The Reforming State, the Concerned Public and Indigenous Political Actors

By Rowse, Tim | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2010 | Go to article overview

The Reforming State, the Concerned Public and Indigenous Political Actors


Rowse, Tim, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


To Australian historians and political scientists in the 1950s, Indigenous Australians were not visible as political agents. J.D.B. Miller remarked in the second (1959) edition of his introduction to Australian government and politics: "The smallness of their numbers means that these dark people are not a political force, and are never likely to be one, but the backward state of many of them is often a reproach to white Australians who come across it for the first time. International interest is also embarrassing". (1) That it was fruitful to study "reproach" and "embarrassment" was soon demonstrated by Ted Docker. He argued that "the conditions of Aboriginal life in Australia" were "powerful emotional fare" for newspapers that appealed to "the popular taste for shock and sensation". (2) As a theme cultivated by the press, "relations between whites and aborigines" had the power "of being able instantly to invoke public sentiment for its [i.e. the press's] own purposes", and thus "the social disabilities of the aborigine" had become "a useful weapon in its [the press's] moral armoury". (3) Newspapers, he continued, have a

   vested interest [...] in presenting to the world only one side of
   the aboriginal coin the side depicting the creature who is so
   consistently exploited and persecuted, who is ignored by
   governments and darkly abused by all kinds of unscrupulous
   interests. The other side, showing the aborigine as no pitiful
   caricature of the European, but unrepentantly black and bitterly
   resenting every attempt to make him white, is never publicly
   displayed. (4)

Miller's comment and Docker's characterisation of the press's mode of attention each combine to convey a post-war intellectual structure: while Indigenous Australians were episodically and scandalously visible as people ill-used, they remained habitually invisible as people with a potential for corrective action. With responsibility lying anywhere but on their shoulders, Aborigines were effaced, in this reproachful "structure of feeling", as political actors.

Other writers in the 1960s pointed to the weakness of Indigenous political leadership as a feature of Australia's colonial system. In 1962 Charles Rowley wrote that the exceptional severity of Australia's pattern of "racial exclusion and discrimination" arose partly from Aborigines' lack of "fixed centres of political organisation or potential resistance". (5) Ethnographic writing was then reinforcing this account of Aboriginal civilization as characteristically acephalous and "anarchistic". (6) Rowley's observations were less about "traditional" Aborigines, however, than about their historically re-formed political culture. Aborigines had long adopted a "mask of apathy" in the face of overbearing colonial initiative, he wrote, and they had passively resisted exhortation to model themselves on "the white man". (7) As long as officials wielded arbitrary powers authorised by "vestigial" legislation, assimilation was unlikely to succeed, he suggested. If Aborigines were to adjust to Australian society then, like migrants, they needed the security of being a "social group which is not an embittered minority". (8) As well, they required assurance of their property rights, if they were "to compete for a stake in the Australian economy". (9) Lacking property and pride, Aborigines were expected to subscribe to "the white man's hierarchy of colour as the hierarchy of worth" and to submit to the suppression of what made them culturally different. (10) Acknowledging that "assimilation" nonetheless appealed to some Aborigines, Rowley declined to predict "whether the Aboriginal groups will eventually lose their separate identity". Australians, he continued, were unready to imagine their nation in terms adequate to the "multi-racial" reality of their society. (11) Public policy would take a step towards such realism and towards a renewal of Aboriginal initiative if settlement residents were allowed leasehold and if governments delegated authority to them in the form of elected councils.

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