Culture bores avoiding truth on White Australia

It is a curious thing when a tabloid newspaper chooses to put on its front page events of more than 200 years ago. It suggests a quixotic interpretation of the word “news”.

But there on the front page of The Daily Telegraph this week was the news that Captain James Cook did not in fact “discover” Australia. This ran as an exclusive, under the headline “Whitewash”. 

In the interest of keeping readers up to date, the piece was accompanied by Nathaniel Dance-Holland’s portrait of the explorer, painted some time in the mid-1770s.

 “Students at a leading NSW university are being told to refer to Australia as having been ‘invaded’ instead of settled in a highly controversial rewriting of official Australian history,” the story began. “They are also told it is offensive to suggest James Cook ‘discovered’ Australia and inappropriate to say the indigenous people have lived here for 40,000 years.”

The only academic The Daily Telegraph could find for comment was Keith Windschuttle, best known for his denial of the Stolen Generations. “Under international law, Australia has always been regarded as a settled country according to the leading judgments in international law, both here and around the world,” he said. “Until the law changes, there is no sound basis on which to say invaded. That is wrong.”

The Institute of Public Affairs was also on hand to criticise the materials, saying they interfered with “the free flow of ideas”.

It was later reported that the Queensland University of Technology used the same materials. The truth is, many universities do.

Asked about the material, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said: “For many years Australian schools and Australian institutions have not told the truth about the way in which Australia was settled. A lot of Indigenous people lost their lives, there were massacres and the truth always must be told.”

The Daily Telegraph reported her statement under the headline “Qld premier backs white invasion history”.

The guidelines that so incensed The Daily Telegraph were in fact prepared in 1996. It does not take much work to find this out. It is written on them.

This material is not controversial. It is fact. It engages with the terms on which white people arrived in Australia. It engages with the fact that white settlement involved the dispossession of a people, sometimes by force, always by coercive policy.

But the issue here is larger. The issue is that instead of dealing with the modern reality of Indigenous Australia, we are dealing with outdated culture war. Instead of dealing with gaps in education and health and life expectancy, we are squabbling over language used in universities. Children in remote communities are committing suicide, and one of the country’s largest newspapers is mocking the use of the term “Indigenous Australians” in preference to “Aborigines”.

This is about distraction. It is about avoiding truth so as not to face up to it. It is about pretending White Australia’s relationship with Indigenous people was settled in 1788 and that somehow the problems of Indigenous Australia are not Australia’s problems. It is about pretending that these problems are not current, are not something faced every day.

It’s much easier to jeer at the academe than to address chronic disadvantage. But it is also an extraordinary waste of time. The awful reality, as reported on the front page of today’s paper, is that it can also be an extraordinary waste of young life.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2016 as "Culture bores".

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