Scary stories from a lovely place
Just when I was feeling a tiny sense of optimism for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the last couple of weeks unfold. A few years back in a moment of oratorical genius Kevin Rudd made the long awaited Apology for the treatment of Aboriginal people by the Government during the years of the Stolen Generations. And even though those words have proved to be a bit tokenistic, it was still a super significant step for many Australians. As Robert Manne recently wrote; it felt like “something of central importance in the life of the nation was being transacted”.
And then there was the moment when Tony Abbott uttered the only sensible words to pass his lips in the public forum. He said that “we have never fully made peace with the first Australians. This is the stain on our soul.” He was speaking to the Government’s bill of Indigenous Constitutional Recognition. This was Tony Abbott speaking, the conservative leader of Australia’s conservative political party, the same guys who, under John Howard, ducked and weaved from the Apology for a decade (and had the audacity to side with Windschuttle on the whole ‘black armband history’ thing). To me, this was a massive moment, even though it seemed to go mostly unnoticed (perhaps that’s because it was tucked in between Abbot’s succinct explanations of all his great policies.) It felt like at last there was political unity regarding the next step forward for reconciliation between Indigenous Australians and the rest of us.
And then a couple of Friday’s ago at an AFL match a teenager called player Adam Goodes an ape. The metaphorical train of progress in my mind hit the emergency breaks and steamed off the tracks. An ape! That is a reference to old-school, dated, embarrassing racism. It’s not even clever or unique (not that this would make it acceptable). It’s frightening that in this day and age someone (or someone’s parents) would apply that word to a black person.
As if this wasn’t enough, then a respected figure in media and sports, Eddie McGuire said that perhaps Goodes (a well respected, veteran of AFL I might add) could promote the King Kong movie. But he didn’t just whisper it to a bonehead mate at the pub. It wasn’t overheard by a sneaky reporter wearing a wire. He said it on one of Melbourne’s biggest radio shows! Shockingly stupid, I know. Very sincerely he changed his mind (it took him a few days) and said he regretted his funny, funny joke.
With all of this swirling around in my mind I cosied up last Wednesday night to watch the new Adam Hills Tonight show on ABC1. It was ok. I’d rather watch old eps of Spicks and Specks. One of the guests was Uncle Jack Charles, an Indigenous Actor, Playwright and Theatre Company owner.
The interview was fine, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable as Charles talked about the mistreatment he received during his life after being taken from his mother as a baby under the Government’s separation policies in 1943. Hills and his guests, all white, upper-middle class, listened respectfully and interestedly, expressing shock and disdain at all the right moments. But I was wondering deep down how do they really feel about Indigenous people. Are they like the majority of Australians who look down at Aboriginal people, wonder why their communities are such a mess and don’t try and understand the link between the social problems and the history of mistreatment, calumniation and murder. Maybe I was overthinking it. Maybe they have Aboriginal friends or colleagues. Maybe they aren’t ignorant about Aboriginal history and consciousness.
And then today I heard news of the death of Indigenous singer Yunupingu. Along with Yothu Yindi fame, Yunupingu is also well known for his work in secondary and tertiary education initiatives in Arnhem Land in northern Australia. He was only 56 years old and died from kidney disease. His death reminded me of the crazy disparity in life expectancy between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians. While I should live to be about 83, the Aboriginal lady who lives down the road will only make it to 73 (and it’s worse for men).
There’s got to be a way that Australian society can move forward on these issues. Progress. There’s got to be a way where reconciliation can be properly reached, while disparity is realistically closed. There’s got to be a way to respect all Indigenous Australians, not just the ones who are famous. And there’s got to be some way of properly reprimanding Eddie McGuire – jail, a huge monetary penalty, ongoing shame – whatever, just something meaningful.