Robert Manne’s claim that criticisms of parts of the Bringing them home report represent an ‘attempt to deny ... that a really terrible injustice occurred’ is wrong. Anyone who has read my columns in the Courier Mail or Daily Telegraph will be aware how he has misrepresented them to reach such an insulting conclusion. I don’t know why he bothered: there is an enormous gulf between us even when my views are described accurately.
I incline towards scepticism when considering stories of the oppression of Aboriginal people in the past, whereas Manne has a tendency to exaggerate. I accept that my approach risks minimising or overlooking cruelty and can be easily parodied as heartless or racist. But maybe more attention needs to be paid to the potentially harmful effects of the approach Manne favours. I refer in particular to its influence on the selection of policies to redress Aboriginal suffering.
The deeper question underlying much debate over many Aboriginal issues is the old question regarding assimilation. This is not an absolute question but a relative one: should there be more or less of it, and in which circumstances? Of course this is hugely complicated, and all Aboriginal people experience different degrees of assimilation in different areas of their lives. This deep question rarely surfaces, because assimilation has such a bad historical reputation (often violent, racist, patronising) that few people dare argue for it openly today. But assimilation as a desirable possibility in some circumstances, to be encouraged by government policy, is emerging into the open again, although usually under different names, such as self-modernisation.
Arguments about history affect people’s attitudes to assimilation and vice versa. People in favour of policies promoting integration look for support in examples of successful assimilation in the past. And other people, who feel that Aboriginal history is an almost unrelieved record of oppression and misery, feel that this lends support to modern policies favouring independent development for Aboriginal people.
I know little of Robert Manne’s views on contemporary Aboriginal policies, but most of the people I know who are influenced by his view of history are supporters of the communal land rights/traditional culture/permanent welfare paradigm of the past few decades. I believe this has been a disaster for many Aboriginal people, and that views such as those expressed in the Bringing them home report (e.g. on genocide) are an emotional roadblock hindering the consideration of alternative policies.
I would argue that the view of history often taken in Bringing them home is exaggerated and encourages the adoption of modern policies more for their symbolic value than their outcomes. The main example of this sort of thing is that a thousand times more ink has been expended in the Australian press in the past six years in arguing for John Howard to apologise to ‘the stolen generations’ than for something to be done to provide the Aboriginal people in remote communities with jobs.
Of course, no one is going to admit they don’t care about such jobs – it just so happens that, after 30 years of considerable public debate and government expenditure and action, they don’t exist.
I realise that many readers will disagree with the above argument. However, it’s one I’ve put consistently over the past few years, and is a long way from the parody of my views presented by Manne.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 2, Appeasing Jakarta.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY