Last Saturday I got an email from Adam Goodes to let me know that he'd just been named Australian of the Year for 2014. Since most TSP readers are not of this land, allow me to explain. Adam Goodes is a top player of Australian football and an Aboriginal man. He had sainthood thrust upon him last year during a football match when a 13-year-old girl shouted 'ape' at him. His response was so conspicuously dignified that someone really ought to write a text book based on it. I'm not saying this to be facetious. I'm suggesting it because this sort of confrontation almost always ends with everyone involved wearing a facial omelette.
Firstly, he called the child out with just the right measure of severity and then he followed up with some tough compassion. He accepted her tearful apology with good grace and explained to her exactly how and why what she had done was wrong. Most importantly in this age of finger-pointing at the weak and simple-minded as a societal corrective, he chose to shoot the message rather than the messenger. He became one of the prominent faces of a subsequent and ongoing anti-racism campaign.
As to the title, Australian of the Year, I can be less helpful. I was away a long time and a cursory Internet search won't tell you much about what is expected of this No. 1 citizen during his/her titular reign. Lots of flag-waving, ambassadoring and luncheoning appears to be the general gist. I got a hopeful inkling though, from watching Adam Goodes's acceptance speech, that he might just have something profound in mind,
'My hope is that we as a nation can break down the silos between races, break down those stereotypes of minority populations, he told the audience at the ceremony. Present was his proud and tearful mother Lisa, a member of the Stolen Generations. For Adam Goodes, that goal is very close and very personal. A year can be a useful amount of time given a fair wind blowing through the right ears and a single issue whose time one can only pray has finally come.
Just to clarify, I don't actually know Adam. I got the email because I joined an organisation called Recognise, whose logo appears above this post. Adam Goodes is a leading spokesperson for Recognise. If you click on the first link, you will see a freeze from the video of his acceptance speech. If you ignore the creepy trophy - a cross between a dildo and a lava lamp (?) - and our even creepier prime minister, you may notice that Goodes is wearing a discreet Recognise lapel button. One of the organisation's goals is to secure recognition for Aboriginal people as the 'first' Australians in our Constitution.
Like all things that seem incredibly simple, it turns out to be massively complicated because it requires us to rethink the decisions made by the pink-skinned, grey-wigged, blue-coated illegal boat arrivals who landed here on 26th January, 1788 and audaciously claimed an enormous continent for the British crown. Imagine how differently it might have played out had the indigenous peoples had the sort of hard-line 'border protection policies' we have in place today. The invaders swept in on the presumed basis that no one lived here already. They were met and challenged by brown people wearing more climate-appropriate body coverings who pointed spears at them and fiercely chanted 'warra warra', (go away). These people were conveniently reclassified as 'flora and fauna' so that the messy business of trading and treaty making could be easily dispensed with.
You see the problem. Although we have since grudgingly admitted the first Australians to the hallowed ranks of citizenship of this continent and sometimes even felt a bit guilty about the systematic dispossession of individuals, tribes and nations that went on into the 1970s, it's still kind of hard to feel bad about ourselves when we're so invested in feeling good about ourselves, if you get the drift. Not that you need to - there's a vast and tedious epistemology awaiting your poking finger right here.
In Australia we're always threatening to 'start a conversation' about 'important issues that affect our nation', like why, for example, we behave like shits to anyone who isn't a white adult male under 50. Well, I've been sitting here for six years and the 'conversation' about why and how we should bury racism forever has never advanced beyond a round of statements of the painfully obvious. Recent history provides us with a scattering of mealy-mouthed regrets from left-leaning leaders. So resounding a NOTHING has been the end result, that one can only conclude that NOTHING was and always has been the original intention. Every decade or so, someone half-heartedly, or perhaps cynically, waves about an olive branch for a minute or ten and then we all go back to our online shopping, barbecue eating and bigger-house dreaming.
This story really begins in 1967 when, after many years of campaigning, Indigenous Australians finally won the right to vote - and yes, you read that right. Then in 1975, our first Labor Prime Minister in a generation, Gough Whitlam, poured sand into the hand of pioneer land rights campaigner Vincent Lingiari and promised 'restitution'. In Gough's defence, events did rather overtake him in the shape of a constitutional crisis and his government's subsequent collapse but one can't help wondering why such a highly emotive gesture wasn't backed up by at least a plan or two in the works.
Prime Minister Paul Keating's Redfern Speech which crawled into consciousness nearly twenty years later in 1993, came closest of any before or since to inferring that an admission of guilt might not only be appropriate but might even be accompanied by some remedial action. He promised 'reconciliation' and created a committee. And then three inert years flittered by. A new hard-line conservative government followed and it was bent on repealing any previous half-arsed attempts to think through a national soul-healing process. It looks like I'm picking on the lefties. It goes without saying that, when in power, the conservative side of politics does nothing - if we're lucky. Or, it strips Indigenous people of their human rights, as the government of John Howard did in 2007 when it imposed an invidious compulsory income-management regime on Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory under the spurious pretext of protecting children.
Another eleven years wafted into the ether of historical inconsequence, (otherwise known as The History Wars - see link above), and up pops a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, with yet another speech in 2008. 'Sorry' - easy to say yet seemingly impossible to recompense. Why? Because of the dreaded c-word - compensation. It appears that if we white people make any admission that our ancestors might have done a bad thing, then we'll all have to give up our homes and be, well, stateless ourselves! See how impossible it is to do the right thing when you approach it in our time-honoured fashion?
Just to recap - getting on for forty years ago one prime minister promised 'restitution' - a very big word in this context. OED definition - the restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner. And sometimes that's even happened. Two decades later a prime minister softened that promise to 'reconciliation' OED definition - the restoration of friendly relations. Difficult because there never was a 'friendly' state to restore. Cut to the present day and we have yet another prime minister tentatively offering, all in good time, mind, because we don't want to mess it up, you understand, 'recognition'. OED definition - the action or process of recognizing or being recognized.
1) He'll succeed in dragging us a few baby steps towards the unification* we so badly need.
2) His year will drift by with not much happening apart from lots of charred meat being consumed.
3) He'll fail, not from lack of effort and will, but because he's been set up to do just that.
* I'm dispensing with tradition here and offering the u-word as a circuit breaker. OED definition - the process of being united or made into a whole.
I hope against hope for Option 1, expect a version of Option 2 and dread Option 3.
I have no doubt whatever that Adam Goodes is dedicated and focused and more than averagely diplomatically skilled. That he has the nous to send an immediate email to everyone who signed up to Recognise tells me he's a communications genius.
The goal he's set himself is well within his capabilities to achieve - in a willing world. But we don't live in one of those, sadly. This is Australia. Influential interests are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo, which is a subdued and dispossessed population of first peoples who cannot effectively operate as a power block because they are far too busy tackling their own, often insurmountable, local problems. It suits these interests to elevate a few high-profile Indigenous people so that they can point to them and say, 'look at those ones. They've made it in our world the way it is. How hard can it be?'
Defeating racism is self-evidently the first and essential step necessary to achieving binding equality on this continent. In that sense, the task Adam Goodes has set himself is the smart, right and only one possible. And yet he risks so much. The cost of failure has, in the past, been high. The obstacles thrown at people who attempt it are tried, tested and entrenched. The political rewards to those who want to keep power in the small number of hands that currently hold it and to their friends who run the industries that profit from it are immense. Historically, the nah-nah-nah-nah-nahs pitched at failed efforts resound for a couple of decades. And then the cycle of hand-wringing and report writing starts again and off we set from square one with the burning resolve to 'start a conversation'.
I'm concerned about the forces that might rally against someone so strong, so determined and so apparently driven by destiny. I think of Barack Obama. I think of Julia Gillard. And I worry.