Skip to Content

Australian Notes

Australian notes

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

9 February 2013

9:00 AM

She pulls no punches — Bess Nungarrayi Price, the new Country Liberal Party member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. She began her speech launching Stephanie Jarrett’s Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence (Connor Court) with this reminiscence of the infamous Coniston massacre of 1928: ‘In the lifetime of my parents a police party led by a first world war veteran went through my people’s country and shot dozens of men, women and children in response to the murder of one white man. They were not punished. We still remember those times. Every Australian should know this history. Many don’t want to talk about it.’ But, she went on, those days are gone forever. Whitefellas have changed. But too many Aborigines have not changed — or not yet. Too many have tragically clung to an ancient tradition of violence, especially against women. (‘I carry too many scars on my body and my soul.’) We have to embrace cultural change, she says. ‘Whitefellas are not killing us anymore. We are killing ourselves.’

That is the theme of Stephanie Jarrett’s book. She calls for the abandonment of the separatist ‘self-determination’ policy (which preserves traditions of violence). She advocates the integration of Aborigines into mainstream Australian life, with the preservation of as much Aboriginal tradition, including language, as possible. She insists it won’t be easy. She traces the tradition of violence to women and the sexual abuse of children to Aboriginal ‘pre-contact origins’, that is, before the coming of the white man, although some of the grandees of official Reconciliation policies still refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of anthropologists and palaeopathologists.

Jarrett ends her book with a call for the restoration of the ‘wonderful’ Family Resettlement Program which helped volunteers from hopelessly dysfunctional welfare-dependent communities in Bourke move to Newcastle — and to mainstream life, jobs, and co-operative neighbourhoods. Despite its ‘extraordinary’ if costly success in the 1970s, Aboriginal ‘activists’ forced the program to close down. They deemed it to be assimilationist. Jarrett wants it restored. Bess Price hopes Aboriginal people everywhere will read Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence. Stephanie Jarrett is, she says, ‘one very brave whitefella’.

Who is Jim Franklin? Both Price and Jarrett emphasise their debt to him and his wife Irene. ‘I just can’t thank them enough,’ says Price. He has been ‘my steadfast mentor, editor and guide’, says Jarrett. Franklin is a mathematician and philosopher. One of his most acclaimed books is The Science of Conjecture: Evidence and Probability Before Pascal. His commitment to Aboriginal causes arose out his irritation in May 2000 when 300,000 people crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the Reconciliation Walk. The Walkers felt good about themselves but, as Franklin saw it, this did nothing to help with the horrendous problems of, say, stunted or wasted Aboriginal children in Darwin hospital. He despises self-aggrandising ideology (‘bullshit’) and looks always for practical solutions. But Stephanie Jarrett impressed him. So did Bess Price when he heard her speak at the last meeting of the Bennelong Society before it closed down in 2011. He has helped them both in practical ways (and at some cost to himself). He is just the man to revive the Bennelong Society.

‘Artful’ and ‘imperious’ are two of the words Jenny Hocking calls up to characterise Sir David Smith — Official Secretary of five Governors-General between 1973 and 1990, most famously Sir John Kerr — in the second volume of her hagiography Gough Whitlam. These are not characterisations that would have occurred to many of us in the standing-room-only crowd that came to hear Smith’s reflections on Hocking’s book at the Sydney Institute last week. There was nothing artful or imperious in Smith’s presentation of the facts in the always fascinating story of the rise and fall of the Whitlam government. But her third characterisation —‘loyal’ — was clearly in evidence.

The tragic hero of the drama remains John Kerr. The other two protagonists of the crisis are Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser. ‘They were two stubborn and arrogant men who were prepared to see the collapse of our system of government and of our economy in their struggles for dominance. It was left to the Governor-General to break the deadlock and set in train a process that would put the issue to the people for them to decide.’ Did Kerr have any regrets, Smith was asked? Smith believed he did not, but he recalled a conversation at the end of that extraordinary Remembrance Day in 1975. ‘I know,’ Kerr said, ‘that the Labor party will execrate me for the rest of my days. They will hound me till I die. But they left me no option.’

Now, some decades later, we have had all the evidence we need to form a judgment on the Dismissal. Only one archive remains to be opened: the Queen’s Archive in Windsor Castle. It contains the ‘personal’ letters to the Queen from the various Governors-General, including Kerr, keeping her informed of Australian developments. They will be opened to scholars 50 years after the retirement of the Governor-General — in Kerr’s case in 2027. Access to them will require the approval of the Keeper of the Royal Archives and of the Official Secretary of the Governor-General. No one believes that they will in any significant way alter Sir David Smith’s account of the crisis. Some years ago I reviewed his book on the Dismissal, Head of State. My punchline was: ‘Yarralumla was lucky to have David Smith.’ I should have added: ‘So was Australia.’

Show comments