No easy answers to Australia’s Aboriginals debates

Is it patronising or appropriate of the government to nudge indigenous people out of alcoholism and into jobs?

At a dinner party in Sydney, I inadvertently stumbled on to controversial territory and nearly got thrown out by the host.

I was ranting about the shocking disparity in Australia between indigenous (Aboriginal) people and everybody else.

On average, Aboriginal Australians die 10 years younger than everybody else, I pointed out. They are far more likely to be jail; far less likely to be in work.

Casual racism against them seemed, I said, ingrained in Australian society.

White settlers had come into Australia and massacred thousands of black people already here.

They’d then tried to breed out the Aboriginal from the rest. In the 1950s and 1960s Aboriginal children were “stolen” from their parents by the government.

Australia’s indigenous ask for compensation for lost wages

Aboriginal people only got full rights to vote in 1967.

All of this was recent; an ongoing sore. Even today, I said, how insensitive to have Australia Day “celebrated” on January 26, the anniversary of the day white settlers first arrived; a day Aboriginal people commemorate as Invasion Day?

Every non-Aboriginal person, I finished with a flourish, had a duty to feel guilty.

I was among friends and, I assumed – people who felt similarly. I was wrong.

My host – who had been listening and, it turned out, seething – roared.

What did I know – an Englishman who had only been in Australia a couple of years?

How dare I suggest Australians should feel guilt? He’d been born in Australia; he was just as “indigenous” as any Aboriginal person, and had as much right to be here as anyone.

Australia’s Aborigines weren’t the only ones to be conquered by people from elsewhere. In Europe, ancestors of Romans aren’t expected to feel guilt or repent for the sins of distant, dead relatives.

So why should he? White Americans aren’t constantly harangued about the harm done to American Indians when their ancestors travelled west from Boston. Why should white Australians be ashamed?

READ MORE: Does Australia have a racism problem?

The explosion subsided. Sitting in his home, eating his food, I said I saw what my friend was saying.

We are still friends today. But, for a moment, it was a close-run thing. Inadvertently, I’d hit a very raw nerve.

But the conversation, or argument, has stayed with me ever since. With every story I have written about indigenous affairs, it has been in the back of my mind.

Because – and here’s the thing – when I said that night I saw what he was saying, I wasn’t lying. I did.

I still do.

Stories on Aborigines 

I’m just back from the northwest of Australia, a sparsely populated, fiercely hot part of the country called The Kimberley.

There I shot various stories. One was about now elderly Aboriginal farm workers who – until the 1960s – had their wages withheld because they weren’t deemed responsible enough to handle money.

Even my friend wouldn’t argue with the injustice of that.

But what of my second story about the introduction of government debit cards loaded with government payments which can be used anywhere – except to withdraw cash, gamble or buy alcohol?

Is that patronising and racist policy, as many Aboriginal people claim? Or an appropriate way to nudge Aboriginal people out of alcoholism and into jobs?

Inside Story: Accusations of racism in Australian football

How about the potential closure of remote Aboriginal communities, which is to be covered in a forthcoming story?

Is it fair that – as a cost-saving measure for government – Aboriginal people may be denied the right to live on their traditional land?

The instinctive “left-of-centre” response to both those controversies is to side with Aboriginal people, as victims of ongoing white oppression. But is it that simple?

In the UK, “indigenous” people are Anglo-Saxon – white.

Even though some of the white working class have high unemployment levels and poor levels of health, their problems are not seen through the prism of race.

People don’t generally rally to “indigenous” Britons in the way they do to indigenous Australians.

Few support, for example, affirmative action for Britain’s white underclass; if the government withdraws a benefit, it’s not decried as racist.

As for the ancestors of [white] settlers needing to feel guilt about coming to Australia: by that logic, shouldn’t descendants of more recent immigrants – Greeks or Lebanese economic migrants, or refugees from Afghanistan, Syria or Iran – also feel ashamed?

Yet the same Australians who would describe themselves as advocates for indigenous Australians are the most fiercely supportive of [new] immigrants and their entitlements.

In today’s Australia there are rallies in support of today’s boat people, but – implicitly – against the boat people of the 18th century.

I can see how many find that contradictory.

Source: Al Jazeera