In her novel The Secret River, Kate Grenville tells the story of a family that moves from England to the new penal colony of New South Wales after the husband is convicted of stealing. At the end of the book, when the family has staked its piece of land and made a small fortune from trade, they build a colonial mansion as a testament to their wealth. Grenville, unlike her fictional family, understands that the land that has brought it such riches was also acquired through an act of stealing. We learn that the foundations upon which the house is built cover the carved stone image of a large fish that was created during ceremonies performed by Aboriginal clans, who had lived in the area for thousands of years but have been pushed away, massacred or have died of illness.
Grenville’s symbolism is a striking reminder of the history that lies beneath our modern Australian state and of the ways in which that history has sometimes been deliberately suppressed to give the impression of more noble beginnings.
‘Not real ones’ and no community
Since the decade of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Bringing Them Home report, it is harder to argue that Aboriginal people no longer form part of the Australian consciousness. And the predominant telling of history now acknowledges Aboriginal presence—even if we still see arguments between academics and other commentators about how many people were killed on the frontier and even whether there were massacres at all. But how to navigate that relationship has continued to be the question that has been most difficult to answer. This is further compounded by the way in which dominant Australian culture imagines Aboriginal Australia and the vast chasm between that image and the reality of how Aboriginal people live and relate to each other.
On the eve of the 2000 Olympics hosted in Sydney, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the front-page headline: ‘Corporate Dreamtime collides with reality’ (20 March 2000). The story concerned a Qantas advertising campaign that had used a photograph of an Aboriginal girl and used the slogan ‘The Spirit of Australia’. The photographed girl, Carol Green Napangardi, was eighteen years old at the time of the article and she received 20 per cent of the fees paid to the photographer. An accompanying article, ‘Now the picture’s not so perfect’, revealed that the life of Carol Green Napangardi was far from being what the romanticised advertisement might imply. She lived in a mission dormitory at Wirrimanu that she shared with more than a dozen in-laws, her husband, two daughters and ten dogs. Although she received some royalty money from the image, this did nothing to alter the systemic poverty of her community that had suffered problems with diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and had poor access to essential services and few work opportunities.
The controversy wasn’t so much that Carol Green Napangardi was being insufficiently paid for her image by corporate Australia but rather, as Linda Burney, then chairwoman of the NSW State Reconciliation Committee, noted: ‘These beautiful and glamorous images about Indigenous Australia often belie the reality of these people.’
When Australia hosts an international event or seeks to entice overseas visitors, consumers or corporations, it is not shy about using images of Aboriginal people or symbols derived from Aboriginal art and artifacts. One need look no further than the incorporation of a boomerang as part of the official Olympic motif. The unconsidered appropriation of Aboriginal imagery for marketing purposes was not impeded by the actions at the time of the United Nations Committee to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which called into question Australia’s record on Indigenous rights and referred to a range of issues, including the Native Title Amendment Act of 1998. This highlights the extent to which white corporate Australia is able and prepared to unhook happy images of Indigenous Australia from the politicised environment in which Indigenous people actually live. This invisibility of the real because of a focus on the imagined creates a kind of psychological terra nullius, where, even though Aboriginal people are physically present, they are not seen.
And there are definitely none in the city …
The psychological terra nullius is particularly a feature of the urban areas in Australia where Indigenous presence is pervasive. There are some tenacious stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban areas such as Sydney. I am often asked, ‘How often do you visit Aboriginal communities?’ And I reply, ‘Every day, when I go home.’ The ques- tion reveals the popular misconception that ‘real’ Aboriginal communities exist only in rural and remote areas. It is a reminder of how invisible our communities are to the people who live and work side- by-side with us. I suspect that this misconception finds its genesis in the once-orthodox view that Australia was peacefully settled, with Aboriginal people simply giving way naturally to a far superior (as the story would be told) technology of British civilisation.
A further glimpse of this trend to ignore and silence Aboriginal Australia can be found in Mark Latham’s diaries. Speaking of his electorate of Werriwa, Latham notes changes in its moods relating to various social issues, including reconciliation, and it’s telling that his response was to move away from pushing such policies as part of the Labor platform. They weren’t, to use his term, vote winners.
There is also a view that those Aboriginal people who live within a metropolis such as Sydney are displaced, and therefore do not have special ties there. This view can persist even if the Aboriginal families concerned have been living there longer than the observer’s family. While it is true that an Aboriginal person’s traditional land has fundamental importance, it is also true that post-invasion history and experience have created additional layers of memory and significance that relate to other parts of the country.
If I think of my traditional land, the land of the Kamillaroi, the areas of Lightening Ridge, Brewarrina and Coonamble, I think of Redbank Mission where my grandmother was born, or of Dungalear station, on the road between Walgett and the Ridge, where the Aborigines Protection Board removed her from her family. I remember our elder, Granny Green (my own grandmother’s cousin), taking me and my father across the paddocks and pointing out the spiritual places but also the sites of our more recent history where children were stolen or, as she would tell us in whispers, where massacres had taken place. The ‘traditional’ and the colonial and the present are all a fluid history connected to place and kin in our culture.
And so too, wherever we have lived in urban areas, there is a newer imprint and history, one that is meaningful and creates a sense of belonging within Aboriginal communities that have formed in urban areas. This is a cultural and political history that is implanted in the area where we now live. I live right next door to what was once Australia Hall, the place where the Aborigines Progressive Association organised the ‘Day of Mourning and Protest’ in 1938, a key point in political activism, marking the beginning of our civil rights movement. I also think of places such as the Redfern Medical Centre where important community meetings have taken place. Or South Sydney Leagues Club, which attracted young Aboriginal men from across the state, including my uncle, to come to the city and play football. I think of Redfern Park where I heard the then prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, acknowledge that this is an invaded country.
Another dimension to the cohesiveness of Aboriginal communities in the Sydney area is the tight-knit kinship and family networks that exist there, reinforcing traditional ties. Once a network of clans within the Eora nation, in Sydney now there is a large Aboriginal population (second only to the Northern Territory) that consists of clusters of Aboriginal communities in La Perouse, Redfern, Marrickville, Mount Druitt, Penrith and Cabramatta. Family and kinship networks help tie these separated enclaves together.
One of the consequences of overlooking Indigenous presence and experience is to exclude us from effective participation in civic life, notably social policy-making—whether in areas specifically relating to Aboriginal people themselves or broader collective decisions in areas such as town planning and urban development.
There are some troublemakers …
I am not arguing that Sydney’s dominant population thinks there are no Aboriginal people there, but media attention becomes intense only when there are socioeconomic problems or racial tensions, such as the so-called ‘Redfern Riots’. It is through these images and stories of youths committing violence, engaging in criminal activity and anti-social, self-destructive behaviour that the Indigenous presence often breaks in to the consciousness of Sydney residents.
Little attention, however, is paid to the vibrant and functional Aboriginal communities throughout the metropolitan area. There is no media coverage of the successful—and rather uneventful—day-to-day lives of Aboriginal people that show participation in a broad range of community activities. We do not see stories about the success of Aboriginal women’s legal services, our Indigenous radio service, Gadigal, our child care service, Murawina, or homework centres for our kids after school.
These community-building activities and organisations are hidden by images of out-of-control and violent Aboriginal people who are seen as lawless, without a sense of community responsibility. And through these images, Aboriginal people are seen as a threat to peaceful and cohesive community life within the city. People become fearful of Aboriginal people and see them as a danger to the social fabric rather than as making a contribution to it. These images also reinforce the impression that no cohesive Aboriginal community exists in urban areas, so we once again become invisible.
There does seem to be a greater interest in including Aboriginal people in broader community-building activities involving green spaces within metropolitan or urban centres. For example, in the national parks that surround our city, there are more active initiatives to engage Indigenous people in co-management arrangements, eco-tourism, educational programs about bush tucker and resource management. While not diminishing the importance of this collaboration, it is noticeable that there is a greater willingness to include Aboriginal people in the ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ aspects of planning and land management than in the planning of urban spaces and communities. It is hard to ignore the element of ‘noble savage’ romanticism in this preference for Indigenous involvement with plants, trees and animals over involvement with town planning, infrastructure and housing.
The challenges of recognising Aboriginal urban communities
The romanticism of stagnant stereotypes of Aboriginal people comes at the expense of the social and economic needs of those communities in urban areas. The focus on ‘traditional’ cultural aspects is one that ignores the interweaving of contemporary Aboriginal nations in such areas. While these newer nations, not descended from the ‘traditional owners’, have no right to speak for country, they do, as Aboriginal people with distinct post-invasion experiences, have particular socioeconomic problems that often require special services and targeted policies.
Poorer levels of health, shorter life expectancy and higher mortality rates, lower levels of education, higher levels of unemployment, and serious and increasing levels of over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system are all dimensions of the distinctive needs and circumstances of Aboriginal people in the Sydney area. And it is not surprising that specific services, such as the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service, were first formed in the Redfern area to address the needs of Aboriginal people living there and as a response to the racism that many felt they were experiencing when they did try to gain access to mainstream services.
Yet under the current national arrangements for Indigenous funding, there is an increasing focus on Aboriginal communities in rural and remote areas. This has already meant a redirection of funds away from urban centres such as Sydney. This focus on remote communities has been driven by the findings of the Commonwealth Grants Commission’s 2001 Report on Indigenous Funding. The report identified places of relative need and found that they were predom- inantly in remote areas. No-one would quibble about the needs of people in remote communities, especially those who have seen the level of disadvantage and the social problems up close, but there is just as much need in other Aboriginal communities. Current official estimates of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population indicate that remote communities make up almost a quarter of the total Indigenous population, but how can those other Indigenous communities in places such as Walgett, Framlingham, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney be left out of the account, especially when we consider the poverty in areas such as Mount Druitt and the Redfern Block? It seems an abandonment of responsibility when a government fails to provide adequate resources to address the needs in one type of community because it has a preference for another.
Some of the commissioners themselves were unhappy with the report as a measure of ‘need’ and thought that it would have been better to analyse disadvantage in terms of absolute need rather than relative need. While the report focused on where the greatest need existed, so that limited resources could be shifted there, some believed that the correct process would have been to assess the needs of everyone in rural and urban communities across Australia. It is perhaps easier, politically, to gather support from the broader Australian community for dealing with problems in Aboriginal com- munities where the population looks more like ‘real’ Aborigines, but it is irresponsible—and in the end, bad policy—to ignore the other 76 per cent of the Aboriginal community.
The policy of diverting resources to remote rural communities is also underpinned by the ideology of ‘mainstreaming’—the belief that communities in urban areas in particular should be serviced by mainstream organisations. But policies of ‘mainstreaming’ have generally failed to make any significant difference to lower levels of wealth, health and education, higher levels of unemployment and the poorer standard of housing that Aboriginal communities have experienced. They have also failed to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage, interest in land, and language. And to date they have not enabled Aboriginal people to play the central role in making decisions that have an impact on their families and communities.
The failure of mainstreaming has stemmed from its inability to respond to specific issues that arise in Aboriginal communities in relation to health, education, housing and employment. Mainstream services need to develop special mechanisms and strategies for Aboriginal clients and present resources are insufficient for this. In addition to these challenges, Aboriginal people claim that they are often subjected to racism when dealing with mainstream services. Those claims of racism, particularly in relation to the delivery of health services, were well documented in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and highlighted by the case of Arthur Moffitt, who was found on a train and taken to the police lock-up because he was assumed to be drunk; a diabetic, he was actually suffering from a hyperglycaemic episode and died in custody.
In current mainstreaming policy the focus on projects rather than programs means that policy-makers are primarily engaged with the delivery of project funding rather than developmental programs that invest in people—they focus on short-term outcomes, not long-term need, and they address symptoms, not causes. The focus on projects fits easily within budget cycles, whereas longer-term structural pro- grams require funding commitments over a longer period. The focus on project funding means that organisations are unsure about their future viability. Such policies focus on achievements within the political cycle that will create good news stories and do not look beyond the immediate future. They equate accountability with accounting, progress with funds disbursement. The focus is on money without a complementary focus on social consequences.
This policy environment generates anxiety within community organisations, which become focused on ensuring continued funding (which means activity reporting, accounting, submissions) at the expense of a focus on their core function. Funding of organisations frequently occurs at the level deemed to be required at that particular moment, and while this is understandable when resources are limited and demand is great, it means in effect that organisations are expected to achieve their stated goals with no guarantee of adequate and ongoing funding.
Despite the way parts of the electorate have been seduced by the notions of ‘shared responsibility’ and ‘mutual obligation’ in relation to welfare recipients generally and Aboriginal people in particular, there are certain responsibilities that government cannot abrogate. One of those is basic health services. In a report commissioned by the Australian Medical Association, Access Economics estimated that basic Indigenous health care was underfunded by $750 million, despite budget surpluses that have run to the billions. With such fundamental levels of underfunding, it is not surprising that socioeconomic problems fail to be alleviated and cycles of poverty persist.
Under the current federal arrangements and policy directions, urban Aboriginal communities can anticipate decreases in funding and a push towards the use of mainstream services. There are, however, two mechanisms that could be employed to redress this socio-economic disparity.
The first involves home-ownership schemes. These have been mooted for communal land but there are questions about their viability and effectiveness in places where there is no competitive housing market. The Sydney property market does not have these limitations and could be used as a means to create intergenerational wealth.
The second mechanism involves claims under the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act. This legislation provides for claims over certain areas of crown land, and successful claims can generate wealth for Aboriginal communities.
How would things be different if Aboriginal people were included in the planning process in a more meaningful way? Such ‘cultural’ recognition involves acknowledging coexistence. This recognition manifests itself in acknowledgement of country, respecting the knowledge of elders, using Aboriginal placenames and erecting monuments that acknowledge the post-invasion history of Aboriginal people. Progress on reconciliation has taken place most actively at the local level and many local governments have been exploring these kinds of initiatives as part of an attempt to rethink sharing the country. The flying of Aboriginal flags on municipal buildings represents another attempt to acknowledge this presence and history. Public spaces and art have also been used as ways of recognising shared history and coexistence.
In addition to this, it would be important to include Aboriginal cultural values, values that permeate our contemporary communities, in urban planning processes. At present, plans tend to focus on infrastructure, particularly roads and transport. There are references to public spaces and the environment, the importance of gaining access to employment opportunities and the recognition of diverse modes of housing. But the emphasis tends to be on the bureaucratic rhetoric of economic rationalism rather than on the importance of strengthening community ties and facilitating community obligations, especially to children and to elders.
The values of social responsibility, reciprocity and interaction, of community, kinship and the importance of place, are inherent in Aboriginal culture, while not unique to Aborigines. (Many other demographic groups within Sydney would claim that the importance of family and community was at the heart of their cultural practices.) What increased Aboriginal participation in social policy-making can do is to underline and reinforce the importance of those principles in building a future for all Australians. Such principles are also an abiding reminder of the deeper foundations of our past—the layers beneath the colonial mansion.