Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Things I'd Forgotten

A recent Facebook post from my nephew who works with indigenous communities in the NT revived some long dormant memories. He was pictured surrounded by a group of local women sitting around a table decorated with aboriginal motifs.

This reminded me of a painting which a similar group of wise women presented to me when I left Mount Isa in 1996 after working in Indigenous Education out there for four years.

These women taught me so much. They were part of what was called the NATSIEP* advisory committee for North-West region. It was my job, as secretary of the committee, to convene meetings on behalf of the Regional Executive Director, assist them in allocating funding support on the basis of submissions from schools, and ensure the business of the meetings was conducted properly, and the necessary follow-up occurred. This follow-up comprised school projects designed to meet the 21 goals of NATSIEP.

I had to learn on the job. I became familiar with all the communities (Birdsville, Bedourie, Boulia, Urandangi, Dajarra, Camooweal and Mt Isa itself). I shared their dreams, frustrations and aspirations for the children in these schools, and travelled literally thousands of kilometres with them on the way to and from meetings and school visits.

We stayed overnight in various basic accommodation (usually bush pubs) and shared meals and talk before and after the meetings. We didn’t share any drinks – they were all teetotal.

On the long car journeys they’d talk about their work, families and experiences. Almost all of them had lived hard, demanding lives in harsh conditions and without the material benefits that I had become used to.

Without exception, they were giving their time and energy for their people, and their passion for improving the lot of the children in their communities was strong. They didn’t always agree with me, or understand the bureaucratic restrictions I had to work under, but we could have a stoush and remain good friends. I don’t remember developing such a strong respect for any group I’ve worked with anywhere else in the forty years I was with the department.

For me, the sad part was that they were all women – the men from the communities, for a range of reasons, were never to be seen. Their women made up for it. Listening to their stories of abandonment, loss and deprivation sometimes made me angry.

Lately, this anger returned when I watched the reactions of a few conservative commentators who made big fellows of themselves around the time of the apology by denying that any children were ever stolen.

The contrast between the spite and cant of those commentators and the grace and dignity of these women is stark.

Thanks for reminding me, Nick.

* National Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Education Policy

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

We've Changed

It might be interesting to compare how refugee boat arrivals were reported back in the eighties and how this has changed since the Tampa incident in 2001.

The picture is from a collection in the State Library of South Australia. It shows a headline from The News reporting on a possible influx of people on boats from Vietnam. Imagine the headlines if the major dailies got wind of 40 boats on the way these days. There'd be more than "Govt Concern". We'd have macho posturing, opinion pieces about terror threats and the words "hard" and "soft" would be used often and with intent.

There's a strong contrast between the tone and language of reports from this era with what we are seeing now. In the seventies and eighties the emphasis is on the plight of the refugees, and the perils they faced on their journey. Most of the reporting is sympathetic and there is very little of it that gives the impression that they were seen as a threat. The concern was more about Australia’s capacity to manage them.

Of course, back then the approach was essentially bi-partisan, which is particularly interesting, given the state of the relationship between the two sides of politics after the Dismissal.

Obviously, there has been a major change in perceptions.

I’d venture to suggest that it may have a lot to do with the actions of John Howard at the time of the rescue of a boatload of refugees by the MV Tampa in August 2001.

Howard very skilfully harnessed fear of terrorists as a political weapon, and the timing of the 9/11 attacks, shortly after this incident drove the issue to a point where it had a major influence of the 2001 federal poll. Howard quite cynically used the issue to present his government as protecting Australians from unspecified threats from the North.

This cut deeply into the Australian psyche, and left scars that will take a long time to heal.

It’s sad, really, because part of what makes us Australian is our easy-going tolerance of people, especially those in need, and our capacity, demonstrated over the years to welcome and assimilate new arrivals.

Howard created a monster back in 2001.I hope I live long enough to see it consigned to history.

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