Books

Sarah Maddison
The Colonial Fantasy

“Language is important,” Sarah Maddison tells us at the start of The Colonial Fantasy, a necessary and purposefully confronting book. She sets out the vocabulary on which she believes any discussion of black–white relations in this country must be based if we are to find a way forward. First and foremost: Australia is a “settler state” created by “settler colonialism”. We are deluded by the “colonial fantasy” that once we eliminate the differences between us in an act of “colonial completion”, First Nations people and settlers can enjoy life as equals within a shared polity.

The fantasy belongs as much to the left as it does the right, to migrants as well as First Fleeters. To return to reality, Maddison writes, we all must learn how to “get out of the way of Indigenous aspirations”.

Maddison is a scholar who has written books on white guilt, Aboriginal politics, and the stifling of political dissent. Describing herself as a “white, settler writer”, she acknowledges that such self-labelling carries a whiff of political performance. Yet unless non-Indigenous Australians recognise our status as settlers, she contends, we remain “sympathetic beneficiaries of colonialism” and obstacles to decolonisation. She asserts: “White Australia can’t solve black problems because white Australia is the problem.”

The Colonial Fantasy will greatly exercise that part of the right-wing commentariat who live to cry “political correctness gone mad!” It’s also not comfortable reading for non-Indigenous types who like to pat themselves on the back for such actions as marching for reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000 – one of many grand and well-intentioned gestures that solved nothing. As Maddison reiterates, the only thing that can bring about needed change is self-determination, exemplified in a broad-based, grassroots Indigenous “resurgence”. As far back as 1990, the Yorta Yorta artist and activist Lin Onus observed that Indigenous people across the nation were engaging in what he called “the most extraordinary salvage operation”. No longer waiting for state solutions, Indigenous communities were devising their own policies and plans. In the Atherton Tablelands, First Nations communities have banded together to take back power “literally and figuratively”, in Mbabaram man Eddie Turpin’s words, through a renewable energy project. Elsewhere, elders are teaching youths their traditional language, lore and ways of living on the land. Such actions are bringing about positive changes in education, poverty alleviation, health and crime prevention.

Structural change, which Maddison argues is vital to broader success, won’t be easy. As author Tony Birch writes, it would involve taking “the reconciliation pageantry beyond symbolism into fraught political territory” – a discussion of sovereignty. Observing that Indigenous sovereignty over the land was never ceded or extinguished, the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart demanded “constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country”. It proposed a First Nations voice to parliament and a Makarrata (coming together) process to work out a formal agreement, such as a treaty, to guarantee justice and self-determination. Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister at the time, said no to the first proposal and ignored the second.

Australian governments have form with disregarding Indigenous opinion, preferring their own top-down, and too often cack-handed, policies. A perfect example is the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (known colloquially as “the intervention”), the Howard government’s response to the “Little Children Are Sacred” report. Maddison quotes an author of the report as saying that “not a single action” of the intervention corresponded with “a single recommendation” of the report. Mick Dodson, who characterised the intervention as “ill thought out” and “draconian”, asks, “What’s the problem with you people that you always feel you have to come in and fix things rather than support us to fix the things?” The intervention failed to successfully prosecute even a single case of child abuse. Poverty rose in some communities and, as Nova Peris has noted, suspicion grew that it was a disguised land grab.

In addition to the intervention, The Colonial Fantasy examines the concepts of recognition, self-determination, representation, land, incarceration, closing the gap and reconciliation. This is a serious work that demands our attention. Maddison gives texture to her thesis by including a wide range of perspectives. She notes relevant overseas studies, citing the co-founder of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development on how “tribal sovereignty and self-determination” is the key to overcoming Indigenous poverty.

Some people, Maddison observes, “continue to deny that colonisation is … problematic at all”. She quotes Tony Abbott’s statement that the arrival of the First Fleet “was on balance, for everyone – Aboriginal people included – a good thing because it brought Western civilisation to this country”.

Maddison makes it clear that, just as Abbott does not represent all of non-Indigenous Australia, no one Indigenous leader speaks for all First Nations people. Each topic in The Colonial Fantasy has incited vigorous debate within Indigenous communities. Some First Nations leaders, for example, believe constitutional recognition is important. But Professor Irene Watson asks: “… how does a thief recognise the victim of the theft, if not to give back what they have stolen …?” Even the intervention has its supporters, including, at the outset, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton.

Some policymakers point to divided opinion among Indigenous people as evidence that a top-down approach is the best solution. Yet what works for one community may not work for another. Self-determination allows each community to decide what’s best for them.

By coincidence, in the same week I was reading this book, I saw Nakkiah Lui’s latest play, the funny, delightfully provocative How to Rule the World. Its lesson: don’t rely on white guys to rule the world for you – even if it’s their job to be on your side.

Linda Jaivin

Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Sarah Maddison, The Colonial Fantasy ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Linda Jaivin