Arthur Calwell, the former leader of the Australian Labor Party and minister for Immigration since Ben Chifley was a stalwart defender of the White Australia Policy. Calwell, in his 1972 autobiography “Be Just and Fear Not” described his view that an injustice had been done to the Indigenous tribes who inhabited the Australian continent before settlement. The scope of this injustice, he does not dive into any significant detail.
The challenge for contemporary Nationalists, nativists, and our political adversaries, is to come home to finding an agreement on what is equitable for contemporary Australia, given what occurred in the past. The views on what the past constituted vary, from the radical black-arm band historians view of unrestrained bigotry and genocide, to the polar opposite view, of settlement and just war. The truth as always is, lays somewhere in the middle. This article is not a treatise on the history of Australian settlement, but it is instead a perspective worth considering.
When considering the history of Aboriginal nations in this land, a few fundamental points are clear:
(1) The nations were diverse, not only culturally but also genetically, with three primary ethno-racial categories of indigenous persons to this land found at Settlement and thereafter by archeology.
(2) The populations of the nations were (compared to European standards) sparse, and it cannot be claimed that they meaningfully, through exclusive possession and use occupied the entire continent. But instead, travelled regularly along large tracts of it, seasonally in pursuit of food and other cultural-religious objects.
(3) The indigenous tribes/nations were not eternally at peace with one another, and were highly conscientious of tribal boundaries, and would fight to maintain them, and the benefit of the land therein.
When British, and broader European settlement came to the continent, in its first instance, the law recognised the rights of Indigenous tribes to maintain exclusive possession of their own lands which they were clearly in possession or exercised dominion over. As Chief Justice Forbes stated in the NSW case R v Ballard (1829) “The Englishman has no right wantonly to deprive the savage of any property he possesses or assumes a dominion over.“).
The fundamental question about what must be done to reconcile the settlers of this land, with the indigenous nations, is to agree on a moral basis, how do we recognise the ownership of land. Is it meaningful occupation and use (dominion), or something else, such as a spiritual connection over the entire continent. It is not an unreasonable view, that nature in-fact teaches us meaningful occupation and use of land is the truest form of ownership from which somebody may draw rights and benefits, for this is practiced by animals and man alike, the world-over, and was indeed practiced by Indigenous tribes. The question then is, what level of occupation and use is necessary to distinguish land as owned as opposed to land which has simply been travelled upon, even that land which had been walked for generations.
Surely it can be agreed that the migration of the Celts from the black sea to Ireland and Scotland, which had occurred over many generations, would not yield to them a perpetual claim of ownership over vast swarths of Europe, even if they felt a spiritual connection to the land. Nor would the once occupation of the Mongols over Eastern Europe yield to them a perpetual claim. The land that belongs to these people, is the land which they meaningfully occupy and use. There are examples of this amongst the Indigenous tribes of Australia, particularly in coastal districts which were more suitable for permanent habitation and a less nomadic lifestyle. Where it can be clearly demonstrated they were dispossessed of these permanent settlements and districts, an injustice is naturally done, and in this instance, a more reasonable discussion on reparations may be had, if not already settled by treaty or agreement at the time or since through the charitable works of the crown and the settlers.
The millions of open acres of territory, which was found empty, and consequentially settled by our forebears, developed and cultivated into productive land through hard work, blood, sweat and tears, would yield no argument for an injustice having occurred to the Indigenous. The fallacious idea of Indigenous tribes having true, beneficial ownership over this continent has been taken to an irrational extreme, by a group of committed political activists (who themselves, are not Indigenous), actuated by a hatred for the Heritage founding stock of Australia’s settlement.
The Indigenous tribes, who feel a spiritual attachment to the land is something we Nativists share, as Rex Ingamells indicates in his 1938 work, Conditional Culture, “In so far as the white man has set his seal upon it, Australia is European. From grazing sheep and cattle, from rabbits, foxes, and prickly pears to aeroplanes, wireless, cricket matches, talking pictures and beer, Australia bears our seal. Yet we are influenced by her environment more powerfully than we know. Let us be honest about it.”, Best placed in prose by Ian Mudie in the 1940s:
“This is the land preparing for those sons who shall acknowledge their full fellowship with every fistful of its soil, sons who shall hold that soil as their own flesh, sons who shall be fanatic and consecrated in their loyalty.”
Mudie here, describes in essence, the spirit of the Nativist, not too removed from the classical depiction of the Aboriginal; The man who affirms his full fellowship with the land, the stewardship of it, the recognition their flesh is borne by the produce of this soil, who are fanatical in loyalty to it. Although it can be said, there are a class of people in this country who are here to extract wealth from it, to go and return “home” by exploitation, something Rex Ingamells writes about in his Conditional Culture. There is undoubtedly, a large class of European-descent people born, native and naturalised to this land over generations, who for all intents and purposes have taken not only a legal ownership of the land by meaningful use and possession, but a quasi-spiritual one also – shall you welcome them to country? shall you disposes them of wealth gotten by hard work and sacrifice to offer up to others who share no meaningful possession but only that which is spiritual, and arguably equivalent to that of a Native Australian?
These are contentious issues, and worthy of far more discussion. But at the base, the nativist position ought to be one that recognises that reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is worthy, on moral grounds, however: The extent of what is necessary to truly reconcile those, who already have been the benefactors of modern law, medicine, industrial agriculture and compensation schemes afforded by the Commonwealth through student support, housing and a host of other programs ought to be carefully analysed against the background fact that, the Indigenous peoples of this nation, did not exercise meaningful dominion over the majority of the land which was found unoccupied and has since through the sacrifice of our settling forebears, become productive and habitable land.
Our forebears were dispossessed of their own land, the commons, through the Enclosure acts and clearances in the United Kingdom by the financial interests of the barons and lords of their own time. They were sent to the other side of the world, usually as convict labour, or in indentured servitude for terms over a decade (something akin to slavery). They toiled, bled and died under the southern cross to make a land worth living in, with very few examples of prejudicial malice to the Indigenous. The fruits, and rights conferred by their labors, should not be so easily offered up to the altar of the modern idol of “anti-racism” to benefit those who only exercised a spiritual connection to land. For those wrongly dispossessed of land, which was truly occupied and used, we may have a discussion.
The Referendum for an Aboriginal voice to parliament, is not the solution to this moral issue. The Indigenous representatives of the Commonwealth and the states and territories, duly elected by their constituents, are more than competent to consult with the rest of the nation on what policy settings might improve the dignity and welfare of Indigenous Australians.
M. K. Grant
A.N.A Governor, Canberra