Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Racism - a Family Perspective

The usual conflict entrepreneurs are exploiting the Adam Goodes controversy for all it's worth. They're driven by the adage - Never let an opportunity to sell a paper or attract a mouse click go by. There's a dollar in it, dontcha know........

The fact that there are real live human beings on the receiving end of it all - whether a thirteen year-old and her family, or a champion footballer; makes no difference.

They're simply expendable sacrifices on the altar of media banality.

The controversy made me consider my experiences of racism, as I've lived and worked in a wide range of communities in metropolitan, regional and remote Queensland.

I was brought up in North Queensland, and one of my earliest memories of my mother (a teacher) was when she donated a set of my clothing, including some treasured shoes, to an aboriginal lad in her class (at Carmila) who was doing it tough. He was about my size, and the clothes fitted him well, as did the shoes. Shoes were a big deal in those days, as we went to school barefoot, and the shoes were Sunday best. I was more than a little miffed.

Mum was colour blind. She saw only a small person who needed help.

Later, when I was a bit older, we moved a little closer to Mackay, to North Eton, where the school had a seven stone seven league team. I played wing - I wasn't able to do too much damage in that position. There were a mix of kids, at the school, including offspring of Maltese and Italians who had migrated to the area as cane cutters, worked hard, saved their earnings and bought cane farms.

There was also a scattering of kids of Islander and Torres Strait Aboriginal heritage, plus a few who were descendants of Pacific Islanders who were pressed ganged in the late nineteenth century to work on the cane. Back then they were called Kanakas, but that term can be offensive, so I'll refer to them as South Sea Islanders.

Some of the Aboriginal kids were good players, as were the South Sea Islanders, although the former usually played in the backs (they could run and kick like nobody's business) and the latter in the forwards (they were built like the proverbial brick outhouses).

Unfortunately for my team (called North Eton when we won and Eton when we lost) these Aboriginal and Islander kids generally played for Mirani, and they usually beat us. When this happened, there were always complaints directed at their racial origin. Many of these complaints were shouted at the player s in the form of abuse from the sidelines. The players were children aged from eleven to fourteen - and about the same age as the thirteen year-old who yelled abuse at Goodes.

I wonder whether we've actually made any progress. Back then, this abuse directed at kids whilst frowned upon, but tolerated. These days, when an Indigenous player calls a teenager out for vilification, he's condemned. Both are examples of racial abuse, and both are/were unacceptable. 

In the intervening decades (with the exception of my time in the army - more about that later) I had little to do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people until I was appointed principal of a special school in Townsville. This school serviced a community of kids with severe disabilities who lived in a local nursing home. Over 40% of them came from the Torres Strait Islands, and once sent south to live in the nursing home rarely if ever returned to their communities. They were a unique group of "stolen children". The reasons they never went home (even during the long summer break) were complex, but in the end were down to the fact that their communities lacked the confidence and resources to get them home.

I see much of the same phenomenon now, in 2015, where children with disabilities in remote communities languish without proper treatment for similar reasons. At least now they're living with their families, rather than in sterile nursing homes. But I digress.

Back to the late nineties when I had a programme manager's job in Mt Isa, responsible for educational support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. There weren't too many Islanders (bluewater people) in the North-West, but lots of Murris (brownwater people) in the schools.

One of the issues we had to address was the suicide rate amongst Aboriginal teenagers in the area. The availability of firearms, and the lack of counselling support were contributing factors. We couldn't do much about the firearms (although the Port Arthur gun buy back that happened at that time may have helped a little), but we were able to improve the counselling support.

During this time, I was the guest of the Dajarra State School on their speech night. Dajarra was 90% Aboriginal enrolment - probably still is. I took my two sons with me to provide company for the long return road trip, and they had the experience of being in the minority - two of about four white faces in a school of Aboriginal kids. The conversation in the car on the way back to Mt Isa (when we weren't counting wallabies and roos) was interesting.

For the first time in their young lives my sons knew what it felt like to be in the minority. This is an experience that has been denied to many Australians, and given what we've observed around Adam Goodes, it partly explains the controversy. The bigots screaming abuse would not have a clue about how it feels to be racially vilified, as they've never been on the receiving end.

One of the few positives about the army (at least when I was a member) was its institutional colour blindness - an attitude not unlike my mother's. The only thing that mattered on active service was the way we looked after each other on operations. If your skin was going to be saved, its colour was irrelevant, as was the colour of the skin of the digger watching your back. 

My section had a West Indian Corporal - one of nature's gentlemen, and another member of my platoon was a Murri, one of the funniest men I've had the privilege of knowing. The other Aboriginal digger in my platoon from the Alice was badly wounded when we hit bunkers and returned to Australia in April 1970. Another, (in my company, not my platoon) committed suicide in 1979 when in custody.

I wonder how the likes of Bolt and Jones regard these men?

As far as the current controversy goes, and the hundreds of thousands of words written or spoken - I reckon Marcia Langdon sums it up pretty clearly -

I am sick of pig-ignorant bigots saying it (Goode's spear dance) means war. How dare they purport to represent our culture".

In reality, that's what gets the bigots wound up. They simply aren't prepared to concede indigenous people the power to own and interpret their own history and culture.

But as noted above, it sells lots of newspapers.


Monday, 27 July 2015

Submission to Brutality

So Labor has finally lined up with the Coalition in a craven act of bipartisan brutality.
Pragmatically, Labor didn't have much option, since that day of infamy, 29th August 2001, when a weak Prime Minister, sniffing the political wind with an election approaching (an election that he looked like losing) picked up the whiff of fear and loathing, and used it.

The politicisation of the issue, and exploitative refinements such as demonising vulnerable people and conflating fear of refugees with the great fear - terrorism, has fatally poisoned the debate.

Emotion has trumped reason, and any political party ignoring this situation is committing electoral suicide. Both major parties share blame. There is nothing that exposes their collective lack of leadership more starkly than this episode.

Amongst other historical absurdities such as excising our territory, our defence forces will continue to be misused doing the dirty work of the arch cowards in our political class. This political class puts expediency before humanity and has reduced itself to the level of the apparatchiks who were out and about in the days of the Third Reich.

Let's face it - a detention centre is a concentration camp under another name. About the only material difference is that Australian detention centres (they are Australian, whether in PNG or on Manus) don't have gas chambers attached.

The refugee debate post Tampa has become one of the most shameful episodes in Australian history. My country has gone from a point where it was a bastion of compassion and humanity to what is effectively a civil rights backwater in the short space of fourteen years.

It did not have to be so.

Wind the clock back to 1975, and the fall of Saigon. This event was the trigger for one of the greatest exodus of refugees in the history of our part of the world. Between 1978 and the late eighties, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people arrived in refugee camps in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.

The boat people comprised only part of the Vietnamese resettled abroad from 1975 until the end of the twentieth century. A total of more than 1.6 million Vietnamese were resettled between 1975 and 1997. Of that number more than 700,000 were boat people; the remaining 900,000 were resettled under the Orderly Departure Program or in China or Malaysia.

The Geneva Conference of June 1989 produced the Comprehensive Plan of Action, which, over time, saw the ordered settlement of the bulk of these refugees, many of whom went on to become valued citizens of their adopted countries. Australia took 130000. Countries involved included Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

This multinational conference was an example of international cooperation, free of the tyranny of national politics, driven only by compassion, and provides a template for the humane management of similar migrations since. It was people of the calibre of Sérgio Vieira de Mello (sadly assassinated in Iraq in 2003), who had the courage, drive and wisdom to pursue the international agreements.

Perhaps the absence of individuals with his vision and intellect in our national political scene  is responsible for the squalid mess that has become refugee policy in Australia.

Forty years ago, we had a bi-partisan approach to asylum seekers during which we settled Vietnamese here. Now we ship them back to be exposed to whatever tyranny awaits.

That's progress?

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