Sunday, October 19, 2014

A salient quote from a member of the "other side"

I am currently reading and re-reading Noel Pearson's recent piece in the Quarterly Essay on constitutional recognition and why he feels it's the way forward. I'm not going to dissect it here and illuminate the many parts I've questioned, disagreed with and so forth. One thing that I am going to do though is pull out a quote that, just in its solitary form, has stuck with me.

Pearson writes:

There are many ethnic minorities in Australia of equivalent or smaller size. Some of them face barriers of racism, but, I would argue, not to the degree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do. And these minorities are not indigenous to the nation, with the particular colonial history that brought us to where we are. Indigenous people were displaced and dispossessed in the founding of British settlement and the development of the nation. Indigenous people therefore have a unique historical and legal relationship with the Australian government.

The reason why I am quoting this is that it's precisely the kind of point I have been trying to get across time and time again. There has been a lot of rubbish and deliberate misdirection written about me and my views and I'm fairly over it. I am also aware that I occupy a particular position within Indigenous opinion and that position is of an educated leftist Arrernte feminist from a working class background. Pearson occupies a different position entirely. Yet here he is reflecting a view that I have also expressed before. To me this states that this is potentially a shared view across the Indigenous political spectrum. It's one that cannot just be dismissed because some wish it to not be the case as they too have been harmed by racism in this country.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of blackness intersect with indigeneity within this country. Nobody else shares this experience. They may share elements of it, whether these elements are skin colour, or colonisation, or language loss and so forth; of course this is the case. But they are not also experiencing these things from the vantage point of being displaced peoples within their own country. That is a unique experience to Indigenous peoples and it needs to be understood as such allowing for us to speak about this freely. To draw out elements of commonality is fine, and even desirable, when it is with the intent of being allies. But to do so as a way of cheapening or denigrating Indigenous experience by not deferring to its uniqueness due to this intersection is erroneous and damaging. Rather than combating racism in the country it instead has the ability to compound it. And indeed, it has.

I am compelled to write this because some things just don't seem to end, no matter how much I wish this to be the case. I, and other Aboriginal writers, are still being attacked, are still being misrepresented, and are still social media fodder. It's tiring and it's wrong. I'm interested in solidarity and exchange with understanding shown. It is actually possible.

That's all I have to say.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Rottnest Island: Australia's holiday destination of choice...

It takes a unique country to name a century-long former internment camp as its favourite holiday destination. Such a country would either have to be one with rather macabre fascinations or a genuine interest in acknowledging historical injustices as a way of moving towards a better future. Or it could just be Australia.

In a poll conducted by travel provider Experience Oz, Rottnest Island took the top spot when it came to favourite Australian holiday destinations. It's not surprising that the natural beauty and unique wildlife were mentioned as to why Rottnest was number one. The hundreds of Aboriginal men buried in unmarked graves probably aren't an island drawcard for most tourists. If tourists indeed know that this what they're walking over when exploring the island.

When Aboriginal people speak of our history in this country these stories are often dismissed. Every Australia Day, this national dismissal of Aboriginal experience is paraded in public for all to see. Aboriginal people are continually accused of focussing only on negatives; of promoting “black armband history” at the cost of celebrating alleged national positives. When it comes to the history of Rottnest though, to try and argue that there are positives to celebrate is impossible.

The proper acknowledgement of the gruesome history of Rottnest has been called for for a very long time. Only two weeks ago, Murdoch academic and Minang-Wadjari man Glen Stasiuk was quoted calling for the closure of Rottnest Lodge Accommodation and asking that it be turned into a museum and appropriate memorial.

Rottnest Lodge claims as part of its lodgings “The Quod” - an octagonal building housing the Aboriginal prison which was in operation from 1838 to 1931. Each luxury hotel room encompasses three of the old cells in which at least seven prisoners were crammed. The Quod grounds where five men were hung on gallows serve as a grassy area for hotel guests to sun themselves and relax. At least ten percent of the prisoners there died; of malnutrition, of illnesses, of brutality. Mr Stasiuk believes nine out of ten people who stay at The Quod don't know this history.

Certainly, Rottnest Lodge doesn't go out of its way to advertise it to potential guests either. The Quod rooms are described as being “rich in history”, which I guess is one way to put it. Additionally the Lodge itself is noted as once being the Summer residence for the Governor of WA, yet the website neglects to state much else about the other buildings.

Much of what else stands in Rottnest today was built of Aboriginal suffering. Michael Sinclair-Jones describes the island buildings and sea retainer walls that were built from Aboriginal prisoner labour, as well as the former campground which sat on top of what is the largest deaths in custody gravesite in this country. At best it seems this is glossed over with local and governmental arguments consistently being it would cost too much to acknowledge these sites. At worst, it is the denial of genocidal practices enacted against Aboriginal people to keep others feeling comfortable when visiting such places.

Gerry Georgatos states that the rate of imprisonment in Western Australia of Aboriginal men today is nine times the rate of imprisonment of black men in apartheid South Africa. Perhaps the horrors of Rottnest are not as deeply buried in the past as most would pretend. Certainly though, it is difficult to think of anywhere else in the world where a horrific internment camp has been swept so easily under the national carpet.

Australians are renowned for their love of travel and holidays. When it comes to Rottnest Island though, this travel comes at the cost of ignoring one of the most horrific examples of displacement, violence and death that Aboriginal people in Western Australia have endured. It is well overdue that Rottnest's history is acknowledged and its victims commemorated. Until then, the best holiday destination in Australia continues to be built upon a lie. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Abbott and his Aboriginal community visit

Been getting a lot of requests for interviews to discuss my thoughts on bloody Abbott and his commitment to spend a week in an Aboriginal community per year, starting with NE Arnhem. My thoughts are pretty straightforward:

1. Abbott can get as many happy snaps as he likes pressing black flesh and hammering nails into bits of wood, but this doesn't mean he's for the mob.

2. Sure, he may be the first PM to make a commitment to do this, but it doesn't mean he's progressive. It just means that the other PMs shirked big time. It's called doing the "decent thing" and does not earn special credit.

3. Travelling to Yolngu homelands does not change the fact that this government has already slashed $500M from Indigenous affairs. The people he meets are still going to be significantly more likely to be jailed for petty offences, be victims of violence and die earlier only now, they're going to be less likely to access funded services for support.

4. His much-hyped previous trips to Indigenous communities cost big biccies because, funnily enough, he doesn't slum it while there. He also doesn't stay as long as the tabloids would have us all believe.

5. I have a tin of beans in my cupboard and frankly I feel that it would make a better "Minister for Women and Indigenous Affairs" than Abbott is.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

It's the "Recognise" thing that REALLY gets me

Yesterday, I achieved Qantas Frequent Flyer Silver status. For someone who flies as much as I do (I've already been on about 25 flights this year though admittedly, 7 of those were with other carriers), it's taken me a while to get to this status. See, I always fly cattle class on the cheapest flights I can possibly find. This is partially because I wish to save work money and partially because I believe, as a good egalitarian, that mainly tossers sit in First Class. So I have never accumulated the points to "level up"; until now that is. Now I have "priority". Now I have special perks. Now I get a new card with a fake metallic colouring on it. It's all very "meh", really.

Anyway, in what can only be described as "impeccable timing", the exact same week that I achieve Silver status, Qantas goes and sprays one of their planes with this:

Photo credit: Qantas Facebook Page
Yep. Yet another gigantic corporate entity decides to show mob just how much it wants us to be Recognised. Doesn't that just give you those warm and fuzzy feelings? I know I'm feeling them although that could be because on arriving home yesterday from a four day work trip I discovered I had left the heater on when I left. I'm unsure...

My feelings on whether Aboriginal peoples should be recognised in the Australian Constitution are now quite known. I have published them myself (to a degree), expressed them in other forums such as social media and the radio, and I have additionally been quoted on them. I do not support this move, and for a number of reasons. I am only one voice within the community who has stated so. I highly recommend that people check out some of those other voices because there is a wealth of knowledge and opinion right at the fingertips of anyone who wishes to actually go searching.

Now though, I wish to put another view to you. Even if I was completely in support of the move to have us recognised in the constitution, I would be still be categorically opposed to the Recognise campaign. Why? Because the longer the Recognise campaign goes on, the more I feel it proves itself to be little more than a government-sponsored ad campaign removed from grassroots Indigenous opinion.

The entire Recognise campaign, and therefore our alleged campaign for Indigenous equality (which I strongly feel is not even remotely the case) seems to be little more than corporate endorsements and photo opportunities for powerful figures to prove how much they like us. It's a shame that I don't like a good many of them in return. 

As I've previously stated, when the St Kilda Football Club joined the Recognise campaign for a photo opportunity, I was actually completely offended. I, as an Arrernte feminist woman, have no wish to be "recognised" by a group of men who think nothing of painting women who bring cases of sexual assault against their team members as liars in the media whilst also emailing their corporate sponsors for donations to pay for the legal defence of their accused players. The fact that Recognise felt it was appropriate to promote this club as a campaign endorser in the first place speaks volumes to me regarding how much they really value equality and recognition for Indigenous women in particular. 

As I also previously stated, I know that the AFL has pledged support and football players have been a constant fixture in the Recognise publicity shots because of the broad appeal they apparently have. Just because they're not my cup of tea does not mean that others don't like them. The St Kilda photo wasn't the only one that ground my teeth. Last month, for example, the news that former Prime Minister Bob Hawke threw his weight behind the campaign made me quizzically lift an eyebrow. Hang on a second, wasn't this the same bloke who promised a treaty with mobs only to completely renege following pressure from lobby groups which included powerful miners and pastoralists? Hawke hasn't donned a t-shirt yet for an official Recognise photo, so perhaps I shouldn't jump the gun here no matter how many articles Recognise keep on their official website. I urge others to flick through this list of support articles though. Some of the names that Recognise wishes to highlight as CR supporters are quite astounding.

Qantas support is also not something I draw a lot of good faith from. Qantas has long-established Indigenous programmes and for this I acknowledge them. This same organisation though thinks it is perfectly acceptable to publish in their regional flight magazine "Spirit" that the Hobart area was first settled in 1804. Last time I checked, the Mabo case had disproved Terra Nullius but I suppose we were all a little unsettled before whitefellas rocked up to this landmass...




Photo: page from the Qantas Spirit Magazine - Winter 2014 edition


To go back to Recognise itself though: it is a government-funded campaign to push a particular view and it is using populist means to do so. So where is the government funding for the oppositional Indigenous views to run their campaign? Why are the anti voices from an Indigenous perspective stuck utilising social media to try and raise awareness with meagre media coverage meanwhile Recognise gets millions of dollars to travel around the country, pose for photo opportunities, hold concerts and sell t-shirts? Exactly how democratically ethical is it that the government is ONLY funding an organisation that promotes its own policy platform (and that of the opposition and the major minor party as well)? Apparently, when the referendum is announced, there will be funding for both sides of the argument to state their cases, but considering that one side will have been funded to promote their cause years before the other, exactly how fair and balanced is this?

As I state, even if I supported our constitutional recognition, I would still be opposed to Recognise. A well-funded organisation to peddle the government's agenda when it is the notion of our equality that is the question is no place for me. I would rather listen to the informed debates of Aboriginal people stating what they feel is the best way forward for this country than be handed a government-funded badge and t-shirt, or hop on a similarly badged plane, and be told this is what I really want. For the life of me, I don't understand why there are some mob out there who don't feel the same. Sure, we have diverse views on constitutional recognition within the community, but if self-determination is truly of importance to all of us then our questioning of this campaign should be the same. Otherwise whose terms is our recognition truly happening on?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On diverse views of Constitutional Recognition

This was a piece I submitted to The Age in response to an editorial they ran championing CR. As it has not run, and as I have since been quoted in other forums as well as been asked for radio interviews, I have made the decision to finally publish it here, unedited. My sole purpose for doing so is to assist in the diversification of conversation. My view is not absolute; there are plenty of others with views on this issue and the Australian public needs to be engaging with these views - CL



On Monday this week, The Age ran an editorial calling for support of the inclusion of Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution. This was particularly in response to Tony Abbott's comments that Australia was not settled (quickly corrected to the equally appalling “barely settled”) before the British arrived. These comments had many in our community reeling and questioning his suitability as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs”. 

Unfortunately, his statement also illustrated views Indigenous people encounter socially every day and have been fighting to change for a very long time. In my opinion, his statement should have indicated a need to stop and listen to Indigenous voices, but this hasn't happened. Indigenous people are not a homogeneous group and our views reflect this diversity. This diversity is, in fact, reflected in the community responses to Constitutional Recognition yet to date, Australia has not seen a lot of these diverse views.

Part of the reason the discussion on Constitutional Recognition is being held is that sections of the constitution were written specifically to exclude Indigenous people. This is evident from the race power that it includes; the amendment of which has been recommended by the expert panel. Therefore, a question arising from sections of the community is this: do we wish this historical example of institutionalised racism to be rectified simply by our inclusion within the constitution, or are there other moves that we should take to ensure that we are coming to the table as respected original peoples and negotiating the way forward for this country on equal footing?

It was found by the expert panel following extensive investigation that most Australians would not support the concepts of sovereignty and treaty being included within the constitution. Whilst work has been done educating the community on how our sovereignty would not be negated by recognition, the fact that these concepts themselves are so oppositional to a great majority of Australians is of concern. If Australians take issue with these items then the argument that recognition would not negate sovereignty and could further the discussions on negotiating a treaty doesn't hold. Indeed, it shows that the national psyche really hasn't shifted since discussions of treaty were front and centre in our political movements.

Many in the community see the push for Constitutional Recognition as a watered-down position following the calls for a treaty between white and black Australia up until the late 1980s. The Hawke government, after being presented with the Barunga Statement in 1988, promised that there would be a treaty negotiated by 1990. This was later reneged upon by the government and the discourse changed with “reconciliation” becoming the main alternative.

The idea of Constitutional Recognition was initially championed by the Howard government. In the unsuccessful 1999 Republic referendum, a second question on the inclusion of a preamble in the constitution was put to Australian voters. Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for their “deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country” formed part of this proposed preamble. Howard reinvigorated the proposal to recognise Indigenous peoples in the preamble as part of his election promises in 2007, stating that should his government win power again, a referendum would be held 18 months into their term. The Howard years are generally not looked upon fondly by many Indigenous peoples. His time marks continual refusals to apologise to the stolen generations, the reinforcement of the “White Blindfold” view of history, and the Northern Territory Intervention. A good portion of the community still actively question anything Howard felt was a good idea.

Our oppositional views have mainly been championed by grass roots Indigenous organisations, Indigenous commentators and social media conversations. Such organisations include the Tent Embassies, Idle No More and the National Unity Government. Interestingly though, the oppositional views that the general public have most been exposed to have come from non-Indigenous commentators. Andrew Bolt, for example, has written columns arguing against recognition on the basis that he feels it would be divisive. The pro-recognition view has also come from independent Indigenous voices, but greatly by the Recognise movement – of which former secretary of the Labor Party Tim Gartrell is the campaign director. Additionally, Recognise will receive ten million dollars over two years in funding by the federal government. The alternate views don't have funding, have received little airtime, and therefore the general public is not being exposed to our debates on this issue.

The discussions on the matter of recognition within the Constitution are far from over within the Indigenous community. External to our communities though, there remains a view that we wish to be included and are waiting for the Australian public to come on board. The reality is far more complex. The media could draw on these diverse views and facilitate debates openly so information is circulated and informed decisions at the ballot can be made. One thing is certain though: recognition will not stymie future unfortunate comments from our Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.


PS. Since I wrote this, the Interim Report has been released from the expert panel and there has been subsequent media coverage. The report is available here.


Friday, July 18, 2014

Ms NAIDOC Day 13 - Andrea James

And on the final day of Ms NAIDOC, I'd like to share this profile of Andrea James as received from her long-time friend Brhaspati. It's really great to feature Andrea on the final day because Andrea was someone who blazed a couple of trails that I ended up following! We are both La Trobe Uni graduates who majored in theatre and drama, and she worked at the Vic College of the Arts a few years before I did. It seems a completely appropriate way to finish up Ms NAIDOC for this year, and I'd just like to say thank you to all those who submitted stuff, who had their profiles up, and who read and shared these. You are truly wonderful and it has been great to carve out some space and celebrate some amazing black women. Without further ado, here's Andrea as told by Brhaspati!
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 The pic was taken in 2002 in Deoghar. Andrea is on the left, Brhaspati is on the right and in the middle is Arjit.


When I first suggested that I wanted to profile her for Ms NAIDOC 2014, Andrea James laughed bashfully, downplaying her achievements and talking up the artists and elders with whom she works. This is entirely in keeping with the Andrea I have known for 12 years – a warm, generous and self-effacing woman of Yorta Yorta, Kurnai and Polish descent who is characteristically modest about the international impact of her creative work.


Andrea & I first crossed paths in North India, on a month-long pilgrimage to the ashrams of the Satyananda Yoga lineage in Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Bihar. We bonded over shared rooms, chai stalls, pre-dawn asana on the rooftop to the call of the mosque’s muezzin and wanderings along the banks of the Ganga.

During one of these strolls, Andrea mentioned, in passing, that she was using her time in India to work on a play she was writing. It was not until I attended the premiere season of Yanagai! Yanagai! at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne in 2003 that I realised the significance of what she referred to as her ‘little play’.


Yanagai! Yanagai! tells the story of her mob’s ongoing connection to their freshwater country along the Murray River in north eastern Victoria. This is an important story to tell, given the context of the Yorta Yorta people’s Native Title bid being thwarted on the basis that colonial dispossession, genocide and assimilation via Cumeraganga Mission had supposedly severed their link to their culture and language. The play toured internationally, being performed in New York and Glasgow, translated into Italian and published by Currency Press.


In her role at Blacktown Arts Centre, Andrea programmed The Native Institute + Sites of Experimentation exhibition in 2013, commissioning contemporary Aboriginal artists to reveal the history of the Blacktown Native Institute from an Aboriginal perspective through site-specific installations and visual art works.


Andrea collaborated with Giordano Nanni and Ilbijerri Theatre to stage Coranderrk: We will show the country at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne (2011), the Sydney Opera House (2012) and the Belvoir Street Theatre (2013-14). Coranderrk brings to the stage the voices of Aboriginal people residing at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station near Healesville, Victoria who submitted evidence to an 1881 Parliamentary Hearing. When Andrea spoke of popping down to Melbourne to do some more writing with Giordano, she neglected to mention that this was for a weighty AIATSIS publication they launched in 2013.


Her most recent curatorial work, Hereby Make Protest at Carriageworks, tells the story of the Aborigines Progressive Association and the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association, who decreed 26th January 1938, the 150th anniversary of British colonisation of their land, a Day of Mourning. Weaving historical documentation with commissioned works by contemporary Aboriginal artists, the exhibition highlights Aboriginal resistance in the face of systemic racism. 
 

Andrea consistently takes a self-effacing yet fiercely compassionate approach to bringing Aboriginal lived experiences to life via the stage, and, more recently through exhibitions. As a playwright, director, actor, and now curator, she combines historical documents and contemporary art forms to engage, educate and challenge her audiences and achieve justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I am proud to call this deadly woman my friend.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Ms NAIDOC Day 12 - Petronella Channing

Received this one all the way from the antipodes where Sharon Davis happens to be studying right now, so I think Sharon has just become my first internationally-sent Ms NAIDOC submission. Too cool! Sharon has sent in an awesome profile on her mother, Pat Channing. A really inspiring story and it's a real pleasure to feature Pat on day 12. In Sharon's own words: 
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This is Petronella Channing, but everyone knows her as Pat (That’s my dad, Dave in the pic with her). 

Mum was born in Broome and is from a very large family. Actually, I could have entered all my Aunties, but that would make a very large post!

Mum is a hard working woman who runs a small tourism venture up the Dampier Peninsular called Mercedes Cove (Check it out www.mercedescove.com.au). Named after mum’s mum (my granny) it is a very special place for our whole family.

Mum (and Dad) have supported me and my brother and sister in everything that we do and I would like to her to know that although I don’t say it enough, I am truly thankful.

My mother is a quiet, yet strong Aboriginal woman. She is well loved in our community and is a rock for many people in times of trouble. Mum is very proud of her history, and is a testament to her own hard work and determination. She has had to overcome hardships and challenging times during her life, and has managed to do so with such grace, resilience and humility. She is everything that I hope to be as an Aboriginal woman.