Going about my daily life in Melbourne, there are constant reminders of central Australia. Some of these are presences; others are absences. When I go to the bowser at the petrol station, there's no nozzle labelled 'Opal unleaded'. I look out from my balcony and see palm trees dotted through the northern suburbs of Melbourne, and think of the Afghan traders who left palms through central Australia, outside the town council in Alice and at the Hermannsburg mission to provide sustenance during Ramadan. There's other reminders: I might see an artwork in an office that looks like it comes from a certain area in central Australia. I'm told Liam Jurrah is playing in a big AFL match in a few weeks' time. But otherwise, I look at the faces of people in street sometimes, particularly the ones who seem more on the edge, and think, are they Aboriginal? Middle-eastern, African or what? I'm not sure.
Around Melbourne I often see yellow wall plaques like numberplates acknowledging the traditional owners of the place. Yet the traditional owners of major Australian cities seem far less obvious than any other people group, partly because of the sheer bulk in population numbers, no doubt also because of the decimation they experienced, being in the 'front line'. (It wasn't until I was in America and heard a few Native American place-names that I realised 'Manhattan' was an 'Indian' word -- after all that time watching Sex and the City!) My experience of working in Abl affairs is that large family groups from regional centres tend to dominate in urban contexts, quite possibly because the areas they're from were more isolated and thus more shielded from the vicissitudes of colonisation, or because particularly strong missions or other settlements were established there.
The plaques to me are almost more like memorials. I don't want to be derogatory, but I feel a bit ghosted by the thought of an Abl presence. Unlike central Australia, where you can feel you're surrounded quite literally by the living dead at times. It's as if there's just traces left here. I've cast my mind back to what Germaine Greer says in Whitefella Jump Up about a possible way of giving these traces more pre-eminence by everyone saying that they're Aboriginal and living in an Aboriginal culture. I think much of what she's saying about aspects of Australian society being more shaped by Aboriginal culture than we care to realise is probably very true and that saying we're an Aboriginal country is helpful as a certain sort of gesture. But I'm disturbed by what's potentially lost in making that statement. If Greer's idea is taken to extremes (and I'm not sure she meant it to be), it could lead to a pan-Aboriginality that is unhelpful and suggests a blurring of the specificities of and differences between existing Abl cultures and groups.
I'm not just saying that in a postmodern, girly-swot, 'we-must-acknowledge-cultural-differences and presence-of-minorities' kind of way. I'm inevitably going to fall into generalisations here, but there genuine locational differences between Abl people living in southern and northern Australia -- i.e. settled versus less settled -- which relate to the history of the different states and of the process of colonisation. This is very crude but one area is stronger on culture, weaker on access to basic services; the other's stronger on access of services, weaker on culture (and I'd be hit by flying brickbats if I said the latter in certain circles). One group has an ongoing experience of trauma that needs to be dealt with before they can look at anything as elaborate as intergenerational trauma; the other has a more insidious, less evident experience of trauma in the present.
If you're a government official or any kind of aid worker and you go somewhere to central Australia, at first glance, you're going to say, these people are in genuine need. Just at the level of dealing with remoteness, and the often vast distances and costs involved, before you get to the racial history and its consequences. (And then a government person will get on to issues of 'economies of scale', and all those other conundrums and cliches beloved by bureaucracy.) You're going to look at this mob and say, they need proper houses, roads, clean water, functional schools and health services, more police (a la the 'Intervention'), whereas if you look at the city mobs, you'll see people with access to services in the mainstream. They may be talking about the need for reconciliation or healing, or to change other people's perceptions so they'll get better and more specific services, but what does that mean: funding more talk? 'Healing' -- what's that about? Conferences, workshops, circles, modules and counselling....that looks like a bunch of low-outcomes options, if ever there was one. (And why should counselling work with people who have serious problems, when it's often so difficult to resolve simple problems within neurotic families or offices? Anyway, many of the counselling profession are such weirdoes and seem to have so much difficulty communicating in plain English, you wonder how much use they are to anyone.)
I also think that the distance between major cities and even regional centres in Australia, leads less to a decentred sense of identity: a ‘this is it’ tendency to universalize one’s local experience as being typical or national. Although so much media attention has been given to issues in remote Australia, I don’t think the level of dysfunction is understood, the demands of distance and what it means not to have access to services that everyone takes for granted. After living in central Australia, to me the symbolic reconciliation agenda often seems incredibly internal – about the thoughts, feelings, perceptions, of self and others, etc -- and unbalanced if not supported by practical measures. I don't deny perceptions have an impact: after all, being the member of certain minority groups can mean that a hospital won't take your assault seriously because they think it's part of your culture. Granted, a lot of this stuff is about proselytising whitefellas so they will improve how they treat less privileged people. But when it comes to Abl affairs, the spectre of Maslow legitimately looms here. It's often the case that people only have the time and space to focus on symbolic issues once they've met some of their basic needs. I also think that in many respects the area of human rights has become a discussion about itself, much in the way that second wave feminism had by the late 70s and early 80s. The self-determination and social justice agendas were originally responses to need that led to the creation of Aboriginal medical, legal and education services, etc. But today, human rights discussions often seem like a meta-narrative, a commentary on how to fill the gaps in its own frameworks. (The influence of poststructuralism, valid as many of its insights are, probably plays a role here as with feminism et al.)
The other irony for me is that the symbolic reconciliation agenda seems largely to be espoused by left-liberal people who have very little direct experience of Aboriginal people and communities. The oversimplistic belief that wherever minority groups are, life is unfolding like a left-wing parable, is, well, just oversimplistic. Life’s more complex (and many minorities are right-wing and conservative). Look at Samson + Delilah: there are cultural reasons why the teenagers are chucked out of their community and end up experiencing racism on the streets of Alice Springs. People sometimes say to me, 'What do Abl people say about this or think about that? Do they say so-and-so?’ And whatever example they will have given will sound like nothing I’ve ever heard a remote Abl person say, unless they’ve been involved with left-wing whitefellas. (Apart from the fact that I wouldn’t have a clue what Aboriginal or many other people were thinking much of the time.) Yet where would the country be without the good will and watchfulness of people such as left-liberals? Not such a good place to live, in my opinion.
While I was in central Australia, the heat about Aboriginal and other race-related issues frequently seemed to be more about white left-liberal anxieties and the need to re-affirm their own politics (rather than rebuild, unfortunately) during the Howard years. Things often seemed more about John Howard than they did about Aboriginal people. There’s also the much touted observation that the Liberals (Americans: confusingly, that often means right of centre in Australian politics) are the innovators in social policy, especially in Abl affairs, and that the left often just pick up and re-use that agenda once they're in power, which is what we're seeing with the social reform agenda at the moment. I don't know that it helps to get sentimental about any political platform or party.
Anyway, here I am, overlooking the Merri Creek sublime, being annoyed by cats who want to be fed an hour early because it’s the weekend, and wondering (me not them), Why should I think the central Australian experience was so defining? Or why do I want to say it so much, and what does it say anyway? (A symbolic question!) I knew I’d be drawn into comparisons between Alice and Melbourne, once I returned to civilization, although I perhaps wasn't sure what forms they would take. What can I say without sounding too melodramatic or prattish and arrogant?
There was a British writer, I think maybe Ian Jack from Granta, who commented in an article about his experience of literary festivals in Australia about how bizarre the practice of welcomes to country was, especially when there was often hardly an Abl person in sight. He concluded (more eloquently than this) that it was all metaphorical, the closest thing to a spiritual practice that Australia as a young secular nation had, and went on about the country being founded on the sacrificial blood of Aboriginal people. I seem to remember that his comments caused some ire at the time, but they made sense to me. I think the fundamental reasons behind the concern about Aboriginal issues are spiritual – at the risk of sounding like a frighteningly intense Catholic – but that the indicator is more how a nation treats the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor and what it says about the country as a result. (It’s also often the case that governments conduct social policy experiments on the poorest groups of their societies before introducing them on a broader scale, and there’s a wealth of examples over the past few decades from Aboriginal Australia.)
Living in a place where there are people in extreme need who pass you in the street every day brought much of that home to me (fittingly, literally in the country’s ‘dead centre’). There’s major need and impoverished people in the Australian capitals, but the obvious impact of seeing a large section of the community living with such poverty and trauma is confronting. I’m still not totally sure what it all ‘means’, but I don’t want to wake up one day and find it all passed like a dream. That's the worry.