Tony and the Whitewash


Taking a break from the Next Big Thing to share this article, which was published today on Cheers.
Tony Abbott should have had a pretty good week last week; by rights; he probably thinks he has. He was handed the date of the next federal election on a platter by a Prime Minister who desperately needs to claw back some ground in the polls, and who (by announcing the election date) has given the Coalition a fairly sound opportunity to verify its policy and fiscal credentials over the next two hundred days. There’s a better than even chance that Abbott may be our next Prime Minister, although a lot can happen in seven months. However, comments made by him on Australia Day, during a speech delivered in Adelaide, should give people cause for considerable concern in the event that we wake up on September 15th with a new occupant in the Lodge.

These comments have not, to my knowledge, been reported at all in the media, apart from a brief mention on, which is where I happened to read them. This is the extract from Abbott’s speech, quoted verbatim on Crikey yesterday:

It is a proud people that you are joining. We had inauspicious beginnings. The first lot of Australians were chosen by the finest judges in England, not always for good reasons, and from that rather inauspicious beginning we have become a rich, a free and a fair society …

I don’t know the context in which the speech was delivered; it sounds like it was possibly a citizenship ceremony, or something similar. Those circumstances are not particularly important. For my purposes with this little article, the first half of the third and final sentence is the important bit.

Abbott is someone who often seeks to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’. He is a volunteer firefighter; Christopher Pyne puffed his chest out last year and reported that his leader had recently helped a blind man run in a Marathon. In 2009, he spent time in the remote indigenous community of Aurukun and helped with several community services. Part of his public appeal strategy, it seems, is to roll the sleeves up, set his face to Concentrate and muck in. Perhaps he is no different from other politicians in this respect; they want to remain ‘in touch’ with their electorate. Or so the reasonably simple orthodoxy goes.

This makes it very hard, indeed perhaps impossible, to place his comments above into any kind of helpful context. An enlightened, educated person living in Australia in 2013 must have considerable difficulty ascribing to the view that ‘the first Australians’ to arrive on the land of this country were convicts. Such a view flies in the face of decades of widely reported archaeological findings, of decades of reconciliation initiatives, of matters that are considered in historical archives to be factually accurate. This is notwithstanding that the term ‘Australian’ is itself a European appellation, drawn from Latin; I concede this and use the term here purely for convenience. The first occupants of our country would not have known this name and convicts transported here were not referred to as such either.

So, although very few people seem to know about it, Abbott has commenced his genuine bid for the Lodge from a very difficult position. Perhaps he is genuine about the very serious and pervasive issue of indigenous welfare, if we take his visits to remote communities as an effort on his part to inform himself about the ‘on the ground’ issues. (And if he is genuine, this will mark a pleasant change in Coalition values from his predecessor, who did next to nothing about the issue in eleven years as Prime Minister; the Intervention arguably had some merits although it came very late in Howard’s term, was wildly unpopular among many indigenous communities and could be considered a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem the then Government had hitherto ignored.)

Abbott may well believe that Australian history begins in January 1788—this would seem to be a fair conclusion to draw from his comments, which also reinforce the notion that celebrating our “national day” on the 26th of January is inherently problematic; but that’s another story. Perhaps there are Australians who listen and nod appreciatively when he says such things—this is their right and I am not here to argue otherwise. But I am here to say categorically that Abbott is wrong, and that his comments are insulting and ignorant. They smack of the ‘dog whistle’ that John Howard liked to blow.

Put another way: given the strength and diversity of evidence available, it seems reasonable to conclude in our high school history classes that human beings occupied the land that we now know as Australia anything up to 60,000 years ago, possibly longer. Further, that explorers and traders visited this land and interacted with indigenous groups anything up to 300 years, and possibly before then, prior to 1788. So who does a reasonably articulate and well informed student sitting in a high school history class who researches this and forms well-based conclusions, and then hears the Leader of the Opposition completely erase tens of thousands of years of existence with a single sentence, believe? Their teacher, or the Honourable Member?

Statements such as those he made in Adelaide render Abbott’s position inconsistent, at best, and at worst incorrigibly racist. His inconsistency is something we are well used to; his position on climate change, to give but one example, has been especially adaptable to any given audience. This aside, though, it’s often very difficult to know exactly where the potential Prime Minister stands on important issues. I consider that the indigenous heritage of this country is a fairly important issue. If Tony Abbott is posing for photographs with indigenous schoolchildren while helping them in their classrooms on one hand, and completely refusing to acknowledge their cultural heritage or identity on the other, then he’s taken the Aussie tradition of having two bob each way to a discomforting alarming extreme.

At a time when he will be desperate to demonstrate inclusivity and fairness, when he will hope that all Australians consider him in a favourable enough light to let him switch sides of the House of Representatives, this is a terrible attitude to demonstrate. His comments belong in the Australia that existed prior to 1967, when our sable brethren were preferably seen but not heard. That Australia, really, no longer exists. Someone should let Tony Abbott know, and well before September 14.



Cameron Hindrum lives and writes in Launceston. His novel The Blue Cathedral (Forty South Books) was published in 2011 and his two-volume chapbook of poems, Private Conversations Volumes 1 & 2, appeared in 2012, published by Another Lost Shark and Walleah Press respectively.

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