Is Governor Davey running for Mayor in Maitland now?

The welcome to and acknowledgement of Country has become a highly visible part of public ceremony in Australia in the past decade or so.

For Aboriginal people it is important because it is at least some acknowledgement of the fact that even though mainstream Australian culture is pretty European in practice, people attending these ceremonies aren’t actually in Europe (anymore) and the history of the particular country stretches back many timeless generations.

In a way, it also acknowledges what an incredibly traumatic year 1788 was for Aboriginal people. A year non-Indigenous people these days aren’t much fussed to talk about or especially remember.

Of course, 1788 was the beginning of all the dispossession, sickness and death which “Welcome to Country” comes some way to at least acknowledging.

I have a metaphor I use to explain 1788 to non-Indigenous people. I say it was “the day the planes appeared in the sky and dropped their atomic bombs. Kooris are today still walking through the nuclear fallout.”

Welcome to country challenges the three cheers for Australia colonial settlement story of rugged men in Akubra-like hats with whips and a tough little white woman at home. Well we assume he had a little white woman at home, even though the population statistics show that men far outnumbered women in the early colonial days. Certainly, there is no mention in the narrative that this strong man’s resolve would ever have weakened and his gaze move over toward the black women in his midst. But that’s another story.

Thinking about 1788 also means not everyone thinks of any individual piece of land as merely having a history of previous good tenants and proximity to parks and beaches. All private property in Australia has a start date after which someone with a European background and mindset decided to “improve” the land ready for sale or production. As part of this grizzly process Aboriginal people got cast aside. With extreme prejudice.

Aboriginal people know this and feel a deep sense of loss when they think about the appropriation of their land from 1788 to the present day. The sentiment is captured by Kevin Gilbert in the poem “On the Road to Queanbeyan:”

I look at the open fields and see
The space where my people used to be
I see the scars of wounded ground
I cry as I hear the death call sound
Of curlew mourning by.

I myself have felt this same desolation growing up in southern NSW, staring at all that flattened, cleared land with wheat and sheep everywhere. This used to be Aboriginal land I thought. Of course, it still is, but if I’d decided to camp there I’d be moved on quickly by some farmer overly concerned at the “invasion” of “their” “property”.

Sensible people in Australia understand, at least in part, the hurt caused by this injustice and, in their own way, try to make some form of amends. Thus we have acknowledgement of country, the recognise movement, sea of hands, sorry days, etc. It’s all largely ceremonial (thank god it’s not John Howard’s “practical assimilation reconciliation”) but at least it’s something.

So the revelation of Maitland City Council’s official Welcome to Country policy recently was, to say the least, a bit of a jolt. Probably more like a sledgehammer to the head.

The good councillors at Maitland have decided that it is not enough to acknowledge just the Aboriginal traditional owners of the Maitland region in acknowledging country.

No, the official Maitland Welcome to Country acknowledges the early settlers as well.

According to Maitalnd’s official policy an appropriate Acknowledgement of Country would go like this:

I would like to acknowledge the Wonnarua people who are the traditional custodians of the land. I would also like to pay respect to their people both past and present and extend that respect to other Aboriginal Australians who are present. I also acknowledge the colonial heritage of Maitland and recognise the contribution of the early settlers in laying the foundations of this great and historic city.

In other words, Maitland have included the very people who did the dispossessing, killing, raping and banishing in the very thing (Acknowledgement of country) which is meant to aid reconciliation of these wrongs.

After picking my jaw up off the floor, I checked the Maitland website for the procedure around how this policy was able to become in any way ‘official’. A bit of poking around led to the agenda and minutes at the council meeting that night.

The draft of the policy itself, which includes all the settler stuff, was authored by a council worker named Calee Smith. She could not be contacted for the purposes of this article because she was on leave. As far as I could ascertain she is not an Indigenous person.

The “Responsible Officer” for the policy draft at Maitalnd City is Graeme Tolhurst who is the Executive Manager of Corporate Services. I spoke with Mr Tolhurst and he told me that as part of the policy formulation process he had gone to talk to people at Mindaribba LALC in 2012. As far as he could remember they gave their consent to the policy draft.

How could that be? Consent for the colonials, the land thieves? I asked him if the draft as presented to Mindaribba included the wording about the settlers. Mr Tolhurst said he could not remember. He did add, however, that policy can be amended on the floor of council without notice, on-the-fly. So perhaps Clr Fairweather, who moved the motion, or Clr Wethered who seconded it, did the amending.

Mr Tolhurst was quite defensive about the council’s position. When I asked him about why Maitland, of all the local councils in Australia, had decided to deviate so widely from not just their own stated guidelines for the policy but the reconciliation path the whole of Australian society is currently following he replied “council is the democratic representative for the will of the people of Maitland”.

The person I spoke to at Mindaribba Land Council, whose father is involved in performing Welcome to country said that they found out about this about a month ago and were “challenging it”. She described the whole situation as “very stressful.” When asked about her attitude to colonial settler recognition in the policy she said “isn’t that what Australia day is for?”

Notwithstanding the distress of the local Koori people at Mindaribba especially and all other Aboriginal people in the area, it seems to me this is yet another example of how the “representative government” model in Australia repeatedly fails Aboriginal people in Australia.

If it is to be assumed that the policy was researched, drafted and forwarded to council in the standard form as proscribed by the Office of local Government in NSW, Reconciliation Australia and accepted pretty much everywhere else in Australia then perhaps the policy was changed on the floor of council because a few of the councillors got their back up about the wording. Maybe it smacked of “political correctness gone mad” to them.

I contacted the Office of Local Government and received the following response:

“Thank you for your email about the “Welcome to Country” practices of Maitland City Council.

The Office of Local Government encourages councils to develop productive partnerships with local Aboriginal communities and recognises that a “Welcome to Country” is an important mark of respect for Aboriginal people.

Under the Local Government Act 1993 (the Act), councils are largely “independent” and “self-governing” bodies with rights and powers conferred by law. They are accountable to their electors for their actions.

While I acknowledge your concerns at the departure from the traditional “Welcome to Country” by Maitland City Council this is a matter for Council to deal with in its discretion.

I can only suggest that you continue to pursue the matter with Council, possibly by writing to the General Manager or your local councillors. They are responsible for bringing community concerns before the Council and, where possible, resolving those concerns.”

So, in other words, Kooris are stuck with whatever the local government thinks is appropriate for them. Again, the very instrument which facilitated the dispossession originally now reinforces it. Truly, this is racism.

The problem of governance in Australia is that since the arrival of the Europeans, the needs and desires of Aboriginal people have been an afterthought. Their cultural values are an afterthought, their history is an afterthought.

Who do the councillors of Maitland represent? In assessing the responses of all levels of government in Australia to the needs of Aboriginal people one must refer back to Governor Davey’s famous proclamation board of 1816.

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The response to my enquiries received from Mr Tolhurst of Maitland Council, namely that the Acknowledgement of country policy reflects the will of the people of Maitland, reminds me of the position of the Governor and his minions (those in red coats) in the proclamation. The red coats hold a seemingly unchallenged position above their subjects. So it goes (in panel one of the proclamation) that black and white should get along with each other in harmony. No sign of the red coats here.

In panel two the red coats go out of their way to meet Aboriginal people as equals. As Penelope Edmonds points out, the central vignette of the proclamation is the meeting of the Governor (in ceremonial headdress) with an Aboriginal negotiator (in ceremonial headdress). In this instance this supposed meeting appropriates an agreement, understanding or even treaty. I’m not sure that in Tasmania around 1830 any Aboriginal person was actually aware of any treaty being hammered out but the consequence of this meeting becomes apparent in the final 2 panels where the red coats sit as the sole authority and take it upon themselves to mete out ultimate European justice to both black and white alike.

So the problem we have, both in Governor Davey’s proclamation in Tasmania of 1829 and the Welcome to Country policy of Maitland City Council in 2012, some 186 years later, is that a discriminatory policy – disempowering, dispossessive and cruel – has been implemented without the consent of the local sovereign Aboriginal people.

In both cases the policy has been instituted through the implied agreement of the local Aboriginal people. Agreement which is actually fictitious. But that didn’t stop the red coats in both Tasmania and Maitland.

Nope, it’s the democratic will of a government no Aboriginal person has ever consented to.

Australia will never quit appropriating Aboriginal land, culture, language, law, cuisine, legend, children, sport, music, art, etc. So what has happened at Maitland should come as no shock.

My opinion? There is only one way to finally free Aboriginal people and, through this freedom, the Australian nation itself. That is self-determination – the sure right of Aboriginal people from the start of time until the end.

 

Reference

Penelope Edmonds, ‘Failing in every endeavour to conciliate’: Governor Arthur’s Proclamation Boards to the Aborigines, Australian Conciliation Narratives and their Transnational Connections’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol.35, no.2, June, 2011, pp.208-218.

The Uluru Bark Petition and The Bli Bli Thongs

Obviously the recent “Uluru bark petition” has stirred up a lot of feeling among Aboriginal people because it feels like such a betrayal.

One of the amazing things about blackfellas is that, whilst there is an extreme diversity of personal opinion, voiced confidently – stemming from traditional governance where consensus ruled, not the edict of a divine chief or a democratic process – there is also, in the main, a united respect for core Aboriginal values.

These values include things like respect for elders, centrality of community and kin, belonging to country, rejection of commercial needs above spiritual and community ones, etc.

All of which makes the Uluru bark petition so troubling. Cloaked in all the symbolism of Aboriginal cultural values, this shonky group make a solely christian statement and try to pass it off not in their own names but in the names of many diverse Aboriginal nations from around the continent.

And not just remote nations where, perhaps, the power of the Christian missionary influence may still be overpowering. No, some of the nations mentioned as supporting the Uluru bark petition include Biripi, Bundjalung, Noongar, Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri. In other words, some of the most densely populated and Urbanised Aboriginal nations and communities.

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The “Uluru Bark Petition”

Ultimately though, individual Aboriginal people are not perfect. Nor do they have some pure sense of morality (the ‘Noble Savage’ trope). Like anyone, Aboriginal people just try to do their best guided by the best aspects of the culture they come from. For someone who grew up estranged from my Koori community and culture that can be a despairing, confusing experience. But that’s another story.

So here we have a group of christian preachers pushing a religious line they believe in. Is it such a big deal? Aboriginal people have “sold out” in the past what’s the difference?

The difference is that for the first time since 1788 Aboriginality has assumed a form of mainstream moral authority. Yes, all the protests and court cases, the history wars, sorry days, apologies, wage claims, land rights battles, deaths in custody and stolen generations have seeped into the conscience of white Australia.

But only slightly. Mainly, I believe, the Australian state needs the consent of Aboriginal people to legitimise itself. Australia has looked at its past. Looked at new arrivals and said “we decide who will come here”. To achieve absolute moral authority around the “we” bit they desperately need Aboriginal people. Without First Nations people, the “we” looks pretty flimsy… They were just any other wave of boat people.

As an example, witness the Indigenous rounds of AFL and NRL, etc. It strengthens their brand. Gives it a sort of moral dimension. So putting a white proclamation on a piece of bark with a lot of Aboriginal names and nations makes their moral claim look ancient, indisputable and (they hope) authentic.

So now it’s desirable to add Aboriginality to your brand. How times have changed!

Which is why I nearly fell over when I walked into a service station in Bli Bli (Sunshine Coast) to pay for my petrol the other day.

Among the chips and biscuits I came across this display:

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Yes, Aboriginal flag thongs! Koori flip-flops!!

And under $8! Woohoo, too deadly!

Sadly, they didn’t fit me. But it got me wondering.

Twenty, even ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Aboriginal flag branded item of clothing to be on sale at a suburban service station like it was just any old brand. Only, maybe, at a souvenir shop for overseas tourists.

But here they are. In Bli Bli! Who is buying these? There are plenty of Murris living in the Bli Bli area but these servo thongs are in the same numbers as the good old Aussie flag ones on the far right of the photo. Wtf?

(Ha ha, the ‘far right’)

They look great and it makes me proud and all that. But there’s an unsettling aspect.

The Aboriginal “brand” now has power. It is acceptable, even “cool”. It is authentic. It has a moral weight.

It is also useful.

It is useful to Australia. So we have to become used to an ugly new reality. Aboriginality will be used in arguments and debates to acheive non-Aboriginal outcomes. The brand will be co-opted in the pursuit of Australian goals. These goals have little to do with Aboriginal culture but that doesn’t matter. White Australia isn’t too fussed about stolen babies and black deaths in custody and all that. Only in so far as it makes them look bad. Can’t be having Australia look bad.

But what is of interest to them is a symbolism which they can appropriate to achieve their own goals.

If the imagery and moral force of the Yirrkala and Barunga bark petitions are just roadkill on the quest for white politicians to stop same sex marriage then so be it. Whatever it takes.

I will proceed by relegating the Uluru bark petition to the moral dustbin. It’s just a stunt. And it won’t achieve anything anyway. I believe it has a snowball’s chance of actually stopping same-sex marriage becoming legal in Australia.

But the appropriation of the Aboriginal “brand”? Sadly, that is here to stay. We have to remain vigilant.

These Aboriginal “elders” don’t speak for me. Or, I believe, the majority of Aboriginal people. But without a genuine political mechanism for allowing a representative Aboriginal voice we will never know.

A genuine mechanism would resolve these random individuals speaking on behalf of entire Aboriginal nations. But that’s the big battle for another day.

Until then we’ve got unelected “leaders” like Nyunggai W. Mundine speaking for us.

And those deadly thongs at the Bli Bli servo? Maybe next time I’m there they’ll have a size that fits.

Treaty yeah?… Nah.

It was with some horror a few days ago I read that the Victorian Government had begun initial consultations around the idea of a treaty with the Aboriginal inhabitants of that state.

Of course the media trumpeted it as some new high water mark for race relations in Australia and a triumph of fairness and humanity.

“Noooooo” I screamed from my laptop keyboard, “be very, very careful, they’ll divide you Koorie mob and drive through a watered down, weak as piss treaty and you mob will be essentially signing all your rights away!”

In the article it said that in researching a possible treaty, the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Natalie Hutchins, said she “will look at treaty examples in other Commonwealth countries.”

So, in other words, she will be looking at discredited 19th century documents where basically the local First Nations peoples were deceived and bludgeoned into signing their rights and land away as being the new basis for understanding between Victoria and the Koorie nations.

Victorian Koories must hesitate. You see, a treaty, or the absence of one at least, is the most powerful political tool Aboriginal people have.

Think of it this way… the British turned up in 1788 and said the following:

“We own this island and you blackfellas are all British subjects…”

The rightful response: “We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?”

“We will set up a system of laws and governance which will be for both our peoples’ mutual benefit and protection”

We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?

“We will acquire and ‘improve’ land under this new system because this is a modern and productive way of doing things. You will benefit from our methods”

We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?

“We will civilise you by forcing you into missions and reserves, stealing your children and assimilating them by denying their identity and culture.”

But we never agreed. Show us where we agreed to that?

But now, after everything those Koories have been through over the years, having fought to even survive, they finally come to them and say “Let’s talk nicely about this over a cup of tea and come to an agreement to legitimise our government and rubber stamp the system we have here with your seeming approval.”

I’m sorry, fuck off. The response should be something like “we’re not rubber stamping genocide without dragging you lot through the full ordeal of owning up to every injustice, written on memorials all over your state to the massacres and humiliations we endured. We want a day of mourning as a public holiday, NAIDOC day as a public holiday. Our own fully funded memorials and cultural centres at significant sites. Our own fully funded schools and hospitals. Our own fully funded University. We want our own prison to deal with our people, our way, culturally. We want affordable housing for our mob, on and off country. Offensive placenames changed. Our own placename boards in our colours in our languages. Massive funding to restore our languages for the use of us and our kids. And massive compensation, annually in perpetuity, including lots of land, for all that has been done to us in your name. And we’ll never cede any land, it’s always ours. But we’ll provide perpetual leasehold for your citizens, which is more than generous or more than your state deserves.

Why not? The power of the treaty is that Aboriginal people decide what they rightly deserve, not a court or government committee. Finally they can seek justice on their terms! And what’s the downside… the state says no, so no treaty. That’s their loss, not Aboriginal people’s. At least Aboriginal voices get heard. And the state doesn’t get its treaty.

Any treaty should demand extremely strong political rights. Basically, sovereignty. Self-determination. Starting with the ability to identify, fairly and equitably, Aboriginal political and community representatives in Aboriginal political and community representative bodies.

This is the greatest problem in Aboriginal politics to date. Not of Aboriginal people’s own making. It is the core problem with the framing and signing of any treaty… namely, which Aboriginal people sign the treaty? If we aren’t able to choose our own representatives, and I mean every single Aboriginal person in this country must have a direct say, then the piece of paper the treaty is written on will not mean a damn thing. Well, maybe as much as Captain Cook’s proclamation of “possession” of the continent in August 1770. Yeah, there’s a “consensus” document if ever I saw one. Not.

Unfortunately, present Australian governments don’t want true representative Aboriginal voices to be heard…. That’s why they abolish Indigenous representative bodies (after they have first set them up on their terms) and handpick blackfellas who they think will be closest to representing what they want. Witness Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson. I know they are fiercely proud Aboriginal men but who do they represent? Who do they speak for? Whose mob? All they represent is their own ideas. Maybe some of those are worthwhile but there’s no way if anyone like that signed any treaty they would be representing me, my needs or my voice.

No, Aboriginal people need what mainstream people in Australia get. A timely, well resourced political process. The makeup of which we will decide on ourselves. If it were to happen I believe there should be a lot more ‘consensus’ politics – which is cultural – than winner-take-all majority-rules European-style politics.

That’s just the start… and it will take a long time.

Once Aboriginal people have their own political processes in place (funded by the state… it’s the least they can do to transition Koories back to the power they’ve so cruelly denied for the past 200 odd years) then, and only then, can Aboriginal people start to think about what the demands would be for a treaty.

So, the proposed treaty negotiations in Victoria? Nice idea, but there’s some serious preconditions to sort out first.

Introduction

My name is Greg Page and this is my blog about being Koori.

My family is from Guriwal (La Perouse, Sydney) and my ancestors are Yuin people from the South Coast of NSW. I was fostered at birth and I grew up at Mungabareena (Albury) by the Millewa (Murray) river on Wiradjuri country. But I’ve reconnected with my Guriwal family and my identity as a Koori gives me strength and joy every day.

So my life focus at the moment is about my Aboriginal identity and balancing my interests within that: politics, history, writing, association football, gnu/linux and connection to community and family.

I’ve got a few ideas I want to share with mob so I hope you keep coming back and get something of interest each visit. See you!

Twitter: @boypage

Email: email