QUARTERLY ESSAY 69 Moment of Truth



Russell Marks

My first two decades were passed safely, inside a brick house, behind an aluminium fence, on a quarter-acre block in the Adelaide western suburb known as Fulham Gardens. Before my parents bought the newly subdivided block in the 1970s it was part of a larger area of market gardens, owned primarily by Bulgarian and Chinese migrants. Just to the south had been the estate of Fulham, which was originally “purchased”, according to the Manning Index of South Australian History, in 1836 – the year of that state’s proclamation – by John White. White, a builder who had packed out much of the cargo space on one of the nine South Australian “First Fleet” ships during the first half of 1836, became a wealthy farmer and station-owner. He and his family prospered in the new colony. His son Samuel became an ornithologist and built the historic mansion Weetunga, which the family at last sold for $2.5 million in 2014, long after most of the original estate had been divided into the suburb of Fulham. John’s grandson, also Samuel, became a very successful racehorse owner, explorer, naturalist (as the author of the seminal The Birds of Australia) and soldier, who rose to the rank of captain in the Boer War.

The Whites (capitalised and not) did very well at Fulham. So, in the twentieth century, did Hop Sing and the Bulgarian market gardeners from Strahilovo. And so did my parents, a teacher and a public servant who built a life and a family there after 1979. They purchased their land from developers. In 1836, John White purchased his land from the South Australian Company. Nobody purchased any land from the Kaurna people, who had lived on, managed and cultivated that same land for tens of thousands of years. The British merchants who had petitioned for the company’s establishment had asked the British parliament rather than the Kaurna. The decisions to form a “colony” and to allow individuals of means to acquire freehold title over parcels of land were made more than 16,000 kilometres away in London, without consulting the original owners, who have never been compensated.

In every town and suburb, on every block in Australia, this story is repeated. The colonists’ gain was the original owners’ loss. Successive generations of Kaurna people were deprived of their economic base. Some of the supposedly peaceful “settlers” hunted them and murdered them. The settlers’ governments rounded them up and stole generations of their children. My grandfather – who died in 1984 – recalled hunting parties in the Adelaide Hills as late as the 1920s and 1930s.

But until Mark McKenna’s Looking for Blackfellas’ Point was published in 2002, very few non-Indigenous people had gone looking for the real history, the “deep history,” of the part of the continent on which they lived. Over and over again, all over the country, the story of colonisation must be the same: “settlers” and governments systematically and violently separated Aboriginal peoples from the source of their spiritual and economic livelihoods. The “settlers’” gains were their losses; theirs, and their descendants’.

It can be disturbingly easy to forget this central fact of Australian history in Adelaide or Melbourne, where I also lived for a decade. But it’s a fact that’s less easy to forget in Katherine, NT, where I now live. In Katherine, Aboriginal poverty is much more visible than it is in cities, where it’s often hidden, contained, drowned out. In Katherine, the history – of dispossession, colonisation, killing and converting – is much more recent. Many of the communities around Katherine – Kalkarindji, Dagaragu (the site of the walk-off from Wave Hill station in 1966), Lajamanu, Yarralin, Wugularr, Barunga, Bulman, Ngukurr – began as missions. Race relations are complicated by the original act of dispossession, and by the lack of any contrition or compensation since. The (white) law is still a colonising force, enforced by agents of the (white) state – police, schools, welfare, housing – from which people spend their lives working very hard to protect themselves, their communities and their culture. John Howard’s formula – “I am not personally responsible” – is not possible in Katherine. Actually, it’s not possible anywhere. Learn the history of the land you own or rent, and you’ll find three groups of people: a group who were violently dispossessed of it; their descendants who continue to experience the deprivations of that dispossession; and a lineage of “owners” who have made money out of it for themselves and, most likely, their own descendants.

With Moment of Truth, McKenna is not the first to state this argument, or indeed many of the arguments he makes. But it is a major contribution to the “reconciliation literature” which has emerged in recent years: that body of work by black and white writers, fiction (Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Kate Grenville, Alex Miller) and non-fiction (Stan Grant, Noel Pearson, Larissa Behrendt, Bain Attwood), who are doing the work intellectuals have done since the development of the modern nation-state: remaking and reconstituting the nation. It is a shame that Malcolm Turnbull is committing himself to historical irrelevance by variously ignoring and resisting this project, but he’s hardly alone.

As McKenna’s essay makes clear, the nationalist project is now geared towards the reconciliation of two very different experiences of Australia’s history. The white experience is well known among (white) historians and their readers: in the beginning were the (white) explorers; then there was the development of democracy (of, by and for white people); towards the end of the nineteenth century, a national (white) consciousness consciously set itself against Britain, though ultimately within British Australia; and then the passing of British Australia in the 1960s and the arrival of what came to be known as multiculturalism. Most of those who know that story have, at least until recently, been ignorant of the parallel experiences of black Australia: the frontier wars; the land thefts; the “protecting”; the missions; the child thefts; the racism; the paternalism and authoritarianism of the (white) state; the determination of generations of activists to resist it. Of course, white Australians have been integral to this parallel history. Not only were they the protagonists, the entirety of the white story told at the top of this paragraph would not have been possible without the original acts of dispossession and the continuing failure to address them.

In Katherine, I’m a criminal defence lawyer. The profession is conveniently individualised. More than enough is known about criminal behaviour to understand the role played by childhood trauma, but it’s only the individual defendant’s childhood trauma that counts in our courts. It has to be that way for the law to function. Were the law to open itself to the realities of what happened here, the criminal law as we know it would be absurd. How to account for nine, ten, twelve generations of childhood trauma perpetrated by the state? What is the theft of a bottle of soft drink when measured against the theft of an entire continent? Yet these are the questions that flow from the work of those writing reconciliation. There’s not much doubt, now, that we’ll find a way to deal with Australia Day. We might even manage a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But will we make it all the way to the biggest questions? If I’m deriving an economic benefit because of an act of theft by my forebears, when is compensation due? What is the source of Australian sovereignty? Who are we?


Russell Marks is a writer and lawyer. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 69, Moment of Truth. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 70, Dead Right.


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