Ready now: a new generation of Aboriginal people turn dreams into reality
AUSTRALIA'S mining wealth has had varied impacts on our economy and incomes of Australians. It is clear that the result has increased income levels for a large majority. Aboriginal people have not been exempt from this development. With this new economic status has come social and political change.
I have been counting our victories against the racialist tendency in this society, the tendency of the settler state to destroy or control or warp any Aboriginal initiative. This is not a report card, but a simple count of present electoral successes: Ken Wyatt's seat in the House of Representatives, Linda Burney's long record in the New South Wales Parliament, Ben Wyatt and Carol Martin's seats in the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia, and the four seats in the Northern Territory Assembly held by Alison Anderson, Larisa Lee, Francis Xavier Kurrupuwu, and Bess Nungarrayi Price.
These successes reflect not just demography but increasing political sophistication among both Aboriginal people and the political class in Australia. The preparedness of the electorate to accept indigenous Australians as political representatives, who, unlike Pauline Hanson, represent their electorate regardless of race, is a great advance on the state of affairs in the 1960s, the time of my coming of age, when we did not have the right to vote, and were excluded from all national affairs by several racist provisions in the constitution.
In these lectures, I have paraphrased 50 years of change in the relationship between Aboriginal people and the mining industry, and the complex historical, social and economic factors at work.
Many Australians do have a pessimistic, not to say, jaded, view of the status of Aboriginal people. We see the simplistic comments from the uninformed readers of newspapers regularly: "If they worked like the rest of us, they would have nothing to whinge about." "Why should taxpayers support these bludgers?"
These are the questions asked by our citizens bunkered into the suburbs where no Aboriginal footprint has been seen for more than 100 years. They read about the budget expenditure on the mysterious category, "indigenous affairs", and imagine that cheques are being mailed out to individual Aboriginal people on a weekly basis. Such naive views reflect the general unawareness of the actual nature of the "indigenous affairs" machine. Counting the successes, then, is a pleasant pastime that sometimes results in a small measure of hope.
One statistic [in particular] has given me some cause for hope. Professor Ian Anderson, an Aboriginal medical specialist, says that enrolments of indigenous people in first-year medical studies have reached national parity with the non-indigenous student enrolments. I began these lectures by referring to the emergence of an Aboriginal middle class, a phenomenon that has been ignored by the professionals paid to observe and measure our lives. This statistic is an instance of the wellbeing experienced by those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Their accumulation of social and human capital in the space of perhaps one, but no more than three generations, has enabled them to send their children to university to study medicine.
This development does not sit well in the standard analysis of the Aboriginal "problem" or the domain of "indigenous affairs". Most of the protagonists in the intellectual workforce supported by the "indigenous affairs" machine will ignore or refute this singularly important statistic. The anthropologists have accused me of being a "conservative", a "neoliberal advocate for assimilation", of lacking "objectivity", and a litany of other crimes against this hapless discipline. They are flailing about in the death throes of an intellectual paradigm that does not admit the legitimacy of such statistics and their implications.
Aboriginal sovereignty is a favourite theme of the professional dissidents of the Aboriginal movement. There is a small and powerful group of Aboriginal people involved in the politics of this domain, and a strident few are advocates of the concept of "Aboriginal sovereignty". What does this mean? A separate state? Enactment of indigenous rights? Such questions have never been answered, and the concept remains a slogan, one that points to a vaporous dream of self-determination but one that does not require any actual activity in the waking world to materialise it.
There is an undercurrent in the reconciliation movement that has gone unnoticed. At public events over the past 20 years, many Aboriginal advocates of reconciliation have addressed themselves not to the settlers who want absolution for their ancestral past in Australia's history, but to young Aboriginal people attracted to the "Aboriginal sovereignty" slogans. They have tried to deter them from a fatuous political path towards ideas and activities that will improve their lives and sense of self-esteem. Noel Pearson challenged Michael Mansell and his entourage to develop an ideological consciousness "that goes beyond absolutist, nihilist daydreaming about what should be, but instead become concerned with how we are actually going to go about making things the way they should be".
I have been thrilled by the Redfern Now ABC television series. Produced and directed by Rachel Perkins of Blackfella Films and a magnificent team of indigenous writers, actors and technicians, it speaks to the Aboriginal people who have lived through these turgid political dramas. It depicts the emergence of an Aboriginal middle class with veracity, its members intimately linked to their families living on The Block in Redfern, and the transference of Aboriginal cultural values from The Block to the suburbs. It shows Aboriginal values and social practices at work in dramatic scenes of encounters with the police, the struggle of families to deter youth from criminal activities and [to help those] with mental illness.
Artists such as Perkins and her exceptional team members have done a far better job than anthropologists and the political ideologues in describing these challenges. With minute attention to the intimate details of Aboriginal life on The Block and the tendrils of familial, social and political connection across geographies, class and history, they have broadcast more truth and sociological sophistication into Australian homes than thousands of papers from the intellectual militias of the "indigenous affairs" machine.
Those of us who have raged against the machine and won some few successes know that the challenge lies in large part in capturing the hearts and minds of young people with a message of hope. The elements of that picture of their future that they must imagine for themselves must come from opportunities to enable them to live a good life. This is why Pearson's welfare reform and education initiatives are so important and effective in transforming the lives of people in Cape York.
The inspiration Noel has given to others across the country should not be underestimated. In the face of the rancorous denials from the exclusive club of Noel Pearson haters, the facts keep stacking up.
A younger generation of Aboriginal people are telling stories through literature, the arts, film and music and speaking back to history and oppression without the burden of the Culture Wars. Redfern Now, The Sapphires, directed by Wayne Blair, Toomelah, directed by Ivan Sen, and Samson and Delilah, directed by Warwick Thornton, are just some examples of their outpouring of creative work, thinking and writing. Indigenous filmmakers and television producers have cemented their place in the mainstream, winning over audiences and proving their box-office success.
They are confident and refuse to be stereotyped. They want to keep some of our cultural traditions, and they reject others. They abhor the abuse caused by alcohol and drugs, but they have compassion for the abusers. They want hope.
What do these extraordinary Aboriginal storytellers have in common? They are educated; they are successful; they are proud of their Aboriginal heritage; they glow with self-esteem; and their ability to tell these gripping stories through award-winning film and television productions comes from their intimate understanding of Aboriginal life.
What is also remarkably similar throughout their work is their view of the Aboriginal dilemma in the struggle with modernity. On the one hand there is the backdrop of the scourge of colonial history, alcohol and drug abuse, the vulnerability of youth in dysfunctional family settings, the constant racism and police presence, and on the other, the resilience of Aboriginal people that sometimes results in a victory, small or large, against the odds.
What I have marvelled at in this heady mix of social change is the resilience of Aboriginal culture. The threat that the old racists, leftists and Aboriginal sovereignty advocates level against the new Aboriginal intellectuals is a prediction that Aboriginal culture will "die out".
Aboriginal culture has changed dramatically in many parts of Australia, but it survives, as the works of our filmmakers and artists demonstrate. The most important thing is that it is viable, supported more and more not by the welfare state but by the engagement of entrepreneurs, artists, filmmakers and workers in the economy and the accrual of the first generation of private material wealth. A new generation of Aboriginal people is turning dreams into reality: education, economic participation, self-esteem and success are part of this new Aboriginal world, and there is no going back.
This is the last in a series of five edited extracts of the 2012 ABC Boyer Lectures by Professor Marcia Langton, chairwoman of Australian indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne. It will be broadcast on ABC Radio at 5.30pm on December 16 and will be available online at abc.net.au/radionational/boyerlectures. A book of the Boyers will be published in early 2013.