“Prospects for a collective Aboriginal voice in the Australian Parliament are continuously capped by the government”

Sue Ballyn

Director of the Centre for Australian Studies of Barcelona

Sue Ballyn, at her Centre for Australian Studies' office.
Sue Ballyn, at her Centre for Australian Studies' office. Author: David Forniès
Sue Ballyn is Professor Emerita at Barcelona University in the field of Australian Studies. She was twice awarded with the Faculty prize, for her MA thesis and her PhD thesis on Australian poetry. During all these years she has been researching on Aboriginals, the original dwellers of Australia, and the convicts sent to the country during the years of occupation. Doctor Ballyn currently holds office as the director of the only Centre for Australian Studies in Spain, which she founded in 1990.

Aboriginals continue to struggle today for the slow and tedious reclaiming of what was already theirs before colonisers arrived to Australia. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 was the first attempt by an Australian government to legally recognise the Aboriginal system of land ownership and put into law the concept of inalienable freehold title. The Land Rights Act defines “traditional landowners” as a group of Aboriginals who have “primary spiritual responsibility” for sacred sites on a piece of land. Several Aboriginal Land Councils have been created throughout the country, as bodies that are representative of Aboriginal interests. For instance, the councils have been demanding linguistic rights for speakers of Aboriginal languages. In October 2017, the New South Wales legislature introduced the first laws in Australian history that recognise Indigenous languages with the intention to revive them in October 2017. Land councils aim thus to protect the interests and aspirations of the Aboriginal community, but do they ensure a better future for this marginalised First Nation?

Nationalia: After the Aboriginal Land Act of 1983, what changes have you seen in regard to land rights? Which is the real power of the Aboriginal Land Council?

Sue Ballyn: The Aboriginal Land Council goes back to the struggle of Eddie Mabo, who took to the Supreme Court the rights for his people’s land. A majority of judges decided that not only had he a right to claim his forefathers’ land, but also that the premise in which the British defined Australia —terra nullius— was no longer valid. This premise presupposes that the land belongs to nobody, and that is utterly false, as the Aboriginals are the rightful claimers of the land.

As a result of that we got the Land Rights Movement and the Land Rights Legislation, which was problematic because one of the clauses of the legislation was that those who claimed ownership of the land had to prove an unbroken relationship with the land from ancestral times.

«A full-blood Aboriginal could never marry another full-blood Aboriginal, because the policy of that time was to erase the Aboriginal people through the use of eugenics »

Now, when you have invaded a country, you have massacred the Indigenous people and moved them off their original land, you have a stolen generation from 1900 to about 1970 of children being taken away from their families —put into missions, reservations— as well as a severe lack of freedom of movement for the adults. They could not marry without permission of the authorities, they could not marry their own people —in other words, a full-blood Aboriginal could never marry another full-blood Aboriginal, because the policy of that time was to erase the Aboriginal people through the use of eugenics, the breeding out of the Aboriginal peoples.

N: Some sort of non-violent ethnic cleansing?

S. B.: No, it is not non-violent at all, because that meant the forced removal of children from their families and taken thousands of miles away. There they are not going to speak their own language; they are going to be educated in a way that the girls must be raised as domestic servants and the boys as rural workers, carpenters, etc.

That is violent. And telling people whom they can marry or not is also violent. There is a comparison to be made with North America, where there is a very similar situation: there is a systematic separation between the whites and the non-whites, but in Australia such separation is only towards the Aboriginal people, the original owners of the land. So when the Land Rights Commission and Legislation went through it was hard to prove this unbroken relationship, but thankfully, the Aboriginal people count with thousands of years of ancestral storytelling, which links them back to their country.

«How do you go to court and say “this land is mine” and the court is using Western justice, which demands a paper to demonstrate ownership over a land? »

But then this poses another problem: how do you go to court and say “this land is mine” and the court is using Western justice, which demands a paper to demonstrate ownership over a land? So it is not a system where you can say that the Aboriginals get access to the land; it does, but under very difficult circumstances, it is never easy and it will never be easy under the rule of incumbent prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

A government which retained the ability, if you like, to reserve certain areas of land with petrol or mineral wealth for the Crown, so the Aboriginal peoples have no possibility at all to reclaim these lands. A Crown that has nothing to do with Australia, nor with Elizabeth, who, despite being the head of state, has nothing to say about what is going on in there, thank God. But these lands are held by the Commonwealth.

N: What is the impact of having a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) government like Malcolm Turnbull’s? To what extent is it comparable to Donald Trump?

S. B.: As far as I am concerned Turnbull is outrageously right-wing and outrageously racist. For example, there is the rejection of an agreement that was made in Uluru, where he agreed on the inclusion of Aboriginal voices in Parliament, but these voices would not necessarily partake in the big decisions. Anyhow, he turned around and said “no”, so the possibility for Aboriginals to enter Parliament was severely capped.

N: Are there no Aboriginal members in Parliament?

S. B.: There is a couple of them, but it is about the need for a collective Aboriginal voice which is continuously capped by the government. There is no party, no collective of Aboriginals in Parliament, just individuals who belong to the large traditional parties. At the moment it is not possible to have these members, because of the rejection of the Uluru agreement by Turnbull. The agreement proposed the inclusion of Aboriginals in Parliament with a representative body, and this was agreed upon in 2017 and Turnbull just turned his back on it.
Also, if you look at what is going on at Manus Island, with the refugees in detention, he is not going to do anything at all to solve that situation, he will just let them rot in there. There is outrage among many people in Australia, and the United Nations have been quite outspoken regarding the situation, urging Australia to do something about it. And the country has a long tradition that goes back to the aftermath of the Second World War, with the reappraisal of the White Australia policy, which had posed Asia as a threat. That policy ended, but Australia has always been a country which on the one hand was very welcoming towards those in need, with a preference for white Anglo-Saxon people —Spaniards being the bottom of the line, because Australia wanted Northern, not Southern Europeans— but on the other, what is happening now is a complete shutdown: if you want to go to Australia as a migrant, it is one of the toughest countries to get into, even tougher than America.

Australia’s policy of these last years regarding migrants who risk their lives coming by boats is to return these men and women to their countries of origin, where their lives are at risk. But this is the same exact situation we have got in our own backyard, in England. They will deport a person even if they know their lives are at risk. I remember former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard openly declaring that Tamils from Sri Lanka were safe to return there, and those of us who were working with Sri Lankans saw that if they returned they would be in deep trouble. You see a complete disregard for the pain and suffering of the other, and it is frankly outrageous and disgusting that in the 21st century a so-called democratic country like Australia can get away with all this.

N: Don’t you think that Australians are in agreement with such policies?

S. B.: I do not know the numbers, but there is a general outrage, and not just because of the migrants. There is also outrage for the holding of this postal referendum on the legality of same-sex marriage, which was not binding, so what is the point in putting people in distress because of nothing? Other countries have referendums, and they are binding, so they immediately approved same-sex marriage.

I think this treatment of the other is very embedded in the Australian psyche, the last of the line of consideration are always the Indigenous people, the original owners. Recently there was the question of “shall we have a referendum to include the Aboriginal people in the Constitution?”. They are not included because the Constitution was written in the turn of the 20th century, and Aboriginals did not even have citizenship, not until 1967. Curiously, it was through a binding referendum held on a democratic basis that this resolution was overwhelmingly approved. Nevertheless, they are still not on the Constitution, so the idea was to have a referendum to include them.

But why should we need a referendum to include the original owners of the land? Why not to just change the law? Because the law shall be always favouring the white Anglo Saxon Protestant over the original owners of Australia.

N: Why does the Northern Territory have the highest rate of young detainees, and why most of them are Aboriginal? What impact has this systemised racism to Australia as a nation?

S. B.: I believe racism is embedded in every nation of the world; the human being by nature is racist, the fear and the dislike of the other is intrinsic to the fact that countries protect each other from other countries; they protect their borders from outsiders. The problem of the high level of young detainees has been there for a very long time, and there was a commission delving into deaths in custody. Why are there so many deaths in custody from this particular ethnicity so disproportionately distant from others?

It is a similar situation with the United States, not just with the Natives: the Afro-Americans as well, especially with Trump, suffer from this embedded racism. It all goes back to the colonial times, where we completely destroyed their way of life, we introduced them to our way of life, to alcohol, drugs and their misuse. None of this would have happened if they were left alone by the colonisers. The Aboriginal people have the lowest level of school success among other communities, and the vast majority of them live in the Northern Territory. Leaving school with no qualifications means not going anywhere, and you sum that with alcoholic families prone to domestic violence and you have an explanation for what is going on in the Northern Territory.

«Alcoholism is everywhere within the Aboriginal peoples, even in urban areas: a clear result of the sheer disaster that 200 years of brutal colonization involved »

It was the British who introduced them to all that, aside from the horrible treatment they suffered. They made reservations, where shopkeepers were profiting from the selling of alcohol to the Aboriginals. So the custom continued. Now, a lot of places where the land has been returned to the people, there has been many successful attempts to “keep those lands dry”, with no alcohol on the territory and empowering the Aboriginals to supervise their own economy. These communities are run by themselves. But alcoholism is everywhere within the Aboriginal peoples, even in urban areas: a clear result of the sheer disaster that 200 years of brutal colonization involved, like in North America. That damage is still very close to the surface, and it is not a question of money, as some would claim. Money is not the core manner in which to eradicate the problems of the Aboriginals.

N: Money is definitely not at the centre of Aboriginal cosmovision?

S. B.: Not originally, not until we [the Brits] came. People would say that Aboriginals misuse their money, but the thing is that other problems surpass the level of priority of money itself. Getting children to stay in school is the main priority, and today we are seeing the highest increase in the rates of graduation of Aboriginal children, but that never makes into the headlines. The numbers are not high enough anyhow. So many of these families are dysfunctional, and white people say it is their problem, but in truth this problem is a direct result of what was done to them by my people and the white Australians.

N: What is your insight towards the recent approval of a New South Wales law for Indigenous languages? What impact do you foresee? Is it true that these languages are not dead, “just sleeping” as it is said?

S. B.: There are languages which are dormant, but I am not sure what dormant means, because when a language becomes dormant it is because it is already dead. It may be dormant because very few people in a particular community still speak the language, and despite being in a state of borderline extinction, the language is technically alive. My question is, “how can you rescue and revive a language in that condition?” Let us imagine a situation with a group of Aboriginals with a group of, say, 20 elders who speak that language, but the children do not speak it any more. How are you going to revive that language?
We could do like anthropologists did in the 19th Century —the idea was wonderful— and record, script the language; but then how do you transmit it? It does not have to be stored in a library, but handed down to the next generation. There are fairly good examples of how this should be done: in Britain, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic are taught in primary and secondary schools. But there are a lot of Aboriginal languages within New South Wales, so what is the best mechanism to revive hundreds of languages? It is not possible to put all the Aboriginals under the same educational tools, for there are too much languages to be lost in that process.

N: They replace these languages with English.

S. B.: Yes, but specially Aboriginal English, the same way like the Creole in the Caribbean, it is English in its own right as far as I am concerned. So if you have an Aboriginal writer they would salt and pepper their texts with words of their Aboriginal language, and they bring words of English into their everyday life Aboriginal language.

«We need more and more communication and interaction between cultures, between Aboriginals and white Australians, no more economic segregation in schools »

For me, this initiative of the languages sounds like a politician’s dream. They put things into Parliament, say “let us do this, let us do that”, but what we would like to see is how are they going to perpetuate the usage of language within the communities. In my opinion, we need more and more communication and interaction between cultures, between Aboriginals and white Australians, no more economic segregation in schools —because this is the root of all problems: the way this terrible education system defines the following generation. And this is related to the languages, because if whites feel more engaged to know about the cultures they happen to live with, they would realize the importance of the forgotten history of their land and its original dwellers. That is happening: a lot of white children are partaking in the acknowledgement of the Aboriginal culture, especially in public schools.

Still, the logistics of language revival just escape me. Are we going to choose the schools in which 50 languages are going to be revived? And it may be that, unsurprisingly, if they attempted to put an Aboriginal language in the school curriculum there might be a backlash from the people who are anti-Aboriginal.

N: Maybe a try could be done with a single Aboriginal language, perhaps a more wide spoken one?

S. B.: Well, it depends. When their languages are found in what linguistics call crossover areas, where different languages meet each other, they often can understand each other, similar to Spanish and Portuguese, or Swedes and Norwegians —if they talk slowly enough.

If you are going to keep it alive, are you just going to keep it for the Aboriginals or for the whole community? Because that makes a huge difference. To do that, you also need people who teach the language. As I said, it is a wonderful idea that sounds very good in Parliament, but there is no way to put it into practice. We need to wait and see, and if it works in New South Wales for a single dormant Aboriginal language, then it would be a success. Yet it would still need to be implemented across Australia, because every day languages die in Australia. We do not realize this because we speak languages that are not in peril, but imagine that your mother tongue is a minority language and is dying —that happens across the world and we do not give a damn.

Some oppressed languages like the Tatar sustain themselves because they are spoken at the homesteads, something which does not occur with Aboriginal languages that are just spoken by a fistful of elders. It is going to be interesting to watch this process.

N: Which is the future for the Aboriginals’ indigenous lifestyle? Do you think their culture is in jeopardy?

« I do not think Aboriginal culture is in jeopardy. Aboriginal have a very strong sense of commitment to their identity so they ensure that this will not happen to them»

S. B.: I do not think Aboriginal culture is in jeopardy. There is a lot of activity in terms of art, music, dancing, writing and general culture. It may be irretrievably lost to urban communities but still, these have their own continuation of the Aboriginal culture within an urbanized environment, with urban storytelling and urban dreaming being elements of uniqueness in other Aboriginal communities. Those Aboriginals that are able to reincorporate to their way of life —as far as we allow them to— discover that the stereotypes introduced by the white man are false. For example, they discovered signs of archaeological remains, which show that the Aboriginals had an architecture.

Regarding their cosmovision, it can be translated very easily into our own representation of the skies. I would say it is in a very healthy condition, considering the situation of Natives in North America or some African tribes which are lost to history. Aboriginal have a very strong sense of commitment to their identity so they ensure that this will not happen to them. Traditions and stories get handed down. During the school recess in the Northern Territory, they once took all the children out to teach them to survive in the traditional way: they were taught how to hunt, gather, farm and to fish. They also learn dancing, and all these things are taught in their languages, so I would not say that Aboriginal culture is in jeopardy.

Art is still very alive as well, traditional art with the sands that has been done for centuries. This painting over here represents this fence, house and planting as if it is not actually on the ground, but hovering above. It is a way to show that the Brits and their imposed culture has not put roots on the ground in the way the Aboriginals have. The only problem with this art is that the merchants are white, and they have made a fortune selling art that is not theirs. You go to Barcelona downtown and you see boomerangs made in China, which is frankly very shameful.

Other groups in Australia assimilate Aboriginal culture by performing pop culture songs like Singing in the Rain in an Aboriginal style. This is a good process, fostering assimilation of the culture after years of trying to wipe it out.

N: Even so, do you feel that there is still an Apartheid-like situation in place?

S. B.: I would not use that word, because the politics behind South African Apartheid and the situation in Australia are different. I would say that in Australia there is a social backlash against Aboriginals, but we do not have separate buses, schools and universities. Of course, the Aboriginals would consider it a situation of Apartheid, as the results of the politics have been the same as the ones in South Africa. Aboriginals remember the days when whites and Aboriginals could not mix together. Would you consider the situation of Trump and Afro-Americans is Apartheid? I do not think so, because Apartheid means complete segregation in every way. That is what we had, but not what is going on now, even though with all the issues with migrants there are reasons to think that the situation in Australia is pretty groom, like in any other country.

I would say that the human race is doomed, bound for extinction. That is because we are destroying our home, and God help any other planet that we land upon. The human being for some extraordinary reason I cannot explain has the ability to destroy everything around it. There is a great loss of contact with the land and the traditions. And because of that, we forget who we are, or, better put, what we are supposed to be.