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Coalition stirs the ghost of Jimmie Blacksmith


Malcolm Fraser, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Frank Vincent QC in conversation In Thomas Keneally's 1972 post-colonial novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, two white clerks bicker about impending Federation. One, an Englishman, suggests that 'there's no such thing as an Australian', other than in the 'imaginations of some poets and at the editorial desk of The Bulletin'. 'The only true Australians are ... the Aborigines.' 'Jacko', his zealous young companion retorts, is 'an honest bastard, but he's nearly extinct … It's sad, but he had to go.'

The young clerk seems to be of the view, reflected by others elsewhere in the novel, that Federation represents atonement, or at least a chance to draw a line through a history of colonial hardship and Aboriginal slaughter. The novel evokes a treacherous national identity crisis; this is reflected in the person of its half-caste antihero Jimmie, who is so infected by it and so oppressed by the latent racism that it elicits, that he eventually explodes in murderous rage.

More than a century after Federation, Australia has yet to resolve this tension between a romantic notion of what 'Australia' is, and the depravities that were undertaken to attain it. It may be couched in more polite terms, but it rears its head in ham-fisted and fundamentally disrespectful approaches to Indigenous policy, such as recent moves by the Coalition Government that threaten to undercut the spirit of Native Title legislation.

Senior Aboriginal leaders and advocates for Aboriginal rights have raised concerns about a strategy employed by Indigenous Affairs Minister, Country Liberal Party Senator Nigel Scullion. During what Frank Vincent QC describes as a fly-in, fly-out mission, Scullion obtained memorandums of understanding from members of Gunbalanya and Yirrkala townships to negotiate 99-year leases.

East Arnhem elder Dr Djiniyini Gondarra describes this as being part of a 'blitz' designed to encourage other communities around the country hastily to sign similar deals, ostensibly for their own betterment. Gondarra expressed fury about the manoeuvre in The Australian: 'We … do not want further controls put over our society,' he said. 'We want the shameful march of colonisation to end.'

'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith' features a hand clutching a bloody axeVincent, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Alastair Nicholson QC and Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, outspoken elder from Utopia, NT, picked up this theme during a forum in Melbourne recently. It is 'technically correct', said Nicholson, that the 99-year leases don't negate Aboriginal ownership. But they do pit a particularly 'western' notion of ownership against the traditional Aboriginal concept of custodianship, which is at the heart of Native Title law. Taking away that custodianship for the span of four generations is as good as an acquisition.

This is not a partisan issue. As Fraser pointed out, it continues a tendency towards government interventions (such as the Intervention and its euphemistically dubbed offspring, Stronger Futures) from successive governments of both sides, that eschew consultation in favour of paternalism. This is inherently disempowering and marginalising. And the fly-in, fly-out approach negates the possibility of genuine informed consent by the signatories.

Fraser suggested that one alternative approach may be for Aboriginal communities to preempt the government interventions, enlist the support of sympathetic developers and lawyers and take development into their own hands, in a way that remains respectful of the traditional values and practices of custodianship. Even this may be easier said than done: Kunoth-Monks intimated that her own attempts to follow such a course had been stifled at (then Labor) government level by a Minister who she sensed preferred paternalism to empowerment.

What is the way forward? Gondarra calls on the Government 'in the spirit of partnership' to 'declare their interests openly and tell us why they think 99-year leases are good things, not start with the premise they are best for us and then try to persuade us. They should allow a process of option creation as our people come to the government with our own ideas. Finally with free, prior and informed consent, our people and the government can make mutual agreements that will progress Indigenous interests, not only government interests.'

In 2013 we are well past the point of lolling back on cushiony words like Reconciliation and the fading memory of the National Apology. 'We no longer want compassion,' says Kunoth-Monks, gravely. 'We want our rightful place in this land of ours.' It's time to do the hard work. An open and transparent exchange based in mutually respectful conversation, such as that proposed by Gondarra, would surely go a long way towards achieving this, and might put the ghost of Jimmie Blacksmith to bed once and for all.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is the assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Pictured: Malcolm Fraser, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Frank Vincent QC in conversation.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Native Title, Malcolm Fraser, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Frank Vincent



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Existing comments

Yes, Warren Mundine stated recently that the government and its advisory council will decide the way forward in relation to economic development for Aboriginal communities then will be the job of engaging with people and persuading them that that is the way to. "They might not like it to start with but it will best for them in the end". Paternalism extraordinaire and no talk of genuine consultations or free, prior and informed consent.

Marlene Hodder | 11 December 2013  

Unfortunately white man has a lot to answer for ,sometimes we should be very ashamed of our greed .

Irena mangone | 11 December 2013  

As I understand it, the current government for the first time in this country's history has included aboriginal elders directly in the Prime Minister's Department for the express purpose of directing government policy on aboriginal affairs. Perhaps it is time to give it a chance - nothing is going to happen over night. This may have been suggested by some aboriginal elders who have a different opinion from Rosalie Kunoth-Monks. Fraser, incidently , has had his shot and achieved less for aboriginal Australia than he believes he did for Zimbabwe. It is long past his bedtime.

john frawley | 11 December 2013  

An excellent article. This has picked up on very serious concerns. Government’s push their own ideological agendas,. Taking further control way from A&TSIs is disrespectful and paternalistic!

Australia is yet to respond to serious concerns over the racist policies of the Intervention/ Stronger Futures-to United Nations & Australia’s Parliamentary Joint committee on Human Rights.

“LAND “-there are real fears over loss of A&TSI land control in the N.T. Long planned for under Howard /Brough and cemented in 2006 legislation.

Despite Government rhetoric that land will remain under Aboriginal control, it is worth listening to Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC speak on the Dismantling of the N.T. ALRA (1975)at http://www.concernedaustralians.com.au/#V99NIC

Listen to and act on the wishes of A&TSI communities and Elders "in the N.T". It is time to take a human right approach, follow the guideline of the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples.

Government as minimum MUST abide by the principals of engagement elaborated by the A&TSI social justice commissioner & AHRC. These can be found in new book
"In the Absence of Treaty" (Dec 2013).

Georgina | 20 December 2013  

The Coalition wants to destroy the Land Rights Act in fact if not in law. The 99 year leases will take significant Aboriginal communities out of the Land Rights Act for a century. The land may never be returned to Aboriginal ownership and control.

Zelig | 21 December 2013  

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