LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Sir, There’s no doubt that Aboriginal people have suffered a great deal as a consequence of European colonisation; however, as Kieran Finnane points out, this knowledge is very well documented and obtainable.
I visited Rottnest Island, for one day with a former Alice Springs High School classmate in late August, 1983. We hired bicycles and spent the day riding in and around the island in the hope of finding quokkas (we were successful), the little kangaroos that make nests which the Dutch seafarer Willem de Vlamingh in 1696 mistakenly thought were by a type of large rat, hence the island’s name. I can’t recall from my visit of being aware of the island’s colonial history (other than seeing the old buildings) an that wasn’t the purpose of our trip. But it’s not a hidden history, as anybody who wants to know about what happened there can easily find out about it. For example, my 1984 edition of Collins Australia Encyclopedia states: “The island was first settled by farmers in the 1830s; later it became a prison, mainly for Aborigines, and during World War II it was a military camp”.
There are many aspects to our history which are not very well known, and more pointedly it is recent history of which we tend to be more ignorant. For example, the last person to be executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan, at Pentridge Prison in Victoria in February 1967. But I’ll bet few people know that the Northern Territory came close to taking that record in late 1968, when murderer Manuel Da Costa was due to hang at Fannie Bay Gaol on November 13 – his sentence was commuted to life in prison within a week of his impending execution. Interestingly, it was the Labor Member for Alice Springs, CT “Chas” Orr, who in 1966 unsuccessfully sought to have capital punishment abolished in the NT. Who knows (or remembers) any of this history? How many know Alice Springs actually had a Labor member (in fact, Chas Orr was the second)? These kinds of facts get in the way of the stories concocted by the ideologues of contemporary politics and academia.
What’s most annoying (and indeed deeply offensive) about John Pilger and various academic commentators is their readiness to associate the plight of Aboriginal people with that of victims of genocide from other places around the world. The nearest equivalent to genocide in Australia was suffered by the Aboriginal people of Tasmania – a history that is well documented and acknowledged – but otherwise it’s highly misleading and odious for these supposedly well-educated and qualified professionals to be making such comparisons.
Have we ever had it as tough in Australia as has been experienced in other countries? In the Northern Territory it’s not unusual to find bare cement slabs that used to be the floors of various military structures during World War II. However, I’ve stood in a forest clearing on the outskirts of Riga, the capital city of Latvia, where there are also cement slabs of the same vintage – but this was the site of the Salaspils Concentration Camp, where some 100,000 people perished in the most miserable circumstances. Very few people anywhere would know of this place, it’s one of the “minor” facilities set up by the Nazi regime in its program of systematic industrial-scale elimination of Jews and other undesirable people.
I travelled frequently on the main street of Riga, in the past called “Lenin Street” or “Adolf Hitler Street”, depending upon which regime occupied the country (today it’s called “Freedom Street”, for obvious reasons). A building on a corner of this main street is the former headquarters of the Soviet NKVD (1940-41) and the KGB (post WW2) in Latvia. This is a place where innocent people – thousands of them – were taken to be interrogated and tortured, such as having fingernails and toenails pulled out by pliers, or having nails hammered into their heads. The main interrogation room has a hole drilled into the floor to facilitate the drainage of victims’ blood. Many people were shot there, a great many more sent to the gulags deep in Siberia where the survival rate was as low as one per cent (much lower than in Nazi concentration camps). This was happening within the lifetimes of many of us today.
Latvia is a little country most people don’t know about; and it’s just one of a swathe of East European countries that today collectively are named the “Bloodlands”, so-called because in a period of 12 years (1933-45) Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia eradicated more than 14 million civilians (about half of them before World War II). That’s more than a million a year – and that’s not including military casualties. How interesting to note that both regimes claimed to be “socialist”.
Here’s another example – my best friend in Alice Springs is a Chinese national. The same age as me, he is the 72nd generation in a straight-line descent of the Chinese philosopher Confucius; a member of the world’s oldest documented family tree. He came from Shenyang City, in the northeast of China. His parents, now aged in their eighties, still reside there.
My friend’s parents were little children at the time when the Japanese Kwantung Army staged the “Manchurian Incident” at Mukden in 1931 – Mukden is now called Shenyang City. This incident was the pretext for the Kwantung Army to launch the invasion of northeast China, in turn leading to invasion and occupation of much of eastern and southern China – before the Second World War! Australia was only briefly in fear of invasion by Japan, mainly in 1942 – by contrast, China endured the full brunt of war with Japan for 14 years. It’s unknown how many Chinese people perished in the conflict but they number in the millions. Today we in the West (especially those of left-wing political persuasion) remember the victims of the Hiroshima atomic bomb but conveniently disregard the history leading up to this event.
Following the end of the Second World War, China was then embroiled in a civil war for four years between the Nationalists and Communists, finally coming to an end with the triumph of the Chinese Red Army in 1949. There then began the rule of Mao Zedong, a regime as cruel and capricious as that of his good mate Stalin in Russia. But whereas Stalin died in 1953, Mao’s despotic rule didn’t end until his death in 1976. Millions died during this time when my friend and I were boys – the contrast between our lives could hardly be greater.
Through it all my friend’s parents survived and raised a family, and it’s only in the later period of their lives that they’ve known relative safety and prosperity. Although today we hear so much of the progress of China’s growth and economic strength, yet life can present difficulties that few of us in Australia experience. My friend has long experience and qualifications in the hospitality and restaurant trade in his home city; and eventually he and his wife operated a very successful restaurant, favoured by many leading personalities in that region. Yet it all came to naught when the old city block in which his business prospered was compulsorily acquired by the local regional government, to be demolished and make way for new high-rise development. Compensation was minimal and so led to a decision for a new direction in life by migrating to Australia.
But even here life isn’t easy. In China it’s the offspring who are responsible for the care of their elderly parents – not the state – so my friend contributes financially to his parents care. In addition to this traditional responsibility, my friend and his wife, not being Australian citizens, must bear the full cost of their son’s education through high school and now about to commence at Melbourne University. They have lived apart (my friend in Alice Springs, she in Adelaide) and work long hours in more than one job in order to fund their son’s education. And it’s paying off – he’s a straight-A student in mathematics, physics and chemistry; and scores highly in English, a language he’s only learned in the last few years. In this respect it’s a typical migrants’ story in Australia.
It’s a hell of a story, happening right now, and it puts us all to shame. We’ve known nothing of the difficulties these people have gone through but they get on with their lives cheerfully and without handouts from government. They are highly motivated to get ahead in life, on their own merits and without expectation of state-funded assistance. I admire them deeply. They’re the sort of people I wouldn’t mind some of our taxes being spent upon, because I know it would be put to good use and there would be a return on the money expended.
It’s interesting to note this ethos seems typical of East Asian people. In recent years I’ve worked with a number of young people, mainly from Taiwan and South Korea, on working holiday visas. They are invariably polite, punctual, pleasant, and productive – and well educated. They each usually hold two jobs in Alice Springs, sometimes three – it’s not too hard for them to find work in Central Australia. Despite the expense of travelling to Alice Springs and living here, our town enjoys a favoured reputation amongst these young people for the ease of finding work and making money. They readily take on jobs that local unemployed people refuse (or can’t be trusted) to do. They all speak English as a second language with varying degrees of proficiency (some of them are very fluent). We all see them on their scooters and bicycles around town but I bet very few of us make any effort to get to know them – and what a waste of opportunity it is for our town not to establish good relations with their home countries.
Occasionally they become confident enough to ask about what they see here in Alice Springs – often about Aboriginal people. Why do they sit around doing nothing all day? Why do they drink so much alcohol? How do they get their money? Why do they yell and fight? Why do they leave so much rubbish around? Are all Aboriginal people like this? These are the sorts of questions I’m sometimes asked, by inquiring youngsters whose grandparents lived in times when their own countries were ripped apart by wars and invasion – and to some extent still live with those risks to this day.
What about my own country, especially Central Australia, when I was born here half a century ago in those bad old days of Commonwealth control of the Northern Territory? To put it simply, Australia was booming – prosperous and confident. That extended to many Aboriginal people, who were being taught many useful skills and trades at the missions, settlements and stations; and many were gainfully employed. My father’s diary observations as a jackaroo on Elkedra Station in 1953-4 is a case in point – the local Aboriginal people happily co-existed with the station on their traditional land, and benefited from employment as stockmen and drovers, gardeners, mechanics and domestic staff. They weren’t exploited and abused. It’s by no means an isolated example. In some of the most remote communities Aboriginal work gangs constructed their own houses and community buildings, usually supervised but invariably displaying considerable skill and ingenuity. This was still happening in the 1960s and 70s. And look at any photos of Aboriginal people in the 1950s and 60s – I challenge you to find any who were overweight.
Yet all of this was thrown away – the baby out with the bathwater – in the blind push for equality and self-determination from the mid 1960s onwards. There were many warnings from this period of the inherent dangers these changes represented to Aboriginal people (not least that of alcohol) but these were systematically ignored. It was invariably politicians, academics and activists from the south that knew better than the locals about improving the lot of Aboriginal people; and it was the means by which the Left of the Australian political spectrum – the intellectuals inspired by socialist ideals – inserted themselves as the torchbearers of Aboriginal politics, gradually splitting apart our society firmly along an entrenched racial divide. By no means was the Left entirely to blame, for the cynics of the political Right also perceived of ways to exploit the opportunities that opened up for them as (especially) the NT and remote regional Australia sank into a miasma of taxpayer-funded depravity and squalor.
I estimate that somewhere around 40 to 50,000 million dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money has been spent on Aboriginal Affairs since the early 1970s, with the rate of expenditure increasing significantly in the latter period of that time. We’ve witnessed the proliferation of departments, organisations, councils and corporations all across Australia set up supposedly for the benefit of Aboriginal people but the majority appear to exist to exploit them. I believe there’s no equivalent situation to this on such a scale anywhere else in the world. It is simply catastrophic.
Have we ever had it as tough in Australia as in other countries?
LETTER TO THE EDITOR