I wrote this piece for the Irish Times after a five week visit to Australia in 1999. Those who concur with the present Australian Prime Minister John Howard that policy towards indigenous Australians is nothing to apologise for can dismiss the piece as propoganda since I should declare that part of my trip was organised by an Aboriginal right group.
I think it was the third night in Australia, hereinafter known as Oz, that I woke and suspected I’d acclimatised. Oz is magical. I’d dreamt that I had invented an essential missing element for the Oz life style - Breakfast Beer. I could make my fortune tapping in to this hitherto untapped market. I had them over a barrel. It was obvious. The only time of the day beer didn’t seem readily available. A low alcohol, bright and cheery start to the day. I’d just pop round and talk to Tooheys , who seemed to be the big cheeses ale wise in Oz, and let them in on my big idea.
It’s a stereotype, I was told. Australians are now falling down the beer consumption league table of the world ... way behind the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Latvians. How would you like it, they said, if Aussies went round saying all the Irish were drunken brawlers? “That’s interesting”, I said, “we sit in the pub all day long arguing over the unfairness of that stereotype”.
But Colm’s friend Phil, who was shepherding us around Oz, gave the game away. There used to be an immensely popular band in Sydney, he said (who were crap, musically speaking, he added) called Free Beer. They played badly to huge audiences for years under signs reading Free Beer Here Tonight (it was probably Tonite, if I know my showbiz). Well there you are. And with that we went down the Bottler, and bought another slab (that’s 24 little bottles of beer wrapped in their own cardboard and cellophane).
When Captain Cook came upon Australia in 1770 the native population, numbering up to a million souls, with hundreds of languages , organised in 500 groups, hadn’t got round to inventing alcohol. In the previous 50,000 years they had invented almost everything else necessary for a well-ordered functioning society; art, law, social order and boomerangs (which are used to get birds up in the air so that they can be caught for food). The introduction of alcohol has been a bit of a bummer for the Aborigines and a tiny minority of them have become some of the most inventively abusive drunks I have ever heard about.
Politics in the Pub
A few days into the trip we left the group we were travelling with and went off to do cartoony things. Whilst I was in a resort hotel, an hour and a half by plane north of Sydney, giving away a prize at the Australian cartoonists’ Oscars and showing slides ( ‘101 Wacky Cartoons About Terrorism - An Introduction to Northern Ireland’ )they were going round schools and doing seminars and stuff. “They” were, in the main, a mixed bunch of yoofs and their handlers from the Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain. One of the things they did was called “Politics in The Pub”, where they spoke about The Peace Process.
The local Sydney cheer leaders for our former terrorists of the Republican persuasion were there, too, and proceeded to tell the throng about the horrors of being a Catholic Nationalist in Northern Ireland. The gentleman in question, it turned out, had never been to Northern Ireland. He came from Manhattan, bless him. One of our yoofs got up and pointed out that she was a Catholic, by tribe if not persuasion, from Ballymena and had never felt she was a second-class citizen. Another said, in responding to Mr Manhattan’s view that maybe the war wasn’t over yet, if it was all the same to Mr Manhattan, he would rather not shed his own blood in the interests of Mr Manhattan’s politics.
If Mr Manhattan wants a spiffing example of oppression a little closer at hand he might take a quick glance at the history of the Aborigines, the native Australians. The policies, guns, diseases and laws of the British and European settlers reduced their population from up to an estimated million in 1770 down to around 200,000 in 1986. Since the native population wasn’t included in the census in Australia until after 1967 (before that, I guess, they were part of the flora and fauna) it is hard to know exactly when and how this decline happened. The first Aborigines to be given voting riñghts were returned servicemen in 1949; this was extended in 1962 and then in dribs and drabs until they achieved full equal voting rights in 1987, that’s, er, just 12 years ago.
Whilst returned Aboriginal servicemen, in this land that reveres the war dead above and beyond anything you would see in Britain, were given the vote they weren’t allowed into Returned Servicemen’s Clubs the social centres of Australia for quite some time after the war.
Whilst the yoofs were in Sydney fighting for truth, justice and a bit of common sense, we were observing the Floridaisation of Australia. This has nothing to do with putting chemicals in the water supply to allegedly keep your teeth strong and healthy. It has to do with inappropriate building practices. Oz is a magical place, it is as beautiful, majestic, comfortable and attractive as any place me and Herself have ever been. It has, sort of, indigenous building styles. They may involve tin roofs but they are local tin roofs. What we saw in northern, coastal New South Wales was American not so chic. New just built resort hotels (we stayed in one, it was nice but it wasn’t Australia) and, worst of all, behind the lovely little town of Yamba, a development where they dig out channels so every distinctive- slightly- different- but- really- all -the -same -bungalow has its own piece of water to park the boat on. In other words, Florida. We didn’t see many Aborigines in these places. Actually I don’t think we saw any indigenous Aussies here at all.
The ghettos ...
The pattern of population redistribution has left the Aborigines across the mountains, away from the coast, into the interior. and in the north. Those left in the cities tend to be ghettoised in places like Redfern in Sydney where they can avail of all the opportunites social and racial discrimination has to offer. See inner city areas in America, Britain, Ireland, for similar examples.
Maps are available showing that every square inch of Australia was inhabited by one group or another before 1770. So wherever you are in Oz you are standing on someone’s native homeland. Sadly, in many part of the East coast there are no longer any natives left to support a home. Captain Cook declared Oz to be a ‘Terra Nullius ‘which meant, for those conversing in Latin, that the land was empty and belonged to no-one. Captain Cook must have been optically challenged.
In the 1950s Britain detonated three atomic bombs in this supposedly empty place, at empty places such as Emu, south Australia and Maralinga, SA. Aborigines inhabiting these empty places got radiation sickness.
In recent years court cases have slowly and painstakingly established the rights of the Aborigines to their own land. This is known as Native Title and is constantly under judicial and governmental review.
We spent three of our four weeks in Oz away from Sydney. Sydney is a magical place, too. The harbour is indescribable, so I won’t bother. It is like all the photographs and films you have seen of the place times ten. Nothing prepares you for its size, beauty and grandeur. It fair dinkum takes your breath away, as they actually do say down under.
Back with the group we formed a convoy, minibus, minibus, air conditioned four wheel drive Pajero - the yoofs and us - (I was in the air conditioned four wheel drive and nothing would budge me - old age has to have some compensations) and headed out of Sydney into the interior. Down the Paramatta Road, past the Orange Order of New South Wales’ Charity Shop, over the Blue Mountains, for three hours to go through a town called Orange. There is no getting away from Northern Ireland. Orange had an Orange Town Hall, an Orange Golf course, Orange toilets and other Orange institutions and facilities. I forgot to look see if it had a Garvaghy Road where Orange men and women can parade all day long, blissfully, in the sunshine. (The week before we passed through Orange they had had hailstorms and floods, as had large areas of the interior.
The week we left Australia five firefighters died in a bushfire in Victoria. Australia has big weather. And then onwards for another 7 hours, past rolling hills to the flat hot bush. We spent a week or so staying in mainly Aboriginal towns and settlements; Weilmoringle, Brewarrina, the mining town of Lightning Ridge. We went to Gadooga, once voted the second most boring town in Oz where, on entering the local Bowling Club for lunch, watched a fight break out on the adjacent cricket pitch. This didn’t seem boring at all. We talked to Aborigines about their history, their local sites and their culture, which these days can include Country Music Television off the satellite. We watched boomerangs and other stuff being made. Visited museums. Fished for yabbies in a muddy river and lost all sense of time and space in the vastness of the plains. We saw emus and kangaroos aplenty and slept under the stars (and I didn’t snore, Herself is proposing I sleep outside back here in Kildare from now on). We visited the ruins of a mission.
Missions. It was decided somewhere, by someone, that Aborigines really ought to be just like white Australians. They should be assimilated. Civilised. To civilise them civilised society stole their children. Not very civilised. I’ll repeat that, it takes a while to sink in. They stole their children. Government agencies, like dog catchers travelled round picking up Aborigine children to place them with white familes or put them in church-controlled missions. There they did White Studies. English only spoken. What time to take afternoon tea. Cricket, how she is played. Christianity 101. That sort of thing, I expect. This programme helped to wipe out knowledge of local languages, history and customs. It created a whole bunch of people who don’t know where they come from, who they are. Some remain to this day cut off from their families . They are known as the Stolen Generation.In the 1960s this policy was abandoned as after decades it still wasn’t turning Aborigines into Australians and, maybe, because someone in governemnt realised how totally horrendous it was.
These days the government talks of reconciliation. No one seems to be quite sure what this means. One theory is that it means the government want something sorted before the Sydney Olympics in 2000 so that the ongoing Aborigine Question might not be an embarrassment. I asked an Aborigine student what it was he wanted. “It would be quite nice”, he said,”if someone would say sorry. That would be a start.”
Canberra was a lot nicer than we expected ...
Back from the bush we did other stuff. Oz is magical. We overviewed the farm where “Babe” was filmed. We saw blowholes and koalas, lunched at a place offering “Battered Jews” on the menu (“The Department”, said the lady behind the counter, “wants us to change the name of some of our fish. Battered Blacks and Battered Whites were on the menu on other days). We tried to surf and the Irish Times almost lost a cartoonist in the riptide. We watched schools of children, all in their obligatory sun hats being taught on the beach and thought that this must be the greatest place in the world to bring up children. We ferried around Sydney, viewed the city from atop a revolving restaurant tower and from the Sydney Morning Herald Offices (26th floor IBM Building..how do they work with a view like that?). Went to Canberra, which was a lot nicer than we expected and did the slide show again in the Old Parliament Building. Outside the OPB limousines disgorged blushing brides for their wedding photos,across the road are the wooden huts of the Aborigine Embassy, a protest site.
Oz is a delicate ecology. A while back they introduced European Carp to clean greenery out of the channels in the cotton fields. After floods the European carp got into the river system, cleaned the rivers of all their green stuff that kept the rivers blue and sparkling. and got rid of the native fish too. The rivers are brown and muddy now.
They introduced rabbits who are munching their way through the sub continent, as we speak.
They introduced cows and now they are introducing Rape Seed to feed the cows. The rape seed has gone native and is now taking over the bush, killing off the local plants. Spreading its yellowness all around.
They introduced foxes ‘cos they wanted something to hunt.
They introduced, in 1770, a bunch of Europeans to a culture that had lived harmoniously with the earth for 50,000 years.
Oz is magical.
Aborigines have been disappearing ever since ...