Volume 13 Number 2
Will Australia Go for Gold in Race Relations?
01 April 2000

As Australia prepares to stage the Olympics, John Williams offers a personal sketch of a fortunate country with huge questions before it.

The Olympics are a superb way to celebrate the start of this millennium. And Sydney, one of the world's most beautiful cityscapes, is an ideal place to delight in the incredible human -- even superhuman -- achievements we will watch in September.

Whether you'll actually be there, or will be one of the billions looking over the shoulders of the TV cameramen, you might like to know something about today's Australia. Until 1901 it was just a collection of British colonies, so how is it doing now?

The government is worried that the media covering the Olympics will concentrate on the degrading conditions in which too many Aboriginal Australians still live, and will make a fuss which will undercut public support for some good things which are at last being done. But surely a better approach is to let the facts speak for themselves.

At the beginning of World War II, Australia was one of the most homogenous countries on earth. Over 98 per cent of us came from Anglo-Celtic stock. Today 2.6 million of us speak one of 282 languages other than English at home.

'Mate' is a word you hear a lot in Australia, though for some it now has offensive overtones. In the early days, when the pioneers grappled with appalling bushfires, drought and floods, your safety, even your life, depended on those alongside you, your mates, and it didn't matter where the hell they came from. The national belief in a 'fair go' for everyone is something you can appeal to. It's sometimes more honoured in the breach than the observance, but has lain behind pioneering social legislation in which Australia has led the world. We were the second country to give women the vote, for instance.

By a combination of good luck and skilful management, Australia has a booming economy that, to the experts' surprise, was not sucked into the recent Asian downturn.

We've been lucky in several economic bonanzas. In the early 19th century, settlers found that the soil south-west of Sydney provided excellent pasture for merino sheep. The global market for Australian wool still exists. In the 1850s gold was discovered in large quantities -- and, a century later, enough oil and gas to meet most of our requirements, along with vast mountains of iron ore, nickel and other minerals.

We enjoy a good 'stoush' (an all-in brawl), and even the wealthiest young man likes to feel he's a bit of a 'larrikin' (derived from larkin'). Larrikins, such as the instructor at my local gym the other day, can brighten your life. He couldn't have been out of his teens; I'm, well, decades beyond that. His opening gambit was, 'Did y' get up to any mischief on Saturday night?'

A touch of the larrikin stops you being constrained by what's possible or what isn't. In the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, for instance, the swimmer Kieren Perkins shattered the world record for the 1,500 metres. In the Atlanta Olympics four years later, he only just made it into the final eight by a few hundredths of a second. We all thought he hadn't a hope in the world, but he somehow won gold again. At the time of writing Australian teams and individuals are world champions in 37 sporting events -- a remarkable statistic for a population of just over 19 million.

We also delight in an incredible environment. We catch our breath at the sight of a million gum trees on a mountainside at dawn. At a swoop of amazingly-coloured birds. At a kangaroo breaking out of the bush. Or at an empty beach with the surf pounding -- and there are thousands of miles of those.

A visiting Englishwoman recently exclaimed when she saw her first kangaroos: 'What a strange way to design an animal!' Well, that's an act of God or biology. But to take the thought a step further, a place like Australia where new designs can be tried out for a tired world may be useful.

As Stepan Kerkyasharian, who heads a state ethnic affairs organization, said to me the other day, his face lighting up: 'This country could have a wonderful destiny!' Implied, of course, was: But only if....

If we hurdle the vital challenges now facing us, and don't sidle round the edges of the track.

For Australia faces inescapable issues: making a society of many cultures work, creating a sensitive relationship with our Asian neighbours and, above all, responding to the grim facts of how the Aboriginal people have been treated.

Keeping Australia white was official policy from Federation in 1901, originally to protect Australian jobs. In the early Sixties some academics suggested allowing some 150 Asians a year to become Australians, so everyone could get used to the idea. In 1966 the conservative government allowed entry for 1,000, and in 1973 Gough Whitlam's Labor government abolished the White Australia policy.

White settlement began in 1788, horrendously badly. Britain wanted a place to park its unwanted criminals. And, since Captain Cook had reported in 1770 that a large land mass in the southern ocean did indeed exist, the mandarins in Whitehall wanted to grab it before anyone else, the French in particular.

White occupancy was actually based on a lie. When Cook landed in Botany Bay and claimed the country for the British Crown, no farming settlements were visible. Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist accompanying Cook, suggested that the local people must be nomadic and therefore could have no right to the land. This concept later became known as terra nullius, empty land, though the idea was never made into law in Britain.

When Arthur Phillip was appointed the new colony's first Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief in 1788, he was instructed by the British government to create a relationship with the Aborigines: 'to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them'.

So obviously everyone knew that the land was not empty. Indeed, anthropologists today estimate that Aboriginal society has existed for at least 40,000 years, perhaps 60,000. But it took 204 years before the concept of terra nullius was rejected at law, in the High Court Mabo case of 1992, which also ruled that Aborigines who could demonstrate a 'close and continuing relationship' with an area of land could have 'native title' to it.

So it's small wonder that Aborigines today treat the whites' arrival as an invasion.

As I grew up I heard vaguely that family members had been in Australia since the beginning of white settlement. Later, as I discovered facts like the fundamental lie of an empty land, I became determined to find out more.

The late 18th century was a cruel era, with floggings of several hundred lashes for trifling offences, and huge crowds at public hangings.

On a Saturday night in January 1783, David Kilpack, my great-great-great grandfather, was 'making merry' at Clapham in London. He was apprehended with a bag over his shoulder containing two cocks, two hens, two ducks and one gander, each of them worth a shilling. He told Justice Buller at the Old Bailey that he had found them in the street, and 'supposed they had been dropped from some cart or wagon'. The judge's verdict: 'Guilty. Transported for seven years.'

But the boat to Australia didn't leave till May 1787, four and a half years later. It arrived in January 1788 after a 252-day voyage.

Kilpack's ship, Scarborough, was the worst in the first fleet, but hopefully not as bad as the ships in the second, on which his wife-to-be travelled. These were equipped by the firm which had designed the living quarters for slaves being transported from Africa to America on the notorious 'Middle Passage'. The convicts' ankle-irons were rigid bolts some nine inches long, and just to walk was to risk breaking a leg.
Convicts awaiting transportation from Chatham dockyard in 1828: John Williams' ancestor was shipped in 1787.

In his bestselling account of the convict era, The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes describes conditions on one second fleet ship, Surprize: 'In a heavy sea, the water sluiced through her. The starving prisoners lay chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils.' One prisoner wrote to his parents, who printed the letter as a broadsheet: 'When any of our comrades that were chained to us died, we kept it a secret as long as we could for the smell of the dead body, in order to get their allowance of provision, and many a time have I been glad to eat the poultice that was put to my leg for perfect hunger.'

Such men and women were emphatically not willing settlers intending to spoil a paradise. But their experiences may have left them so brutalized that they were quite unprepared to meet people of a totally different culture -- let alone 'conciliate their affections'.

Between 156,000 and 162,000 men, women and children were sent to the other end of the earth before transportation ended in 1868. As the decades passed, conditions for convicts improved -- and many free settlers arrived.

David Kilpack was granted a conditional pardon in December 1794, by which time he had married Eleanor MacDonald, who had stolen four linen sheets. They had four children, and in 1795 were granted a lease of 80 acres of land at a quarterly rental of one shilling. One of the Kilpacks' descendants became a respected High Court judge.

One can feel sorry for the Kilpacks, but not for another of my ancestors, Captain Richard Brooks, who commanded the Atlas, which sailed from Cork in 1801. Sixty-five convicts died on the voyage, 'largely,' says Hughes, 'because they had to make way for 2,166 gallons of rum', which Brooks planned to sell to the tiny population of Sydney. Although the Governor of the day, Philip Gidley King, refused to allow him to land the rum, Brooks brought several other shiploads of convicts over the years, and became wealthy by selling supplies to other ships.

He then charmed a later Governor, Lachlan MacQuarie, into granting him as much land as he could walk round in a day. His walk took in some of the best parts of Sydney, and he invited influential friends to a picnic lunch to demonstrate how far he had gone. Fortunately for the city, one of the Governor's aides was awake to what was being given away and changed the grant to a number of country sites. Brooks built a stately Georgian mansion on one of these, where he died after being gored by a bull.

All I ever heard of him as I grew up was how wonderful the house was. But he sounds like the kind of ruthless operator who gives politics a bad name.

The early arrivals nearly starved because ships carrying supplies were wrecked and the soil was harsh. In retrospect it is amazing how rapidly they and their descendants got on with the job of making a viable settlement, despite horrendous droughts and bushfires.

The colonists, free or fettered, had no idea of the depth or harmony of the Aboriginal relationship with the land. According to the historian Geoffrey Blainey, 'if an Aboriginal in the 17th century had been captured as a curiosity and taken in a Dutch ship to Europe, and if he had travelled all the way from Scotland to the Caucasus and had seen how the average European struggled to make a living, he might have said to himself that he had now seen the third world and all its poverty and hardship'.

A more recent story illustrates how well Aborigines had their act together. Some surveyors in the outback heard by radio that their helicopter had broken down and couldn't bring them their dinner. Soon after, they came upon some Aborigines. 'What's worrying you?' asked the Aborigines, and produced a complete and satisfying meal in a very short time from ingredients that were all around them.

The historian Inga Clendinnen, in the prestigious Boyer Lectures on Australian radio last year, told how she came to grasp 'the huge ambition and the huge achievement of traditional Aboriginal paintings' by seeing aerial photographs of the Australian landscape: 'great rivers coiling over the land, looping strings of jade waterholes, the subtle gradations of colour in rough-textured scrubs'. The paintings, she realized, were 'elegant eagle's eye representations of what are in reality vast maps: maps charged with metaphysical meaning and teeming with cosmic narratives. And I thought: how did Aborigines do it? After all, they only had their legs. How were they able to comprehend such expanses when they could only see them piecemeal, and at ground level?

'There is only one possible answer. They did it with their minds.... Australia's original people developed steepling thought-structures -- intellectual edifices so comprehensive that every creature and plant had its place within it. They travelled light, but they were walking atlases, and walking encyclopedias of natural history. They were Scheherazades, too, because this complicated knowledge was not written down, but allocated between human minds in song, dance and story....

'Traditional Aboriginal culture effortlessly fuses areas of understanding which Europeans "naturally" keep separate: ecology, cosmology, theology, social morality, art, comedy, tragedy -- the observed and the richly imagined fused into a seamless whole.'

To treat such people as savages is an incredible insult. But for most of us white Australians, it wasn't intentional: we grew up -- and grow old -- without even knowing an Aborigine. I've had several chances to remedy my cloistered upbringing, and have close Aboriginal friends. One day when I was getting heated about what we whites had done, one of them laughed and said, 'Now don't you go round feeling guilty!' So what should I feel? What constructive action can one take to remedy the sins of history?

In the mid-Seventies a young man who is now one of Australia's leading Aborigines came to my home for a barbecue. I suggested a game of tennis. 'But I don't know how to play,' he said. So I showed him the rudiments and we played a set. And then another. Which he won. I didn't see him again for a quarter of a century, but a few weeks ago I was at a conference he addressed. Afterwards he was discussing something apparently important with a group of his advisors when I happened to walk by. He swung round, pointed at me and said, 'And I won the tennis!'

There is an overflowing fountain of humanity, humour, perceptiveness and wisdom among the Aboriginal peoples. But we have stood back from it. Having dived into this fountain a few times, I ask myself: What is the cocktail of shyness, arrogance, self-centredness which held us back? It seems the height of stupidity.

Perhaps it's simple: we were determined to remain as we were, to shelter behind the traditions of Britain and Europe, to retain the right to be narrow-minded, superior. To cut ourselves off from the hugely different world we had shouldered our way into.

Our affection for Britain and Europe meant that we were ready to throw ourselves into both world wars. After 1945, we looked from a great distance at the horrific devastation that had overtaken all that was so precious in Europe, and felt we must share our bounty by embarking on a massive immigration programme. We also realized that other nations to our north might covet our empty spaces like the Japanese had.

From 1947 to 1954, if you wanted to come from Britain to Australia, it cost you only £10, provided you promised to stay for two years and live and work where you were asked to. Before long, the scheme was widened to include 'displaced persons' from European refugee camps (soon renamed 'New Australians') and later still, people from Mediterranean countries. Intellectuals from the other side of the world found themselves toiling manually, and Australia benefited from major capital works.

From 1973, when the White Australia Policy ended, we began to accept migrants from Asia, Africa and South America. As boat people from Vietnam began to arrive, sympathy and some guilt helped change the criteria for entry, and now one in 20 Australians is of Asian extraction. Some people, unfortunately, have been unsettled by this, particularly at times of unemployment, and politicians like Pauline Hanson have grabbed global publicity with their promises to undo all that has been done.

Proportionally, the postwar migration into Australia has been one of the largest in human history. Our population in 1947 was in the region of 7.7 million. Between 1 July 1947 and 30 June 1974, the country absorbed 2.3 million migrants. Twelve years later, in the census year of 1986, 3.5 million people out of the total population of 15,601,890 had been born overseas.

When the immigration programme began in 1947, the presumption was that new arrivals would be assimilated into Australian life, as earlier migrants, mostly British, had been. But by the early Fifties so many were arriving from totally different cultures that this was no longer good enough.

Those involved in the search for a new migration policy came from a wide range of viewpoints. They debated, interacted with each other, agreed and disagreed for decades, but seldom let their differences interfere with progress. One of those most involved was Jerzy Zubrzycki, founding Professor of Sociology at the Australian National University in Canberra. Zubrzycki once said that a policy of assimilation was 'like a dust-heap'. Instead people should be encouraged to maintain a continuing creative link with their original culture as well as their new one.

In time, the word 'assimilation' was replaced with 'integration'. Finally, in the late 1970s, both main political parties faced the reality of the range of migrants and the term 'multiculturalism' was accepted.

Since then, migrants arriving in Australia have immediately been offered English-language courses. Anyone who cannot understand a government form or statement can phone for immediate translation. A Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) has been created, in a daring, deliberate attempt to keep people in touch with the country they came from. SBS radio broadcasts in 68 languages; its TV arm, which broadcasts in 61, is watched by more than 5 million people a week.

But here again, the achievement falls on its face where Aborigines are concerned. Twenty-seven per cent of the population of the Northern Territory is Aboriginal. Many speak little or no English. But they are not offered interpreters for courts or medical clinics -- or for committees of inquiry into conditions.

Assimilation has been the stated policy of successive governments towards Aborigines. And yes, this has meant almost literally throwing them on the dust-heap, as anyone who visited 'reserves' in the northern states one or two decades back could see.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, set up by the government in 1991, has given the wider public a chance to be informed and shocked by what has been done in its name and to take action. The Council consists of 13 leading Aborigines, including the chairman, and 12 of the nation's most responsible non-Aboriginal people in the media, business and unions. The reconciliation process it initiated has involved thousands of people in 'learning circles' and 'reconciliation groups'.

A group in Blackwood, South Australia, for instance, started with a study circle, hoped the government would do something adequate, but then felt that a lukewarm official response would put the reconciliation process in jeopardy. 'Blast the government!' said one, 'we'll do it anyway.' (See A living memorial below.)

From the late 1800s into the 1970s, officials removed black children who had a white parent or grandparent and placed them in foster-homes and institutions in the hope that they would forget their black families. To make things worse, a number of these children were sexually abused, even in church institutions. Taking the children away from their families was justified as the only way to give them the benefits of white society. But it was actually a deliberate attempt to wipe out Aboriginality.

Babies were snatched from their mothers' arms, and children were dragged from school into police vans, and the desk-tops they were hanging onto were ripped from their hinges. This was a sin against humanity, not just a well-intentioned practice that didn't quite work.

The scandal of the 'stolen generations' came to light through an official inquiry headed by a retired High Court judge, Sir Ronald Wilson. He was so incensed that he called for an official apology and a national day on which sorrow could be fittingly expressed. When the government failed to respond, the people took it into their own hands. Half a million people signed 'Sorry Books' and presented them to Aboriginal leaders on 26 May 1998.

A year later, a large crowd assembled in Parliament House, Canberra, to launch the 'Journey of Healing', an imaginative Aboriginal concept that gives a glimpse of what we can expect if this relationship really gets freed up. The Journey, with a catchy song to get it going, calls on all Australians to go deep enough in their own spiritual traditions for the past to be left behind. A few days earlier, members of the stolen generations gathered at Uluru, the great Central Australian rock. There Mutitjula elders ceremonially 'welcomed them home' to their families, communities and rightful identity, and gave them sticks inscribed with a message of healing which they have taken to many parts of Australia.

At the time of writing, the current Prime Minister, John Howard, has refused to make an official apology because he and his government were not responsible for the policy. In mid-1999, he issued a statement in which he said that everyone recognized the treatment of Aborigines as a major blemish in Australian history, for which we all had 'deep and sincere regret'. It had been drafted with the help of a newly-elected senator, Aden Ridgeway, only the second Aborigine to be a member of the Federal Parliament.

Many people gave a sigh of relief when this resolution passed both houses of the Parliament, but most Aboriginal leaders were not satisfied, doubtless because no reforms were announced at the same time. And like many others I asked myself what was the difference between expressing regret, particularly deep and sincere regret, and apologizing?

The argument that you don't have to say sorry for something you didn't do would have my vote on most things, but not on this. Regret means, 'It's a shame that such-and-such happened to you.' Apology means, 'I'm very upset that what I and my people have done to you has been so calamitous.' It implies action, not just words.

Racism is a worse scourge even than AIDS. It could ruin the world's chances of creating a society that has said goodbye to conflict and war. For centuries, the white segment of the human race has been making life hell for the non-white segment. It is clear -- from the Olympics, if nothing else -- that no race is intrinsically superior.

I personally may not have been consciously racist, but my segment certainly has been -- and I have benefited from a system which has been skewed in favour of my race. If I say, 'I don't have to apologize', that is taken by those who have suffered as meaning, 'There's really nothing to apologize for'.

Many people are searching for perspective. As Robert Fitzgerald, Community Services Commissioner for the state of New South Wales, said in December, 'There has been a great silence as to the moral values, to the fundamental social function of economic activity. Many factors are driving a greater sense of individualism. But at the end of the day people are saying, "What we also crave is a sense of community.'' '
Helen Moran and Johnny Huckle, writers of the Journey of Healing theme song

A referendum last November rejected a bid to make Australia a republic, which some had hoped would settle everything. Political activists started the cry, 'Don't trust politicians!' Which is a dangerously sweeping statement: many politicians are dedicated people. It may be closer to the truth to say, 'The political process only works when deeper matters, like setting right ancient wrongs, are passionately pursued in the community.'

The great migrant influx after World War II made it possible to welcome first Europeans and then Asians as citizens, leaving behind a lot of bigotry in the process. Now, perhaps, we can build on that to ensure that Aborigines get the 'fair go' they deserved two centuries ago.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has been circulating a draft document on what true reconciliation will require. It will be presented to the nation on 27 May 2000. Perhaps that day, or sometime during the Games, the penny might drop about what is really important in the life of Australia. This much-loved country may be approaching a vital moment of truth. We need, if you like, to take a deep breath and go for gold.
John Williams

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0