My exposure to the Australian indigene

This was the Australia into which I was dropped in the late Forties. I knew nothing about the Aborigine. The first one I saw was being hit on the head with a truncheon by a well-fed policeman in Melbourne. The subject of this friendly persuasion was intoxicated. In those days anyone appearing to be drunk was thrown into a paddy-wagon with some force and taken away. (This may be happening in some country towns today.) I also saw Aborigines harassed by the police in Sydney and Brisbane in my first two years in Australia. It did not give me much confidence in my own safety.

In the next few years, I did not see one coloured person who looked as if he had Aboriginal blood, even when I went into a number of small country towns. There were Aboriginal names all over the country, but none of the people whose culture was being remembered in street names and townships was visible. It was like that in New Zealand some two years later. No person of Maori (or Pacific Islander) descent was visible in city centres, although Maori place-names were plentiful. Only on the edge of each town did one see the coloured citizens of Australia’s sister nation, usually at work on menial tasks such as street sweeping. Yet, in Australia, the Aborigine was (and is) not seen in any occupation in ‘public places’.

It was only when I took a boat from Fremantle, on the west coast of Australia, to Singapore that I saw Aborigines at work. These were stockmen driving fierce-looking cattle on board. Later, in one of the tiny townships, I saw a couple of Aborigines walking, at a distance; none were in town, even at a pub. Reportedly, Aboriginal stockmen were unpaid labour … it was many years later that they were awarded a wage. This may not have benefited them much – I read that their ‘minders’ received these wages and accounted for them.

It was in the late Fifties that I actually met an Aborigine. At a bar near my work, there was a pleasant-looking brown-skinned young man, looking quite European in features. After saying hello to each other (we brownskins have a tendency to greet other brownskins without any formal introductions), he asked me “what colour” I was. It took me a while to understand the question. I then explained that I was an immigrant. We chatted for a while. As he was in workman’s overalls, I presumed that he worked nearby. I was not to meet or see another Aboriginal for a few more years.

When my public speaking organisation established a new club near the Aboriginal Affairs agency, I invited its all-white senior management to encourage their staff to join our new club. Our training would enhance their competence and confidence, I promised. Nothing came of it. So, I rang the most senior Aboriginal officer in the agency (in a junior position, naturally). He explained that his people lacked the confidence to join our club. I then offered to help his people establish a speaking club, for Aborigines only, within his agency. We would provide expert advisers at request; they would run the club themselves. No, they did not want that either. Were they all that good that a little effort and free training could be so turned down?

I then met the allegedly first Aboriginal university graduate. He was a guest speaker at a meeting of university graduates. He spoke eloquently and with feeling about his people being entitled and enabled to determine their own destiny; that they should be financially empowered to do so; and that, in time, they would overcome their expected initial difficulties, waste and any inefficiencies, and become adequately accountable. He received a standing ovation.

Years later, having jumped a few of the normal career steps, he was head of the Aboriginal Affairs agency. He was the only senior Aborigine there. I was interviewed by him, and I sensed early in the interview that he had changed, and that my approach did not tally with his; and that was that.

(The above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ depict an Australia long before a number of able people of Aboriginal descent found their place in the sunshine. Having read Myrdahl on the relationship between the whites of the USA and their coloured compatriots, I was not surprised at what I saw, the comments I heard in public, and my reading of the canvas painted by eminent experts on the way the Australian Aborigine had been (and was being) treated by officialdom. It was White Australia, was it not?

There has been a lot of political puffery about what needs to be done, and a great deal of money seemingly wasted. Any achievements by the indigenes, like those of other non-white Australians, would have been self-directed and self-driven. Hopefully, justice awaits, just around the corner.)