Volume 1 Number 5
Australia's Bicentennial... Its 200th
01 January 1988
The silence was almost tangible. It hung over a stony hillside scarred by the skeletons of mulga trees, a landscape stilled as if in reverence for the sacred carvings etched in the sheer red faces of the gorge.
The silence was almost tangible. It hung over a stony hillside scarred by the skeletons of mulga trees, a landscape stilled as if in reverence for the sacred carvings etched in the sheer red faces of the gorge. Our minds tried to comprehend: for at least 20,000 years the elders of the Adnyamathanha Aboriginal tribe sat among these same stones, their initiation ground, in what for a mere 200 years has been called `the Flinders Ranges'.
As we mark our Bicentennial we cannot fail, by any scale of objectivity, to honour the 200 bicentenaries of Aboriginal occupancy of this land - which by most scientific counts goes back beyond 40,000 years.
In May this year Queen Elizabeth II will open our new Parliament House. At the cost of A$1.3 billion, a hill in the heart of Canberra has been blasted away and replaced by a magnificent shiny pyramid of concrete, steel and glass, blending harmoniously with the surrounding hills - an enduring meeting ground for the leaders of all Australia's black, yellow and so-called white tribes.
A migrant, fresh out from England last year, commented that if you ask an Australian whether he loves his country, he will probably look into the distance and mumble: `Oh yeah, she'll do.' But if you dare, as an outsider, utter one word of criticism of Australia, he will jump on you. What is it about being Australian that stirs us so deeply and is so difficult to put into words?
Our sporting battles and Anzac Day parades commemorating Australian servicemen generate a ]amp in the throat of many of us. They epitomize the qualities we most consider 'Aussie' - the 'battler' against impossible odds, the almost unreasoning `she'll be right' courage, the strong bond of `mateship', the scornful `we'll show the world' irreverence for the powerful. So when `Crocodile Dundee' takes the USA by storm with his laconic humour and cool courage, the Aussie ego tightens its bulging belt and stands a little taller.
For the Dundee legend, though a caricature, echoes deep feelings in many of us.
Add to this the free-and-easy way of life we pride ourselves on. For freedom was the idea that stirred men to volunteer in droves for the 1914-18 War half a world away. An incredible 60,000 of them never came back. And the flood of refugees and migrants - four million since World War II, fully one quarter of our present population - came because of the promised freedom and better way of life. Though we take it for granted and often turn it into license to do whatever we damn well want, being free is a big part of being Australian.
But there is something deeper, something which binds all of us, from Aboriginal through to Indo-Chinese refugee - the image of the great red heart of this ancient continent, the long white beaches, the ageworn mountains, blue-green with eucalyptus haze, the reflection of river gums on misty morning waters. In an almost mystical way, it is this vast ancient land that makes us Australian: our identity, our legends, even our national symbols all relate to the land, its flora and fauna.
It was a hard land for the early European settlers. Even harder was the legacy created in those years. If America was founded by idealists seeking to fulfil their ideals, Australia was founded by convicts serving out their convictions. The military sent to keep order were a pretty rum lot, in more ways than one. The Irish `political' convicts, the Chinese immigrants of Gold Rush days, the Pacific Islanders `black-birded' as virtual slaves to Queensland canefields all shared this bitter heritage. And that's not even mentioning the Aboriginals.
These hard beginnings, together with the land, forged the first strains of our national character - a strong sense of fair-play, a suspicion of authority, a rugged independence, a generous, tolerant spirit towards others, and a healthy disrespect for the pious and pompous.
Such qualities spawned advances in social areas: Australia was one of the first nations to give the vote to women (the Kiwis beat us by a year or two); and we pioneered industrial arbitration and legislation. Thank God we abandoned the discriminatory White Australia policy. And migration has made Australia one of the most multicultural nations in the world. 66 languages are spoken amongst the workforce of one Wollongong steel mill; there are 100 distinct immigrant ethnic groups speaking 80 languages in the country. Australia, out of sheer humanity, accepted more IndoChinese refugees per head of population than any other nation. The fact that so many have voted with their feet (sometimes risking their necks) to live in Australia says something for our democratic system.
We cannot simply glory in our national character or our social achievements without the balance of seeing the dark side. And we cannot anywhere near fulfil the Bicentennial motto of `Living Together' without recognition of those things that tear us apart.
Recognition is what it is all about. Last November something moved in the national spirit when, fully 15 years after the last Australian soldier returned from Vietnam, a `Welcome Home' parade for 30,000 Vietnam veterans received a tumultuous response in the streets of Sydney. It took us that long to recognize their sacrifice and to begin to heal the rejection they had felt after that `dirty war'.
It took us 15 years to honour them. But 200 years have gone by and we have never adequately recognized the ancient Aboriginal heritage in this country and the intrinsic value of their culture. Nor have we recognized their fallen, lost in a hopeless war to defend the land they loved many more dead, through bullets, disease or despair, than all our Australian forces have suffered since.
Though billions of dollars have been spent on Aboriginal health, welfare and education, and land greater in area than France has been returned to Aboriginal control, it will take a long time to `remove the blight of two centuries of injustice and neglect', as justice Michael Kirby wrote in the Melbourne Age. `Is if too late,' he asked, `to use the national celebration as an occasion for national reconciliation?'
I believe profoundly that it is not too late. My conviction comes from discovering in my own family past the `skeleton' of a great great uncle who in 1851 was killed by Aboriginals and an unknown number of 'skeletons' of Aboriginals, traditional possessors of the land, who were shot down in revenge without understanding or trial. Whenever I have simply expressed to an Aboriginal my repentance for the sins of my fathers, and for my own indifference over years, I have found an amazing response - a bond of forgiveness and understanding.
`I don't forget what has happened since Captain Cook landed in Australia,' says Margaret Tucker, a grand old lady of the Ulupna tribe on the Murray River. `But what is the use of remembering with bitterness? I say let Captain Cook rest!'
When Mrs Tucker came to write her story, she called it If Everyone Cared. That is the lesson of her life, though not her experience for most of it. Like thousands of Aboriginal people, she was dragged from her mother at the age of 12 for `training', and forced to work as a domestic servant in Sydney. Her legs still bear scars from the beatings she received, and she once tried taking rat poison to finish it all. Yet today her eyes speak the dignity of forgiveness as well as the anguish of suffering.
`The old fullblooded men in the tribes where I was born believed in being still - almost in a trance,' she remembers. `But they were actually listening to a Wisdom outside themselves. After such a "meditation" they would know the right direction to take.'
The land, said Pope John Paul to a gathering of Aboriginals last year in Alice Springs, gives `proof of a power in life greater than yourselves. The silence of the bush taught you the quietness of soul that put you in touch with another world, the world of God's Spirit.'
I ask myself if even we white suburban 'fringe-dwellers', isolated on the concrete rim of this ancient continent, could find our way towards healing by listening to that same Wisdom.
One 'Letters-to-the-Editor' writer on the theme of Aboriginal-white relationships pleaded that we should not spend our Bicentennial using `our errors to beat one another about the head... If we are sorry for something let's be big enough to say so.' Such steps are ones we can and must take, even though it may take generations of inspired social initiatives to convince Aboriginal people that we genuinely mean it.
There are other areas too where recognition could begin the process of healing. The 'no-worries' Aussie having a good time in a lucky country might seem an attractive image, and there are many devotees serving that aim - from fitness fanatics to bushwhackers, from boozy 'kegdemolishers' to suntanned surf-riders. Yet we score one of the highest juvenile suicide rates in the world. Recently, after several schools were burned down, a gang of sevenyear-olds were caught red-handed. A lot of people somewhere must be missing out on the good times. Perhaps we need to recognize that they are the social consequences of our free and easy morality, rather than hoping that more millions spent on welfare will cure their despair.
We have been blessed by tremendous natural wealth. Barring a few oil-rich sheikhdoms, Australia is one of the most resource-rich countries per head of population in the world. Yet our national debts have run to some A$1 10 billion, nearly A$7000 per head of population. 18 years ago Paul Keating, then a young Opposition MP speaking at a Moral Re-Armament conference, warned Australians against taking the `sleazy road' of relying on natural wealth while subsidizing protected industries at the cost of Asian neighbours. 'Resource-rich countries tend to be lazy,' he said. `Our mineral wealth makes us a selfish country... with a callousness entering into public thinking.' Now, as Federal Treasurer, he warns Australia of the need to improve our performance.
John Clark, a senior general manager of BHP, Australia's biggest company, said recently that `freeing up people' was much harder than freeing up the economy, yet just as necessary. In crucial negotiations with unions in a major plant his management started by putting all the cards on the table. It brought a turn-around. He concluded: `You can only build trust if you're prepared to bare your soul and take risks.'
That is what we as a nation need to do during our Bicentenary. It means neither idolizing the myths of our Aussie background and character, nor damning ourselves with past mistakes. But through baring our souls over what is plainly wrong amongst us and taking some risks in an effort to reshape our own attitudes and living, we might find real growth towards maturity in national character.
Though my Australian ancestry goes back only five generations, I love this land and feel something of its spirit. To me Australia '88 is epitomized by one of those magnificent river red-gums. Embracing the earth with massive surface roots, its gnarled trunk rises, scarred with wounds of blistered red sap, its great heart split open at its base. Yet with strength it twists upwards through incongruous patterns, defying parasites and insects, undeterred by deadened limbs which hang etched against the sky. Its leaves still glisten rich with eucalyptus oil, its sap still courses through the hardened red wood, sucked from the depths of mother earth herself.
May we, this year, discover our true roots, find healing for our wounds and the new growth this land nurtures within us.