BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
It's all so hard ...
, October 29, 2011
The Whiteman’s Dream
by Gary Johns
(Victoria: Connor Court Publishing)
Paperback: 324 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Can the aboriginal problem — and let’s be honest and call it a problem — be solved? On the basis of the evidence in this book, such an outcome seems unlikely without the expenditure of a lot of political capital.
Monetary capital is irrelevant. The big spender in this area, the federal government, is smart enough to know that no matter how many billions it spends on Aborigines in remote communities — the focus of this book — it’s not going to eliminate unemployment, sexual abuse, substance abuse, lack of an economic base, abysmal education standards and violence against women.
Gary Johns is a Labor man; he makes no secret of it. He was a Labor member of the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1996 and has held various positions with think tanks and academic institutions since.
If your definition of a socialist is someone who wants the government to spend more taxpayers’ money, then he’s an unreconstructed socialist, for all his free-market credentials.
What he has written is what the Americans call “insider baseball”. This means you really have to be inside the diamond to understand what’s going on.
Johns is president of the Bennelong Society, which claims to be “a society devoted to a rational explanation of indigenous policy, in particular those challenges in integrating indigenous people into the mainstream economy”.
For any government, of any shade, money is not central to the Aboriginal question. Australia’s Aborigines are such a convenient stick for any government anywhere in the world to beat us with that Canberra wouldn’t care how many billions it took to solve the Aboriginal problem; it would spend it. But Canberra knows money won’t — and can’t — solve this problem.
I have seen almost the entire range of public policies applied for better or worse (usually for worse) to the Aboriginal people.
My interest began when I was working in mineral exploration in Western Australia at the end of the nickel boom in the early 1970s. In those days, the unemployment rate was unbelievably low and virtually everyone, Aborigine and white, worked for a living.
Thanks to the Australian Workers Union having an industrial award applied to Aboriginal stockmen, effectively putting them out of work — while favouring other AWU members already in work — the economic and social structure that sustained most Aboriginal people in WA and the Northern Territory in a semi-traditional lifestyle for a century irretrievably broke down.
There wasn’t much to do in the outback then — even less than there is now — so people who had always worked for a living were given “sit-down money”, which bewildered them for a while, until they realised the government was paying them to do nothing.
When I reached the University of Western Australia (UWA) in 1972, I joined Abschol, which had the noble aim of tutoring aboriginal students. It was something of a revelation.
I recall going out to Belmont for the Jewish festival of Passover. My fellow Abschol member, a mature-aged Jewish woman, offered the students some matzos, the unleavened bread eaten at the Passover Seder, which they gobbled down. “They’re hungry!” she said in surprise.
To cut a long story short, the loony-left Australian Union of Students (AUS) abolished Abschol because it was assumed to be “racist”.
This caused us some surprise, because among the members of Abschol were a future doctor, the president of the university branch of the ALP and the rest of us.
Local Aboriginal leaders such as Jack Davis and Ken Colbung regarded us very tolerantly because we offered them a way into the only university in Perth, which, at that time, had never had a single Aboriginal graduate. Gloria Brennan, who became the first Aborigine to graduate from UWA, certainly bore us no ill will, at least partially because some of us had semi-reliable cars.
One of Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s “it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time” moments came when he handed over the Wattie Creek title-deeds to the Gurindji people.
The Guriundji had camped at Wattie Creek on Vestey’s Wave Hill Station and weren’t going to move until they were given title, and when Whitlam poured a handful of sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, the Gurindji won, and it made great viewing. This caused considerable excitement, although no-one knew what it quite all meant.
Much as it delighted the Australian public at the time, it was ultimately a disaster. Inalienable freehold title — the legal solution devised at this time — has meant that Aboriginal persons are denied the right to own their own homes. If they are lucky, they might get a 99-year lease.
It means that most prospective land in the Northern Territory is so tied up with red tape that major companies won’t go near it. Gary Johns calls the reversal of this self-defeating policy “unscrambling” the omelette.
Australia’s Aborigines deserve the same rights as other Australians. And giving them that will take real political will.