Interview with Aileen Moreton-Robinson
On April 15, 2008 J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut (where I work) conducted a radio interview with one of Australia’s leading Indigenous scholars Aileen Moreton-Robinson, professor of Indigenous Studies at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. The interview aired on Kauanui’s Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond on WESU. It took me a while to catch up. I heard the episode on the flight home from Australia in June this year thanks to the awesome power of MP3s. If you’re interested in the topic of race Down Under, you will want to listen to this.
Some points made in the interview:
- White people in Australia use a discourse of possessiveness when talking about their relationship to the country. This gives any discussion of citizenship—especially questions about what it means, who has it, and who deserves it—an inherently possessive quality. In fact, Moreton-Robinson argues that citizenship itself is inherently possessive.
- The very presence of indigenous people “ontologically disturbs” whites. Aborigines are, in a sense, upsetting to the Australian mindset in their very existence. Anyone who wants to get an indigenous issue on the agenda—whether in government policy, in public discussions, in talking with their neighbours, in trying to establish a program or a radio station, in trying to get access to resources, etc.—always faces a struggle. The “unfinished business” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians hangs over every encounter.
- A misconception about race relations in Australia today is that the Mabo decision in 1991 overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius (that the land belonged to no-one when Europeans showed up). It did not; it diminished terra nullius by acknowledging the existence of native title rights to land, but it maintained the legitimacy of the state’s right to Aboriginal land.†
- Mabo saw the development of a specific white fear: that Aborigines would take over peoples’ homes by staking a claim to their properties and surrounding land—and, in a sense, forced the reassertion that “Australia is a white country.” A lot of talk by Australians since then about what Indigenous people receive from the state has unfolded in light of this panic.
- The Keating government brought legislation following Mabo intended to clarify some of the issues raised by the decision, but it stopped short of resolving the right-to-land question. It established some Indigenous rights, namely the right to hunt and gather, but it did not establish a right of residence for Indigenous people. Indigenous sovereignty is still in a murky place legally, and therefore every other way, as a result.
Moreton-Robinson and Kauanui also discuss the Howard government’s Northern Territory intervention in August of 2007, the importance of the “children overboard affair” in Howard’s 2001 election win, and the Rudd government’s apology to Australia’s Indigenous people for the “stolen generations” (the subject of the film Rabbit-Proof Fence) on February 13, 2008. I urge you to check it out; it’s a pretty great interview.
† For those who are interested in the Indigenous perspective on terra nullius and the arrival of European settlers, the book Follow the Rabit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington (a.k.a. Nugi Garimara) has a lot to say (not to be confused with the film which, though excellent, doesn’t really touch on this).