Wild rivers a cage for Aborigines
''With the natives we are hand in glove. They throng the camp every day, and sometimes by their clamour and importunity for bread and meat (of which they now all eat greedily) are become very troublesome. God knows, we have little enough for ourselves! . . . The convicts continue to behave pretty well; three only have been hanged since the arrival of the last fleet.''
Watkin Tench 1788
This quote comes from one of the most important books ever written about Australia, the journal by a young Royal Marines officer, Watkin Tench, a member of the First Fleet. Tench recorded, with vivid and sympathetic detail, the first contact between the indigenous population and European settlers. He did not condescend towards the native population.
His account caused a sensation. It was a bestseller when published in 1789, but fell into obscurity for more than 200 years until his work was revived and republished in 1996, under the title 1788, thanks to Tim Flannery.
The book should be mandatory reading in schools. Tench wrote before white Australia existed, before Aboriginal Australia was reimagined and reinvented by the European mind, with a large dose of fiction. But not all that he saw was noble: ''The women are in all respects treated with savage barbarity. Condemned not only to carry the children but all other burdens, they meet in return for submission only with blows, kicks and every other mark of brutality.''
One is entitled to conclude that not enough has changed in the past 222 years. As recently as Friday came reports of rampant child abuse in yet another Aboriginal community in submissions made to the Northern Territory's Child Protection Inquiry. They detail appalling levels of child neglect, sexual abuse of little girls, homelessness, destitution, disease and rampant drunkenness in Binjari, south of Katherine.
The gap between rhetoric and reality is as wide as ever, with many Aboriginal communities trapped in a feudal system imposed by the legal system.
This brings us to the soul of the Federal Parliament. There is such a thing as excessive cynicism and I am certain both the Labor government and the Coalition are willing to take a bipartisan approach to any reform designed to improve the lives of the complex web of communities we refer to as ''indigenous Australians''.
People keep talking about the Greens ''controlling'' the Senate from July next year, but the Greens will be rendered utterly irrelevant any time the major parties reach an accommodation about bipartisan reforms. And indigenous affairs is the most fertile area for such concordance, because there are no votes in it.
The first test of the new alignment in Parliament will be the Wild Rivers Act of Queensland. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott intends to introduce a private member's bill, not in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition but as a member of Parliament, to seek a federal overturning of this state legislation.
The Wild Rivers Act has locked up 10 river systems of Cape York. The aim is to preserve the region as wilderness. The legislation was driven by Greens activists and led by the Wilderness Society, over the fierce objection of local indigenous communities, led by Noel Pearson, who regards the act as not merely a social disaster for local indigenous communities but a patronising affront to Aboriginal people by white, urban ideologues.
''We are getting done over by a Greens agenda to stifle indigenous aspirations,'' Pearson says. He believes indigenous communities are weighed down by a toxic load of ideological rigidity, bureaucratic inertia, and a progressive political agenda which, when it comes to Aborigines, fixates on group identity over individual autonomy.
''I will never forget the day when Noel and I travelled to Brisbane for a Wild Rivers meeting with a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Queensland government,'' says Prue Gusmerini, 27, who, assisting Pearson, ran the campaign against the Wild Rivers Act. ''Noel explained to the bureaucrat that for an agency to remove a kid from an abusive home on Cape York, the kid must be 'bleeding from an orifice' - and he repeated it - 'the child needs to be bleeding from an orifice'. The most shocking part was that this was met with a blank stare . . .
''We came to believe that green lobby groups want indigenous people's native title to amount to little more than usage rights, to hunt, fish, gather, so that indigenous people are denied the right to develop their land,'' Gusmerini said.
''Green groups are moving quickly to lock up remote lands, by any means. They will use World Heritage, national parks, conservation agreements, wild rivers legislation, marine parks, privately dedicated land, nature refuges, rezoning, anything they can to stop development.
''This green appropriation will extend right across the Top End of Australia in less than a decade unless checked.''
After the Howard government lost office in 2007, Abbott spent three weeks in Cape York as a teaching assistant in an Aboriginal community. He has made dozens of trips to remote indigenous communities, especially to Cape York with his friend Pearson, but for a former cabinet minister to become a teaching assistant in a remote community was a commitment few Australians make.
It was here Abbott became convinced the Wild Rivers Act was another law that locked indigenous people into unworkable feudal systems that stifle self-development. There are few if any votes to be won with this private member's bill, so this goes to the soul of politics, and will be the first meaningful skirmish for the new parliament. The Wild Rivers Act bears watching.