My weekly Guardian column:
The humidity in Darwin slows everything down. Although it’s currently dry season, the temperature is still in the mid 30s and warm breezes linger late into the night.
The city, which sits at the top end of Australia, is troubled by excessive violence and alcohol abuse. The Northern Territory has one of thehighest rates of incarceration in Australia, particularly for Aboriginal men. An adult in the NT is close to eight times more likely to be in jail than an individual in the Australian Capital Territory.
I was invited to Darwin’s Wordstorm writer’s festival last week, and spent far more time listening than talking. I was warmly welcomed and attended many events where the gulf between white and black Australia was discussed. The proximity of both peoples in a small population forces daily interactions. None of this guarantees harmony, of course, as a piece by anthropologist Evelyn Enduatta on Darwin’s stark yet normalised racism recently highlighted.
In the south of the country, where I live, Aboriginal Australia can often seem abstract or removed from daily life. Most Australians never knowingly encounter an Aboriginal person. My major relationship with Indigenous communities was writing about the ultimately successful campaign in western Australia against a proposed onshore, Woodside gas plant at James Price Point. I spent time there and supported the Aboriginal groups and environmental activists who argued the plan was ill-conceived, and would not benefit those most in need of economic support.
In Darwin last week, on a panel titled, “Is home where the heart is? Can we all belong to this land?”, author and Miles Franklin finalist Alexis Wright, an Indigenous woman of the Waanyi people from the Gulf of Carpentaria, argued that Australia was far away from reconciling with its original peoples. She had no faith in the political process; Labor, Liberal and the Greens didn’t rate a positive mention.
Wright said that Eddie Mabo, a man from the Torres Strait Islands, had to fight a system that refused to accept Aboriginal ownership or rights over land until the high court in 1992 overturned the concept of Australia being an empty continent when the British arrived in 1788 – “a land without a people for a people without a land”. In Australia, Wright explained, obtaining justice will only come through the courts. It was an admittedly imperfect method of obtaining justice, she conceded, and fellow Indigenous writer Philip McLaren said that the state would simply keep changing the law to stymie any benefits from litigation. “We just have to keep on fighting”, Wright pithily responded.
One of the key themes throughout the festival was the Aboriginal connection to the land, and the whitefellas’ comparative absence of it. Indigenous poet Lionel Fogarty convincingly explained that the concept of ownership and property was foreign to many of his fellow brothers and sisters, and they therefore couldn’t understand why they needed to pay rent on land or even aim to buy it (which most can’t afford, anyway).
This made me reflect on my own sense of home and what it means when I’m Australian, Jewish, German, atheist, anti-Zionist and against nationalism and patriotism of all kinds. I have never felt a deep connection to the natural world or earth and I admire, though not romanticise, those who do. Although I have strong memories and understandings of certain places from different stages of my life, in Australia and globally, I don’t think there’s anywhere I couldn’t live without ever seeing again.
The refusal to accept the Aboriginal connection to land is one of this country’s eternal shames and the Wordstorm literary festival forced me to confront how far away reconciliation is in Australia after a litany of Indigenous writers, poets and authors documented what most of the population don’t see or hear. Their community isn’t defined by alcohol abuse or dysfunction, although that clearly exists – I saw many intoxicated Aboriginal men and women, some with visible mental issues, sprawled on Darwin streets – yet the vibrancy and diversity of Aboriginal Australia is invisible to white Australia.
Whatever reconciliation really means – constitutional recognition of the First Australians or an end to an ever-expanding NT intervention – it wasn’t hard to hear offered solutions and ideas in Darwin that displayed both weariness and enthusiasm. Mainstream politics is unlikely to bring any comfort in the foreseeable future, if ever.
I’ve long believed that white Australia has a moral responsibility to both recognise the attempted genocide against its First Australians and pay reparations. It’s an issue eloquently detailed in the US in this month’s Atlantic cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates who argues that slavery and institutional racism in America requires state-sponsored compensation.
“More important than any single check cut to any African American”, he writes, “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”
The writer told Democracy Now last week that there are many ways to imagine reparations being made, including sending cheques to African-Americans who have been affected. He strongly backs atoning for past wrongs because, “you actually can’t understand American history without understanding slavery.” Australia is little different.
Coates says that when a nation, such as the US, implements policies that “disproportionately injure black people…our policies should be structured in such a way that take that into account.” Land, housing and imprisonment discrimination are either addressed immediately or these festering sores will only deepen.
It’s a conversation that Australia desperately needs to begin and yet one that seems incredibly far away. This isn’t about victimhood or putting a hand out for endless welfare because of past wrongs. It’s about recognising profound, historical traumas that continue to do this day.