The Attack on Invasion Day
On January 27 in a blustering outburst, light entertainment and infomercial host Kerri-Anne Kennerley, made a number of sweeping claims in response to the Australia Day protests, which were held around the Country on January 26. In her attack, Kennerley centered her energies on berating those who chose to participate.
“Have any one of them, been out to the Outback, where children, babies, 5 year olds, are being raped, their mothers are being raped, their sisters are being raped, they get no education – what have you done? Zippo.”
There are so many things wrong with this statement, that it beggars belief that it could have been made by someone who is regularly afforded the privilege of being able to share their views on national television let alone in any form of broadcast where their extreme views might come to infect someone.
When one makes statements about an individual, community, or in this case a large number of distinct communities, who each have a range of different challenges, as well as successes to consider, it’s usually a good idea to have some knowledge of those communities.
As an Aboriginal person who comes from a remote community, let me set something straight. Most Aboriginal people do not live in remote communities. Most of us do not live in the Northern Territory. You do not need to go to the Outback to see the failures of successive governments on display in a remote community. You can find that in Australia’s most populous state, a full day’s drive from anything even remotely looking like a desert. Not only do I come from a remote community, where I have memories of family having dirt floors in the 1980’s, and where in some places plumbing is still unconnected, I am also a person who cares significantly about the Australia Day debate. A debate which stretches all the way back to 1938, when my grandfather pondered the same sorts of challenges I am writing of now.
Jack Patten was president and co-founder of the Aborigines Progressive Association. He was the founder, editor, and primary author of the first Aboriginal newspaper, led 200 of his community members in mass protest and exodus at Cummeragunja, against the same sorts of atrocious conditions some Aboriginal communities are still being burdened with today. He protested the persecution of Jewish people during Kristallnacht and he still had time to discuss the pain inflicted upon us on January 26. No, we do not have to choose. We do not have to limit ourselves to fighting for what’s right on just one front. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t lash out. That discomfort needs to be examined and fully addressed.
Caring about the suffering of human beings is vital, but it’s not a choice. It matters. All of it does. Whether it’s Australia Day, the mistreatment of refugees, or the lack of care shown to our brothers and sisters in West Papua. I cannot emphasise this enough – it matters. All of it does. I’ll say it time and time again, because it really seems that the media in this country is hell bent on making us choose, if only to propagate alternate views and proffer straw men.
Small actions are important. Those who marched on January 26 and many more thousands who couldn’t, care greatly for justice. Part of that is seeing Australia Day become something that appropriately reflects who we are as a nation, on a day that isn’t reflective of any part of our history based in 1788. As someone who is also a direct descendant of many convicts (nine), as well as free settler-invaders, I value their history, the challenges they experienced, as well as their trauma. However, their history is no more important, or less important than the history and experiences of Australia’s First Peoples. I will not celebrate a date that is tied to when my First Fleet ancestor’s prison is inaccurately said to have opened, any more than I would crack a beer on the date that is synonymous with the beginning of generation after generation of suffering, which is still on-going, and which Kerri Anne Kennerley is giving oxygen to. My convict ancestors deserve better. My Koori ancestors deserve better. We all do.
It’s important to understand that having any sort of comprehension of the diversity of the group of Australians for whom one might chose to attack, would also be a practical and beneficial in giving any rant against their actions some weight. But that hasn’t happened. Neither Kerri Anne, or her colleague, Joe Hilderbrand have offered much by the way of fact, or direct, meaningful conversation.
A significant percentage of those who participated in Invasion Day rallies around Australia are members of First Peoples communities. We come from distinct Nations, with cultures at one end of the continent being as alien to us as the cultures belonging to a person from any part of Asia, Europe, Africa or the Americas. We are distinct, we are working to make our own communities better, and despite how much work we already have on our plates, and how much damage we must work to undo, many of us are working to make matters better on a larger, state or national scale, despite those significant cultural differences and unique challenges.
More to the point, Kerri Anne’s words imply that Aboriginal people outside of remote communities aren’t doing anything, or that we don’t care that abuse is taking place. This is both reckless and cruel, not to mention patently ludicrous. It single handedly dismisses anything positive generated by 750,000 Aboriginal people. Particularly, it dismisses those protests led by Koori people in Victoria and New South Wales which represent a continuation of action, which we have been at forefront of, throughout our 230 years of shared history. If it wasn’t for the likes of Simon Wonga, Fred Maynard, Pearl Gibbs, Tom Foster, Geraldine Briggs, or Bill Onus protesting and creating new initiatives, we wouldn’t have seen the next generations inspired to create legal and social structures and enterprises, in the face of generation after generation of dismissive “it’s all too hard” blow hards who have shadowed us at every step of the journey to self maintenance and community development. Every Aboriginal lawyer, doctor, labourer or ditch digger is playing their part, in sharing their voice. Whether the naysayers appreciate that or not, it’s how they affect those around them that will continue as it always has, to slowly erode ignorance, changing things for the better.
Is there significant abuse to be found in Indigenous communities? Yes. Is it to the degree that is typically reported in in the national media? No. But, that really isn’t a point to be argued. The fact is, Kerri Anne Kennerley is correct in this part of her assertion. There is significant, ongoing abuses being perpetrated against Aboriginal children and women, and let us not forget – against Aboriginal men as well. These are acts of violence being perpetrated by Aboriginal men and to a very large degree – non Indigenous men as well. This is not an Indigenous specific problem, it is not a remote community problem, and it is one which relates to our country as a whole. In a 2013 study it was estimated that 42% of rapes perpetrated against Aboriginal women were carried out by non-Indigenous men.
KAK is right to draw attention to what are major challenges for all of Australia to grapple with. However, the issue here is that it’s been done in a manner which allows for the trivialisation of the very real concerns of a significant number of Australians, both black and white, in their hopes for a change to the date on which Australia Day is celebrated.
Perhaps Kerri Anne isn’t aware, but most people are pretty good at multitasking. It’s possible to show and afford support for more than a single issue of significance at any given time. It’s part of being a responsible adult.
Many of those who protested on January 26 would be very supportive of new initiatives to enable positive change in Aboriginal communities where abuse is a significant factor in day to day life. The vast majority of them however, just like Kerri Anne, would lack the expertise to viably contribute to real world change. Unlike Kerri Anne however, whose financial capacity would contribute significantly to positive change, if it were offered, the majority do not share such a lofty position.
When a rich woman in a position of privilege thinks to profess a passion for the struggles of others, whilst attacking those who have voiced their concerns regarding a whole other subject matter, simply because of the race which connects them, there’s a word for that.
What remote communities need is financial resources, not more unpaid, unskilled people, whether rich or poor, flying in, sometimes with a white-saviour complex, wafting around for a few days or weeks, before returning home with a bag full of stories to entertain their friends.
Following Kerri Anne’s first up efforts, she doubled down the next day, unapologetic and angry. The only problem as she saw it was that she had been branded a racist, deciding that the term didn’t fit, simply because Kerri Anne applied the narrowest possible definition she could find, relating only to superiority. The fact is, most racists don’t know that they are in fact racist. They don’t mean to oppress others, it is a side effect of their actions, to which they aren’t concerned about, treating it as irrelevant. Whether or not Kerri Anne is, or believes she is a racist, what she said is rather ignorant, and why she said it is inexcusable. So is the fact that her final word on the matter was to bastardise a powerful phrase which relates to black pride, land rights and the fight for civil liberties in this Country. It doesn’t help.
Always was, always will be, Aboriginal Land.
Whilst Kerri Anne has been busy hurling abuse at socially aware and active citizens, why hasn’t she and others in a position of influence called into question the lack of progress being made by successive governments? It’s ridiculous for her to have stated “they get no education”, when it’s the responsibility of the states and territories, rather than the communities alone. But it does highlight how a lot more can be done in this key area, if done in partnership with communities, rather than over the top of them, using an alien pedagogy, discounting culture as a tool for enhancing education outcomes.
If change is to happen, at a rate which is reflective of the urgency of the physical and mental issues affecting our communities, the media and government need to start listening, and not just to those who agree with them.
But having scrutinised Kerri Anne’s words, she isn’t alone in her flailing logic and subterfuge. Sitting on a panel as she was with a News Ltd employee, an organisation which determines for the mainstream of Australia who is and isn’t an “Aboriginal leader”, invariably situated on the right side of the political spectrum, there was never any doubt that more would be forthcoming from Joe Hildebrand.
On January 30, Hildebrand offered his thoughts on Australia Day, the “history wars”, and his own rather defeatist approach to history, which amounts to little more than a view that states every land on Earth has been invaded multiple times over, it’s all too hard to worry about reparations, or caring, so why start now? He does this by using Rome and England as examples, focusing on wave after wave of invasion, with each having occurred well over one thousand years ago. What these examples do is show just how out of touch Hildebrand is, in that these examples act as a buffer to his coming to terms with real, ongoing trauma and the suffering still being experienced by Aboriginal people who are alive today.
It’s very easy to speak of the invasion of ancient Celtic kingdoms, but to not even be aware or expect that successive waves of brutality visited upon such kingdoms would have wrought significant inter-generational trauma, or to be so inert in one’s appreciation of the complicated nature of history, simply because we are distanced by an ocean and 1,000-3,000 years, shows us the danger of why simply accepting history books written by the “victors” is a danger to us all. History is a tool to be scrutinised. Only by interrogating the past, the journeys of our forebears and the many views that contribute to our understanding of it can we appreciate how we came who we are today, and who we will be tomorrow.
Far too often, Aboriginal people are asked to leave the past behind. We are told point blank to “get over it”, as though we aren’t currently living through some of the actions we’ve been speaking of. We are dismissed as whingers, whose very real pain isn’t worth worrying about, because it’s not something that affects those callous enough to tell us to shut up. Often, those that shout loudest about our experiences are those who are the most vociferous every year come April 25th. “Lest we forget” is a sentiment I proudly agree to. But lest we forget those who died in conflict with invaders on this soil? Nah, too hard. Keep quiet and be thankful for all that white man gave us. Never mind that it’s not white man who gave it, but the cultures of the entire world. Credit where credit is due. Let’s be accurate. Let’s be honest.
Hildebrand went on in his article to speak of what he terms “colonists”, and absolving those aboard the “First Fleet” of any part in an invasion. He attempted to do this with a logic that points to the ignorance of the invaders as being justification, despite the fact that the coming of the First Fleet was a military exercise, supported by four full companies of marines, comprising 213 men. When Watkin Tench wrote of “taking possession of this new territory” and “bringing about an intercourse between its old and new masters”, he like everyone else in that fleet of 11 vessels knew what was to unfold, whether the locals accepted it, or not. Rabbiting on about how nice Arthur Phillip was to the Gadigal and other mobs, in not murdering anyone when invading their lands, that too was offered up as proof that it wasn’t an invasion. That’s a long bow to pull.
“Anyone who defines this as an act of war or invasion has either no knowledge of history or no knowledge of what such words mean.”
Cambridge dictionary offers three meanings for “invasion”.
- an occasion when an army or country uses force to enter and take control of another country
- an occasion when a large number of people or things come to a place in an annoying and unwanted way
- an action or process that affects someone’s life in an unpleasant and unwanted way
If not happy with Cambridge, we might look to another shade of blue and look to Oxford instead, on its definition of “invasion”.
- An instance of invading a country or region with an armed force.
- An incursion by a large number of people or things into a place or sphere of activity.
- An unwelcome intrusion into another’s domain.
For those playing at home, the same complete lack of success applies to Hildebrand’s understanding of what war is as well.
Continuing on with the same theme, Hildebrand then offered this: “there was never an intent to “invade” them, nor a deliberate campaign of genocide.”
It’s not about intent. It’s the nature of what actually unfolded. It was an invasion. Genocide, according to all definitions is part of our land’s history. One need only look to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the definitions available in Article II:
“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring
- about its physical destruction in whole or in part
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Revisiting an earlier point, even Hildebrand’s attempt to address the ability of people to care about more than one subject at any given time is dismissed without empathy. He wrote:
“Frankly, it appears we can’t. I am all for the power of symbolism but when symbolism changes nothing but the symbol itself then it has no power at all.”
That is precisely what someone who sits on the periphery, without any connection to an Indigenous community would say. It’s a kind of laziness which is excused all too readily but those who simply don’t know anyone being affected, or are unwilling to be engaged, or hear anyone other than those who agree with their uninformed views. Symbols are very important to people. They give weight to our hopes and ideals, they make us feel good about ourselves and help give us courage for the next step. Whether it’s a lack of ability to comprehend that an apology to the Stolen Generations is in fact more than a symbolic gesture, or an attempt to create subterfuge once again, I do wonder – if Joe Hildebrand was to sit with my father, or his five sisters before each of the five had passed on, that he might characterise their relief, the lifting of pain, and their ability to process with some warmth an apology for their suffering, coming from those whose antecedents carried out their removal from their mother, how little he might feel for them?
Kevin Rudd’s apology had real world benefits. Sometimes creating positives for people isn’t initially quantifiable by statistics, but if working in education has taught me anything, self belief and pride in cultural connections are significant factors in creating positive outcomes in Indigenous education.
As to being a “card carrying supporter of constitutional recognition”, well, big surprise! So is every mining magnate! They throw huge amounts of money at it, rather than at enabling communities through self determination. Very few Aboriginal people support consitutional recognition, which is a stance that is very rarely given any notice by the mainstream media. Perhaps it’s time the mainstream started to ask the question, why?
Hildebrand’s article was followed up on February 9 with a second effort, where he launched into a rather comically inept piece of drivel, in which he played the victim after he was called out on his commentary. He started off by making a rather significant error, labeling prior events as an “Australia Day race debate”. But it really isn’t. It’s not a debate on race, even if there was an attempt to swing it in that direction. It’s a debate on history; verifiable, quantifiable, reliable yet multidimensional history, versus white fragility.
I have a lot of respect for the University of Melbourne, and I value the organisation’s ability to impart upon its student body a decent education, but an Arts degree with a Major in History will not qualify you as any sort of expert on either Aboriginal history or any of the many distinct cultures that make up our First Peoples’ story. Specifically, whilst a degree will equip a person with a somewhat clear understanding of past government policy, more poignantly what it won’t show is how that history actually played out.
Hildebrand also responded on Twitter:
”No, the view was that Aboriginal people were going to die out unless they were assimilated into the general population, which is why so many were forcibly removed..”
Sure, a few semesters relating to Aboriginal history might teach you that, but then that’s only half of the story. Missionaries, who worked on a much smaller scale than the government, took children away for such reasons, although in many cases they took the entire family, because they were genuine in their beliefs, however misguided. Government on the other hand peddled the same line, that it was in the children’s best interests to be removed from their families, but this simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. In many instances these supposedly malnourished, neglected relics of a dying people were taken into state care, only when they were of an age which had value to the upper middle class urban families they would eventually be placed with. The most vulnerable and at risk children, the infants, were often left with their families. No, the writing on the bottle most certainly does not match the content. Children were removed primarily for their prospective abilities as domestic servants and farm labourers, in what amounts to little more than a government fostered slavery program.
“They actually thought they were rescuing these kids.”
No, they knew exactly what they were doing. The suffering of the children however was seen as secondary. It was collateral damage, which was seen as justifiable. There were people who quit their jobs, having been required to be party to the removal of children, having realised the horrors they were contributing to. When you delve into the protection records and find accounts of people having their rations taken away, because they were found to be pregnant, or denied any opportunity to see their children, despite already being in care, no it wasn’t all altruistic. These were policies built on lies.
Feeding other people’s ignorance is a serious problem which emerges when conversations focused on Aboriginal people exclude Aboriginal people. Privilege allows for it, and white fragility maintains it. When it all inevitably goes pear shaped, because those with cataracts are leading the blind, the fallback is often to send in the “Aboriginal leaders”, who were prepared off-screen, earlier. Never mind that it would be a struggle to find more than a few hundred Aboriginal people in all of Australia who would agree with the politics of Jacinta or Bess Price, Anthony Dillon, or Warren Mundine. They are hand selected, because they are agreeable and inoffensive to the conservative side of the political spectrum. They say what many want to hear. They just don’t represent the overwhelming feeling and passion of 750,000 First Peoples’. When the media continues to go to these few for their views it shows a clear and distinct agenda.
Despite the label, these are not our leaders. Australia hasn’t seen an Aboriginal leader on a national stage, with national support, since Charles Perkins, Chicka Dixon and Gary Foley. We have among us many thousands of people who are doing great work at a local community level, or state level, and those who are growing in their abilities, sometimes making mistakes, but making more gains. When was the last time Lyall Munro Jnr was interviewed on Aboriginal advancement, Badger Bates on anything other than water, or Lois Peeler was sought for her thoughts on education? These are among our senior community leaders in the south east of the continent, and those who have learnt from them will be among our national leaders of the future. Instead of speaking with them, you ambush them, as was done to Lydia Thorpe (A Gunnai-Kurnai & Gunditjmara woman and former MP in the Victorian parliament). Fortunately, she’ll learn from the experience, as will others watching.
If anything Hildebrand is right about one thing. We are experiencing the death of truth. It isn’t deliberate, but the facts certainly do appear elusive in mainstream Australia.
Note: This article represents the lived experiences of one Koori man. I do not speak in relation to local leadership as exists in areas outside of South Eastern Australia, as is the focus of this website. I acknowledge that there are people making a stand for their communities in every state and territory, whose contributions I afford the greatest respect. The onus is not on Aboriginal people, wherever we may live to understand and speak on behalf of all 750,000 of us. We are diverse, we are not a monoculture, despite being presented as such by the media.