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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 24. 28th September 1972

Apologist for Inaction

Apologist for Inaction

Drawing of a panther

"A lazy person: detriballsed, living halfway between black and white, reduced to a miserable hanger-on around white man's towns; with life a continual mist of misery, poverty, racial prejudice, sickness and death."

This is the commonly accepted picture to-day of "fringe-dwellers", the mixed-blood Aborigines—koories — of our land. It is a picture reinforced by most literature on the social workers most connected with Aborigines. It is also accepted by most sympathisers with the Aboriginal cause, who assume that by some process "white racism" is to blame, and that Aborigines must be helped out.

Recently I spent many weeks with a group of Aboriginal seasonal workers. It was at a bush camp, on the banks of the Namoi River, near the small outback N.S.W. Town of Wee Waa This is a cotton-growing centre, and during the summer weed-chipping season, the dark people arrive from throughout North and North-West N.S.W., and Southern Queensland. Up to 1000 Aboriginal workers and their families then live in illegal bush camps around the town, supplementing the few hundred local Aborigines.

Temperatures are very high, the hours are long, the pay is low, the condition are bad: very few white people can take the heat, and intense sunburn associated with working in the sun ten hours a day But, instead of the miserable group of fringe-dwellers, the dark people were, in general, a proud group, proud to be Aboriginal. They were healthy, well fed, well clothed. The young Aborigines, in fact, are very similar to University students in their clothes, long hair boards and music tastes.

They were not lazy — workers on the cotton fields ranged from 13 year old girls to grandmothers; they did not mistrust whites; in fact the whole pattern of living is a direct contradiction to most literature on the "Aboriginal Problem."

The "Aboriginal Problem" is apparently that these people are not yet completely assimilated into the so-called Australian way of life. They remain a distinct sub-group with different living patterns, housing, type of employment, and family relationships. The government policy is one of assimilation, with the implied hope that future generation of Aborigines will be white in everything but skin colour.

The assimilation policy is the easy solution, One can ask the Prime Minister how many he assimilated last week, and he can give a definite answer the number who moved into Housing Commission homes on the edge of some country town.

The U.S.A. abandoned its assimilation policy for the Indian in 1934, and substituted land rights. Australia should moderate its own assimilation policy by granting land rights tor those people in a tribal or semi-tribal situation, who retain a spiritual relationship with the land. At the same time it must also moderate its assimilation policy for the mixed-blood Aborigines of the closer settled parts of Australia.

I doubt if the advocates of the assimilation policy have ever actually lived with Aborigines, experiencing the close-knit relationship of the family, It is a relationship which extends past the immediate family, and their old people are not put in homes. I also doubt if they have ever listened to the singing to a guitar of young Aboriginal men and girls, around a campfire at night. I doubt if they have ever wondered if the Australian way of life is the best for all Australians.

In Wee Waa the local Aborigines live in a reserve: this is not of the type familiar to Queenslanders, which often have some form of Government authority prevailing. Two miles out of Wee Waa, between the river and railway, is a bare dusty area ol land On this are old tents, wrecked caravans, and iron and wood shelters Many Aborigines live here. There has, been no attempt to integrate with the town. The Namoi Council would never in a hundred years provide electricity or a water supply; the churches would never establish a branch here; the Government would never provide a pre-school or medical assistance. The only way to get these amenities, which should be the birthright of every Australian, would be to move into Housing Commission homes in Wee Waa — If the re-housing programme reaches that town sometime this century.

Why is it not possible for the Federal Government to provide these amenities on the reserves, while at the same time continuing the re-housing programme for those who want to move into town. It was empowered to make such moves after the 1967 referendum. It might mean that in any one year, more than 10 Aborigines out of 150,000 attend Australian Universities; it might mean that living standards are raised from desperate to very poor; it might even mean a lowering of, infant mortality to only 3 or 4 times that of the nearby white town.

There are other areas where Government intervention is desirable — providing amenities for the seasonal workers. In many areas, good cheap accommodation is provided. However, at Wee Waa the Aboriginal seasonal workers are forced to live in illegal bush camps along the river. Such conditions must be experienced to know what it means — working 10 hours a day in extreme heat, returning to a hot campsite, cooking tea over an open fire, drinking warm polluted river water, and with disease an ever-present possibility — while down the road the white cotton chippers live in comparative luxury, in huts provided by the cotton growers.

The growers claim that to provide a camping ground with amenities for their Koorie workers and their families would be impossible, as those from different towns would fight if placed in the same vicinity. It is difficult to see their reasoning, as in the area where I was, Aborigines from several inland towns, and from the coast, were in close proximity, and were friendly at all times.

Apart from this, there was no extreme racism of the type one might expect — even though most of the cotton growers are American, including some from the Deep South. They do not pay award rates for overtime, or holiday and Sunday work, but this applies to all chippers, black and white. There were small annoying incidents, such as finding it very hard to hitch a ride. There was a very high rate of arrests — 83 in a typical weekend. Of these, perhaps 70 would be for drunkenness, and nearly all would be Aboriginal. The arrests I saw, including those of some friends, seemed unjustified at times. Most were made in the beer gardens or lounge of the mainly Aboriginal hotel, where no harm was done by anyone. But the worst incident, perhaps, was not here, but near the Murray River, where an orchardist, when giving me keys to a hut, said "Let any of your black mates in here, even for five minutes, and you're fired."

Whatever the answer to the problems, it will be found by Aboriginals themselves. The advocates of Moratorium style demonstrations fail to realize that several hundred Aborigines in their own demonstration would be far more effective in swaying public opinion, than many thousands of white university students — university students who have never spoken to an Aborigines in their life, and who assume that the Black Panther militants represent all blacks.

White Australians must listen to black Australians; but they must remember that, just as the extreme radical university students do not represent all students, so some black militants do not necessarily represent their people.

How many Queenslanders changed their minds after the Springbok demonstrations? How many were converted to the Aboriginal cause when a Black Panther at the University of Queensland last Summer, expressed regret that Aboriginals could not arm themselves against Brisbane police? And why did University students, most of whom have marched for peace, cheer him?

Which alternative — "The Third Dawn" of black and white together, or the Third World of black separatism, urban guerillas and death?

Michael Friedericn Third Year Science