Aboriginal Mothers, Abjection and Racial Villification
Gertrude Forum, 16 November 2006
Last June David Barnett, journalist and former media adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, wrote in his Canberra Times column about Aboriginal mothers, ‘We must ask ourselves whether it is right to condemn Australian children to be bought up … by mothers who don’t know enough about rearing children to wipe their noses and where the baby bonus sends the town on a drunken binge.’ He also said of Aboriginal women that they, ‘wipe themselves with a rag in the lavatory, and hang it up to dry for next time’.
In the national washover and splashback of politics, there are moments, not always obvious at the time, when something core is lost. It is the missing turbulence Barnett might once have churned up by his comments that makes his attack descriptive of such a moment. His wife, Pru Goward, was reportedly ‘too cross to yell at him’. Evidently she was also too sanguine to have passed on some of her understanding about racial vilification as the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission - the body currently investigating Barnett’s comments, following a complaint from Aboriginal lawyer George Vilaflor.
Barnett was not sacked or censured by his employer. No shock jock encouraged a dressing down in the public court of talk back. Aside from a writer at the National Indigenous Times there were no Howard appointed ABC or Arts Council board members fulminating in their broadsheet columns either.
It was an eloquent silence, a moment in which crucial things were washed out to the deeper, stiller waters of political dissipation. Out there in the surface calm we can spot Horlicks Howard inflating his battleships and aiming them at the ‘left-wing elite’. Not a squirt was fired at Barnett’s toilet slander.
It should have been plainly stated: Barnett indulged in racist stereotyping. Reacting to truly shocking revelations by Alice Springs Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers of child rape in remote Aboriginal settlements, he pointed the finger at mothers, who are not the culprits. He reinstated a long colonial convention that ties Aboriginal maternity to abjection, dereliction and incompetence. Time and time again in the colonial archives Aboriginal mothers are characterised as themselves ‘children of nature’, as suckling dogs, as perpetrating infanticide and cannibalism. Rather than contributing to their children’s ‘upbringing’ (by which was meant civilising), Aboriginal mothers exercised an ‘unwholesome influence’ over their ‘piccaninnies’, dragging them back to the ‘habits and customs’ of ‘stone age savagery’. Barnett’s slander drew on this expansive archive of popular colonial sentiment.
Virtually without recrimination he undermined the humanitarian sentiments that, for over a century of Aboriginal activism, have sought comparable government support for Aboriginal mothers and defended their custodial rights. Anna Haebich has pointed to the searing irony that white foster families in 1950s NSW were granted child endowment, plus twenty-five shillings a week, free dental and medical care, clothes and school tuition and uniform expenses for children removed from their mothers because of destitution. She also documents that some Aboriginal parents were required to pay maintenance for children removed without their proper consent. Any child endowment Aboriginal mothers did receive was, like any wages, paid into the various state Aboriginal welfare board trust accounts, from which hundreds of thousands of pounds were misappropriated. These funds might also be spent on building programs in the institutions in which their children were incarcerated.
Indeed the most enthusiastic and industrious child abductor in Australia’s history, WA Chief Protector A.O. Neville, might have had these misappropriated child endowments in mind when he spoke before the 1937 National Meeting of Ministers and Heads of Native Affairs Departments. He blithely said, ‘it really doesn’t matter’ if Aboriginal girls sent from the training homes to service into white homes return pregnant and have ‘half a dozen children’, since the kids never see their mothers again and ‘grow up as whites’.
Barnett’s racism is nostalgic for a paternalism so literal that by the 1930s the Chief Protectors of Aborigines in most states had been appointed as the default legal guardians of all Aboriginal children. As Marilyn Lake notes, ‘Aboriginal mothers were deemed ineligible for mothering by definition, their ‘unfitness’ residing in their racial identity’. White Australia felt a particular duty to ‘half-caste’ children fathered by white men. The Chief Protector of Aborigines in Queensland (1914-1941) John W. Bleakly stated before the 1913 South Australian Royal Commission on the Aborigines that children with ‘more white blood in them than black should be the care of the white man’. The paternal state stood in for absent white fathers. Aboriginal families without biological fathers were seen as improperly headed. The diffuse organization of children’s care within Aboriginal kinship structures did not strike whites as the fabled village it takes to raise a child. It struck them as unregulated and anarchic. It required the paternal guardianship of the manly state.
Barnett continues the notion that white Australians care for Aboriginal (or as he put it ‘Australian’) children more. In spite of the scandalous histories of child neglect and abuse at training institutions and mission homes, the state makes a better parent, specifically a father. Like so many administering Indigenous Affairs today Barnett sees Aboriginal families as errant and ungoverned. He imagines white Australians would demand state intervention into Aboriginal families if we weren’t so politically correct and cowered by the so-called ‘Aboriginal industry’. And yet who has denied it is imperative to give Aboriginal children vulnerable to abuse appropriate, adequately supported and culturally sensitive protection?
In 2001 the Howard Government appointed David Barnett to the National Museum Council along with Howard’s former speechwriter Christopher Pearson and former Liberal Party president Tony Staley. Barnett took issue with its Stolen Generations exhibit, calling it a "victim episode" and most of the displays "claptrap", influenced by "Marxist rubbish" . When the museum was exonerated of charges of political bias by historian Graeme Davison, Keith Windshuttle came to Barnett’s defense in Quadrant. Windschuttle refuted the (paraphrased) view of the Museum Director, Dawn Casey that “a democratic, egalitarian society should be applauding the roles of women, blacks, working people, migrants and other groups relatively powerless in the formal political sense.”
Windschuttle concurs these groups are a worthy inclusion to history, but their story should be told in specialist museums and not made a focus of our National Museum. He argues, ‘There are very good reasons … why history once paid only a small degree of attention to many of these worthy groups, and why it focused so much attention on Anglo-Celts of the male sex. Until the last thirty years, most history was written in the form of a narrative of causes … The "common folk" and most of the now familiar sexual and ethnic identity groups played only intermittent roles in this account. This was because for most of the time most of the people were not causally effective: they were the objects rather than the agents of history; they were on the receiving end of major historic events, not their instigators.’
By this criteria a stolen generations exhibit has no place in our National Museum, especially given that Windshuttle and others dispute whether Aboriginal child removal was anything done to anyone at all. I wonder if any of the Stolen Generations sceptics have reflected on whether generations of child removal has any causal relation to social dysfunction in Aboriginal communities. In spite of this dysfunction provoking Barnett’s outburst, such questions are for specialist historians. They are not causal to the national narrative, which should focus on things Anglo-Celts of the male sex did to others, and, says Keith, ‘how authority had been determined and deployed’, which incidentally never includes drinking immoderately, bashing wives or raping children. And anyway, even if Anglo-Celts of the male sex ever did do these things, David Barnett will tell you the blame lies with their wives lavatory hygiene.
It isn’t only the contents of Barnett’s lavatory comments that are of concern. It is his affective ties as a close personal friend to John Howard, whose biography he co-authored with his wife Pru Goward, the recently endorsed liberal candidate for the NSW’s seat of Goulbourn. In Anne Stolers’ history of the colonial Dutch Indies, intimacy, domesticity and affective ties, or the skin-to-skin relations such as, concubinage, servant care and wet nursing, are crucial to defining the essence of racial difference on which imperial expansion depended. Colonialism, the acquiring of not just territories but the human bodies that originally inhabited them, was a very intimate affair.
The manner of Barnett’s maligning confirms Stoler’s argument, but not only because of his disparaging of the affective ties of Aboriginal families, and his invoking of the toileting habits of Aboriginal women. His own affective ties interweave a hammock of political intimacy supporting his comments. Barry Jones once said, like a true Foucauldian, that ‘words are bricks’. Barnett lobbed his brick through the already cracked and splintering window of reconciliation. He did so largely with impunity (we are yet to know the outcome of the HREOC investigation) because of the public authority the likes of Barnett accrue through their affective ties to the higher echelons of decision making in this country, and the shameless cronyism that decides their appointments.
For Barnett white squeamishness about the stolen generations prevents Australians from facing the reality of Aboriginal maternity – as unhygienic, squalid, drunken, and therefore a realm so devoid of affective ties they need be given no consideration in Aboriginal child protection. Note that these are not the characteristics of abusive and dysfunctional families; they are how Barnett characterises Aboriginal maternity per se and it in this regard that he can be identified as a racist.
But ten years into Howard’s culture wars we are no longer forthcoming with such identifications. If we can take the silence surrounding Barnett’s comments as endorsement, it rather begs the question, would Pauline Hanson have been disendorsed as a liberal candidate in the forthcoming federal election?
Political allegiances are sustained through the intimacies of affective ties: they are the ties that ideologically bind. And yet none of these Liberal noteworthy close, intimate and loyal friends seem capable of sensing any affective ties within Aboriginal families. Howard is unrepentant about Aboriginal child removal in part because he is insensible to the trauma of separation and its ongoing impact. It is simply something he does not feel.
Perhaps he should restart the process of reconciliation by apologising for the company he keeps and the appointments he makes. And perhaps we should require David Barnett to divulge whether his own lavatory hygiene includes washing his mouth out with soap.