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Protests, land rights and riots: postcolonial struggles in Australia in the 1980s.

Protests, land rights and riots: postcolonial struggles in Australia in the 1980s

Barry Morris 2013

Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 216pp, ISBN 9781922059345 (pbk)

Fighting hard: the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League

Richard Broome 2015

Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 275pp, ISBN 9781922059864 (pbk)

Reading these two books side by side makes one aware of the different ways that Aboriginal people have pursued political struggle; to read them together is also to be reminded of the different ways of writing political history. Both books are about Aboriginal public policy and the challenges of Aboriginal activism, and both have something to say about the difference between Aboriginal forms of collective action and the norms of Australian governance.

Morris's book is set in north-western New South Wales and focuses on a very sad sequence of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Lloyd Boney died in police custody at Brewarrina on 6 August 1987. On the day on which he was buried, as mourners gathered for a wake, a violent public disturbance took place in that town--vividly covered by television news--to which the police and later the courts responded. Morris presents these events as the manifestations of a structure of deep and persistent racial inequality in Australian society. To contextualise his story, Morris argues that New South Wales, in the 1980s, adopted neoliberal strategies of government. This approach provided a form of land rights through the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, including new State-regulated representative institutions for owning and managing Aboriginal assets, and it subjected Aborigines to intensified police surveillance and control over their conduct in the street via the Summary Offences Act 1988.

What is neoliberalism? I understand Morris to be arguing that the two regulatory regimes --land rights and law and order--worked together as aspects of a single 'neoliberal' strategy. Neoliberalism, in his account, emphasises individual responsibility for moral self-regulation and de-emphasises the social structures in which individual action is grounded. If neoliberalism belittles 'society' in order to elevate 'the individual', then the recognition of Aboriginal New South Wales as a series of local communities, each with collective rights of ownership, seems contrary to the neoliberal way. However, Morris links land rights and law and order by arguing that the fear generated in whites by Aboriginal empowerment generated public support for a more punitive approach to those Aborigines who did not rise to the demands of neoliberal self-responsibility--in both the administration of Aboriginal organisations and in Aborigines' daily civility on the street. That is, his characterisation of neoliberalism pays much attention to what the public, as he presents it, imagines and fears; neoliberal government cultivates such fears as a mandate for its rational ordering of society.

This account of New South Wales government strategy in the 1980s is not entirely convincing. When Frank Walker legislated land rights in 1983, one of his political concerns was to limit fear; the Wran government's retrospective validation of the alienation of reserves to non-Aboriginal owners was intended to diminish fear of land rights. Governments are calculating in their approach to public fear, cultivating it in some forms and hosing it down in others, according to their agendas.

Another development within Australian government emerges as significant in Morris's account, though I am not sure he would include it under the heading 'neoliberal': since the 1950s, local communities have steadily lost the power to determine how Aborigines and non-Aborigines should interact because laws and policies set at the state and the national levels have disallowed so many of the usages of rural Australia's racial order (pp. 17, 33). If we are to understand the north-west of New South Wales as a region whose whites were responding to this long-term disempowerment, we need to know more than Morris tells us about how the granting of land rights worked in the districts of Wilcannia, Bourke, Brewarrina and Walgett, and about how the implementation of land rights interacted with the crackdown on street unruliness. His account of this region is, in this respect, lopsided. He focuses on how law and order was locally understood, but says nothing about the activities and reputations of the local Aboriginal Land Councils and their relationships with other property interests. The topic of 'policing' looms so large partly because Morris's notion of 'policing' sometimes extends beyond what the police do: all welfare state agencies are 'policing' (pp. 92-3).

Before Morris takes us to the north-west, he examines land rights policy from the standpoint of the State government in order to show the State's land rights policy to be--at least in its conception --neoliberal. Changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act by Labor in 1986 and then by the conservatives (from 1988), after a substantial process of public consultation and debate, divided Aboriginal opinion and brought out tensions between Aboriginal rights and neoliberalism as conservatives wished to pursue it. Persuaded by a well-organised and supported Aboriginal lobby not to repeal land rights altogether, the conservatives abolished the Regional Land Councils. As well, they applied 'neoliberal' norms of organisational accountability, 'domesticating the operations of Indigenous administrative bodies' (p. 66). These norms were modelled, Morris suggests, on how rational actors maximise utility and efficiency through submission to the discipline of the market place. From the standpoint of such norms, Aboriginal ways of running organisations were suspected of corruption and inefficiency; the State government demanded that they conform with the practices of other representative organisations in 'civil society' (p. 52).

Morris is critical that such reforms obliged Aboriginal functionaries to conduct themselves more like the functionaries of other publicly accountable organisations. Such attenuation of cultural difference was neoliberalism's assault on Indigenous rights, he implies (pp. 47-8). The recent historian of the New South Wales Land Council, Heidi Norman, has studiously avoided assuming the sanctity of such difference (Norman 2015). Norman does not narrate this transition in New South Wales land rights as a defeat for the land rights movement but as a political maturation of the State-Indigenous relationship, based on a basically beneficial reformation of the State's Aboriginal leadership. Morris's book would have been stronger had he paused to consider more carefully the cultural differences that matter to the exercise of Indigenous 'rights' and to be explicit about why such differences are worth defending. In the north-west of New South Wales, were there any Aboriginal people who warmed to the new government norms and sought to apply them to their organisations and themselves? The Aboriginal take-up of neoliberalism--a theme of Norman's study--does not interest Morris at all. Instead, he is fascinated by modes of political action that are irrational, and the region gives him rich cases.

In Chapter Four, Morris argues that the rationality of the state is impaired by 'anxiety and the fantasy of menace' by Aboriginal people (p. 101). His evidence is drawn from documents from 1987-88 available to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in which police assessed risk to public order from Aboriginal people in north-western New South Wales. As Aborigines had gained legal rights and political voice and as town spaces became less segregated racially (p. 16), some people had lost their sense of security by the 1980s, Morris suggests, especially in the 'contact zone' and 'cultural borderland' (pp. 104-5) of the north-west of New South Wales. Some non-Aborigines had not believed that Aboriginal people could sustain the civility that was now expected of them, and so they imagined a 'state of siege' (p. 107). These insecurities were mirrored by Aboriginal perceptions that the neoliberal state's law and order policies had them under siege (p. 73). From time to time, public disorder involving Aborigines--sometimes drunk and abusive--kept such mutual fears alive. Aborigines were angry in the 1980s, writes Morris, and the law's partiality was giving them grounds: in discretionary policing, 'rights remain[ed] segregated and racially ordered' (p. 110) and health service staff fatally misread some distressed Aboriginal patients (pp. 114-16).

Throughout this account of the 1980s in the north-west, Morris implies that the Aboriginal challenge to public order in these towns was slight and that the police response was heavy-handed. So when he describes Lloyd Boney's 'unpredictability' (in the eyes of police) as his 'contestation of sovereignty' (p. 121), we might at first infer that 'sovereignty' here refers only to what the most fearful whites imagined to be at stake. Morris has the ability to suddenly switch point of view--from evoking the anger of a tipsy young Aboriginal man to evoking the apprehensions of the most threatened non-Aborigines--the white police. Morris remarks that 'the fantasies and anxieties harboured by police of Aboriginal uprisings bear little resemblance to the fear, anger and anxiety that pervades the life of Aboriginal people' (p. 123). His ambition as anthropologist is sympathetically to evoke both mentalities. In doing so, he shows them to have been not only mutually constitutive but also to have overlapped in their codes of masculine 'self-worth' (p. 124). Aborigines and police were, in this sense, mutually apprehensive citizens of the same 'imaginary state' (p. 125). Aboriginal unruliness expressed its 'alternate forms of sovereignty', a 'muted, uncertain and inscrutable other way of life' (p. 126).

In Chapter Five Morris reviews the criminal trial of those held responsible for 'the Brewarrina riot'. Morris points to a feature of the court's perspective: that it treated each accused rioter as an individual responsible for his/her own actions, so that its investigation conscientiously and deliberately refused to see the structures in which individual agency is inescapably embedded. The court's processes of representation could not take 'race relations'--a structure--as an object of inquiry; the criminal law is deeply disposed to methodological individualism. Morris's critique of this perspective works by reminding us of what lay beyond it: inadmissible questions about 'the integrity of the criminal justice system, its officials, police officers, legislators, solicitors and judges, on whose integrity society depends' (p. 130).

Since 'integrity' is a key term in Morris's description of the social realities obscured by the trial, it is a pity that he does not discuss it. A common sense meaning of 'integrity' is something like 'honesty', 'sincerity'; these are usually understood to be characteristics of individual persons. Is Morris arguing that the personnel of the legal system, by making it work, had been corrupted by it, in the sense that they had been led routinely to act dishonestly and insincerely? Is he accusing them, as individuals, of acting in bad faith, of being crooked?

Evidently not: Morris refuses the temptation to 'play the man'. His standards for judging the law and order process are conventional, as when he writes, 'specific biographical information and evaluation [about unpredictable Aboriginal men] should not affect the formal impartiality of the law' (p. 122). So too is he impersonal in his methodology for interpreting action, warning us not 'to ascribe blame to particular police officers without locating their actions in the specific structures of Australian social life and examining the underlying values of the culture from which they emerge' (p. 135). It is these structures and values --manifest in the trial of the three accused--that lack 'integrity'.

His description of these values is based on media accounts of the riot and on the reports by the police themselves. These depicted the police as acting heroically and honourably in the Brewarrina melee, like mates/soldiers in a war. This did not prove that the Aborigines had conspired with one another to riot. However, the jury believed the police narrative that the Aborigines had entrapped them in order to assault them, and so two were found guilty of riotous assembly and assault.

At this point, the law's impartiality mobilised to the benefit of the accused. Because one accused was found not guilty of riotous assembly, the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal judged the conviction of the two others as 'unsafe'. The defence also persuaded the Court of Criminal Appeal that the identity of those attacking the police had not been firmly established. In 1994 the Department of Public Prosecutions granted each of the two men a permanent stay of proceedings. Nonetheless, Morris presents this sequence of events as reproducing 'the power relations between white Australians and Aborigines' (p. 153) because the police and the legal system had by then subjected the men to an ordeal that --in Morris's view--was effectively punitive.

Morris analyses what the television news footage of the riot showed and what the subsequent trial of the rioters enabled to be said and not said. The representation of riotous conduct in the media and in the courtroom reinforced already powerful understandings of Aboriginal people as unable to be effective agents in modern Australia: 'Aborigines behaving badly, but not entirely, it was said, of their own volition' (p. 162) (as they were understood to be propelled by alcohol). The court gave the rioters little chance (other than interjection--more unruliness) to convey their own understanding of their history, a history that would make a different kind of sense of their actions. Such representations of their disruptive behaviour reinforced official representations of their socio-economic inferiority, justifying 'continued state intervention to administer Aboriginal life' (p. 169).

Morris suggests that what happened in the north-west of New South Wales in the late 1980s and early 1990s contributed substantially to the growing sense, across Australia, of a 'moral crisis around the supposed inability of Aborigines to govern themselves' (p. 67). His account of the past 40 years is thus a tale of defeat. Land rights and the aspiration to self-determination in the 1970s provoked a conservative response using neoliberal strategies: where Aborigines were organised, they were obliged to model themselves on white organisations; where their quotidian modes of autonomous action were spontaneously unruly, they were criminalised and their criminality became grounds for the welfare policing of social pathology.

Like Morris's study, Broome's Fighting hard is a regional history: the inner suburbs of Melbourne and their Aboriginal hinterlands. It covers a longer period, starting in the era of assimilation, when the progressive agenda was to equalise rights without extinguishing Indigenous identities, including identities associated with residing on Victoria's few extant reserves. Broome's story extends to the era of self-determination--a policy framework that has easily accommodated long-lasting Indigenous associations such as the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League (VAAL) as long as their work continued to align with policy goals. VAAL's work has continued to do so: 'advancement' is a goal for assimilation and for self-determination. Broome's narrative includes biographical political history, with fine portraits of Doug Nicholls, Stan Davey, Bruce McGuinness, Elizabeth Hoffman and many others. The Nicholls-Davey partnership in the 1950s and 1960s helped VAAL to flourish, enacting a model of civil equality. McGuinness built global connections--'the romance of black internationalism' (p. 151)--in the 1970s and inaugurated a demand for land ownership, mining royalties and compensation. Hoffman helped to re-establish VAAL's credibility to governments worried by the rhetoric of Aboriginal empowerment.

Issues beyond Victoria aroused Melbourne-based activists who formed VAAL in 1957. Opposition to the Western Desert rocket range in 1946-47 erupted again in 1957 when Nicholls visited Warburton Mission and met reserved-welling people whose lives had been disturbed by the militarisation of their homeland. His activism brought him into contact with Stan Davey. Broome's portrait of Davey is one of the book's many merits. Broome also tells us a lot about how VAAL worked as an organisation: its governance (an extensive, fund-raising branch structure, which died away in the 1970s), its funding, its 'bricks and mortar' investments, and its welfare programs. Welfare services operated from the inner city premises of VAAL, such as a hostel for girls coming into the city. VAAL initiated high school bursaries, raising funds with the help of trade unions and service clubs. Some branches organised school holiday stays, for Aboriginal children, with white families in the suburbs. VAAL helped people from the bush to assimilate, and assimilation was a common cause; you could find Christians and communists working alongside each other to help it along. VAAL floated on a sea of community goodwill because assimilation was a progressive and mainstream cause, and a conservative government was no enemy. VAAL activists were the compassionate anti-racists that Paul Hasluck (the federal Minister for Territories 1951-63 and leading advocate of assimilation) imagined as the civil society partners of his government's anti-racist (as he saw it) programs of assimilation.

Working within Victoria's political culture, its rich traditions of self-help and civic responsibility, VAAL was able to persuade the State government not to close Lake Tyers Reserve, lobbying from 1958 to 1965. (Lake Tyers and Framlingham were vested in trusts in 1970.) The campaign was not without tension: Nicholls's pressure included resigning from the government's Welfare Board in 1963. VAAL renewed the demand for land rights in the 1970s.

Broome brings out the contradiction in VAAL liberalism: it tended to assume that people were handicapped by their Aboriginal milieu. A clear-eyed internal review of the school holiday scheme concluded that the host family benefited most, confirming its sense of being good, and the child-guest least--shy in strange surroundings, missing home. The scheme did not survive the first enunciation of 'Black Power', in 1970. From the beginning VAAL harboured white and black sceptics of assimilation, people who affirmed the Aboriginal right to decide how much of their heritage they wished to maintain. In 1959 VAAL dropped the word 'assimilation', preferring 'integration'. The Church of Christ in 1963 published Stan Davey's pamphlet 'Genesis or genocide? The Aboriginal assimilation policy', which was one of the earliest uses of 'genocide' to describe the cultural politics of assimilation. In 1968 VAAL added to its five principles (that had always included the right to own reserves) a sixth that affirmed the right to language, identity and heritage.

By then a new generation of Koories was asserting what we have learned to call the politics of identity. Broome suggests that the tradition of organising balls since 1949 (criticised by a Papua New Guinea activist as just wanting to be 'whities') contributed to inter-regional networking, including intermarriage, and thus to the consolidation of a state Aboriginal identity. There were three two-day Aboriginal congresses, with 'Aborigines-only' sessions, in the years 1964-66. One strand of anti-white feeling was directed at communists (and their suspected dupes), but the stronger strand was a pride in tradition and in international black solidarity, and so in 1969 people began to refer publicly to themselves a 'Koories' and to profess admiration for Afro-American Black Power. Whereas Bob Maza's generation welcomed Roosevelt Brown from the United States, a worried Doug Nicholls was more comfortable hosting Mother Teresa. Black Power talk alienated VAAL's government patrons and several of its suburban branches. With Bruce McGuinness and a reluctant Doug Nicholls as co-directors, VAAL was under black control by the end of 1969; whites were not excluded, but some felt rebuffed and the governments stopped their funding. Such was VAAL's reputation, however, that corporate advertisements (General Motors Holden, Carlton United Brewery and others) continued to appear in VAAL's periodical Smoke Signals.

Bringing the VAAL story up to the present, and illustrating the persistence of its welfare functions (pp. 197-8), Broome shows VAAL to be a striking example of the settler colonial state's adaptation: to the persistence of Aboriginal need, to the persuasive claims of distinct identity and to the availability of a Koorie middle class with organisational skills. Broome discusses an issue that has been central to the practice of self-determination: the relationship between mainstream and Aboriginal approaches to organisational governance (pp. 170-6). He asks: has the persistent preeminence of the north and central clans in VAAL's leadership since 1970 been a problem? Has kin-based patronage stifled meritocracy? Broome's answers are that 'networking' is functional to all governance, that kinship is fundamental to Koorie networking, that those who have held power have not derived monetary gain from it, and that many VAAL leaders, notwithstanding their kinship links, have championed efficiency and equity: he 'names names' and tells stories in Chapters Nine and Ten. One stimulus to bureaucratic rationality, he notes, came from white well-wishers' estate planning: they would not will money to an organisation whose accounts were not audited (p. 169). Such are the disciplines of civil society.

In confronting explicitly the issue of Aboriginal bureaucratic rationality, Broome does more than Morris to stimulate thought about self-determination as governance. Morris is more attracted to spontaneity than organisation, more interested in the irrational than the rational dimensions of politics, and more convinced of the totalising power of the state (pp. 51-2) than curious about the contingencies of state/civil society interaction.

The books under review thus illustrate the contrast between two approaches to the writing of Indigenous political history.

Whereas Morris tells a story of a settler colonial society nervously closing political opportunities almost as soon as it opened them, Broome's account is more optimistic: the survival, adaptation and resilience of a voluntary association through policy eras--assimilation and self-determination --that have much in common. For Morris 'civil society' is the Procrustean bed that New South Wales neoliberalism forced Aboriginal activism to lie in; Broome presents Victoria as a relatively open civil society in which Christian faith and later ethnic pride have been firm bases from which to engage both with the State (as partner and as critic) and with damaged Aboriginal networks (enabling their self-repair). An exponent of critical anthropology, Morris wishes to theorise the recent logic of colonial state action ('neoliberalism') and this task drives his narration and analysis; Broome, ever the social historian, offers no general characterisation of the state and his narrative has room for episode and anecdote that bring out personality and ethos without necessarily nailing a thesis about the logic of settler colonial rule.

Reviewed by Tim Rowse, Western Sydney University



Heidi Norman 2015 What do we want? A political history of Aboriginal land rights in New South Wales, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
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Author:Rowse, Tim
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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