Inside Story

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Moralising the colonial past

Let’s allow our history to be complicated, argues Tim Rowse in this review of two new books about black–white relations

Tim Rowse 23 June 2011 3210 words

Anthropologist W. Baldwin Spencer, briefly the Commonwealth’s Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Royal Society of Victoria

Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black–White Relations in Australia
By Sarah Maddison | Allen and Unwin | $27.99

The Protectors: A Journey through Whitefella Past
By Stephen Gray | Allen & Unwin | $29.99

The publisher Allen & Unwin has long catered to the persistent public interest, since the 1970s, in Australia’s colonial past. In Sarah Maddison and Stephen Gray it has found two authors who wish not only to know the past but also to live with that knowledge. For both authors, history is a means to moral exploration and growth.

Sarah Maddison exhorts white Australians to do some work on themselves so that they will be open to the healing dialogue that Indigenous Australians may choose to have with them. She does not presume that Indigenous Australians will consent to such a dialogue, and “it is the right of the hurt to not agree to be healed just because we say the time is right.” In any case, in a critical comment on Noel Pearson’s welfare reform proposals, she presents Indigenous Australians as limited in their ability to take responsibility because there is no Constitutional guarantee of their “inherent right to govern themselves.” Nonetheless, in case Indigenous Australians – hurt and weakened – seek dialogue, Maddison urges non-Indigenous Australians to prepare, psychologically and morally, for this arduous task.

Non-Indigenous Australians’ collective guilt comes from acknowledging that colonists treated the colonised according to a “genocidal morality.” Conceding that some Australians (“high identifiers”) believe only positive accounts of Australian history and thus do not experience (or only intermittently experience) collective guilt, Maddison writes that the truth of Australian history warrants that all non-Indigenous Australians should experience collective guilt. Doing so has disposed some to support reconciliation and the apology to the stolen generations. “[T]his guilt we feel is in fact an urge to make things right…”

As she explains at length, though, collective guilt is a tricky emotion, and one of her purposes is to coach her readers on how to experience collective guilt productively. Badly handled, persistent collective guilt will continue to deflect Australians from the path to “justice” – which Maddison sees as the “coexistence” of two peoples in one territory, “recognising each other as distinct and self-governing peoples” and as “the mutual recognition of sovereign peoples.”

Collective guilt – once non-Indigenous Australians have permitted the facts of history to arouse it – is something to “acknowledge,” to “face up to,” to “accept,” to “move beyond” and to work “through” – as a step towards “taking responsibility.” One is able to determine guilt (“our collective guilt is determined by what we do in the present”), but one is unable to terminate it (“it is always with us”). Maddison sees many inappropriate responses to collective guilt. To turn it “inwards” is to be “paralysed and helpless to address the contemporary manifestations of our history”; to turn it outwards may take the form of “anger” at Indigenous Australians’ “failure to grasp the opportunities that colonisation has brought.” Nor should we position Indigenous Australians as our victims. Dealing with guilt can be too focused on “me” or “us,” and there are “too many examples” of people seeking redemption by consuming “Indigenous culture and teaching.”

“Defensive nationalism” is an unhelpful perpetuation of collective guilt. One of its manifestations is the use of the Anzac legend as a positive story of the nation’s foundation, displacing the more truthful national story of “genocide.” “Individual adaptive work” starts with the study of history. Although she eschews the idea that Australians should “agree on one ‘correct’ version of the past,” she seems to admit no doubt that colonisation is a story of genocide – an account about which there are many reasonable doubts.

That is, while there have been church and government programs that correspond to four of the five points in the United Nations definition of genocide, many programs sought to reverse or avert the damage to which those four points refer. A totalising theory of Australian colonial history is obliged to face up both to the strength of humanitarian intentions and to the effectiveness of many of the actions that they have prompted, right up to the present day. In my own teaching and writing, the puzzle of Australia’s colonial history is the heterogeneity of intentions and actions, and part of the drama of our history lies in their fierce contention. But how could I express such doubts about the Genocide Thesis to the implied moral and epistemological authority from which Maddison writes? To any arbitrator of the difference between healing and denying responses to collective guilt, my “yes, but” response could be judged as my unwillingness to “interrogate my whiteness.”

Beyond White Guilt has a tendency to pull you back to the problems of working on the self. While Maddison praises “political engagement” as superior to “personal development,” she is reticent in recommending public policies. Indeed, she seems to suggest that “we are deluded if we think that government or government policy is the problem.” She views as “fake remedies” all the policies and programs to which the words “protection,” “assimilation” and “intervention” refer, and she has little to say about the policy of “self-determination” – perhaps her lack of censure amounts to qualified endorsement – a term that doesn’t appear in the book’s index. While the High Court’s doctrine of native title was promising, she writes, Australian politics and law failed that “litmus test” of Australians’ sense of responsibility. Maddison does not spell out her objections to native title legislation. She mentions a treaty as a good possibility, and she implies that it would perpetuate Indigenous sovereignty rather than extinguish sovereignty on just terms, as the Aboriginal Treaty Committee (1979–83) once envisaged. She sees the state and Commonwealth apologies to the stolen generations as a “first step.”

Constitutional amendment seems Maddison’s most favoured course. She supports a referendum to entrench Indigenous rights of self-government, but admits to doubts about the efficacy of Constitutional reform. In the goodwill expressed in the 1967 referendum she detects the electorate’s belief that by voting for equality of citizenship “non-Indigenous Australians could wipe their hands of the problem.” Before changing the Constitution again, the Australian public would have to do “the underlying adaptive work” that would make them supporters of “meaningful and sustainable” social change. Will the initiative of the Gillard government deliver “merely a statement in a new preamble” or “more meaningful change to the body of the constitution,” she wonders. What might the latter be, this reader asks. Maddison has not made her book an instrument of “community education” about the Constitution.

Maddison’s argument is more moral than political. She positions non-Indigenous Australians as responsible not only for whether they experience collective guilt but also – once collective guilt has been widely achieved through clear-eyed appraisal of the past – for how they respond to it. Her terrain is what she calls “public morality,” which powerfully influences the moral choices of individuals. Indeed, she is among the nation’s most demanding moralists, repeatedly warning her reader that the appropriate responses to guilt will leave non-Indigenous Australians feeling “unsettled” and will “profoundly threaten our sense of who we are and the values we cherish.” She acknowledges that “in each of us there is a psychological need to feel good about ourselves,” but she is suspicious of that need. Pursuit of just resolution “may in fact make us feel less comfortable about ourselves.” Her reassurance of the reader is unsteady. On the one hand, “feeling bad about themselves” is not what non-Indigenous Australians should seek: they could “maintain a positive view of their group while also interrogating their whiteness.” On the other hand, “we cannot feel good about ourselves until we understand why we feel so bad.” And dealing with collective guilt will be “challenging, slow, and ultimately unsettling” as we “surgically extract the coloniser still resident in us all.”

LIKE Maddison, Stephen Gray sees Australia’s colonial history as having inflicted immense suffering on Indigenous Australians. He cites the Australian parliament’s apologies (delivered by prime minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Brendan Nelson in February 2008) as confirming that fact; he also mentions and appears to endorse the verdict “genocide.” He differs from Maddison, however, in working a seam of uncertainty about what she calls “solidarity with the perpetrators of genocidal acts.” One of Maddison’s insights is that our sense of history is made up partly of our cultivated capacity to identify with past actors. On the whole, she is critical of our doing so. She warns that the “past perpetrators” of colonisation are “part of us”: to think otherwise is to “sidestep our collective guilt.” But the guilt of the “original perpetrators” differs from the guilt of “later generations,” in that the latter experience “political” rather than “personal” guilt, and they have the option to break with the genocidal morality that has characterised Australian nationhood, to overcome their nation’s “moral illegitimacy.” In this way, she urges non-Indigenous Australians to “break the bonds of solidarity with the perpetrators of genocidal acts.”

Gray is not sure that the bond of solidarity can or should be broken. He has studied a series of government officials and one minister (“the protectors”) who had charge of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory from late in the nineteenth century until the 1960s. What did they think they were doing, he wonders. One possible meaning of Maddison’s “solidarity” is to understand “the perpetrators” as they saw themselves and, finding them reasonable in their own terms, effectively to forgive them. So when Gray asks, “Do we forgive wherever we understand?” he is more alert than Maddison to the moral complexity of historical inquiry. Indeed, by making an object of his own moral puzzlement, Gray presents himself as a kind of Innocent Abroad (the Past being his Other Country), beguiling the judges of the John Iremonger Award with his amiable narcissism.

It is easier to take Gray as seriously as – in his better moments – he wants to be taken, if we note that the nineteenth-century intellectuals who founded the modern discipline of history also posed his uneasy question. In June 1895 Lord Acton (J.E.E. Dalberg-Acton, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University) devoted part of his inaugural lecture to declaring an ethics of historical curiosity. To understand the ideas informing past actions is not to forgive those who performed them, Acton insisted. The historian is obliged to “try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.” While Acton licensed the historian to judge, he urged the historian also to explore thoroughly the reasoning of even the most obnoxious of past actors, so that “we have made out for our opponents a stronger and more impressive case than they present for themselves.” Combining such impersonal understanding with moral judgement, those who undertake an historical perspective can “look with remorse upon the past, and to the future with assured hope of better things.” Otherwise, “if we lower our standard in History, we cannot uphold it in Church or State.”

Gray’s practice follows Acton’s prescription in one respect (he judges the protectors) but not consistently in the other (his exposition of the protectors’ ideas and their practical effects is patchy). His treatment of W. Baldwin Spencer is an example. Spencer was briefly (in 1912) the Commonwealth’s Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. In his Preliminary Report on the Aboriginals of the Northern Territory (1913) he described the four different conditions of vulnerability under which Aborigines lived at that time – as far as he could tell from Darwin – and he recommended what he believed to be measures to protect them from harm. Gray does not refer to this report, citing other writings by Spencer.

Gray tells us some of what Spencer recommended: reserves for Aborigines, including an urban compound, regulation of their conditions of employment, regulation of their marriages, and authority to take charge of an Aboriginal person’s affairs if that seemed necessary. (Gray does not tell us what abuses Spencer sought to check by using this power: unassisted Aborigines incriminating themselves in court; jailing convicted Aborigines when it would be more humane to hold them in some other kind of restraint.) Spencer’s recommendations, Gray writes, were intended to “prevent the unbridled exploitation of blacks,” including the sexual exploitation of women.

In rural districts, where the state’s authority hardly extended in 1912, the police were all that was available to enforce these “protections.” In Spencer’s view, the missions were an inadequate substitute for state authority, and, writes Gray, he “turned a blind eye to the slave-like conditions on most of the pastoral leases,” ignoring evidence of maltreatment. Gray attributes Spencer’s neglectful approach to the rural districts to his zeal for economic development and to his belief that the “full-bloods” could not be civilised and were “inexorably” becoming extinct. Gray tells us that Spencer veered between deploring this scenario and feeling neutral about it.

Gray’s account seems to me to be short of historical imagination in two respects. First, in the Northern Territory, state capacity was then extremely limited. Gray says nothing of state capacity, but it was demonstrably on Spencer’s mind (see page 17 of his 1913 report) as he considered his recommendations. Second, Gray would have been better to examine Spencer’s reasoning and recommendations in the 1913 report. Spencer did not use the word “inexorable” to describe the decline of the “full-blood” population. On the contrary, he was explicit that there was an alternative to their extermination. Aborigines could be “preserved” and “bettered” if large reserves (a minimum of 7000 square miles out of the Territory’s 523,620 square miles) were set aside for those who had yet little contact with colonists. Spencer also saw reserves as refuges for half-castes. True, he recommended that half-caste children be removed form their Aboriginal mothers and placed on “stations” if they were found living in a “native camp,” where he judged them to be too accessible to exploitive colonists. He recommended that generally the government should allow half-caste children to grow up “on reserves along with the natives, train them in the same schools and encourage them to marry among themselves.” Capable half-castes and Aborigines should be granted land (150 acres), he suggested.

The other figures with whom Gray deals maintained and greatly extended Spencer’s idea of using large reserves in Aborigines’ ancestral country as refuges and places of education. Cecil Cook, Paul Hasluck and Harry Giese were each strong defenders of reserves as devices for controlling alien contact with the least harmed Aboriginal people. Each of them discovered the difficulties of intervening constructively in reserve life to train and employ. Knowing what is best for Indigenous Australians became public policy’s curse, and the timetable by which citizens’ liberty or “self-determination” should displace paternalist authority was disputable. It is still. By the early 1950s, assimilation’s crusader, Hasluck, was projecting that “protection” would eventually become a barrier to Aboriginal advancement, but he was in no doubt as to the need for reserves in the foreseeable future, and this postulate governed senior public servant Giese’s assimilation practice (1955–72). Reserves became Aboriginal land in 1977, when traditional owners were empowered to regulate access for visitors. The right to refuse entry to aliens has recently been fiercely defended by the Northern Territory land councils. Thus Spencer’s 1913 recommendation persisted as the traditional owners’ power to “permit” visitors to Aboriginal land.

THE more sympathetic view of protection that I am urging here arises from my consideration of Noel Pearson’s writing and action.

First, on families and children. To be sure, under the ideals of “protection,” both church and government exercised their responsibility for child welfare in a high-handed and hurtful way, warranting the February 2008 apology. Obligations to Indigenous children continue to be the state’s most difficult area of responsibility. The post-apology alternative is to demand more of Indigenous parents. Pearson presents this pressure on parents – that some critics find so eerily indebted to state and church paternalism – as a means to pre-empt and limit child removal. To intervene in families may thus avoid one kind of censure (children to be left with mother and, if they are lucky, father) only to incur another (parents to be subject to conditional welfare entitlement). The best moment in Gray’s book, in my view, is his report of his conversation with former Northern Territory patrol officer Colin Macleod. Having pondered, in the 1950s, whether and how to intervene in Aboriginal families, Macleod challenges Gray, fifty years later, to do his own reflection. Gray admits to feeling “dazed” by this conversation, and it seems to reinforce rather than to undermine his commendable desire to “humanise and understand the perpetrators” and thus – I would add – to understand the impersonal structures of a colonial state.

Second, on reserves and missions as instruments of control. Pearson (who wrote his honours thesis on the history of Queensland’s Hope Vale mission) has made a point of re-periodising Australia’s colonial history so that we appreciate how recent was the most destructive impact of colonisation. According to Pearson, the most severe damage has been done to Cape York people since 1967 – including during the policy era (from around 1973) known as “self-determination,” when welfare payments became so significant to Aboriginal subsistence. In arguing that view, Pearson draws attention to the neglected economic history of his people. After the colonial disruption of the hunter-gatherer economy, was there an alternative to being dependent on charity, Pearson asks. As it happens, there were two, he writes in Up from the Mission:

Aboriginal society survived where it was isolated from the white economy, on settlements where people could endeavour to provide for themselves with the assistance of missionaries and “protectors” by creating an institutional subsistence economy, or where they could find some more stable place at the lower end of the white economy.

Pearson does not idealise these two paths, but that he has anything good to say about the settlements and missions is enough to question the emphasis that our historiography has given to the illiberality of these institutions. As I understand Pearson, his view of “protection” policy includes the fact that, in important respects, it was protective. Neither Maddison nor Gray considers this view (even if only to refute it). That is a greater failing on Gray’s part, as Pearson’s observations about “protection” in Cape York are relevant to “protection” in the Territory.

As Inga Clendinnen argued in her Quarterly Essay, The History Question: Who Owns the Past?, some years ago, to study the past is, in part, an exercise and development of our moral faculties. For Australians the study of the past is not so much a cognitive necessity (for most of us can function in our jobs and other departments of life without knowing much history) as a virtuous pursuit. This view animates both Maddison and Gray, and I agree with them. But let us allow our history to be complicated. Being “dazed” is but the first step. The history offered in the 2008 parliamentary apologies did not exhaust the ways that we can see the past through Indigenous Australians’ eyes. Part of Pearson’s challenge is to come to terms with what Indigenous Australians say to us not only about their suffering but also about their survival, at the hands of colonising power. •

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Above: Police dispose of grog seized from Alice Springs town camps in 2009. The ban on drinking in town camps is now being wound back.
Photo: Alice Springs News archive