Louis Nowra on Lateline last night

07 Mar

As good a preface as any to this post is Poor bugger me… from ABC Radio National’s Awaye Saturday 24 February 2007: “Professor Marcia Langton and [theatrical director] Wesley Enoch literally enter the ring to debate the notion ‘poor bugger me leaves you up a gum tree’.” It is a highly amusing debate between two prominent and successful Aboriginal Australians. Later in the program some of the issues Nowra is concerned with are canvassed. That is the part you should listen to most carefully.

Another good preface is RINGY’S RAMBLINGS: I’m not racist but… from the National Indigenous Times 22 Feb 2007.

I don’t like Greeks. They tend to hang around together and speak in their own language. They’re hard to get on with.

Except for Con and Helena in the flats next door. They’re always quick with a smile and a wave, and every so often Helena brings over some of those sweet cakes which taste like heaven – even if you can feel your teeth dissolving while you eat them. I gave their little bloke a plastic footy in the Essendon colours and he kicks that around as much as he does the round ball. I reckon he might end up playing for the Bombers one day.

Con and Helena are the only Greeks I actually know and they’re great. It’s just the others that I don’t like…

I don’t like Aborigines either. I’ve seen them on the telly and they drink too much and sniff petrol and don’t look after their kids.

I don’t mean the ones like Cathy Freeman. She’s fantastic: I was standing on the couch cheering when she won the 400 in Sydney.

As I said, I’m not racist.

And I reckon the Aboriginal footy players are sensational too. No-one barracked harder than I did for Kickett, Rioli, and Wanganeen when they were running around in the red and black. And Michael Long is not only the best footballer I’ve ever seen, he’s also had the guts to walk all the way to Canberra and front the Prime Minister. You’ve got to respect anyone who’s prepared to do that. And it’s not just the sports stars.That bloke from Queensland is alright too. The lawyer? Pearson? I like a bloke who’s doesn’t shy away from the truth.

To be honest, I’ve never actually met an Aborigine, but I know a bit about them. My auntie used to have a tea towel with an Albert Namatjira painting on it, and I’ve even got a boomerang on the mantelpiece in the lounge room. I’d love to meet ‘Longy’ or Cathy Freeman and get an autograph for the kids. I’m not much interested in politics, but I suppose it would be interesting to have a bit of a yarn with that Pearson bloke. I mean, who would have thought that an Aborigine could be a lawyer?

Anyhow, I reckon that people like Longy, Freeman and Pearson are fine. They’d be welcome in my house for a cuppa any time.

It’s just the others I don’t like.

A third preface might be Mandy Sayer and Louis Nowra in conversation (podcast available) from ABC Local Radio Queensland.

Louis’ childhood was marked by a terrible secret. “I began to realise that I’d never had a birthday (December 12th). My sister said later on when I was about 21, ‘Don’t you understand why we never celebrated Dec 12th? Mum killed her father on Dec 12th’ …He was a Gallipoli veteran, buried alive three times and bayoneted for two days in no mans land… A medical officer found him and put his intestines back… The army patched him up and sent him to fight in the Somme… What I was to find out with the records is he went mad… very very violent… pulled a gun on the kids… Eventually my mother was sharing a house with her mother… She had just given birth to twins… they died of pneumonia and my grandfather said, ‘Thank goodness we didn’t want any niggers in the family’… One day she blew his brains out. She got off, but the next day the police re-arrested her for having an unlicensed pistol… She was fined… This damaged her severely… She broke up with her husband and re-married a younger guy… my father.”…

“My dad read about himself,” says Louis. He only disputed one thing – that he tried to kill my sister and myself… He gave us ten seconds to get out of the house – he wanted to kill us – he’d forgotten all that.”

Humour has been Louis’ key to dealing with his violent past. “You go one way or the other – the morose path, or humour. Humour is the way out.”

Australian author Louis Nowra has written a book documenting epidemic levels of sexual abuse and domestic violence in Indigenous communities. It is not hard to see how his own story has affected his focus on this story. Nor is he an unsympathetic witness to the stories of Aboriginal Australians as his play Radiance makes plain.

Last night on Lateline he was interviewed about that book: Not enough done to tackle Indigenous abuse, violence: author. (A transcript is available there.) He said many good things and a number of uncomfortable things, not least that while it may be argued that what we would condemn today as violence towards women was part of traditional Aboriginal life, abuse of children never was — until recently. His concept of “benign racism” which sweeps disturbing facts under the carpet for fear of being labelled “racism” has some merit, I feel. In that context he tackles the contentious issue of “customary law” versus “the law of the land”, an issue much loved by the Right. Somewhere, in my opinion, is a middle ground between denialists on both sides. Justice that ignores cultural context totally will not be justice, but justice that allows conditions we would not accept anywhere else in the name of humanity on the grounds of “customary law” is not justice either.

I think Nowra must be listened to.

I also think the sterile impasse between our two brands of denialist, left and right, has to be broken if we are to move forward on indigenous issues. The current government has embraced the Brunton/Windschuttle line of “realism” with obscene enthusiasm. ATSIC had problems for sure, but also had its merits. Its liquidation was carried out with unseemly glee, when serious reform may have been a better path. Some future government will find it needs to reinvent ATSIC, learning of course from the problems of the old version.

Aboriginal policy is crying out for renewal. The reconciliation process must be embraced again with enthusiasm without the limiting tag “practical”. Reconciliation isn’t a matter of practicality, but it is a necessary base on which lasting practical outcomes might be built. Attitude matters in this debate.

Meanwhile, listen to Nowra, and don’t confuse/conflate him with the usual suspects on the Right.

The Australian has today published Culture of denial by Louis Nowra.

The most important commodity in any society is its children. After all, they are the future. The problem with this is that, despite the high numbers of Aboriginal children being removed from their communities and families (in 1990, indigenous mental health specialist Ernest Hunter reported that heavy drinking had been so destructive of family life that there were fewer Aboriginal children in Western Australia being reared by their biological parents than in the days of forced assimilation), many other at-risk children are not being removed.

The reason, as Sue Gordon, National Indigenous Council chairwoman, has remarked, is that “government agencies across the states and territories charged with the statutory responsibility for children’s issues have, I believe, taken the softly-softly approach to child abuse, (whether it be) emotional, physical neglect or sexual, because they have been frightened of creating another stolen generation.” …

Last year Rosalie Kunoth Monks, who chairs the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Education, said Aboriginal people were on a path of cultural suicide and needed to accept some blame for the choices they had made. She added that land and culture were no longer sufficient to sustain identity and that people must accept change. “To be part of the economy and a contributing member of society we have to take that journey,” she said. “It is my belief that the confusion will only be resolved through a new sense of identity and that comes through when you connect with other people, look at future pathways and not be so internalised.”…

Let no-one on any side of this question resort either to excoriating “political correctness” or “racism”. I am convinced this will get us nowhere. Nothing Louis Nowra has said has changed my admiration for the work of the maligned “black armband” historians or my contempt for much of the Federal Government’s own brand of denialism or my belief that Windschuttle is a crap historian. I still think the Stolen Children Report was a timely document. I still think Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech is one of the touchstones of what reconciliation means and why it is necessary. Given all that, I still say: listen to Louis Nowra.

But look beyond the easy temptation merely to write off or blame the people involved in those difficult and tragic events.

Listen to this too.

posted by global oneness.

9 March

Consideration of something that happened in the 1990s should illustrate why our response to Louis Nowra, while acknowledging that what he says may, probably will, be abused by some on the Right, should avoid reflex rejection on any ideological grounds. The great pioneer of Aboriginal health (and much more) Fred Hollows got some politically correct noses out of joint in March 1992:

The controversy unfolded in March 1992, when Hollows spoke at the Alice Springs National Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Conference. His approach to this topic was straight to the point. Hollows argued that some areas of the AIDS campaign were being inadequately dealt with. According to The Australian’s Martin Thomas, Hollows stated that some homosexuals were “recklessly spreading the virus”. Therefore, the safe sex campaign was an inadequate way of dealing with the issue. To contain the disease, Hollows argued that promiscuity needed to be addressed. Hollows observed the spread of AIDS in contemporary African communities and he was concerned that AIDS would spread as vehemently through Aboriginal communities.

I found it hard to see that Hollows’s alleged homophobia was the point here, even at the time. I still think Hollows was right about “some homosexuals”, and that the real issue anyway was to take whatever measures were necessary to minimise the threat of HIV among Indigenous Australians. He was wrong, however, in underestimating the work done by those behind the safe sex campaign which at the time was a model to others and did much good.

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Posted by on March 7, 2007 in Aussie interest, Cultural and other, Indigenous Australians, Multiculturalism and diversity, Reconciliation



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