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On a sensitive issue

How do we discuss indigeneity?

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

In 1939 Paul Hasluck published ‘Our Southern Half Caste Natives and their condition.’ It was a pamphlet based on a series of articles in which he discussed the need to remove children of mixed race descent from Aboriginal communities in order to give them a chance to be educated and to avoid the squalor and filth which would otherwise be there fate.

Sir Paul wrote, ‘If there are any feelings of humanity in the community, the present order will not be allowed to continue. If we recognise the claims that these people have on us by blood relationship we will lift them up instead of pushing them back to the blacks’. For half-caste children, schools should be established ‘to give attention to the strengthening of the character (and) training of the mind…’, especially the girls as, so often, ‘the white man has made them the victims of his sharp practices or his lusts’ and so on and so on. Hasluck, whose distinguished career culminated in him becoming the Governor General from 1969 to 1974, may have had his heart in the right place, but his prose style today would have had him before a court in no time at all.

To look at anything written before the Second World War about what was then called ‘the Aboriginal problem’ is to show how much the terminology surrounding this debate has evolved. But so many issues remain unchanged.

Today certain terms once used to describe people of part aboriginal descent are no longer acceptable. Instead, Australians are either indigenous or non-indigenous and the former category is proving to be increasingly popular. In 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a discussion paper explaining the increase in the number of people identifying as ‘indigenous’ (2077.0 – Census of Population and Housing: Understanding the Increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Counts, 2006-2011) in which it noted that ‘The 93,300 increase in the count of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people between the 2006 and 2011 Censuses was larger than can be fully accounted for by demographic factors (natural increase and migration).’

The report notes that 70 per cent of the increase was due to natural population increase, the remaining 30 per cent was due to ‘non demographic factors’ such as ‘an increased propensity for people to identify themselves and their young children as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin in the 2011 Census than in the 2006 Census’. The ‘increased propensity’ is partly due to the benefits that accrue to being recognised as being of indigenous background. Those benefits include preferential access to the labour market, substantial assistance with housing loans, and free education at all levels. Most Australians acknowledge the injustice of the treatment meted out to the Aborigines during the first 150 years of white settlement and few would begrudge recompense to the remaining people who choose to live a traditional lifestyle in remote communities.

But the ABS report notes that most of the growth in numbers of people identifying as indigenous is in the coastal cities and not in the remote rural communities, and the growing number of people identifying as ‘indigenous’ presents policy challenges which are not being addressed or even aired. Hasluck’s interpretation of the present situation would most likely be to conclude that the ‘half-castes’ have decided that their best interests are better served by self-identifying as black rather than as white.

This interpretation of the demographic changes in contemporary society is of course totally unacceptable today. Instead we are constantly being told that there is an immanentist quality of aboriginality which has been developed over the past 50,000 years. Culture, not colour, defines an individual’s right to identify as Aboriginal and before the usual suspects start phoning their lawyers, let me say loud and clear that I have no argument with this. It is not my intention to offend or insult or intimidate any person on the basis of their ethnic identity.

But one of the consequences of the notorious case brought against Andrew Bolt is that the debate about who is entitled to claim an Aboriginal identity has been shut down almost completely. One sees occasionally in the media disputes between various indigenous groups about who is really ‘Aboriginal’. But woe betide anyone else who is foolish enough to get into the ring for that fight.

The question inevitably arises then as to how many more billions must be spent on indigenous welfare and who should receive this money? If the ‘non demographic factors’ bringing about an increase in the number of people identifying as Aboriginal continue in their present form, then the number of people accessing the benefits that attach to that identification will continue to grow.

To put the matter bluntly and in a concrete form, why should someone whose great grandfather was indigenous, get free university education while someone whose great grandfather died in a Japanese WW2 prison does not? At the present time the intention of all universities is to bring participation rates of indigenous students up to the same level as that of non-indigenous students and this is as it should be.

But once the indigenous student has graduated should he or she then continue to receive assistance in, for instance, preferential housing loans and for how many more generations should preferential assistance be offered?

The sociologist Herbert Gans introduced the concept of ‘Symbolic ethnicity’ to describe a nostalgic allegiance to, and pride in a cultural tradition that can be claimed without having to be incorporated to the person’s everyday behavior. Thus for instance we see Australians of Scottish background wearing kilts on Burns day to celebrate Scotland’s greatest poet even though they have no deep connection to Scotland.

Today we are witnessing a similar evolution in the concept of ‘Aboriginality’ as the gap between the lifestyle of the urban Aborigines and the original inhabitants of Australia becomes more attenuated. The Andrew Bolt case and the operation of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act have stifled a debate about who should have access to the billions of dollars which Canberra hands out to people identifying as indigenous. It is in the best interests of people of genuine indigenous background that such a debate should take place. These questions are simply not being considered.

Tony Letford was the winner of the 2015 Spectator Thawley Essay prize.
For details of the current competition go to

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