TOLERATING DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PEOPLE
IN THE YEAR OF TOLERANCE
In March 1847 Queen Victoria’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey presented her with a petition. The petition was from eight Aborigines living at Wybalenna on Flinders Island. The petition is the subject of a book by Henry Reynolds called Fate of a Free People. The petition is worthy of being printed in full. It stated:
The humble petition of the free Aborigines Inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land now living upon Flinders Island … That we are your free children that we were not taken prisoners but freely gave up our country to Colonel Arthur then the Governor after defending ourselves.
Your petitioners humbly state to your Majesty that Mr Robinson made for us and with Colonel Arthur an agreement which we have not lost from our minds since and we have made our part of it good.
“Your petitioners humbly tell Your Majesty that when we left our own place we were plenty of people, we are now but a little one.
Your petitioners slate they are a long time at Flinders Island and had plenty of superintendents and were always a quiet and free people and not put into gaol.
Your Majesty’s petitioners pray that you will not allow Dr Jeanneret to come again among us as our superintendent as we hear he is to be sent another time for when Dr Jeanneret was with us many moons he used to carry pistols in his pockets and threatened very often to shoot us and make us run away in a fright. Dr ]eanneret kept plenty of pigs in our village which used to run into our houses and eat up our bread from the fires and take away our flour bags in their mouths also to break into our gardens and destroy our potatoes and cabbage.
Our houses were let fall down and they were never cleaned but were covered with vermin and not while-washed. We were often without clothes except a very little one and Dr Jeanneret did not care to mind us when we were sick until we were very bad. Eleven of us died when he was here. He put many of us into jail for talking to him because we would not be his slaves.
He kept from us our rations when he pleased and sometimes gave us bad rations of tea and tobacco. He shot some of our dogs before our eyes and sent all the other dogs of ours to an island and when we told him that they would starve he told us they might eat each other. He put arms into our hands and made us to assist his prisoners to go to fight the soldiers we did not want to fight the soldiers but he made us go to fight. We never were taught to read or write or to sing to God by the doctor. He taught us a little upon the Sundays, and his prisoner servant also taught us and his prisoner servant also took us plenty of times to jail by his orders.
The Lord Bishop seen us in this bad way and we told His Lordship plenty how Dr Jeanneret used us.
We humbly pray your Majesty the Queen will hear our prayer and not let Dr jeanneret any more to come to Flinders Island.
It was signed by:
Walter G. Arthur King Alexander
Chief of the Ben Lomond Tribe
Augustus John Allen King Tippo
Davey Bruny Washington Neptune
The petition is an historical account of what happened in Tasmania in the early 1800s from an Aboriginal perspective. It is therefore a unique document. It relates to the misery and despair caused by dispossession and humiliation. It must surely represent the highwater mark of intolerance by white Tasmanians towards a people who were simply different: different in culture, physical features, language and set of rights.
The purpose of dispossession of Aborigines was to get the land. As a result, current generations of whites freely enjoy rights over Tasmanian land which otherwise they would not be entitled to. In other words, today’s generation of land holders dissociate themselves from the events of the past, while hypocritically taking full advantage of the rights which flowed from that violent and forced dispossession.
The consequences for Tasmanian Aborigines of dispossession are wide-spread. The social stigma of being an Aboriginal in Tasmania led to the denial of the existence of Aboriginal people up until the 1970s, and from an Aboriginal point of view, many felt that hiding their Aboriginally was the only way to survive. Denied land and a cultural identity, Tasmanian Aborigines have grown up in an era when everything about their community was negative. The bureaucratic attempt at genocide of the people did not hide the discrimination in hotels, employment, schools or in general social contact. Governments neglected to do anything about the issue generation after generation. The result has been an extraordinary achievement in itself: the people have survived dispossession, a policy of neglect, discrimination and denial of their very existence. Nevertheless, the Aboriginal community in Tasmania is the poorest, most imprisoned, unhealthiest, most uneducated and least employed. There is no apparent government or community policy in Tasmania aimed at turning this circumstance around.
What is it that should be tolerated?
Australia is said to be a multi-cultural society. The phrase has taken on importance only since the increase in migration of non-English speaking Europeans and Asians. Australia was never officially referred to as a multi-cultural society when the mix of occupants of the country was Anglo-Saxon and Aboriginal.
The reconciliation process focuses Australia’s multi-cultural approach on the Aboriginal community. Its premise is to seek to reconcile the differences between Aborigines and others. The ultimate aim of the reconciliation council is to produce a document at the turn of the century. In the meantime, the problems for Aboriginal people continue.
The policies of reconciliation and multi-culturalism both depend on accepting the differences between peoples in a good light. The good thing about these policy directives is the encouragement of the dominant population of Australia overcoming its fear of the unknown. For some inexplicable reason, perhaps embedded in deep British history, the greater the difference between Anglo-Saxons and other peoples the greater the fear Anglo-Saxons have of those people. This is reflected in current political resistance to reforms aimed at assisting Aborigines.
The reconciliation process
The Tasmanian Aboriginal community has called on the Government to act now in order to preserve Aboriginal cultural practices. Hunting and gathering, fishing, providing for return of land to the Aboriginal community, exploring ways in which Aboriginal people may practice real self-determination are all matters arising from the reconciliation process. The Government has been reluctant to talk in any depth about these issues.
The main reason is its apparent fear of not being able to trust Aborigines who want to do something different from that which politicians are accustomed to dealing with in Tasmania. Apparently returning land to the collective ownership of Aboriginal people on a large scale is something politicians fear. After all, Aborigines may then choose to exercise their traditional rights on those lands which, because of our cultural background, may be very different from that which white people would do on the land. That in itself is enough for the politicians to get nervous.
The State Government introduced the Living Marine Resources Bill 1995 into the House of Assembly. It was a new law to regulate the taking of resources of the sea around Tasmania on a sustainable level. Apart from fulfilling its Jegal obligations to protect Native Title, the Bill made no mention of Aboriginal rights. The Aboriginal community lobbied hard, with the support of the Labor Party and the Greens, to preserve traditional Aboriginal cultural practices which relied on the resources of the sea. There was enormous resistance from the Department of Sea Fisheries and the Government to the proposition. Amongst a range of other reasons, fear that there would be no fish left in the sea if Aborigines were given a right to continue their cultural practices, the inability of Aborigines to be regulated and thereby controlled by the State, and most extraordinarily, the fear that Aborigines would have children who would continue to practice and therefore put greater strain on the resources of the sea, were the major reasons given for resistance to the proposal. The point being made by these objections reflects the level of intolerance amongst Government departments and politicians generally to the behaviour of Aboriginal people which is different from the norm. It reflects a resistance to tolerance of those differences; it reflects a rigid and conservative response to the needs of Aboriginal people which remain to be addressed. As it turned out, the Parliament was convinced of the need to protect Aboriginal culture under the Living Marine Resources Bill, but disappointingly the legal protection was given perhaps more as a pragmatic political approach rather than the beginning of a policy of acceptance of the diversity of culture in Tasmania.
Overcoming the fear of Aborigines
Justice Marcus Einfeld, foundation president of the Human Rights & Equal Opportunities Commission, in his speech on “International Challenges to Humanity at the Close of the 20th Century”, put forward a pertinent question. He asked –
“Why can white people not understand that Aboriginal attachment to land is spiritual and not commercial? That what they wish to do is teach their children their heritage by reference to sacred and other sites on the land, quite similarly to the way the Jewish-Christian tradition explains the divine revelations in which they believe? Why does the white population react to any Aboriginal requests for recognition of rights held by everyone else in the country defensively and ungenerously? Why? How can we white Australians of today speak of our great society while more than 250,000 of our citizens – or a size able proportion of them – are denied a basic quality of life – by us?”
The answer to Justice Einfeld’s questions is that Australians have become so accustomed to having control over Aboriginal lands they find it difficult to recognise the hypocrisy of standing against theft or receipt of stolen property while at the same time denying the return of stolen lands to Aboriginal people. They believe long occupation of someone else’s country gives legitimate rights to own the land. They therefore have a low tolerance of any claims to the contrary.
This explains the Commonwealth and State Government response to the calls from the Aboriginal community for land rights. The Commonwealth have done nothing since 1976 about Aboriginal land rights. They left it to the High Court to lay down the rules on Native Title. For the Tasmanian Government, mere pencil dots of land around Tasmania are all they are prepared to transfer back to the Aboriginal community. In other words, there is no serious questioning of the claims by Australians to greater rights to land than Aboriginal people.
Similarly the question of whether white people’s laws should apply in all circumstances to Aborigines is equally beyond question.
Despite the 1986 Aboriginal Customary Law Report advocating a softening of this approach, the report has gathered dust in the shelves of Canberra and no changes have seen the light of day. Not even the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which highlighted the disastrous consequences of the application of white laws to Aborigines on across the board, could motivate the Federal Government to get out the feather duster and revive interest in the Customary Law Report. It is even harder to generate interest in political reform. The sovereign rights of Aboriginal people to exercise full control over our lands in a way we see fit is a long way from the discussion table. Such assertions of full Aboriginal rights are merely dismissed by State and Federal Governments as coming from the lunatic fringe. Perhaps the dismissive tag fits. But is what this “lunatic fringe”, of which I am proudly one member, wrong in calling for proper recognition of the full rights of Aboriginal people? If we are, then someone had better explain what it is we have forgotten to consider.
On a more limited scale, and perhaps as part of the reconciliation process, the immediate step of better representation of Aboriginal people at the political level should be considered. Father Frank Brennan, and ATSIC, are calling for a number of seats to be set aside in the Australian Parliament for Aborigines, just as they are in New Zealand for Maoris. Mere representation of a number of Aborigines however, is a simplistic response to a complex issue. Setting aside four seats, which is the current proposal, does not explain why the number four is designed to be appropriate, why fifty seats is not appropriate, or why one seat is not appropriate.
If the reason for having special Aboriginal representation at the political level is to ensure the Aboriginal political voice is not ignored, then a number of four seats is not only simplistic, but also meaningless. If greater Aboriginal political representation is the target then that must be the outcome.
A better approach is to re-define the political electoral boundaries throughout Australia. Currently they are based on the most simplistic notion possible, that is, an equal number of electors to each electorate. This ignores the cultural, economic and racial make-up of the people within the electoral boundary which results in Aborigines, and women, being sadly under-represented.
If Australia is to be a multi-cultural society then the political structures should reflect the multi-cultural face of the nation. Electoral boundaries should be re-drawn, taking into account the cultural, racial and economic make-up of people within those boundaries. Hence, boundaries in Tasmania could be re-drawn so that some boundaries constituted an electoral division made up of 50% of Aborigines and 50% of non-Aborigines. This would not guarantee an Aboriginal person would be elected, and nor should it. What it does do is provide a real opportunity for Aboriginal people to elect one of their own to Parliament. Is this gerrymandering? Of course it is! It is also a practical way of bring about the aim of proper political representation of all people in Australia in the Parliament. It also complies with the Racial Discrimination Act.
Section 10(1) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 provides that any law of the Commonwealth or of a State which deprives persons of a particular race enjoyment of a right enjoyed by persons of another race to be invalid. In other words, a law which has the effect of giving a greater right to one race than another is contrary to the Racial Discrimination Act.
Australians have always taken pride in their willingness to support human rights. South Africa, China and other countries around the world have felt the full force of Australian political opinion about denial of human rights in those countries.
Yet Australians have been less enthusiastic about applying the same principles to human rights values within Australia. Aborigines stand testament to this hypocrisy and inconsistency.
The reconciliation process is merely an indication of a willingness by Australia to reconsider its past hypocritical approach to human rights. Yet nothing of any concrete nature has flowed from the reconciliation process. It must be made to work in a practical sense.
It is not good enough for peripheral change to take place. Having good relations between Aborigines and Australians, educating children, police and the judiciary about Aboriginal cultural values is likewise nol enough.
The International Year of Tolerance is a challenge to all: a challenge not just to your charitable nature to make some token concessions to the just cause of Aboriginal people, but to forgo some of the more fundamental political, legal and economic powers white people take for granted but which more rightfully belong to Aboriginal people.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre