Fight shadow bans & SHARE!

It seems to me a great tragedy Australia’s original inhabitants have emerged from the Dream Time only to be ensconced in the “woke” time.

With the Voice referendum fast approaching and the rhetoric from both the Yes camp and the No camp hotting up, I thought it might be wise to take pause and reflect on the development and prosecution of this contentious referendum,

This movement reflects the long, historical development of the relationship between the indigenous inhabitants of this land and those that came later.

The original settlers of Australia (whose later generations we now call indigenous) came from the north and the west in successive migrations tens of millennia ago. If it is true that Europeans were “invaders” of indigenous lands, it is also true that the later waves of migration by those indigenous ancestors were also “invaders’

Australia was geographically isolated. The original inhabitants were largely unbothered by people of other nations except for a few trepang fishers and occasional seafarers looking for treasure or who had inadvertently lost their way. But this was to change in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when European countries sought to expand their colonial empires. The Dutch, in particular showed great interest in the Great Southern Land that they came to call New Holland. By the time of Cook’s so-called “discovery” of Australia, the Dutch had already mapped significant stretches of Australia’s coastline.

When Europeans settled in Australia in the late eighteenth century they had little knowledge of its prior occupants. Some of the Dutch and English seamen who had chanced by the shores of the Great Southern Land had encountered the indigenous inhabitants. Some of those encounters were amiable and some were hostile. But, by and large, coming from a Europe that was just beginning to embrace the Industrial Revolution, confronting a people who were largely naked, knew little of agriculture (despite the later protestations of Bruce Pascoe), and could manufacture nothing more sophisticated than a boomerang or a bark canoe, it was not surprising that they were labelled as “primitive”.

Before European settlement, it is fair to say that Australia was very sparsely populated. Some historians studying the prehistory of Australia have suggested that, at the time of European settlement the indigenous population numbered no more than 300,000. Some favourable environments, for example the northern and eastern coastal margins and the Murray valley, permitted more concentrated populations. The arid interior however could only sustain very low population densities, often as low as one person per 35 square miles (approx. 90 square kilometres).

The descendants of these original Australians would have us believe that these millennia of isolation resulted in the development of a native Nirvana where their descendants lived in joyous abundance, in harmony with Nature and without a care in the world.

They also frequently make the statement that this extended period of isolation resulted in the “longest continuous culture” of any of the world’s peoples. This statement is generally made to instil awe about native Australian indigenous culture.

Survival in the harsh Australian conditions required a much different response to human development than that required to prosper in the temperate climes, fertile lands and generous rainfalls of most European communities. So although they never had the resources or the knowhow to invent the steam engine, the Australian Aborigines had nevertheless adapted to one of the harshest environments on earth and survived, and that, certainly, is no mean feat!

As the wonderful Australian archaeologist and  historian, D J Mulvaney proclaimed:

The dispersal of the Aboriginals throughout this vast land, their responses and adjustments to the challenges of its harsh environment, and their economical utilisation of its niggardly resources, are stimulating testimony to the achievements of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

Estimates vary, but it seems some 300 tribes occupied Australia at the time of European settlement, varying in size from less than a hundred in the most arid regions to several thousand where conditions were more favourable. Their long separation resulted in many languages. (In view of all this it seems somewhat euphemistic to bestow the title of “first nations” on these disparate tribes as some who champion indigenous issues are wont to do.)

Despite the European settlers disparaging the primitiveness of the indigenous inhabitants, they had adapted admirably to their harsh environment and managed to sustain their livelihoods in circumstances that would often prove fatal to the newcomers. And, although not understood by Europeans until a century or more after they first settled in Australia, the indigenous population had devised techniques, including the strategic use of fire, to maintain their environment in a way that enabled them to harvest its resources in a sustainable way.

But if we get back to the question of indigenous culture, there are a couple of things to remember,

Firstly, as we saw before, there were many indigenous tribes , each of which had evolved their own versions of culture, Consequently it is wrong to assume there was merely one, all-encompassing. Indigenous culture whereas there were, in fact, multiple variations.

Secondly, although indigenous culture adequately sustained the original inhabitants of Australia in coping with a subsistence economy in Australia’s harsh landscape, it has not equipped them well to deal with the greater complexity of a modern liberal democracy.

As we shall see later when we come to discuss the Voice referendum, the existence of manifold tribes, each with their peculiar differences, renders it well-nigh impossible to have a body properly equipped to represent their multitudinous points of view. Warren Mundine, the well-respected indigenous man who supports the No case, says that any indigenous member of the Voice can only rightfully speak on behalf of those in his/her own tribe.

But if we return to the question of indigenous culture, any objective assessment of such culture would have us concur that traditional indigenous culture is frequently at odds with the values of a modern liberal society. Indigenous senator, Jacinta Price, has often decried how indigenous culture provides a cover for domestic violence, the promotion of paternalism and the denigration of women. Yet the preservation of such culture is often afforded huge priority and offered as an excuse for indigenous people avoiding the acceptance of conforming to conventional Western norms.

In the twentieth century we saw another influence on indigenous politics that has continued to this day which has adversely coloured the relationship between some indigenous people and the rest of the population. This was the emergence of the notion of indigenous victimhood. A major contribution to this has been the issue of indigenous alienation.

One of the factors that have contributed to this alienation has been the different interpretations of Australia’s early colonial history and how the early European settlers treated the indigenous population. There were no doubt massacres and atrocities committed by both sides. How much the indigenous population suffered as a result is disputed by historians under the general heading of “Frontier Wars”.

An additional factor was the removal of indigenous children or more often part-indigenous children from their families, which intervention has come to be known as “The Stolen Generation”.

All this has resulted in a move to denigrate Australia’s history as being merely a platform for British colonialism and to typify white settlement as being a hostile invasion by vindictive, racist foreigners. Aboriginal activists, encouraged by many in the left, have sought to make the current generation of Australians feel guilty for these historical indignities imposed on indigenous people over the last two centuries. But even worse than this, indigenous people have been encouraged to see themselves as victims of colonisation, so that most of the problems they experience today can somehow be attributed to the historical events experienced by indigenous people in that distant past.

There is little concession of the benefits that European settlement brought even to the indigenous population. The development of democracy, the rule of law, health and education institutions and so on are dismissed without acknowledgment of the benefits provided for all Australians.

Now whilst we must concede that there were some legitimate grievances held by indigenous people regarding their racist treatment, in the second half of the twentieth century major strides were taken to eliminate racism from Australian society. Many indigenous people have prospered as a result.

The referendum of 1967 provided that indigenous people should be counted in the Australian census whereas previously they had not. Whilst Aboriginals had the right to vote by then, voting was not compulsory for them, as it was for other Australians, until 1983.

Whilst indigenous people still faced disadvantages, many were starting to take an important place in Australian society. Neville Bonner became our first indigenous representative in the Federal Parliament in 1973. There have been quite a number since (As I write there are currently 11 people who identify as indigenous in the Parliament). A steady stream of indigenous youth were now entering our universities and graduating taking responsible roles in the professions and in government bureaucracies.

But countering the integration of indigenous peoples into mainstream Australian society was another movement that has set their cause back immeasurably.

Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs was a very distinguished Australian. In 1949, Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley appointed Coombs to be Governor of the Commonwealth Bank.  When later that year Menzies led the conservatives to power, to the surprise of many, he kept Coombs on. In 1960, when the Reserve Bank was created to take on the central banking functions, Menzies appointed Coombs as its first Governor.

Coombs retired from the Public Service in 1968 but maintained an active interest in the Arts and more particularly in Aboriginal Affairs.

Coombs early life was in Western Australia where he had engaged with the Aboriginal community and became concerned for their welfare. This developed into a lifelong passion for him.

In 1968 he was appointed the Chairman of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs which was set up essentially to prosecute the changes which were brought about by the 1967 Referendum mentioned above. He subsequently became a close advisor to Gough Whitlam who was then leading the Labor party. It is said that he essentially wrote the Labor Party’s policy on Aboriginal Affairs which it took to the 1972 election which it won, ensconcing Whitlam as Prime Minister.

Coombs opened the 1968 Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In his speech he assured those present that the Council he chaired would “strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life.” This, obviously, was at odds with the views of the Liberal Country Party Government that was espousing assimilation. Coombs also championed the proposition that indigenous people should be able to be repatriated to their traditional tribal lands. He supported the establishment of remote aboriginal communities and had a romantic notion that they would thrive if allowed to take up more traditional lifestyles.

As a consequence of Coomb’s recommendations the Government of the day facilitated the establishment of remote Aboriginal communities, ostensibly to return indigenous people to their homelands where they were expected to hone a living from traditional foraging and hunting augmented by commerce associated with traditional art and culture and hopefully tourism. The Government provided generous economic support of such communities in anticipation that they would eventually become self-sufficient.

Nugget Coombs championed these remote communities as a vehicle for enabling Indigenous self-determination. (It is difficult not to infer in Coombs philosophy that he had in mind some modern equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage”) Self-determination might be defined as the right of a group of people to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, most of these communities are not sustainable because they don’t provide reasonable economic opportunities. Consequently they contain large numbers of Indigenous people who are doomed to exist on welfare. What’s more their social and cultural mores have declined (as the appalling statistics regarding unemployment, the incidence of domestic violence, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, educational outcomes, rates of suicide and the burgeoning rates of foetal alcohol syndrome will attest). It seems therefore unlikely their circumstances can be improved without again some paternalistic intervention.

In an Australian University working paper in 1979, Coombs proclaimed that the so-called homeland settlements would be “autonomous and self-sufficient economic units”. He proclaimed that “production, including hunting and gathering will be directed to home consumption and the reduction of dependence on imported goods”. Of course he was gravely mistaken and the remote indigenous settlements, rather than economic self-sufficiency, have continued to be a drain on the resources of the Federal Government, and what’s more they have become dysfunctional enclaves which have caused great suffering to indigenous peoples and created many barriers which have prevented them from partaking in the normal lives enjoyed by other Australians.

The separationist philosophy of Coombs was highlighted by his recommendation that the curriculum of the indigenous schools in the remote communities should be restricted to basic literacy and numeracy “to minimise assimilationist influences.”

Following the separatist intervention advised by Nugget Coombs, the issue of Aboriginal land rights came to dominate the domain of indigenous politics. The efforts of the Aboriginal land rights movement culminated in 1992 when the High Court of Australia handed down its decision on the Mabo case. This decision rejected the application of terra nullius upon Australian settlement and recognised that Indigenous people were in possession of a system of laws and practices governing their communities.

Whilst Native Title has provided some Aboriginal communities with a revenue stream from resource companies exploiting mineral deposits in their traditional territories, it has seldom (with a few notable exceptions) led to opportunities to develop economic ventures of their own. And unfortunately, the largesse provided has often been wantonly wasted with those charged with the governance of the distribution of such funds blatantly benefitting themselves and close relatives without being directed to the advancement of their indigenous fellows.

In the last half century, following these events, a huge “Aboriginal industry” has been set up comprising government departments, welfare agencies, not-for-profit organisations, consultants, academics and left-wing opinion leaders all supposedly devoted to aiding indigenous Australians overcome their disadvantage. The most insidious effect of all of this has been to convince many indigenous people that they are victims and that it is somebody else’s (generally the state’s) responsibility to “save”  them. The growing acceptance by so many of our indigenous fellows that they are passive recipients of their own fates with no sense of an internal locus of control has made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Coombs intervention was a major influence against indigenous assimilation and towards indigenous separatism. This act, more than anything we had seen before, encouraged many indigenous people to believe that their wellbeing might be better pursued by standing outside the norms and institutions of Australian mainstream and going  their own way.

This has created a huge divide between these people and their indigenous brothers and sisters who have chosen to embrace mainstream values and societal norms. Indeed there is a very distinct schism between those in the indigenous population who have chosen to integrate into mainstream society and those who haven’t.

The outcomes for the former are similar to most other Australians in terms of health, education and employment. Over the years we have seen increasing numbers of indigenous people graduate from university, enter the professions or find other forms of gainful and well-paid employment. These people live in our cities, suburbs and regional areas and are law abiding citizens and make a worthwhile contribution to our society.

The latter live in dysfunctional communities where (as the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott described) “the children don’t go to school and the adults don’t go to work”. They live in communities rife with domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, major health issues and little respect for the law.

However, under the thrall of the separatism that Coombs promoted they refuse to take any responsibility for the sad state of their lives and instead promote their own victimhood. Trying to appease this disgruntled minority has created its own industry.

For more than a decade, there has been a movement to recognise indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. This has been supported by conservative leaders John Howard and Tony Abbott.(Some also believe that such acknowledgement should also be given to our migrant population, which I must concur makes sense given the strong contribution our immigrant population had made to modern Australia.)

As early as 1995, the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) petitioned the Keating government for constitutional recognition of indigenous people.

In 1999 we had a referendum to consider whether Australia should become a republic. The proposition was rejected by the Australian public. But an ancillary question was asked. It proposed that the preamble to the constitution should be changed to acknowledge the original inhabitants of Australia.

Now it should be noted that, at this stage, all that was envisaged was a change in the preamble to the constitution to recognise the prior inhabitation of Australia by indigenous peoples. This all culminated in 2007 when the Howard government committed to holding a referendum to change the constitution to symbolically recognise indigenous people in the preamble to the constitution.

In 2010 the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, established an expert panel to advise the government on the nature of the changes to the constitution required to give indigenous recognition. In 2012, after extensive consultation the expert panel reported its findings to government. In essence it reported widespread support for the proposal to recognise indigenous peoples in the constitution.

It also recommended that references to race should be removed from the constitution, but then, enigmatically proposed that the constitution should give the government powers to legislate on behalf of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders!

In 2014 a joint select parliamentary committee was formed under the joint leadership of Ken Wyatt and Nova Perris to advance the work of the expert panel. Following this, when Malcolm Turnbull orchestrated a coup to replace Tony Abbott as prime minister in 2015, he in conjunction with opposition leader Bill Shorten, established a Referendum Council to give advice on how the constitution might be modified to give recognition to indigenous people.

Over the next two years the referendum council consulted widely with regional indigenous people on how the constitution might be so modified.

This process culminated in 2017 with the endorsement by the referendum council and many of those they had consulted, of the Uluru Statement. Alarmingly, the referendum council went far beyond its remit to ensconce in the constitution recognition of indigenous people. It also endorsed the notion of creating an indigenous voice to parliament and the facilitation of a process that would lead to the establishment of a Makarrata commission which would subsequently oversee a process of “treaty making and truth telling”.

Turnbull’s initial response was to reject this ambit claim, asserting it would lead to the establishment of a “third chamber of parliament”.

Following this, as always seems the case when governments are concerned but too afraid to say no, another joint select committee was established under the joint leadership of senators Patrick Dodson and Julian Leeser to further progress the work of the referendum council. In 2019, in the coalition’s pre-election budget, money was allocated for a voice co-design process to determine the structure and functions of the voice.

In 2022 Anthony Albanese was elected prime minister of Australia and in his acceptance speech immediately committed to carrying out the recommendations from the Uluru Statement “in full”. This then was not only a commitment to holding a referendum to recognise indigenous Australians in the constitution but also to install an indigenous voice that would have the ability to directly access the legislature and executive government to promote an indigenous point of view on any issue that affected indigenous people (which of course is virtually any issue considered by the federal government).

So in the space of little more than a decade the consideration escalated from being merely recognition (probably in the preamble to the constitution ) of the pre-existence in Australia of indigenous people prior to European settlement to a demand to special access to, and therefore influence on the elected government for indigenous people.

Albanese further promised that there would be a referendum in his first term of government to authorise the appropriate constitutional changes.

When the referendum was first announced polls showed that a considerable majority of Australians would vote in favour of the proposed change. This was because most Australians associated the referendum solely with the recognition of indigenous people in the constitution. It has been evident for some time that Australians support that notion. But unfortunately few were initially aware of the more sinister elements embedded in the voice proposal.

In this respect the referendum proposal was something of a Trojan horse. On the outside it seemed to be a modest proposal to deliver indigenous recognition that was widely supported, but in its belly was hidden special representative privileges based on race and the later prospect of treaties, “truth-telling” and reparations.

In promoting the voice proposal to the masses, Albanese has continued to assert that the proposed constitutional changes are “modest”, On the other hand when speaking to the indigenous activists he has consistently talked up their significance. Moreover, he has claimed that the voice represents a “generous” offer from the indigenous community towards reconciliation. I fail to see that it can be a generous offer when what is being asked is to give indigenous people more rights at the expense of the rest of Australia’s citizens. The generosity proposed here is by the non-indigenous people. Not that I am opposed to that but I doubt it would be acknowledged by many of them who are so attached to victimhood!

(Mind you, it is hard to believe the Prime Minister’s sincerity. He has recently admitted he hasn’t even read the full Uluru Statement document despite his promise to implement it “in full”.)

And of course, I am extremely doubtful that the voice proposal, as outlined in the Uluru Statement, will have any beneficial effects for disadvantaged indigenous people. It seems likely to morph into another expensive bureaucracy seeking to play on the guilt of non-indigenous people to leverage more largesse from the taxpayers and rather than seek to improve the sense of agency of indigenous people, exacerbate their sense of victimhood.

I believe that we have not looked objectively at the issue of indigenous disadvantage.

In the face of the narrative of indigenous victimhood my opinions are likely to be viewed as controversial. But in my mind a lot of the indigenous dysfunction can be laid at the feet of two (related) sources:

  1. The pursuit of separatism.
  2. The glorification of indigenous culture.

As I mentioned earlier, there are substantial numbers of indigenous people who are prospering in Australia. They tend to be those who have integrated well into Australian society. They are employed, send their children to school and accept their responsibilities as Australian citizens and are consequently law-abiding and contribute in positive ways to their communities. This stands in stark contrast to those who have largely opted out of mainstream Australian society and pursued their own perverted interpretation of traditional indigenous life. In facilitating such separatism, however well-intentioned he may have been, “Nugget” Coombs has a lot to answer for. The voice proposal, by dividing us by race in the constitution, aids the separatist movement and is championed by those who want to elevate the status of indigenous people above that of other Australians.

I acknowledged above the role indigenous culture played in ensuring the survival of indigenous people in Australia’s harsh environment but it is patently not suited (or at least parts of it aren’t) to living in a modern liberal democracy. Indigenous culture, certainly as it is demonstrated in many remote communities, seemingly promotes paternalism, subjugation of women and seems to condone domestic violence where the principal victims are women and children. What’s more, there is a tendency to suggest these transgressions of the law of the land should be overlooked because they were culturally driven. This should never be condoned.

But now the political vista seems to have changed. Whilst initially the populace at large seemed to be supportive of the Voice referendum that support continues to wane.

Initially the National Party took what I believed was a principled decision to oppose the Voice outright on the basis that it was undemocratic to allow race-based provisions into our constitution.  Sometime later Peter Dutton announced that the Liberal Party would also oppose the Voice. This energised the No campaign which then began to persuade voters that the Voice referendum could lead to more sinister outcomes than the prime minister would have us believe. In this respect the Trojan horse has been exposed. It now seems more likely that voters will reject the Voice proposal at the referendum and Albanese’s subterfuge of trying to staple to the recognition of indigenous people more disturbing constitutional changes has been exposed to the wider voting public.

History tells us that, when it comes to constitutional change, Australians are inherently conservative. It will be hard for the Yes campaign to regain votes from the No camp now the seeds of doubt have been sown so widely.

Fight shadow bans & SHARE!

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Add your comments below...

You can enjoy more Good Sauce articles and shows by subscribing to the Good Sauce podcast on Apple, Google, Spotify, Amazon and more. Please take a minute to help us reach more people by giving us a 5 star rating and review in Apple Podcasts.

The Coincidence - a novel by Gabriel Moens

Ted Scott AM was awarded an Order of Australia in 2004 for his contribution to industry, and was named one of Australia's top thirty business leaders in 2001 by AFR's BOSS Magazine. He holds degrees in Electrical Engineering and Economics and had a successful career in management in the electricity generation industry in Queensland, managing many power stations. Ted is a writer and the author of several books.

Honest political commentary & analysis

Here is where you'll find quality videos, podcasts & articles from some of the best independent voices in Australian politics and culture. Subscribe to get FREE weekly updates, uncensored, direct to your inbox today.

Success! Please check your inbox in a minute to finalise your subscription.