Aboriginal Australians: The Burden of Culture

Aboriginal Australians: The Burden of Culture. A new book by Gary Johns, who was a minster in the Keating government.

This book is a new vision of the most divisive political issue in Australia today

Aboriginal politics are now dominated by demands for reconciliation, self-determination, and acknowledgment of culture. But these concepts — defined and promoted by an urban elite of educated Aboriginal activists — hide the bigger truth that most people of Aboriginal descent today are already integrated into the wider society and are doing well, if belatedly.

More importantly, the Aboriginal industry fails to address the needs of the 20 per cent minority of their population who still live in despair. Those who remain in remote and rural Australia are being asked to build a new Jerusalem on poor lands with ancient cultural hab­its. This captive minority needs to reach out, literally, but the politics of their leaders keeps them locked where they are.

More from Dr Johns:

To those who want to have Aboriginal people recognised in the Australian Constitution I say, “relax, neither does anyone else get a mention”.

The nation is not in need of healing, as advocates would have it. Rather, some people within the nation are in need of help. Constitutional change may well increase the chances that help will be in the form of separate rules and institutions, which are sure to isolate further the neediest Aborigines. …

Aboriginal culture was formed as a result of isolation from centres of innovation and civilisation. Indeed, it had a genius for survival in isolation. Anymore complimentary description than that, however, is, with great respect, gilding the lily.

Hunter-gatherer societies were among the most violent societies in human history. Australian Aborigines were no exception to the rule. To preserve a violent culture would seem wholly unsavoury. Of course, culture cannot be preserved once isolation has been removed. Although Aborigines living in remote communities on their own land are the most “disadvantaged” of all Aborigines, isolation from the mainstream, especially with access that Aborigines have to modern communications, is no longer possible. More than 98 percent of 12 to 14-year olds access the Internet (the difference in participation rates between children living in major cities and remote and very remote areas of Australia was not statistically significant) and there are more than 17 million subscribers with Internet access connections via a mobile handset in Australia.

It may be possible to preserve a culture in stagnant or hermit societies, but it is not possible unless it thrives in an open society, as, for example, the Jewish culture and beliefs, which are consistent with commerce and learning. The pattern of behaviour often exhibited by Aborigines, mostly living in remote Australia, does not seem consistent with commerce and learning. If anything, the adaptation has been for the worse. It is also apparent, as my colleague, Ron Brunton, has pointed out, that at particular times Aborigines were not interested in passing on traditional practices and beliefs, nor were younger Aborigines keen to receive them. …

It is not true to suggest that all people who claim Aboriginal heritage have “a continuing relationship with their traditional lands”. As most Aborigines live in cities, it is not credible to assert that they have a continuing relationship to traditional lands. A tiny minority of Aborigines, perhaps as few as 5,000 though no more than 50,000 of the 500,000 who claim Aboriginal heritage, has successfully claimed native title. …

Cultural identity is arguable and should be discussed in a free and open manner. If not, then Australia is entering a world where Aboriginal people, especially those of light colour and claiming discrimination (or favours) based on their race, become a laughing-stock. All that happens under constitutional change is that Australians will get into trouble for laughing.