History


Last night’s 7:30 Report featured a report on the origins of AFL footfall, and specifically that it may have been inspired by a game played by the Aborigines of western Victoria called Marn Grook.

The main proponent of this theory is Jim Poulter, a descendant of settlers who saw Marn Grook played at the goldfields near Warrandyte1 in the 1850s; several years before AFL was established. However, the historian interviewed for the report, Gillian Hibbins, disagrees on the basis that the celebrated inventor of AFL football, Tom Wills, never mentioned the indigenous sport in any of his writings, either personal or professional.

I personally like the idea that Marn Grook was the inspiration behind the game, but beyond mere contemporaneous probability – Wills grew up in the area in which Mark Grook was reported to have been played and, by all reports, was inducted into the local indigenous culture, making it unlikely that he never knew about it – the evidence is a little thin.

One aspect of the evidence that Poulter refers to is that the ‘Aboriginal’ word2 for ‘catch’ was mumark3. As the story goes, this became the ‘mark’ of the modern game. Although, using the term ‘mark’ to refer to an unequivocal catch and subsequent free kick had apparently been well attested in England for years already.

The word ‘mark’ comes from at least two public schools where they marked and ground and shouted ‘mark’ so that everybody would clear away and give them a free kick.

The official history of the ALF maintains that Wills invented the game with direct inspiration from English Public – that is, Private – schools, and not from the indigenous people of the area in which he spent much of his time. However, the AFL today appear quite happy to capitalise on its purported Aboriginal roots, which presents an obvious paradox as far as another writer, Martin Flanagan, is concerned:

If the official history of the AFL is true, the AFL has got no more claim to having a connection with Indigenous culture than Rugby Union does and so all these big games it has like the Marn Grook Trophy and ‘Dreamtime at the G’, what are they? Are they just marketing exercises?

I don’t have anything novel to add to this debate, though I lean, probably as a result of romanticism, toward the indigenous roots story.

If anyone knows of any more conclusive evidence either way, then by all means, let me know in the comments.


  1. Spelled Warendight in the transcript
  2. That he can’t name a language is a bit of weak point in his argument, if you ask me.
  3. Mumark is the 7:30 Report‘s transcription, but Poulter clearly pronounces it [məma:k]

Does anyone know how something that literally translates as ‘dislike of hand’ could be paraphrasable as ‘liberal’?

In the data massaging for the Kaurna electronic dictionary that I spoke of back here, I’ve come across a term whose internal parts indeed come from the words for ‘dislike’ and ‘hand’. I’m certain it’s not a typo, but the definition given is:

Dislike of hand, i.e. liberal

Come on, folks. Put your historical lexicography hats on.

In case it helps, it was written in 1857.


<update>

Something else I just noticed. Murta is the Kaurna word for animal faeces, which has a sub-entry murtaannaitya, which is glossed as ‘European hen’.

Could this word translate literally as ‘shitter’?

</update>

I’ve been a bit neglectful of this blog lately, and yes, I know I say that at the beginning of just about every post these days, but unfortunately it’s even more true now than ever.

The main reason I’m so busy is that I’ve been helping out in massaging and sanitising data for an electronic dictionary of Kaurna, the language traditionally associated with Tandanya and much of the surrounding region1. The language officially became ‘extinct’ almost a hundred years ago, but on the basis of two dictionaries written in the mid 19th century, linguistic revival efforts are having some huge success. Places in and around Tandanya have taken on alternative Kaurna names, you can learn Kaurna through all levels of education and you can even study Kaurna linguistics at a tertiary level. Not bad for a ‘dead’ language.

The dictionary I’m working on is just the latest instance of this revival effort. We’ve taken those two dictionaries from the mid 19th century and, after they’d been meticulously and painstakingly transcribed into text files and converted into toolbox-readable backslash-coded files, massaged out the inconsistencies. Our job has been to convert these into XML files, combine the two dictionaries into a single dictionary file and import it into Kirrkirr, an interactive dictionary application.

The final product won’t just be a cool, usable electronic dictionary, it’ll also be a faithful representation of the original two works, as everything will have been preserved and will be immediately viewable just by switching from one version to another. Even Teichelmann’s original spelling mistakes have been preserved. The user will be able to toggle between the original and a modern version with spelling errors corrected.

We also have a couple of other applications of this dictionary that we think will be useful for similar dictionary projects for endangered languages, especially in remote communities. But since I don’t want to spoil the fun of the announcement, I’m not going to say anymore.

Anyway, without getting too distracted, I wanted to share this little bit from the inside cover of the manuscript of the dictionary, written in 1857.

THE ADELAIDE LANGUAGE.

The tribe who used to speak this language has, accord-
ing to Mr. Teichelmann,* now ceased to be.

*Mr Teichelmann writes thus:–

“Salem on the Bremer, Callington, January 18th, 1858.

“Sir,–According to your wish, I have copied and translated into English, my collection of words and grammatical remarks on the language of the Aborigines who once inhabited the district around Adelaide; for they have disappeared to a very few.
[…]
Also, I do not entirely approve of the orthography of the native language, as we have spelled it, but it is useless now to alter any thing in it after the tribe has ceased to be.”

In retrospect, we’re seriously lucky that Teichelmann didn’t pack it in as soon as he realised that the tribe will have soon ‘ceased to be’ or we wouldn’t have such a detailed historical dictionary of the language upon which to base revival efforts. A lesson perhaps for all those people who question the motives of linguists who work in highly endangered languages.

I also found it interesting that in this passage, the person who wrote the tagline the tribe who used to speak this language has ceased to be, has evidently misunderstood Teichelmann’s intended meaning. He clearly meant when the remaining few people who speak this language (and thereby the language too) cease to be, (then there will be little need for a more useful orthography).

If you’re going to the Australian Languages Workshop, which this year is being held at Kioloa, an outpost of ANU, then you’ll be able to witness a full demonstration of this multi-tiered, quasi-archival dictionary by one of my colleagues.

So that’s an example of what’s been keeping me from regular blogging. There are plenty of other examples, of course, but they involve dropping whatever semblance of anonymity I delude myself into thinking I can hold on to.


  1. The Kaurna Dictionary project is made possible through the support of Kaurna Warra Pintyandi, a community based Kaurna language organisation.

On my way to work late this morning, I took note of how many Aboriginal and Torres Straight flags there were flying prominently around Sydney Harbour. They flew above the bridge, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and notably, above Kirribilli House. I don’t know if they’ve been there any longer than just today – the day of the formal Parliamentary Apology to the stolen generations – or if they’d been there for a while, but certainly, and fittingly, today is the first time I’d noticed.

The apology itself was of course only one part of this morning’s proceedings, and a short part too. And since the text of Kevin Rudd’s first parliamentary act as Prime Minister had already been made public, the more interesting part of the session occurred after the reading of the motion. Both Rudd and opposition leader Brendan Nelson delivered very deliberated, considered speeches, each of which took more than twenty minutes, while the motion, at 361 words, was finished in under three.

Kevin Rudd, in his post-apology speech, reiterated the reasons that an apology is so necessary for the reparation process after the Bringing Them Home report and for reconciliation in general. His speech overall was solemn, dignified, yet implicitly scathing towards the inaction of the previous government.

These stories cry out to be heard, they cry out for an apology. Instead from the nation’s Parliament there has been a stony and stubborn and deafening silence for more than a decade.

A view that somehow we the Parliament should suspend our most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong. A view that instead we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side.

In addressing the historical context, Rudd unashamedly lambasted policy-makers of the early twentieth century, rather than offering defences, or historical rationalisations.

One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory protector of natives, who stated, and I quote, “Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation all native characteristics of the Australian Aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half castes”, to quote the protector, “will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.” End quote.

These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light. They are not pleasant. They are profoundly disturbing. But we must acknowledge these facts, if we are to deal once and for all with the argument that the policy of generic, forced separation was somehow well-motivated, justified by its historical context, and as a result, unworthy of any apology today.

The conclusion of Rudd’s speech was met with lengthy applause and a standing ovation. Nelson’s speech in reply, also caused people to stand, but not for the same reasons.

He started out well, soliciting applause after acknowledging the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land upon which Canberra was built. But after that, he slowly but surely lost the support of the crowd.

Our responsibility, every one of us, is to understand what happened here. Our generation does not own these actions. Nor should it feel guilt for what was done, in many cases, with the best intentions.

But in saying we are sorry, and deeply so, we remind ourselves that each generation lives in ignorance of the long-term consequences of its decisions and its actions. Even when motivated by inherent humanity and decency to reach out to the dispossessed in adversity, our actions can have unintended consequences. As such many decent Australians are hurt by accusations of theft in relation to their good intentions.

It was around about this point that large groups of people watching the apology from right around the country began to stand up and turn their backs at Dr Nelson, in a symbol of disrespect that hasn’t been seen at such a high level of office since 1997, when John Howard angered a gathered crowd of Indigenous people by sternly refusing to apologise.

Shortly after the conclusion of Nelson’s speech, the entire parliament stood in apparent unanimity to vote in favour of the motion, though with the exceptions of Don Randall and Wilson Tuckey, who was publicly very skeptical about the point of such an apology, even moments before it was read.

“So the Prime Minister reads a speech, apparently some people stand up and sit down and then a miracle happens over night, there’ll be no petrol sniffing … and girls can sleep safely in the family bed at night,” [Wilson Tuckey] said.

When asked by Sky News if he supported the apology, a technical error occurred, with Mr Tuckey telling the camera he was unable to hear the question.

That’s our Wilson.

This apology has only been one step in a long and arduous process of reconciliation, but it’s a very important step symbolically. In the (paraphrased) words of Mick Dodson, we have to willingly go through all this sorry business before we can start the healing. Without an apology, we risk being viewed as insincere in our commitment to restitution for our predecessors’ actions, although until last year, this would have been precisely the case, generally speaking.

In all the talk just prior to, and following the apology, many people are crying about how the sky will surely fall in, with the inevitable flood of compensation cases that will necessary follow.

I personally think compensation should be given, I don’t think many people can successfully argue to the contrary, but I am sympathetic to the decision that Rudd made, not to include any compensation in the apology directly. An apology and compensation were two of the key recommendations of Mick Dodson and Sir Ronald Wilson’s report Bringing Them Home, but they are not one and the same. Compensation should become available at some point down the track, preferably soon, and claimants should not be made to undergo intrusive and traumatic, lengthy legal proceedings in order to secure it. But I think it’s wise to leave compensation as an issue quite independent of an apology.

We took an important step forward this morning, and I think I can earnestly say that for the first time in a long time, I’m very proud to call myself Australian. Contrast this with numerous times over the past 7 years or so, probably since Tampa, that invoked a fleeting feeling of nationalistic shame.

I might even celebrate Australia Day like a normal person one day in the future.

It’s been almost eleven years since the tabling of the Bringing them Home report, and tomorrow, the Australian Federal Parliament will formally apologise to the stolen generations.

This afternoon, Rudd made the full text of the apology available for the first time and, despite some earlier whining from some members of the coalition, specifically over the use of the word stolen, Brendan Nelson has signalled that he will support it as it stands.

Tonight on Lateline however, opposition spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott, made it quite clear that their support is out of respect and that the wording would be significantly different had the Coalition drafted it. He also added the corker that John Howard had done more positive things for Aboriginal people than anyone.

That was no gaff. He said it three times.

~

Anyway, tomorrow morning at about nine o’clock, Rudd will move that:

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

Reading this, I’m a tiny bit glad that Howard didn’t apologise to the stolen generations, that he didn’t take the chance to take the largest and most difficult step towards eventual reconciliation. Of course he should have done so years ago, but I’m glad Rudd will instead take the honour of being The Prime Minister Who Apologised.

In less than a week, the federal Australian Government will catch up to the eight states and territories, and only a decade behind them.

The Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Parliament on May 26, 1997. Within two days, Western Australia and South Australia, both Coalition-governed states at the time, had issued unreserved apologies¹. By the end of the year, only Queensland and the Northern Territory had yet to apologise. Queensland issued their apology in 1999, a little under a year after Peter Beattie was elected, and the NT issued theirs only six weeks after Clare Martin was elected in 2001.

On Wednesday, February 13, Kevin Rudd will add the federal Parliament to the list of parliaments who have apologised. Rudd has been light on the details and the wording of the apology so far, only giving the occasional clue about the rough scope of the apology. Yesterday for instance, he revealed that it “will be on behalf of the Parliament, not the Government, and will make reference to not only the members of the Stolen Generations but to their families and descendants.”

The opposition, under Dr Brendan Nelson, has given its in-principle support, but wants to see the exact wording before it goes to parliament, adding that “It’s essential that the Australian people have the opportunity to understand what is going to be said by their Parliament on their behalf.” (Update: the opposition are most concerned over the term Stolen Generation apparently. Perhaps they’d prefer to use Gerard Henderson’s newest euphemism, Separated Generation?)

As an aside, this entire issue must be a bit of a test for Brendan Nelson, who won the leadership of the opposition over Malcolm Turnbull largely because the latter announced his support for an apology. Just how Nelson will balance the pressure from his über-conservative party-room backers with the vast weight of popular opinion in favour of an apology, will either see him in strife, or will herald much needed reform for the Liberal party.

I think it’s entirely reasonable that the opposition should see the text of something they are expected to vote for or against before they are required to do so. That’s democracy. It’s just a shame that this opposition, when they were the government, all but refused this crucial aspect of parliamentary debate with respect to the legislation covering the intervention into Northern Territory communities.

On the other hand though, the Coalition had 11 years in which to shape the apology however they liked. Instead, the best they could muster was an insipid statement that:

acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our national history,

and

reaffirms the central importance of practical measures leading to practical results that address the profound economic and social disadvantage which continues to be experienced by many indigenous Australians.

Some might contend that the 1999 expression of ‘deep and sincere regret’ – which was occasionally more of an economic rationalist manifesto – was better than nothing, and they’d be right. But what irritates me about the whole affair was the government’s behaviour when Kim Beazely moved to amend the Prime Ministers motion so that the focal paragraph:

[The Parliament] expresses its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices,

would be replaced with:

[The parliament] unreservedly apologises to indigenous Australians for the injustice they have suffered, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to suffer as a consequence of this injustice [and] calls for the establishment of appropriate processes to provide justice and restitution to members of the stolen generation through consultation, conciliation and negotiation rather than requiring indigenous Australians to engage in adversarial litigation in which they are forced to relive the pain and trauma of their past suffering.

The motion was opposed and the Prime Minister’s politically impotent statement was passed without dissent.

I look forward to seeing the full text of the apology that will go to parliament next week and will certainly offer up an analysis, provided I’m not too busy engaging in just one instance of the plethora of practical reconciliatory efforts that go largely unnoticed.

~

¹Apologies from all state governments, as well as the federal Government’s infamous expression of deep and sincere regret, are available from the HREOC website.

It seems that Gerard Henderson, former culture warrior, has coined a new euphemism in relation to Australia’s indigenous history. Henderson has always disputed the term stolen generation, because the population of stolen aboriginal people hardly comprised an entire generation, so it’s odd that this new euphemism of his retains this word.

Here’s an excerpt from Henderson’s column in today’s Herald:

Most of the separated generation had European or other genes – in addition to indigenous ones. This means that an abject apology would require that some of today’s indigenous Australians apologise to their indigenous predecessors for the actions of some of their European predecessors.

Leaving aside the fact that this is a spurious conclusion, the choice of the word separated is curious, but is glaringly deliberate – Henderson uses it twice in the same article, and all three instances of the term stolen occur either in direct quotes or, in one case, in the name of a lobby group, the Stolen Generations Alliance.

I think Henderson’s intention here is crystal clear; stolen is such a harsh term; it connotes malevolence when, in his view, clearly no such malevolence existed since it cannot be proved with official bureaucratic documentation. But as the rest of us know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Separated though, is far too light a term. Couples separate when they’ve had enough of each other. Potassium nitrate separates when it cools. Breasts are separated (and lifted) with the help of the appropriate undergarments.

Separate, the verb, when applied to humans, implies reciprocal volition, mutual agreement, as it were. The forced removal of aboriginal children from their parents in an effort to effect linguistic and cultural homogeneity, involved no such volition on behalf of either parent or child; these families didn’t actively separate, they were forced apart by racist policy.

Moreover, separated, in its unmarked form, is an unergative verb, it necessitates no agent, no one who causes the sepatation to occur. They separated is far more natural than he separated them.

Stolen however, necessitates that someone, an agent, willfully acted to cause the theft. The forced removals that led to the existence of the stolen generation had an agent; the Australian Government. Thus in my opinion, stolen is a perfectly accurate word to describe what happened to aboriginal children in Australia’s Colonial past.

For anyone who’s interested in what is happening in remote aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, but don’t want to rely on the writings of those of us who blog and have seen the effects first-hand, last night’s Four Corners visited two communities, Maningrida in western Arnhem Land, and Aputula, or Finke, in the Simpson Desert, in a report titled Tracking the Intervention (follow the link to watch the program in full, or read the transcript from here).

Because the intervention began in the south of the Territory and gradually moved north, Aputula has endured the taskforce for longer, and is considered further down the path; it is a ‘phase three’ community. Maningrida on the other hand, is about as far north as you can go without getting wet, and is still in ‘phase one’.

Generally speaking, it was great to see such a huge and important issue given the airtime it deserves; far too few people in this country realise what is happening. In fact, my family saw for the first time glimpses of what I’ve been ranting about for the past four months, and they were all appalled at the blatant injustices being committed, and the covert assimilationist policies being carried out in the (rather insincere) name of child protection.

There were four main points detailed in the four Corners report that elicited gasps of disbelief and cynicism in my household, and I’ve summarised them here.

In Maningrida, the community women operate a night-watch called the Child Safety Service. The women ensure that children are safe at night while playing, and that they go home at a reasonable hour on school-nights. The service was praised in the Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle report:

The Inquiry regards the [Maningrida Community Action Plan Project, including the Child Safety Service] as an extremely valuable project and one that can be utilised to both establish a Community Justice Group and help guide reform in relation to the mainstream response to child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities.

However, the funding is about to cease, and none of the $1.3 billion spent so far on the intervention (a lot of which is going towards the extra Centrelink bureaucrats) is finding its way to helping out this group of 15 Maningrida women who are undertaking this ‘extremely valuable project’.

This is particularly hard to understand, since the purpose of the entire intervention is the protection of children, presumably, and not the scrapping of CDEP nor the quarantining of welfare payments, which are mere means to achieve this end, supposedly. It beggared our collective belief that something as closely related to the issue at the heart of the intervention as this project is, could be allowed to suffer, especially with all the investment the government is putting in.

The next aspect that caused considerable concern was the seizing of assets. Under the legislation, commonwealth appointed ‘Business Managers’ (community administrators, or Superintendents¹) have the power to seize community assets. In Maningrida, this means up to $40 million worth of land, structures and houses on some 32 outstations, vehicles and heavy machinery, community stores and so on, can be taken away with the mere stroke of a pen.

The community have been trying to get answers from their appointed ‘Business Manager’, Luke Morrish, as to what legal powers they have, and under what circumstances and under whose authority can the government seize their property. Here is the exchange:

MATTHEW RYAN, HEAD DJELK RANGER: There’s a lot of people are curious and want to know what’s going to happen with their assets and everything, you know, but there need to be like more members too, that way they can ask you questions as well. And like Peter said earlier, we had three times taskforce come up here …

LUKE MORRISH, TASKFORCE BUSINESS MANAGER: Mmm mmm.

MR: We’ve asked them, they haven’t come back with the answers and it’s not good enough. If you want that good working relationship with us mob, well you need to have the answers.

LM: I’ve got to say, I’m not going to be able to give you all the answers myself straight away, but when I say I’ll get the answers for you, I’ll get the answers for you. And I can’t run away, I can’t hide, I’m here so I’m going to have to do that.

MR: Well that’s what the taskforce promised us which they haven’t yet, so, hopefully it’ll be you.

LM: But they’re not, you know, and they probably had a view that, yeah, once I’m here on the ground that I’d be able to do that …

MR: Oh we hope so.

LM: And that’s why I’m here.

Same question evasion, different government department.

And so the report moves on to Aputula, where the intervention has been in full operation for months. Some people in Aputula were moved on from CDEP onto real jobs: seventeen out of the twenty-eight. Most of the seventeen are now employed in the child and aged care facility. There are also reports that people who were previously able to receive welfare without doing anything, now had to earn their money through work-for-the-dole.

There were however, a number of Aputula residents, mostly men, who were employed under CDEP to tend to the community-owned fruit orchard. While they provided food for the community, there was no commercial viability in the venture as they couldn’t grow enough surplus to sell, so the project was funded by CDEP. Its cessation meant that the former workers will be moved on to something else. In the meantime they receive ‘CDEP transitional’ payments of $8.24 (that’s not a typo: eight dollars and twenty-four cents) per fortnight, for 50 hours work! That’s less than 20 cents an hour!

Since the men’s wives often work in the aged and child care centre and get a steady wage, the men feel justifiably disinclined to work 25 hours a week for an extra four bucks. This is how the government apparently gets people into jobs.

The worst part for the men though, is that whereas before they were performing important community-oriented tasks and were widely regarded as good workers, they now feel completely undervalued.

The welfare quarantining has also come into effect in Aputula. The basic premise is that the government, under the guise of the ‘Minister’, can mandate that half of all welfare payments in proscribed areas (all aboriginal communities and town camps) will be spent on certain goods or services, including food, clothing and bills, and will be spent either at a Woolworths (of which two exist in the Territory excluding Darwin) or a community store. And it’s lucky that Aputula have one of the latter, otherwise residents will have to drive some three-and-a-half hours to get to the nearest Woolies, in Alice Springs.

It sounds simple, but it has been an administrative nightmare and required the enlisting of some 350 extra staff for Centrelink to figure out the details. But it seems that when it comes to Aputula, they’ve merely passed on the job of working out the details to the communities.

Every morning Centrelink emails her updates on the quarantined money owed to each Finke [Aputula] resident on welfare. She downloads it and then enters the new data on her computer in the shop. She then prints out this list so she can refer to it all day when customers want to use their income managed funds for purchases.

Many customers come into the shop several times a day for small purchases. Every time they do, they sign their receipt.

Many can’t write, so they mark the receipt with a cross, and Rewa Angell [Manager of the Finke store] prints the name and attests that it is the customer in question. At the close of business, she then reconciles each receipt against the Centrelink data.

It’s turned community store operators into micro accountants.

I’d like to finish off this post by pointing out that I really haven’t spoken much about child sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, violence, incarceration rates and all those other issues that are central to this debate and central to (the most recent incarnation of) the report that started it all. There’s a good reason for this, and that is that the response from the government to these issues – this very intervention – doesn’t address them either. Instead they’ve gone after community assets, land rights, the permit system, and everything there is that makes living in remote communities possible. In this respect, and I say this (repeatedly) without delving too far into the realm of politicking, it looks as though the real motivation is to free up that resource-rich land.

Kim Christen has written an excellent post on the history of the intervention so far, as a guest-post on the brilliant Anthropology blog Savage Minds, which I have thus far neglected to add to my blogroll (note to self: fix that) and it is well worth the read. I spent quite a few minutes composing a lengthy response there, but as it contained a link or two, it hasn’t appeared yet. In other words, I rote U a rply but Askimet eated it².

~

¹White bureaucrats who were employed in the earlier days of Australia, during the height of the Assimilationist days, to act as paternal overseer of all aboriginal people within their jurisdiction. Their job was effectively to keep them downtrodden.

²I can’t believe I just made a lolcat reference! I’ll make amends by showing you this xkcd comic:

The Great Debate between Herr Howard and The Ruddster was tonight, and I do believe, unless I’m hallucinating, that I heard Mr Howard say he was sorry – and yes, it was in relation to Australia’s history with respect to Aborigines. Except, and this is the clincher, it was an apology that, rather than an apology for.

You can see the section on reconciliation extracted from the entire debate on the ABC website here, and don’t worry, you don’t have to sift through too much to find Howard’s pseud-apology, it’s right at the beginning. In his own words:

Well, I’m sorry, that people were mistreated in the past. Of course I’m sorry. But that’s different from this generation accepting responsibility for the deeds of an earlier generation.

Look, the idea of asking a present generation to apologise for the deeds of an earlier generation is offensive to millions of Australians, and I will never embrace that.

Hear that? He "will never embrace that".

A few years ago I wrote a lengthy semantics essay on the subject of the apology, which earned me a high distinction¹ from the very astute Michael Walsh, and this is an excellent case-study. Howard apologised that a state of affairs has transpired, though he specifically rules out taking any responsibility for it. This is contrasted with apologising for a state of affairs for which the speaker is responsible in some way.

If you want me to go into detail, here is the breakdown of the speech act ‘to be sorry’ into semantically simple sub-events (where x represents a state of affairs). And, sorry for the simplistic language like ‘feel bad for’, but this is how semantic events are traditionally analysed:

    I know that x has occurred
    [I think that I caused x]
    I think that x was bad for you
    I assume you feel bad because of x
    [I assume you feel bad towards me for causing x]
    I say: I feel bad because of that (edict)
    I say this because I want you to know this
    I assume you want to know this

Those two lines within square brackets represent the crucial semantic difference between an apology that (where they’re absent) and an apology for. Remember the Pope’s famous apology that some people were offended by his incredibly racist remarks? He did not imply that he caused the state of affairs (the offending remark), nor did he concede that others felt bad towards him for his having caused such a state of affairs. In effect, he skillfully and tactfully avoided responsibility.

Of course I’m not suggesting John Howard is responsible, either directly or indirectly, for any of the atrocities committed with respect to aborigines in this country before about 1975. He couldn’t have been – he was just a Canterbury Boys’ High School student appearing on radio quiz shows.

Either way, specifically saying ‘sorry’ is a step much farther than he’s so far been prepared to take. His only concessions have been to move a Motion of Reconciliation, which expresses:

…deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices.

For perspective, all state and territory governments at the time issued there own apology and all of them, except for the federal ‘expression of regret’, included some inflection on the sequence ‘apologise for’. All 9 official statements are published on the Wikipedia page about the Bringing The Home report, which sparked the reconciliation debate back in mid 1999.

What’s my point in this post? Should Howard personally accept responsibility? I don’t think so, no. Should he, as the current leader of the government, issue a statement on behalf of all Australians which assumes collective responsibility for shameful acts of colonisation, systematic abuse and even genocide, resulting in there being a seriously disadvantaged group of people who stand to lose there culture if we don’t act, within a country that prides itself on its so-called economic excellence?

I personally think the answer to that one, hard as it may be for others to accept, is ‘yes’.

~


¹Sorry – it was one of the few HDs I got during my entire tertiary education.

I don’t want to be presumptuous about the up-coming election or anything, but since it seems quite probable that the government won’t be re-elected, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the good old days when John Howard wasn’t Prime Minister.

So here’s an extract of his very entertaining appearance on Jack Davey’s radio quiz show on 2GB in 1955, except it’s considerably shorter than a version I heard on ABC radio a couple of years ago. If anyone knows where a copy of the original is, don’t keep it a secret. It goes for about 10 minutes and is hilarious.

Here’s the extract I found:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

I especially like his answer than you’d find a mezzanine floor ‘on the floor of a house in a- a middle-eastern country’.

As funny as it is, hearing this is kind of eery. It’s like watching Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with a young, innocent Anakin Skywalker, who you know is inevitably going to become Darth Vadar in time for the story to catch up to the original Star Wars films… of thirty years earlier, and summarily bugger up the galaxy.

You – well, not me, since I was never hugely into Star Wars, but this was too fine an analogy to pass up – you kind of want to yell to the young Skywalker Don’t turn to the dark side, Anakin!

Don’t go into politics, Little Johnny!

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