Professor Marcia Langton recently accused a Greens senator of preferring Aborigines to be "drunk and stupid", rather, perhaps, than, as Marcia Langton is, intelligent, discerning, well-educated and an active player in her own life story. Whether the insult was justified is neither here nor there, but it does underline how what one says about Aboriginal Australians tells as much about the speakers as about the objects of their attention.
I gave a talk more than 20 years ago about more than 20 years of writing about Aboriginal affairs. When I first began doing so, Aborigines had seemed generally remote objects of abstract pity, like starving Ethiopians, to most city-dwelling Australians. They had then become admirable but simultaneously politically problematic, people whose rights and land needed restoration, in a way possibly at odds with settled interests, while also housing a whole wardful of diseases in each body. In a third phase, they had become socially problematic, disproportionately in our jails, abusers of drugs and alcohol, and insolvable or (in today's meaningless phrase) a "wicked" and very expensive problem.
"At least they are now scared of us," a friend remarked glumly. Speaking just before me, the minister of Aboriginal affairs had seemed to think that Indigenous affairs were at that moment facing a new dawn, largely because of him. He had invented a new empty slogan. I can hardly think of a single minister whose actions or policies made a practical positive difference to Aboriginal lives. When, if, we beat our breasts about stolen generations we should be thinking of now, not of two, three and four generations back.
Tomorrow, I leave the formal employ of The Canberra Times, 43 years after I started here. Had someone asked me when I began where I expected to be a decade hence, I might well have said that I would be back in the environment in which I grew up, in western NSW, possibly not as a grazier, like my father and mother, but as a lawyer, like my grandfather.
All sides of my large extended clan interacted with Aborigines. Some worked on economic projects in remote missions. My grandfather (whose own grandfather had a bit part in the Myall and Waterloo Creek massacres in the 19th century) campaigned for civil rights and human dignity. My father worked for better living conditions for Aborigines and, as chronicled in the book, Invasion to Embassy, helped precipitate a political crisis in Coonamble in 1959 in an attempt to break up local racial segregration.
We had Aboriginal employees on our station, paid equal wages. I was taught to read by a Quambone woman, though how she learnt is a mystery. In those days, Aborigines were excluded from most rural schools, government or Catholic, at the insistence of the local whites.
In most communities there were Aboriginal skilled workers. There was steady, if casual, work on stations. White folk tended to divide Aborigines between these and "no-hopers": those who manifested little sustained interest in work and the accumulation of wealth. But in this Aborigines were not regarded much differently than the Irish had been a half-century earlier. The region was generally prosperous, and if Aborigines were still obviously at the bottom of the heap, their economic circumstances were generally improving along with everyone else's.
In the mid-1960s, wool prices fell and there was a long drought. Farmers cut back on labour. In farming families, baby boomers were hitting adolescence, able to do routine station work that previously gone to town-based labour.
There are men aged 70 from western NSW who have not had regular work since 1965. There was not, initially, much in the way of welfare help to cause the ruin that faced them. These men have sons aged 50 and grandsons of 30 who have scarcely worked at all, except at make-work.. Most are neither drunk (indeed a majority, men and women, do not drink at all) nor stupid, but they are hardly suffused with optimism or joy of life. It is of the men and women of such communities, and people of more remote and traditional communities, of whom I write most.
I retained a general interest in Aboriginal affairs as a university student, and, as a young reporter wrote about it as a national political issue often enough. But I did not go back much into Aboriginal Australia until 1976. Then, at the urging of Gordon Briscoe, who said one had to go and see before I could understand statistics or dry reports, I became involved with Professor Fred Hollows and the national trachoma program, with regular visits to Central Australia.
I had imagined a lot of improvement over the past decade; There was not; it seemed, if anything, worse. I took leave for some years to work in Aboriginal organisations and with Fred Hollows; that gave me the privilege of visiting hundreds of separate Aboriginal communities throughout Australia.
I have learnt some hard lessons over the years. Only Aborigines can liberate themselves. Friends, sympathisers, even enemies, can be a catalyst, but they can no more lead the way than they can progress matters by pushing people from behind. Coercion, including any embraced in what Professor Langton describes as "the very difficult problem [for Aboriginal leaders such as herself] to shift recalcitrant people from welfare to work" does not alter situations; indeed it is counter-productive.
One does Aboriginals no favours by suppressing the bad bits, or by writing "positive" propaganda. Disadvantage, dislocation, dysfunction, drugs, drunks and deadness are a part of the story, as are some of the reasons why. But it's a dynamic and politic, not a static, situation, and must be understood as such. People are actors in their own circumstances.
The ones who delude themselves most are in Canberra, not in communities.
Among Aboriginal Australians are some of the nicest, kindest, funny and least neurotic people on earth. There are also psychopaths, sociopaths and people who are very dangerous, to themselves, their families and, more rarely, people at large.
There's not a family, let alone, a community, that does not have an intense politic based on very local facts, factors and personalities. The sure sign of the idiotic minister or official ls someone who thinks the local factors are relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of policy.. It's always the most important bit.
Politicians and bureaucrats, white and black, pay lip service to consultation. But they think of it, as facilitators and town planners do, only as a set of techniques for winning assent for predetermined policies and programs, ones the real owners are not willing to change. Having a community, white or black, "go along with" someone else's idea is useless. An alien idea must be planted, cultivated, watered, owned and championed by those it is intended to serve. Our bureaucracy and political establishment does not know how to listen. It has learnt nothing new on the subject, apart from a few particularly meaningless slogans, in my lifetime.
The sure indicator of impending disaster is when someone decides that a problem is too urgent to waste time asking and listening. Indeed the most enduring and endearing feature of Aboriginal survival has been the power of sullen, or sometimes humorous, resistance, to solutions imposed from without.
Now, as for a long time, there is a complete mismatch between what bureaucracies, and some of their appointed Aboriginal advisers, think they are doing and what they are in fact doing. And between what they think Aboriginal people think of their bright ideas and what Aboriginal people really think of them. And between what Aboriginal people want for themselves and their families and what white officials want for them. That chasm is not going to narrow by an Aboriginal change of mind, or by exhausting the patience of the objects of all of this "love" and attention. As the Afghani rebel remarked: "You've got watches, we've got time".
Forty years ago, I thought that the tide might turn for Aborigines in my lifetime, and that, perhaps, I might have made a slight contribution, whether by presenting facts or by advocacy, to this happening. Hope springs eternal, but my feeling based on experience is that it will not happen. It's not because Aborigines are drunk and stupid. It's because their would-be saviours seem to be.