A Rightful Place. Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth. Noel Pearson. Quarterly Essay 55, 2104. ISBN 9781863956819

The Last Man. A British Genocide in Tasmania. Tom Lawson. IB Taurus. 2014. ISBN 9781780766263

Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History. Bain Attwood. Allen & Unwin 2005. ISBN 9781741145779

This Review was first published in Essentials Autumn 2015

As far back as 2007 there has been bipartisan support for changes to the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to remove clauses to do with racial discrimination. This support was affirmed at the 2010 election. Recent reports suggest a referendum might finally happen in 2017. In the meantime Noel Pearson has written a Quarterly Essay outlining his arguments for Constitutional Reform.

The general question posed by Pearson is: “how do 10,000 distinct peoples [in the world] live well and prosper – and get along with each other – within 200 nation-states?” (6) The immediate question that affects Australians is that the Constitution of 1901 did not recognise the peoples who were here prior to the settlers arriving, but did provide powers to the Commonwealth to make laws based on race. Even the reform of 1967 still included indigenous peoples on the basis of race (more on this later).

Pearson takes some time to review the difficult issues of history-writing, and the differences of perspective that have plagued the debates. He thinks Bain Attwood's Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History is a fine circuit breaker to the “History Wars”, but wants to affirm a stronger view to what happened on the frontiers: the fate of the Tasmanians was genocide; and “the profoundest moral problem of this history: the heavy discounting of the humanity of the Aborigines” (20).


Bain Attwood does provide a very helpful and insightful understanding of the so-called “History Wars” which emerged over the last decade or so, spearheaded in the popular understanding by Keith Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002).

One of the things he identifies is a change in the way history is understood and done. Once upon a time the professional academic historian was seen to be the one who could tell us “what happened”. In fact there are now in the public arena a variety of historical discourses.

Attwood divides his book into three parts. Part 1 aims to trace the roots of the controversy. In Part 2 he critiques Windschuttle's work and attempts to show why it is flawed. In Part 3 he discusses how academic historians might better tackle their research, especially with respect to frontier history, and what role their discussion might play in the public sphere.

A lot of the book concerns the nature of historiography. About who can tell the story. Much Australian history has been told by the settlers and their heirs. Only recently has the Great Australian Silence been broken to hear an Aboriginal History. One of the issues in the book is the nature of oral history and the different ways history is preserved in oral tales. It also concerns the status of the field of Aboriginal History and its relationship to the studies of anthropologists and linguists.

Attwood also discusses what could be called national myths. Stories about a nation that the nation uses to define itself. With respect to the “History Wars” one thing that became apparent was that the public debate was not carried on, by and large, by professional historians, but by public intellectuals who were readers of history. In the process the academic historians appeared to have been marginalised, and their claims to authority weakened. This was part of the process of the democratisation of historiography.

This has led to a plurality of histories in the public arena. Attwood gives a masterly survey of a variety of ways of doing history and the way they relate and compete. In the end he writes to help Australians deal with the truth of the past so that a future can be made with two groups going together. He doesn't think reconciliation is the right word. It “implies that historical difference can somehow be transcended.”(194). He thinks that there will continue to be differences but that the task is to try to moderate these. A truthful exploration of all aspects of the story will assist this.

Pearson affirms Lawson's thesis that the British project was not aimed at genocide but nevertheless had a fatal logic such that even policies of protection “ultimately envisaged no future whatsoever for the original peoples of the island.” (23).

Tom Lawson writes as a British historian and a scholar of genocide. His interest is in what happened to the original inhabitants of Tasmania. Australian scholars have reflected on whether this is a genocide that is part of Australian history. Lawson thinks it is a British question, and argues that it has been part of British public knowledge since the mid 19th century (HG Wells used it as the stimulus for his novel The War of the Worlds). Raphael Lemkin, who prepared the groundwork for legal definitions of genocide, defined genocide as a “total social practice” involving two stages: destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; and the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. For this reason Lawson agrees with the authors of the Bringing Them Home report. The forcible transfer of children with the intention to undermine the viability of a community is defined as genocide in the 1948 Convention (20).

One question is whether it was intentional. The Secretary of State for the Colonies wrote in1830 to Governor Arthur, warning that the 'extinction' of the indigenous population of Van Diemen's Land would leave an 'indelible stain' upon the reputation of the British government. Lawson's argument is that while protection was strongly in mind there was no concept of a shared future. The indigenous people would give way to the settlers, at best they would be Christianised and civilised. Even protection was a means of 'extinction'. The idea of the 'extinction', of course, ignores the descendants of those original people and has become part of a continuing cultural historical debate.

Pearson says he has “always understood that protection worked in concert with frontier dispossession and facilitated it.” (24) Yet as the inheritor of a mission's religion and traditions, he holds complex perspectives on the history. “... without the Lutherans my people would have perished on the Cooktown frontier.” (26). It is this complex history which each of these writers help us to understand better, and which needs to be heard in its complexity rather than read selectively.

One of the issues in the Essay is the question of identity, for which Pearson proposes a concept of layered identities, so that the various identity markers everyone has can be seen, not in competition but as layers. In this way indigenous people can share a bicultural future while retaining important aspects of their traditional heritage. There is no monocultural past they can return to.

Pearson comments on the lack of consent by the indigenous peoples to the arrival of the settlers, and goes on to urge that indigenous people need to have real choice, because with this goes both power and responsibility. He wants “indigenous Australians to become active agents in our own development.” (48). These are well-known Pearson themes.

A significant part of his argument is that “the basis of our inclusion in Australian citizenship in 1967 was fatefully wrong. We were included as citizens of our own country on the basis of race...” (52). Culture, language, ethnicity, religion are not shared uniformly, but there is only one race - all are part of the human race. So constitutional reforms need to remove the concept of race. He sees the Australian nation in three parts: the ancient indigenous heritage; the British inheritance; and the multicultural achievement. “Constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians … will make a more complete commonwealth.” (55) As part of this Pearson appeals for the protection and preservation of the indigenous heritage.

He makes a strong appeal to the conservatives, concluding, “... you cannot have a unified nation, this cannot be a fair nation, without the proper inclusion of that 3 per cent of the nation who were originally excluded from the constitution. And who, when belatedly acknowledged in 1967, were included on the fatefully wrong basis of race.” (72)

These books and the issues they discuss are of great relevance to evangelical Christians, because it was our forebears who, in many places, stood (admittedly often with their own faults and racist views) between the indigenous peoples and their destruction. The departure of the missions from direct involvement in aboriginal communities may have reduced our view, and the apparent take-over of indigenous “aid” by the “left” may have further isolated many of us. But it is not too late to pay attention and contribute to what is now a national debate.