In recent years, Australia’s track record in the pursuit of justice for the First Nations People of Australia has been characterised by a somewhat contradictory range of circumstances.
On the one hand, there have been some developments which seemingly provide encouragement that Australia’s capacity to recognise the historical injustices inflicted on Indigenous Australians is improving. For example, there has been a significant increase in media interest in the ‘Change the Date’ campaign, which seeks to change the date of Australia Day from January 26 – the date when Arthur Phillip raised the flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove in 1788 – in acknowledgement of the reality that, for Indigenous Australians, that date has greater relevance as ‘Invasion Day’, a day when the genocide of Indigenous Australian began. In addition, there is growing recognition of the troubling legacy and symbolic meaning of the prominently placed statues of such figures as Lachlan Macquarie and James Cook. The calls for, at the very least, additional plaques contextualising the existing plaques with ones reminding viewers of such facts as that James Cook did not actually “discover” Australia, received significant media coverage. Despite predictable opposition from the obvious opponents, the media attention demonstrated there was at least active discussion and consideration of these issues.
When we step away from culturally symbolic issues however and examine more structural issues, we can see that the amount of newspaper ink expended starts to rapidly diminish (and with it, the basis for encouragement). An example of a report that received comparatively limited coverage was the finding that the Northern Territory Intervention of 2007 (backed at the time by both major parties and for which the Racial Discrimination Act had been suspended) had been based on incorrect evidence. As The Australian reported: the royal commission into youth detention had heard that “claims of high child sexual abuse rate in remote Aboriginal communities that prompted the 2007 emergency intervention in the Northern Territory have not been backed up by data collected in the decade since.” Another issue that attracted relatively limited mainstream and social media interest is the revelations in John Pilger’s 2013 film ‘Utopia’. The film examined the abject material conditions in the Northern Territory town of Utopia and detailed how little had improved since Pilger’s last documentary on Indigenous poverty in 1985. The broader reception from Australians was so limited that Adam Goodes was moved to write an aricle in Fairfax, stating that “I find the silence about Utopia in mainstream Australia disturbing and hurtful”.
If one were to take these events and form a conclusion about the state of Australia’s progress in Indigenous affairs, it would seem to be that: over time, the capacity for white Australians (particularly on the left) to recognise culturally symbolic issues confronting Indigenous Australians is increasing, while the capacity for white Australians to meaningfully confront and improve the material conditions of Indigenous people is either static or decreasing. To state this is not to deny that there are media publications and (generally Indigenous) writers who regularly highlight these issues, but rather that for progressive Australians, stories relating to cultural representation tend to set social media abuzz and draws the greatest amount of digital ink. Nor is it to deny that issues relating to cultural representation or the date of Australia Day are unimportant or undeserving of attention. There is a growing sense however, that improvements in our symbolic recognition of Indigenous Australia seem increasingly disconnected from the capacity to systemically and materially advance reconciliation and social justice for First Nations people.
I do not doubt that most Australians sympathetic to the cause of Indigenous Australians are unaware of the insufficiency of such cultural gestures in terms of pursuing meaningful justice. However, the number of articles written about changing the date as compared to the number of articles written about the disproven premise of the Northern Territory Intervention does reveal a deeper truth about the left, in Australia and elsewhere. As the writer Fredrik Deboer has written in a different context; “the left has almost no political power, but it has cultural power, so it obsesses over cultural spaces.” In other words, ‘we’ (the Australian left) can’t meaningfully influence the Australian Government’s (regardless of which party) social policies towards Indigenous Australians, but we can potentially succeed in getting new plaques installed on statues. We can’t compel the federal, state and territory governments to actually implement the recommendations of the thirty-year-old Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, but we can change the date of Australia Day. In fact, we can’t even really change the date of Australia Day, but we can try and change the date of the Triple J Hottest 100. One might contend that we can try and change both material and cultural conditions, to which another Deboer quote seems relevant: “I always want to ask not if we can do both but if we are doing both.”
It is not an unreasonable hypothesis that advancing symbolic recognition can act as a vehicle for further change and, considering it’s been nearly a decade since the national apology to the Stolen Generations by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, we have a useful reference point to test this hypothesis. Accordingly, if there’s one area in which the national apology could be considered to raise consciousness and awareness among White Australians, it could be in relation to the removal of Indigenous children from their families. As the academic Larissa Behrendt has pointed out however, the percentage of Indigenous children in out-of-home care placed with their own Indigenous family has reduced from 45.3 per cent in 2007 to 35.9 per cent in 2016. In other words, the number of Indigenous children removed from their families is higher than at the time of the apology. This appears to indicate that the advances in cultural recognition of the injustices inflicted on First Nation Australians do not act as a vehicle for broader change, but seem to take place independently of it.
If the achievements in relation to cultural symbolism can take place without having any impact on the material conditions, then can they really be considered to be symbolising progress or are they rather just substituting for it? As Celeste Liddle has observed: “I can only conclude from all this that changing the date [of Australia Day] would be little more than celebrating the invasion and genocide of Indigenous people on another day.”
At a certain point, it is almost worth considering whether the repugnant symbols of colonialism represented in the 26th of January Australia Day and in the statues counter-intuitively serve a useful function of reminding Australians of how far they have to go in regards to justice for Indigenous Australians. It is certainly not a pointless exercise to advocate for the reform of these cultural symbols, but the more energy that is focused on them by non-Indigenous progressive Australians at the expense of focus on other elements of Indigenous affairs risks obscuring what is necessary with what is simply possible. The risk is that a future Australian Government might calculate that agreeing to change the date of Australia Day would reduce the political and media pressure on it to take other meaningful actions, particularly in areas that may involve significant expenditure and systemic change. Ultimately, for a victory in the culture wars to not be phyrric, it must either reflect or be a vehicle for the advancement of justice for Indigenous Australians at a material level.