Here’s the truth about Aboriginal ‘elites’: everything they achieved had to be fought for
Lorena Allam is descended from the Gamilaraay and Yawalaraay nations of north west NSW and is the Guardian’s Indigenous affairs editor. Email: [email protected]
Supporters of the voice to parliament have been characterised as academic, urban elites. But scratch at their history, and privilege is the last thing you will find.
My grandmother always carried her identity documents in her handbag. She was born on country, on an Aboriginal mission “behind barbed wire like a prison camp”, she used to say. She had no birth certificate, or none that we could find; the old mission records were destroyed in a fire in the 1930s. Later in life, a version of her birth record was created, and it was among what she called her “papers”.
The need to produce ID was one reality of the draconian protection era that she and her brothers and sisters grew up in. Every aspect of their young lives was controlled by the government: where they could travel, live and work. Their wages were paid as “pocket money” or withheld by the “board”. They had to seek permission to buy a dress, book a train ticket, attend a funeral. If your “papers” weren’t in order, you’d be picked up by police. My grandmother never stopped having hers ready.
As a child on the mission, she was given a year’s worth of schooling, delivered at the end of a cane by the stern Anglican manager’s wife. Still a child, she was sent away at 14 to work as a “domestic”. As the cook in a shearer’s camp, she met my grandfather and fled the terrors of that servitude as quickly as she could. They, and later their children, moved constantly to keep ahead of the New South Wales protection board, which could have taken their children, including their youngest, my father. He was a talented footballer and a bright student with a love of numbers, but he had to leave school at 15 to help support his family.
They are both gone now. My father died at 60, far too young. It’s not uncommon for Aboriginal men. The average life expectancy at birth is now 71 years, but that’s the optimistic end of the scale for earlier generations. So many of our cousins, fathers, uncles, brothers don’t make it.
I finished high school and went to university. My cousins and I were the first to pass through the foreign land of tertiary education. We have good jobs and can pay our bills. We have used that education to improve our lives and those of our children. We advocate for the rights of First Nations people because we can, and we do it to honour the sacrifices of those who went before us.
The no campaign says the voice to parliament will create a ‘two-tier society’, but that is already where we live.
At a forum in inner-west Sydney this week, Warren Mundine told the audience he was concerned the voice to parliament amounted to “a power grab by academics in the Indigenous elite, people and that who are concerned about losing their power”.
Our elders didn’t work for personal enrichment or to accumulate an investment portfolio. They didn’t collect antiques or buy holiday homes. They didn’t leave us generational wealth. They shielded us as best they could against intergenerational trauma. It got to us anyway. They worked to keep us safe in a racialised system that shortened their lives, limited their opportunities and pushed them to the fringes of a hostile society in their own land.
The no campaign says the voice to parliament will create “permanent race-based privilege” and a “two-tier society”, but that is already where we live. Generations have fought for everything we now enjoy. Land rights, native title, education, jobs: any progress has come from Aboriginal struggle, not from some benevolent external force or from the exercise of some undefined power.
“I’m really sick of people questioning our honesty and integrity,” Prof Marcia Langton said recently, rubbishing allegations she was part of some secret cabal of Indigenous academic power elite.
“I’m on the public record for over 30 years on the empowerment of Indigenous people. And yes, I work at a university. But I grew up in a native camp and in housing commission, and tents, in Queensland. And I know the track record of the members of the referendum working group. Every one of them is an outstanding and honourable person.”
They are not elites, she said. They are survivors of a system that did its best to ensure they did not succeed. And they are a reflection of the black excellence in our communities, where so many brilliant, creative people have had their potential cut short by the preventable diseases of poverty and the violence of the carceral system, entrenched over more than a century of racially discriminatory laws and policies.
That some Aboriginal people today hold a PhD, or own a house, or drive flash cars – whatever the shifting set of criteria the right uses to determine this “elite” status – it is an achievement against the odds.
The right tell us we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and make a contribution to society. But when First Nations people appear to prosper in the system, they are called “elites”. Perhaps it’s the contribution they disagree with.
At a voice forum in Sydney in May, the Gumbayngirr-Dhungutti man Phil Dotti caused a stir when he took to the stage. After listening to non-Indigenous people talk about the voice for an hour and 40 minutes, he decided it was time to speak up.
Dotti, the first Aboriginal person to play for the Cronulla Sharks, told me later he went on the stage to speak his mind because “people needed to see someone with strength and character”, qualities his mother and grandfather instilled in him when growing up “very poor” in a tin shack on the Burnt Bridge mission in Kempsey, NSW.
His unexpected speech was cut short; some people got up and left.
“I know they’re scared because I might be an educated blackfella, and there’s nothing more scary than that,” he said.
In a speech to the National Press Club this week, the Indigenous Australians minister, Linda Burney, spoke of a beloved friend who died far too young.
“Michael grew up in poverty in Dubbo during the 1960s and spent time on the Talbragar Aboriginal reserve, an overcrowded place where basic hygiene was all but impossible and medical care was almost nonexistent,” Burney said.
“Like so many others who were forced to live in those poor conditions, Michael suffered from chronic infections and got rheumatic fever, a condition from which his immune system never recovered.”
Riley died at the peak of his career, of renal failure, at the age of 44.
“I was very close to him. I visited him every day in hospital. I watched him go blind in one eye,” Burney said. “His Aboriginality condemned him to an early death, a preventable death.”
Burney said the injustice of his passing motivated her every day “to put one foot in front of the other, to do better by Indigenous Australians”.
Regardless of where on the spectrum of yes to no Aboriginal people sit in their views on the voice, we all know losses like this. We miss good people who unjustly left us way too soon. We mourn the opportunities they should have had, and wonder what more they could have achieved. We carry them with us.