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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The astonishing lies of the no campaign burn like lurid rockets in our sky. We must not go saying no

The astonishing lies of the no campaign burn like lurid rockets in our sky. We must not go saying no

Only a yes vote opens the gate that has been closed for 250 years

I can’t believe this old line is running wild again. We have had land rights decisions (“They’re gonna take your house and barbecue pit, mate”); the Mabo decision (Again, “They’re gonna take, etc,”); followed by the Wik judgment of 1996 (“Mate, your swimming pool too!”); and now that crude three-times-disproved claim is back, with all the other astonishing lies. They burn like lurid rockets in our sky. And those who launch them, knowing that they will harm all who gaze upon them, are proud of them! Yet if in a public setting you accused these folk of being dishonest, they’d want to fight you to assert their honour.

They pretend that the new advisory body, the voice, representing 3% of us, will persuade the government to pass some berserk law that will disadvantage the other 97% of the vote and thus be sure to lose power at the next election! And in the gloom of mendacity, the small plea of First Nations people burns on: let us counsel you on what will work for us. In health, housing, schooling let us help ensure against waste and ill-aimed expensive policies that have no chance of working. And help us live as long as you.

The no campaign is telling us lies based on a system of government that has never existed in Australia. They will do damage far beyond the vote. For example, there’s no capital punishment in Australia, is there? Good for us! Yet there has been, since the royal commission into Indigenous deaths in custody in 1992, in excess of 550 First Nations people who have died in forms of custody. There’s your capital punishment. Death for Aboriginals. We’ve done better than Texas.

I knew in the 1980s, long before the royal commission, an immensely gifted man who died in custody; an Aboriginal performer with whom I travelled and whom I saw enchanting audiences at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut. Back in Australia, he took a car to which he had regular access, but in this case the owners reported it missing and he was stopped and arrested. Was he capable of assuming he had permission when he might not? Sure. But is assuming permission a crime deserving death? He was found hanging in his cell even before Indigenous deaths were particularly noted except by the extremely well-informed, of whom I was not one.

But now there are juveniles in our adult prisons – just as on the First Fleet – and the majority of them are Aboriginal. They will continue to be locked in adult prisons and only Aboriginal advice will alter what is an appalling, disgraceful national fact. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are asking for a non-legislative obligation to craft policies that will alter Australia for the better. To refuse this chance, to vote no, is a form of assent to these and other pyramids of Indigenous death.

One of the most demeaning lies is that First Nations people who have succeeded in white culture are elites with nothing to tell us of their own people. For over 80 years now I’ve heard the complaints about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people won’t take advantage of opportunities, but now we have many who have. “Elite” is a common word used by the press. It turns, for those at whom it is levelled, a right to say the truth into an arrogant presumption.

When I was young and still had auburn hair, I wrote a novel about one Jimmie Blacksmith, who goes berserk when being told that if he makes himself white in behaviour, he will be respected as a white proves untrue. This is the greatest lie, the “elite” lie, and it is one imposed against the talents of notable First Nations people. Let me honour some of them here: Alexis Wright, Marcia Langton, Stan Grant, Ellen van Neerven, Melissa Lucashenko, Anita Heiss, Ali Cobby Eckermann. The term “elite” implies a slippery escape from the ranks. To label such stars elite is an insult to rival all other insults.

Only a yes vote can erase such silliness. Only a yes vote opens the gate that has been closed for 250 years and – according to the no campaign – can continue to be closed for another skein of years. As for yes, I have been driven, in my last two weeks of being merely 87, to address my demographic of old folk in a clunky bush rap and to urge that we must not go saying no.

“Yes” is the kindly river in an equal land:

“Yes” is the close of fight, and peace as planned.

Vote “Yes” and end the fatal wars

Of weapons and of laws.

Say, “Yes” and bless the field where seed is cast,

Say, “Yes” and shame the bullets of the past,

Say, “Yes”, old woman and old bloke,

At last put out the fires the haters stoke.

While all the normal talk-jocks tell you, “Wait!”

Ask what they have to gain through their stale hate?

They live off Us-All versus Them, not off you and me,

In equal status of the truly free!

In equal status then! Save us from ourselves. Vote YES!

Thomas Keneally is a novelist. He is the author of more than 40 books, including the Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s Ark

Thomas Keneally’s article was first published in the Guardian

The latest polling on the Voice referendum confirms what was already apparent: Those who don’t know – those with less education and those who were taught lies instead of Australia’s history – are the most likely to vote No.

The No vote is strongest among the “old” (well, those aged more than 65) and those in regional Australia, according to a YouGov poll published on Wednesday.

What those two groups have in common is lower-than-average education.

The corollary holds true as well – the better-educated people are, the more likely they are to vote Yes.

I’m a member of the 65+ cohort and have a still-functioning memory of the lies we were told in school instead of Australian history. To the extent that Aboriginal people were mentioned at all, we were fed the line that they were very primitive folk and that was about it. By contrast, our coloniser forebears were heroes battling the elements and exploring a harsh land.

There might have been a suggestion about the diseases European colonisers imported taking a terrible toll, but basically Aborigines simply disappeared from the syllabus and pretty much did from most of Australia.

End of story.

Truth not taught

I don’t know at what point the truth of our history was allowed into schools, but nobody now over 65 was taught it. Unless they have subsequently sought out the truth, there’s a good chance they still don’t know that this land from bottom to top was seized by European invaders in a long, bloody, vicious, illegal and lopsided war marked by appalling massacres and deprivations and followed by marginalisation, neglect and effective slavery.

The last “official” massacre was less than a century ago. In 1928, Constable William Murray led a posse in the Northern Territory that “officially” killed at least 31 people in what became known as the Coniston massacre.

Historians believe the real toll was between 100 and 200 people. Murray was cleared of any wrongdoing and remained in the NT police until the 1940s, retiring to Adelaide where he died in 1975.

“Unofficial” massacres continued in northern Australia well into the 1930s, repeating the history of this country wherever Europeans were seizing Aboriginal land.

This truth of European Australia’s stolen heritage was kept a secret when we Boomers were at school.

And when the truth finally emerged about the blood on settlers’ hands, the crime that stains our heritage and this nation’s wealth, another great lie was perpetrated to dismiss what was pejoratively termed the “black armband” view of history.

Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott dominate the narrative on the Voice in conservative ranks. Photo: Getty

Led by John Howard but with plenty of support from those who had profited most from the crime, the lie was spread high and low and remains current in conservative ranks. Just ask Tony Abbott or Senator Price.

It’s a lie, though, because our history is what our history is. It’s not open to interpretation as “black armband” or “rose-coloured glasses” or “polka dots with rainbows” or anything else. It is simply the truth.

David Marr’s new book, Killing for Country: A Family Story, is another plank in truth telling with no colouring of armbands. Marr found he was one of the many Australians who had an ancestor involved in massacring Aboriginal people as their land was stolen.

Injustice haunts the nation

Once you are aware of the truth, of the reality of Australia from its start, the injustice haunts the nation. I couldn’t write about our country, about love of country last year in The Summertime of Our Dreams road trip without facing it.

To quote myself, it was “guns, germs and steel”, as another historian wrote.

A massacre here, smallpox there. An understanding made early. Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s diary, April 10, 1816:

“In pursuance of this resolution, and on the grounds of the most imperious necessity, arising from their own hostile, daring, outrageous, and sanguinary Proceedings, I have this Day ordered three Separate Military Detachments to march into the Interior and remote parts of the Colony, for the purpose of Punishing the Hostile Natives, by clearing the Country of them entirely, and driving them across the mountains; as well as if possible to apprehend the Natives who have committed the late murders and outrages, with the view of their being made dreadful and severe examples of, if taken alive. — I have directed as many Natives as possible to be made Prisoners, with the view of keeping them as Hostages until the real guilty ones have surrendered themselves, or have been given up by their Tribes to summary Justice. — In the event of the Natives making the smallest show of resistance – or refusing to surrender when called upon so to do – the officers Commanding the Military Parties have been authorized to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on Trees the Bodies of such Natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the Survivors.”

What people miss is that there was nowhere to “drive” the natives to – the land was fully occupied by other clans. The much hallowed Governor Macquarie was simply ordering genocide.

If we grasped the extent of the crime, we’d begrudge the survivors nothing. The word “custodians” is preferred to “owners”, this land that is never owned but ends up inhabiting the people who are of it.

History airbrushed

There were survivors, are survivors, some more, some less. History airbrushed. We were not told about the resistance or the genuine sanguinary proceedings.

“Aborigines were employed as stockmen on the stations.” Wallabadah Station, Goonoo Goonoo further north – 600,000 acres, the best of the Liverpool plains, selected by the Australian Agricultural Company in 1834 as a swap with the government for half of the AAC’s one million acres at Port Stephens. The dispossessed barely a footnote while a fortune was made from wool.

“Dispersal” was the euphemism of choice in Queensland. Native Police units called in from the south to hunt down and massacre those that the local settlers and disease did not. The Queensland Frontier Wars were fierce in the north and lasted decades. It took nearly 20 years to kill more than one thousand Aborigines around Mackay – a district that was proudly represented in Federal Parliament by a coal-hugging buffoon dedicated to “mobilising support for our nation’s history and heritage against black armband revisionism”.

If you can feel the land, you can feel the blood in it. Cross the First Custodians’ land and feel it. Wonder into what eternity all our actions might dissolve. Every other country town has a historical society. Not many dare dig too deeply in their history lest their hands come up red.

Memorials are very rare

Memorials to our first war are very rare indeed.

Captain Thunderbolt held up the Northern Mail in Bendemeer. Well, it was the local mail and he was the resident bushranger for more than six years, so it had to happen more than once.

Further up before Uralla – a fine open stretch of country, less populated – there’s Thunderbolt’s Rock – graffitied granite where he would sometimes keep watch and not far from Kentucky Creek, where he was shot.

And Thunderbolt’s Cave off the highway at Black Mountain, south of Guyra and Thunderbolt’s Grave in Uralla. The grave and death sites are heritage listed. Two kilometres on from Kentucky Creek is unlisted Terrible Vale, the scene of one of the many massacres of First Nations people.

I’ve never found or heard of a memorial to the murdered Anaiwan and Kamilaroi in these parts, all along New England, but there is the Myall Creek Memorial out on the western edge of the tablelands, 115km from Glenn Innes.

The only exceptional thing about Myall Creek is that seven of the 12 perpetrators were tried, convicted and hanged.

We need the truth telling. We need to know and acknowledge the reality of our heritage and the ongoing ramifications.

European Australia thrives on the proceeds of crime our Constitution does not acknowledge.

There are many people who do not know about that. And there are others who want to keep them ignorant.

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