• SHARE

“There goes another shiftless Aboriginal,” said the Pioneer bus driver to those of us taking the half-day tour of Alice Springs. “We give them cars, they drive them till they’re out of petrol, then, bloody hell, they just leave the bloody things by the side of the road.”

The two elderly ladies in the back of the bus were particularly dismayed by such allegedly outrageous behavior. They pointed to a young Aboriginal family about to enter a clinic as we drove by.

“See them?” continued the driver, speaking through a microphone to this captive tourist audience. “You and I can’t get into that hospital if it killed us. We all pay for those people to get special treatment. And they’re drunk half the time to boot. I mean, you wouldn’t read about it!”

Well, you are reading about it now, albeit 26 years later.

I had traveled to what is called the red center of Australia to see a performance by the Alice Springs Theater Co. of a Polish play I had translated. “The Metaphysics of the Two-Headed Calf,” written by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, was set in the Australia that he had visited in 1914. The Australia that I was seeing on this trip in August 1973 was not far removed in spirit and lifestyle from the place Witkiewicz had seen nearly 60 years earlier.

Toward the end of our little bus tour of Alice Springs, I made the mistake of engaging our racist driver in a conversation. Neither simple logic nor the heinous facts of white suppression of the Aboriginal population over nearly two centuries would move him.

“You know what it boils down to, mate?” he asked me.

“No, what?”

“I can hold me liquor and they can’t.”

Such were his standards of self-esteem — all issues of race, tolerance and personal identity boiled down to an empty keg of beer.

In fact, the bus windows provided nothing less than a magic-lantern look into hell: destitute Aboriginals camped in the dry river bed; young Aboriginals dragged off and tossed into the local lockup at the uncompromising whim of the police; mothers walking about aimlessly, their children perhaps having been forcibly taken from them “for their own good.”

And when, the next day, a young woman at the Alice Springs radio station interviewed me, she paused moments before we went to air and said, “You can talk about anything you wish. But no mention of Aboriginals. I want to keep my job.”

I write about this unpleasant episode now because I feel that Australians are finally prepared — on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the independence they achieved with Federation, Jan. 1, 1901 — to come to terms with the crimes committed against their indigenous compatriots.

I would go as far as to say that, in 1999, the question of how to redress this past is more intricately bound up with the identity of 21st-century Australia than the other two emblematic issues of the day: republicanism and multiculturalism.

A nation of migrants

The population of Australia recently passed 19 million. It took only four and a half years to add the last million, and in less than six years there will probably be 20 million people living on the continent quaintly referred to by some as Down Under.

Australia is, of course, a nation of migrants. With the exception of the Aboriginals, all citizens are migrants or their descendants. The input from Asia is particularly striking now, constituting about 5 percent of the total population. Immigration is the lifeblood of the nation. Its heady mix of Europeans, Turks, Lebanese, Latinos and people from all over Asia is now arguably Australia’s premier symbol of nationhood.

Throughout my seven-week stay in Australia in July and August of this year — in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide — I experienced frequent bouts of an exotic form of transferred deja vu: the feeling that I had been here before, but not in Australia, rather in Hong Kong or Milan or Munich or Seoul. I doubt that any country has made the transition in cultural identity, from lily-white exclusiveness to open-armed multiracial welcome, as quickly as Australia has. What took Great Britain 300 years and the United States more than a century, Australia has accomplished, more thoroughly and profoundly than the other two, in a mere quarter-century: the heterogeneous state.

Brisbane, perhaps more than any other Australian city, is an example of a place still in transition. The Asian presence, in the form of residents and tourists, is immediately striking: a cosmopolitan finish over a peeling, dry-hinterland, white undercoat.

I shared an elevator in my Brisbane hotel with two large families from Singapore. A sense of irony overwhelmed me as I reached out to press the buttons for the various floors. The elevator had been manufactured by a company called Schindler’s Lifts. I found myself smiling at the tourists and, God knows why, bowing to them and thanking them as they left the elevator.

A trio of revolutions

Australia was for some years seen by many people in other countries as a kind of unspoiled and unsophisticated resort destination, Hawaii flattened and writ large. Then, something changed, and ads began appearing regularly in the personal columns of newspapers like New York’s Village Voice, placed by men and women seeking lifelong partners who were “into Cuban-Chinese cuisine, nonsexist Zen koans and Australian movies.”

Qantas was hauling so many Americans to Australia for their holidays that Pan Am, still in existence then, felt obliged to counter with a campaign featuring a man-eating koala, despite the fact that this cuddly, herbivorous marsupial hardly ever wakes up or descends from its tree-bound bed.

Now, with the Sydney Olympics only a year away, Australia is an increasingly popular tourist destination. The 800,000 Japanese who are said to visit annually will probably reach 1 million in 2000.

And yet, how many of these people will see beyond the bright light reflected into their eyes off the beach sands? How many will take in the cultural riches of music, theater and art? How many will notice that Australians are conducting what may just be the world’s most intriguing social experiment?

Australians as a people are currently in the midst of their third great social revolution. First came the transformation from colony to independent nation a century ago. Then came the strategic realignment away from Great Britain after World War II, which was accompanied by a massive influx of non-Anglo-Celtic migrants that continues to this day. Now the country is on the brink of redefining itself as a republic with a decidedly multiracial ethos. If it can adequately redress the wrongs done to the Aboriginal Australians, Australia has an opportunity to emerge as a fair-dealing, tolerant nation able to interact with the rest of the world with a minimum of hypocrisy and a maximum of forbearance.

Ideals and aspirations

What do nations strive for? It is in times of monumental change, of unmasked transition, that these questions of national aspiration become most significant.

It will not do for Australians, for it is not in their unassuming nature, to adopt the variety of American democracy that specifies personal aggrandizement above all, as if feathering your own nest somehow provided you with the means to love your neighbor and treat him with respect and tolerance. In reality, no right in the U.S., despite what most Americans seem to believe, is inalienable. Rights are purchased through obeisance to the patriotic notion of American uniqueness.

Looking after No. 1 as the be-all and end-all of individual freedom makes Australians, as it makes Japanese, uncomfortable. Social harmony, civility and civic duty are, to a greater or lesser degree, intertwined into the fabric of Australian democratic ideas. You are not free and secure until others are free and secure.

The problem is that this social harmony and this civility were historically made available exclusively to the population of Australians who were of Anglo-Celtic stock. The rest were sometimes targets for destruction (the Aboriginals), sometimes barely tolerated, if colorful, nuisances (nonwhite migrants).

The great transition to a multiracial, tolerant democratic state began in the early 1970s, when the Labor government, under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, drove Australia with breakneck speed out of its exclusionist, cozy little cul-de-sac. A policy of reconciliation with the Aboriginal population was set in motion. The dismissal of the Whitlam government on the order of the governor general, John Kerr, a move of questionable constitutionality, gave an initial impetus to what was only a lingering doubt about the necessity of crown rule. That single action in November 1975 could be said to mark the beginning of the transition to republicanism.

If the foundations of an Australian-style democracy rest on these ideals of fair play and civility, which may finally encompass all citizens, in what terms is the nation to couch its identity? What emblems, abstract or otherwise, do Australians embrace, as Americans embrace their flag and as Japanese nurture their community spirit and stoic, ethnocentric harmony?

There was a time when Australians saw themselves as men on the land — and I emphasize men — rugged, laconic, battle-tempered individualists confronted each day with the hardship of living in and farming an essentially inhospitable hinterland. The fact is, however, that this has not been true for the greater part of this century, if it ever was true. It was merely a narrow ethos that, drawn large, allowed a provincial rural aristocracy, grown wealthy off the sheep’s back and the banker’s largess, to rule the land.

Even in the late 1940s, the grazing industry employed fewer than 100,000 people. The 1971 census showed more than 85 percent of Australians living in urban areas. The image of the cork-rim-hatted, dusty drover and his long-suffering, cake-baking wife suited the self-deprecating outback Aussie as it did the class-minded British cultural overlord; but it was never more than the icon of an imaginary faith.

The next image to be taken up as the symbol of the nation had the face of multicultural Australia. The only country since 1945 to accept a greater proportion of migrants in terms of its original population is Israel. Postwar Australia has redefined itself as an ethnic democracy. Multiculturalism has become the single greatest source of pride to Australians in their everyday dealings at work and home, as well as in their lifestyle.

Beyond multiculturalism

But, in the end, this will not be a sufficient basis for 21st-century nationhood, either. Australia has entered a postethnic phase, perhaps the first country to do so. Ethnic groups are generally well-integrated socially, so much so that the very word “ethnic” is becoming outdated.

What is ethnic? (To Japanese it means spicy foods and colorful “native” dress.) Why are only those groups that people consider at best exotic, at worst inferior, called “ethnic”? Aren’t Americans from Kansas or California also an ethnic group? Should The New York Times be called a member of the “ethnic press”? Aren’t Scottish migrants in Adelaide “ethnics” too? If so, then every citizen of Australia is an ethnic.

Australia is far on the way to dealing with the tricky problems of migrant assimilation. The solution that has been chosen is inclusion, giving people from all groups and backgrounds a stake in the resulting society, projecting an Australia in which opportunity exists, not only for those who aspire to riches, but also for those who are content with a modest share of a secure life.

The great ethnic melting pot, the major issue of the 1970s and 1980s, while still in the kitchen, is off the front burner. Multiculturalism is an accepted fact of life.

The hot issue today is whether or not, and when, and under what conditions, Australia will become a republic — the second question of our time.

During my stay there in the Australian winter just past, the biggest controversy across the country was the one surrounding the referendum on the republic to be held Nov. 6. The conservative, antirepublic prime minister, John Howard, has skillfully worded the question so as to divide and conquer prorepublic sentiment. Essentially, Howard sees the queen as the devil you know, although it is said that both the queen and Prince Charles are quite comfortable with the idea of an Australian republic. It is a historical irony that it is often the servant, more than the master, who fears the severing of the apron string.

The way the referendum question is formulated, stipulating that the president of the republic be appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of Parliament, may alienate some republicans who favor direct election, and prevent a majority of Australians from approving the change to a republic.

If the prime minister has his way, the referendum may defer the last great political argument of the century. But it will not banish it from the national agenda. The strategic distancing of Australia from British hegemony in Asia that came about after World War II, and the cultural breakaway that has occurred since the Australian film and theater renaissance of the 1970s, will eventually reverberate in the political realm. The political umbilical cord is often the longest of all. If Australians don’t cut it clean in November, it will certainly stretch until it snaps somewhere at a later date, perhaps with unpredictable consequences.

Making reconciliation work

What remains, then, is the third great question: how to deal with the cruelty that Australians, white and “ethnic” alike, inflicted and continue to inflict, albeit now in more subtle ways, on the Aboriginal population. If the hideous prejudice of my Alice Springs bus driver is now very much a fringe phenomenon, Aboriginal people still rightly feel that the migrant population that has arrived in the country in the past 200 years has not truly felt remorse for the outright sin of dispossession committed against the original inhabitants.

During August, the issue of an apology to the Aboriginal population and what form it should take dominated the Australian media, surpassing even the buildup to the wording of the referendum.

It is interesting to note that the issue was discussed in much the same terms as those characterizing the debate over an apology by Japan to the people of Asia whom it molested and maltreated during the war. Prime Minister Howard was adamant that the government statement about past misdeeds and its affirmation of support for indigenous Australians should not include the word “sorry.” It was sufficient for his government to express “regret.” Naturally, many Aboriginal Australians feel that for 200 years of ethnic cleansing, child kidnapping and economic oppression, voicing “regret” is hardly an adequate apology.

The prime minister’s political bacon was saved by the only Aboriginal member of Parliament, Sen. Aden Ridgeway, who said that “deep regret” was sufficient, acknowledging the deeply felt intent of the government to reconcile migrant Australia, including the Anglo-Celts, with indigenous Australia. The Labor Party opposition still supports an unreserved apology. But it appears as if the senator’s support for the government line has put a temporary end to the debate. Australians are apparently sorry, even if they won’t say so.

The key word, then, for Australia’s identity in the 21st century is neither multiculturalism nor republicanism. It is reconciliation.

The Aboriginals arrived in Australia more than 40,000 years ago. In the course of the first 5000 years, they had spread across the entire continent, which then included Tasmania. Then, two centuries ago, the British arrived to claim the vast territory as their own. Here was a race of people who would transport and banish a poor person to a distant prison for life for the theft of a handkerchief ruling over a race like the Aboriginals, who shared their possessions and believed in the sanctity of the land and its bounty.

Unlike today, the vast majority of Aboriginals were then living in the coastal regions, not in the desert. They were pushed out of their homelands into the least hospitable regions of Australia, deprived of their languages, their cultures, their personal freedoms, their dignity and, in many cases, their children — “for their own good.” If it sounds like Kosovo and Belsen and Nanjing and every Indian reservation in America, just to name a few, that is no coincidence. How we humans, irrespective of nationality, can do such things and ignore the belated necessity to apologize is something that eludes even a cynical playwright.

In the end, Australia will thrive, I believe, as a postethnic democracy. The experiment is too far along for the individual elements to recover their pristine conditions. The republic will come, if not in two years, then in five or 10.

To get an inkling of what the national reconciliation of migrant and indigenous peoples will look like, let us return to the capital of the red center of the country, Alice Springs.

In past generations, Aboriginals were barred from owning land within the city limits. Now, Aboriginal investment in Alice Springs is substantial. The mall in Todd Street, the town’s main shopping street, is majority-owned by Aboriginals. There is significant Aboriginal investment in real estate and, with no apologies to my friend the bus driver, car dealerships.

If Aboriginal Australians can find a stake for themselves, on an equal footing, in the new migrant society, then not only will there be a workable reconciliation, but — given their love of and respect for the land and their appreciation for the sharing of resources on a humane and natural basis — Australia in the coming century may just create a compassionate and effective democracy that will be a model for others around the world.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW