.

 Pearson was at the table because he has Mabo and Wik at his back. The law that once bound and excluded blacks is now the ground on which Aboriginal Australia is choosing to fight. Lawyers are winning victories that even sympathetic white politicians have baulked at pursuing. And it's being a black lawyer that brings Pearson face to face with attorneys-general, chief justices, QCs. He would be talking next day to most of them again when he addressed the NSW Law Society. He talks, they listen. They may profoundly disagree with him, but Pearson is bringing White Australia news from the other side in a language they can comprehend.

 Mabo is getting hard to talk about: the word is wearing out. But Pearson has a true campaigner's knack of softening up an audience to listen once again to a message they've heard a hundred times before. He concedes that Mabo has produced "impatience, anger, arguments, misgivings" in white Australia, but yet he sees the High Court's decision as the best basis we have for reconciliation.

 "I can see it," he said, holding out his hands, dead level in the general direction of Sir Harry Gibbs. "I can see it - just down the track."

 Poor Dame Leone Kramer. She too was on the panel to talk about the Constitution, but may not have turned her mind to how Mabo and Wik have transformed the oldest debate in this country: the place and rights of those who were here first. She was putting the conservatives' familiar case that a Bill of Rights might lead to an unfortunate "litigation mentality" in Australia. Pearson had replied in a devastating aside: "I'm rather a fan of litigation myself."

 "Yes, but she's got something." I first heard that said in my aunt's house on the North Shore. That day Pauline Hanson had made her debut on the Midday show and half a dozen of my aunt's friends were talking about the woman over their whiskies. This was very early days but they were admiring and none would concede the obvious: that she was a racist. These are good people, perhaps never very keen to absorb the facts of Aboriginal Australia, but 10 years ago they would have seen Hanson for what she was. Why not now?

 Racism is so subtle that no white Australian can really claim to be untouched by that mix of shame, boredom and fear that has marked white response to black from the start. When we read of terrible things done to Aborigines now and in the past, we try to claim that this was the work of others and in other times. It doesn't work. Public statistics on black disease, imprisonment, literacy and housing are damning in themselves, but it's our unexpected, fugitive responses that really give us whites away.

 Did you (like me) jump out of your skin at the sight of the old black man standing in the rain in Peter Weir's The Last Wave? It was a fright straight out of childhood. Who taught me about black bogeymen who take little children away? Probably my grandmother. I'm still carrying that baggage and know I'm not alone in that: Peter Weir, a maestro of fear, knew exactly what he was doing when he put that black out in the storm.

 The other night a man I've known for years, an artist who works all the time with Aborigines, confessed that as a little boy growing up in the suburbs of Sydney in the early 1960s he had felt this was really the Aborigines' country and knew that terrible things had been done to them but somehow believed they were dying out. Where all this came from he doesn't know, but it seeped into his life and he realised he felt "secretly grateful" to know they were dying, because "it would be so much easier if they were not around".

 Look at the map of Sydney. Despite the policy of the Geographic Names Board to push for Aboriginal names for new suburbs, there are virtually none. The Wahrongas and Killaras of today are called Winston Hills and Chipping Norton. We could be going for a bus tour through the Home Counties. But these names sell and Aboriginal names don't. In the past few years the board has been able to persuade only a corner of Five Dock to rename itself Wareemba and a bit of Baulkham Hills to be Maroota. For suburbs, that's about that - but there's a chance one of the stations on the new line to Mascot will be called Eora. Really, it's too embarrassing to pursue: Eora is the original name for the place we now call Sydney.

 Consider this from the art world: Australians think even the best Aboriginal art should be cheap.

 Remember the moment in the last episode of Frontline when Prowsey is fighting Mike Moore's eccentric notion of doing some good on the show with a story on malnutrition in remote Aboriginal Australia. "Yeah, well what can I do?" shouts Prowsey. "That stuff doesn't rate." And it doesn't. There's a rule in commercial television: "Avoid the two As" - that's AIDS and Aborigines. Those shows might win awards, but not big audiences.

 The two stories that so far matter most this year - and are yoked together - are Wik and Pauline Hanson. But when Four Corners opened the year with a big story on Wik, its ratings halved from the 20per cent of viewers it sees as its regular crowd to about 8per cent. Nevertheless, Four Corners went ahead with a show about life on the Redfern "block". That got 16s. John Budd, executive producer of Four Corners, told me, "The strength of the audience surprised me."

 We had several conferences to discuss illustrations for this story. There was no question of the commitment of the paper to my argument - that it's racism in white Australia that makes sense of so much of what's going on in this country now - but at the back of all our minds was the fear that black faces might turn away white readers.

 Could we show only white faces? No, impossible. But a real black face would suggest the fears of white Australia were also real. So we hit on Neville, the black garden gnome: a kitsch image of Aboriginal Australia, as fake as our worst fears, but still being manufactured on some weird assembly line beyond the mountains. Lately these gnomes are back in fashion, a bit of chic decoration indoors while surviving here and there behind picket fences in the suburbs where people say of Pauline Hanson, "Yes, but she's got something".

 Outside Hanson's Launceston meeting the crush of supporters posed the same question: how could they not see, or not particularly care, what she was preaching? What has happened? Seeing my reporter's pad they volunteered: "She's not a racist, you know." These respectable folk were so keen to hear her they braved a gauntlet of demonstrators then squeezed through a protective screen of police to reach the door of the Albert Hall. An unforgettable sight that day was the frail matron so entangled with a policeman that she tottered through the line with his baton in her hand.

 Hanson, herself, solves the riddle of her followers' reluctance to put two and two together: she doesn't talk race in the old biological terms these people grew up with, smearing blacks as fauna and lower orders. She uses the new racial jargon of equality and self-help. "I am not a racist. None of my remarks in their proper context could be fairly regarded as racist. I am not opposed to any person or group because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin ... but I am opposed to, and so are the vast majority of Australians, discrimination in favour, as well as against, any person or group. I want equal treatment for all Australians."

 Then she belittles Aboriginal need - argues, indeed, that they are privileged - and puts dispossession and discrimination a long way back in the past. Time is an essential part of Hanson's appeal: the 200 years she puts between us and the subtle guilt revived in Australia by Mabo. "I am fed up with being told, "This is our land'. Well, where the hell do I go? I was born here, and so were my parents and children. I will work beside anyone and they will be my equal but I draw the line when told I must pay and continue paying for something that happened over 200 years ago."

 Exasperation with Mabo and Wik, a sense that we've all gone too far, a feeling that these decisions contradict every expectation of how race works in this country, seem to explain the public blindness to Hanson's racism: this is where the line must be drawn. That has changed the map of race in modern Australia, and the map of politics. Mabo and Wik stand equally behind Noel Pearson, Pauline Hanson and John Howard.

 Only racism can finally explain our national response to Mabo. That some day Aboriginal communities may have title to Crown lands they already occupy hardly warrants the outpourings of rage since the decision was announced on June3, 1992. But it goes much deeper than land. Mabo was the moment when the courts turned face-about: instead of expressing racism through terra nullius they began modestly to oppose. The law changed sides, but the judges didn't order stolen land to be handed back - as is happening nowdays in New Zealand and South Africa - but said what was left might belong to Aborigines.

 Those who found the result impossible, a violation of the proper order of things, were arguing neither from law nor history. Race makes sense of their gut rejection, first of Mabo and then of the court's modest conclusion in Wik that black communities which have never lost their connection with lands now leased by pastoralists to run cattle, may continue to enjoy access to this land - so long as they don't hinder pastoralists in their lawful work.

 The hammering the High Court has been getting since for "inventing" new laws is starting to take on the pattern of a racist backlash - supported by most of the governments of the Commonwealth - to decisions that challenge white Australia's sense of its natural place in the system. In the course of this controversy, the difficulties whites now face owning and using land in the bush have been spectacularly exaggerated. Indeed, the challenge of the Wik decision to pastoralists' "certainty" is emerging as one of the great beat-ups in the history of relations between the races in Australia.

 The Prime Minister's Ten Point Plan - the forced transfer of Aboriginal property rights to pastoralists - could be contemplated calmly only by those unworried by its essentially racial logic, which Howard stood and defended to the Akubra and tweed assembled in Longreach. They wanted the logic pressed to its conclusion: complete extinction of native title rights. Would they - would Howard - want this if whites held those rights? For all the Prime Minister's wish to locate in the unexamined past our wrongs to Aboriginal Australia, we are planning in the 1990s to take from black to give to white roughly as we always have on this continent. It was always an Australian way - not that most of us what to see it repeated now.

 Aboriginal paintings were never more in demand than when the Coalition moved into the Parliament House suites just vacated by Paul Keating's defeated ministers. The stores were ransacked for desert masterpieces to hang on the new ministers' walls. This is the art the Howard team wanted to see and be photographed with. Ochre and dots was the new government's look.

 But the ministers had fought their way there with a campaign slogan "For All of Us" that whispered the same egalitarian racism that Pauline Hanson was later to preach openly: the idea that minorities (blacks, foreigners, unionists etc) were taking too much from government: that it was time for ordinary (white) Australians to be the centre of attention again. And once in power, this was the ministry that made immediate moves against what John Howard called "the Aboriginal industry".

 Race has taken its place at the main table. The 1967 referendum wasn't the moment we put all this behind us. Australians are hugely generous when called on to make big gestures that cost nothing - and no referendum has ever been carried with such unanimity as this was to bring black Australians into the Federation. But what followed - land rights, black health, justice for Aborigines - cost white Australia money and a little land. These programs were contested all the way. The politics was tough.

 Yet for much of the 30 years since the referendum a decent compact operated in Canberra not to take party political advantage of the persistent racism that both sides of politics know is out there. All their polling tells them this. We're celebrating the anniversary of the referendum with that old compact in tatters. The Howard Government boasts this achievement as the end of "political correctness".

 Yet despite the strength of the racial undertow in Australia, we are a better country than the Howard Government suggests. More than 80per cent of us are anxious about levels of racism. As many of us consider the forced removal of children "abhorrent" and more than 80per cent also expect governments to do everything they can to fix Aboriginal health problems.

 This account of an essentially sympathetic Australia emerges from national research commissioned last year by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. The polling (conducted by the Melbourne firm Brian Sweeney and Associates) shows us very concerned about the fate of indigenous citizens. Even in the bush, 64per cent of us think we should officially recognise Aborigines' prior occupation of the continent and 95per cent of us believe every child should learn "the true history of Australia, including Aboriginal history and culture". So much for Howard's worries about the black armband.

 That's mainstream Australia. But for the first time in two decades a prime minister is trying to play to the fringe: to appeal to the recalcitrant fifth of the nation that seems, from this polling, to be where resurgent racism is coming from.

 Some of the numbers are extraordinary. Nearly 80per cent of rural Queenslanders consider Aborigines "well looked after" and nearly 90per cent of Territorians living in the bush think so too. Three-quarters of us living across rural Australia believe Aborigines get better benefits than white Australians. Though support for reconciliation runs at over 90per cent among the young, it drops away dramatically in the old. Most over-65s are indifferent to the notion and they are also the ones who most believe we should forget the past and get on with our lives.

 Once having let race out of the bag in which it has been contained (more or less) for the past 20 years, Howard faces the challenge of keeping the mainstream happy while finessing issues out at the fringe. Noel Pearson calls this "wedge politics" and in another powerful speech last week - this time delivered at the presentation of the NSW Law Society's media awards - he named Andrew Robb, the now retired Federal Director of the Liberal Party, as the author of these "ruthless" tactics.

 "Whilst elections in the Northern Territory have routinely generated and exploited white paranoia and racism in relation to Aboriginal people and land rights to secure CLP victories," Pearson said, "I cannot think of an election in which Aboriginal affairs, and particularly questions of Aboriginal privilege and comparative white disadvantage, have featured at all in a national election campaign. It was a big part of the undercurrent of the last campaign - particularly in regional Australia - and in my view it was deliberately so."

 It was a rousing speech gently delivered. Pearson ended, as he always does these days, by invoking Mabo as "the foundation of truth" without which a national structure can't endure. "We forsake Mabo and we will be bereft of our one chance at national coherence: an opportunity to come to terms with the past, take its prescriptions in the present and therefore map out the future."
 During the ovation that followed, the Sydney QC Rick Burbidge - rather anti the sentiments but very impressed by the speech - leant over to the Four Corners reporter Liz Jackson and wondered aloud if Pearson had written it himself. Jackson was shocked: "The speech was so clearly from the heart. It was so personal." The exchange was reported next day in the Financial Review. Burbidge has now assured the Herald that he was not sceptical because Pearson is an Aborigine. Burbidge usually uses his own material but is aware of speakers who speak from drafts and notes prepared by others. He is anxious to make this clear: "I'd have asked it if it was the Governor-General making the speech."

copyright: Sydney Morning Herald

The proceedings of the Australian Reconciliation Convention