Review of Bain Attwood & S.G. Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict. The Australian Experience and Bain Attwood, Rights for Aborigines

by Alison Holland

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What would a budding historian, one hundred years from now, have to say about the recent debates within the Australian/Aboriginal history profession regarding the nature and meaning of the frontier in nineteenth-century Australia, of which Frontier Conflict. The Australian Experience is symptomatic? They may well agree with Trevor Ah Hang, an Aboriginal representative at the forum convened by the National Museum of Australia in December 2001, of which this book is the result, that it was an argument between (non-Indigenous) academics about themselves. But they would also have to concede, looking through this book, that it was a moment of historiographical reflection, consolidation and much needed defence of an enormous body of work that has widened beyond the frontier to encompass the nature of history and memory. They might even reflect on similarities between the late nineteenth and late twentieth-century defence of Aboriginal rights. This is a beautifully presented book with contributions from the key players in the debates and an excellent introductory essay by Attwood and Foster. Interspersed with commentaries on particular frontier experiences are essays on the nature of the evidence and the importance of oral history. The ideology and morality of violence is historicised and the Australian experience is contextualised comparatively and within the national picture. Graeme Davison’s essay on the conflict of representation was instructive and particularly illuminating for me was Tom Griffiths’ discussion of ‘the language of conflict’, a searching piece as much about silence and memory as about language and dialogue.

One of the chief conservative criticisms directed at those involved in Aboriginal history, as Attwood notes in this edited collection, is that it comprises radicals of the 1960s and 1970s who have written for political design. What Attwood’s other work reviewed here, Rights for Aborigines, does best is show up continuities and discontinuities between reforms and reformers (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) of the late nineteenth century with those of the twentieth. Of particular relevance for the sorts of debates now being undertaken within the Academy is the defence of Aborigines by a variety of reformers and reform movements in the 1950s, a period of political conservatism not altogether unlike the present. Despite the otherwise bleak political climate (or maybe because of it) the campaign to recognise rights for Aborigines rumbled along, so much so that what occurred in the 1960s and 70s by way of direct political action was very much built on a solid foundation of rights activism and thinking. Arguably, it could not have occurred without it.

Rights for Aborigines is a history of campaigns for rights for Aborigines between the 1870s and 1970s. As such it is a timely book about what rights indigenous people should be granted in a democratic nation state and on what basis and, in particular, how this has been articulated in Australia historically, against a backdrop of international lobbying and definition. The book is divided into five main thematic sections and roughly follows a chronological order. The last three sections examine the meaty topics of citizenship, land and power. Being concerned to illustrate the cross-cultural basis of the rights movement, sections one and two look at black and white activists and their demands consecutively. It also has a regional focus, being based on a series of case studies from in and around Melbourne. Atwood is arguing that this focus be seen as representative rather than comprehensive.

Attwood set himself an ambitious task. It is not surprising that I find myself asking a number of questions regarding some of his premises about the book and some of his interpretations. On the question of the roles played by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists I am not sure that I agree with him when, setting himself apart from similar, former works by Heather Goodall and Peter Read, he suggests they exaggerated the role of Aboriginal people and that, by contrast, the influence of white activists was much greater. Is this conclusion a little too driven by the nature of his sources? There is no doubt that the white input was important but I find this a rather hasty and somewhat superficial and even unnecessary distinction. What his important contribution shows is that a) there was an ongoing and quite vocal white lobby group demanding rights for Aborigines across the twentieth century (and in Victoria), b) that their conception of rights changed across time and c) that they conceptualised and fought for a particular version of rights which sometimes coalesced with Aboriginal demands and sometimes didn’t. They didn’t shape debate about rights for Aborigines. They shaped a particular debate or debates.

More problematic to me still is his handling of the white activists as ‘outsiders, eccentrics and obsessive personalities’, a phrase he borrows from Henry Reynolds, who employed it in relation to nineteenth-century humanitarians. My biggest reservation about this approach is not that he takes this view — indeed it is an interesting idea — but that the analysis is not developed adequately or sustained in the book. Nevertheless, the seed is sown, so that one is looking for further amplification of this point. The approach is complicated, too, by his claiming representative status for what he describes. Were all those who espoused rights for Aborigines eccentrics, and so on? The other issue I have is that this focus tends to downplay the political significance of these activists’ critiques and work. Their claims can be relegated to weird or problematic personalities. Also, why emphasise a psychological profile for the activists and not for those, say, in positions of power and dominance in Aboriginal affairs? Were they any less obsessed or driven by psychological factors?

Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to his treatment of anthropologist Donald Thomson. Chapter five, which explores Thomson’s thinking and input, seems somewhat contradictory. Atwood starts with two wonderfully evocative quotes, one from Thomson and the other from A.P. Elkin, a competitor with Thomson for government attention, status and funding in the 1930s and 40s and on ideas for Aboriginal rights. The two quotes demonstrate very powerfully the different stances of these men. Ultimately, Elkin ‘wins’, but the chapter is focussed entirely on a reading of Thomson as a man driven by personal and emotional weaknesses and not by any ‘abstract religious or political principles’ (112). He then goes on to describe the politics Thomson was involved in, later describing him as a political player with a political program. I was also left somewhat confused about Thomson’s approach towards assimilation. I didn’t feel as though Thomson’s changing attitude towards this agenda was adequately contextualised or explained.

Part of the problem for me in this regard related, in part, to the structure of the book. Attwood claimed at the outset that change or discontinuity was as important as continuity in the expression of rights. I ended up feeling that because of the structure of the book there was a conceptual discontinuity for the reader at times. Each chapter was a self-contained essay, with a pace that prompted the reader to move on, but not without lingering questions, particularly concerning relationships between ideas or players or both and also between issues or cases and a particular version of rights. Connections were not always elaborated. An example here is the presentation of the Council for Aboriginal Rights and their respective defences. Atwood describes their interest in co-operatives for Aborigines, their defence of Albert Namatjira and their adoption of ILO Convention 107 without necessarily drawing connections between these issues. My own research in this field suggests a closer connection between the kinds of ‘rights’ they advocated, a connection driven moreover by a critique of assimilation. Attwood talks about the reformers’ defence of integration without any thorough-going analysis of what integration meant or how it differed from assimilation.

Nowhere does Atwood consider the call for preservation and development put forward by labour activist Tom Wright in 1943 and articulated by the post-war women’s charter conferences. On the question of gender, his claim that, while feminist activists were interested in defending the rights of Aboriginal women in particular, matters of gender did not lead any of them to envisage reforms different from other humanitarians (100) is a limited interpretation of feminist demands. Their call for women protectors, for example, and their call, in the inter-war years, for the application of monogamy and non-Aboriginal marital practices to Aboriginal conjugal relations were certainly distinctive and based entirely on gender. I also felt that the book spoke to an audience that was already somewhat familiar with some of the players. For example, Mary Bennett is mentioned frequently and her influence is felt but nowhere is she formally introduced to the reader. Perhaps Attwood was relying on his useful bibliographic notes to fill in the gaps?

Finally, in his discussion of rights, particularly indigenous rights, Attwood does not engage with theorists in the field. Instead, indigenous rights are taken to mean whatever the particular activist/s meant at the time . But what has the term ‘indigenous rights’ officially meant? How has it come to be defined the way it has? In particular, what is the difference between indigenous and human rights, especially in relation to the way they have been conceived internationally?   Given the weightiness and importance of the topics of indigenous, minority and group rights to his thesis it is surprising that there is little wider context here. Given the importance of international definitions and international standards to reformers’ articulation of rights in the postwar era it also surprising that there is little historiography concerning the rights of indigenous people in international law or of the United Nations. My own PhD thesis found that although, as Attwood asserts, there were no references to the rights of ethnic and national minorities in the Declaration of Human Rights, upon which much of the postwar reform work was based, a Sub-Commission for the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities established in 1948 laid down a definition of minority rights in the following year and post-war activists were aware of this.  

Despite these reservations one of the things I found most illuminating about Attwood’s book, particularly for the sorts of issues thrown up by the Frontier Conflict collection, is that what was new about the 1960s and 70s was the text itself. Up until then rights advocates were not able to base their activism on any written version of ‘Aboriginal history’. There was no such thing. Yet, most worked with political intent and, despite official Australian histories which were silent on the history of relations between Aborigines and non-Aborigines, most were aware of, in the very least, a ‘history’ of discrimination and dispossession. Of particular interest is the defence of land rights long before the consciousness of ‘terra nullius’ and Mabo. Attwood is at pains to show how conceptions of Aboriginal rights were also driven by particular versions of history or a historicism that understood Aboriginality as either open to extinction or dissoluble through assimilation. Nevertheless, his history suggests that the chief crime of those involved in Aboriginal history now might not be what they write but that they write at all. This is why the new battlefield is the book itself, as Frontier Conflict reveals. Yet, what one can see in Attwood’s book is that the history telling is only one part of a much longer process of engagement.   Does this say something about the way memory works?

In his chapter in Frontier Conflict , Attwood quotes Keith Windschuttle as asserting that ‘traditional scholarly standards are no longer applied to works of Aboriginal history … As long as it takes the correct line, any big book on the subject, no matter what fantastic claims it makes, will be praised to the skies’. Attwood’s book, Rights for Aborigines is indeed a ‘big book on the subject’. In applying scholarly standards to it I see both weaknesses and strengths. But it is an extremely valuable contribution, a work needing to be done, a work of scholarship and rigour. The latter lies primarily in Attwood’s determination to consider the relationship between rights, race, history and Aboriginality, a tough but commendable task. Important, too, is acknowledgment of the twentieth- century humanitarian movement and of the role of the labour and peace movements in the quest for rights. The complexity that results renders any simple reading of ‘the frontier’, either in time or space, redundant. While I’m not convinced that this approach works as well as it might, one of its strengths is that it offers dialogue and engagement and, in so doing, throws light on the narrow prism of Windschuttle’s gaze.

Alison Holland teaches in Australian Studies at Macquarie University.

The collection Frontier Conflict. The Australian Experience , edited by Bain Attwood & S.G. Foster, was published by the National Museum of Australia in 2003. Bain Attwood’s Rights for Aborigineswas published by Allen & Unwin in 2003.

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