There are those people who can get away with saying things others dare only to think. That’s Gilbert McAdam. The former AFL player has a cheeky glint in his eye; he always looks as if he’s going to put a comforting arm around your shoulder and draw you closer. And then he hits you with the truth: blunt, simple and undeniable.
“What would they know, what would they know, what would they bloody know, about being a blackfulla.”
It is a penetrating line in the documentary The Australian Dream. McAdam – an Indigenous football hero – reminds us of an enduring truth in Australia. Too many white Australians just don’t know what it is to be Indigenous. Most Australians still admit they have never met an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.
What would they know? What would they know about invasion, dispossession, stolen children, segregation? What would they know about the harsh realities of black lives in Australia? Too many people dead too young, too many locked up, too many youth suicides, too many locked in intergenerational poverty.
This is another Australia, so far from the reality of most lives. Out of sight and too easily out of mind.
What would they know about survival? They don’t know about black resilience, strength, endurance. They don’t know how we laugh. They don’t know about the strength of community and belonging.
That’s what The Australian Dream is about, that space between us. Of course, it is a film about Adam Goodes, the Indigenous footballer booed out of the game. But Adam is all of us. When we – Indigenous people – heard that booing, we knew where it came from. It was the sound of Australia.
This was an Australia for other people. It has never truly been our Australia.
I have been fortunate to be involved in the film as writer, working alongside director Dan Gordon, the teams from Passion Pictures and Good Thing Productions, and executive producer Ben Simmons, the international basketball star determined to take this story to the world.
Gilbert McAdam, Michael O’Loughlin, Nova Peris, Linda Burney, Nicky Winmar – these are the voices of The Australian Dream. Adam Goodes; his mother, Lisa; his brother Brett – these are the voices of The Australian Dream. To see audiences rise and applaud these voices has been the most humbling experience. But also bewildering, disorienting. They are applauding courage and honesty. But they are not applauding who we are as a nation; they are applauding the nation we may still be.
The Australian Dream is an ironic title. How can we speak of a dream shared when we still don’t truly know each other? When we remain somewhere between black sovereignty not ceded and white sovereignty claimed? When the First Peoples go unrecognised in our constitution? When we have failed to negotiate treaties of justice and honour?
There is an Australian dream. It is the dream of progress, unshackled from the past. It is a dream measured in achievement, in distance run. It is an Australia born as a great 18th-century Enlightenment experiment, founded on principles of liberalism: individual liberty, democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression. In his book The Land of Dreams, the historian and former politician David Kemp writes: “If any society was to be based on the recognition of the equality of each individual person, Australia’s historical circumstances and culture gave it the best opportunity to achieve such equality.”
But Kemp describes British settlement as a “tsunami” that wreaked a “huge human cost in the abuse of and violence against the aboriginal peoples”.
I have lived between the Australian dream and the damage it has wrought. The dream of an Aboriginal boy – poor, itinerant – who has grown up to travel the world and pursue a career in journalism. My life has been beyond my imagining. Adam Goodes has lived this dream. From small outback towns, where he was raised by a single mum taken from her family as a girl, determined to hold her own family tight against the world, he went on to become one of the greatest footballers of his generation.
This Australian dream is real. It calls people from other lands: people who flee war and poverty and upheaval. It is the promise of the new. It is the promise of the future. We mark our lives by what we build, not what we leave behind. We shrug off the weight of history.
But there is another Australia, a deeper Australia. For most it remains a hidden Australia, an Australia shrouded in silence. Who truly knows of Pemulwuy or Windradyne? Bennelong or Barangaroo? What of the massacres of Myall Creek, Coniston, Risdon Cove? “What would they know … what would they bloody know.”
This history is written in the souls of Indigenous people. It is the stories I was told as a boy. It is a history worn on our bodies. The Australian dream asks us to leave that history behind. It is what people like Adam and I are told: it is all in the past; it happened a long time ago; get over it. This is the deal, the grand bargain: it is a “closing the gap” version of success – we will see you when you look more like us.
“Successful” Indigenous people become emblems of a hoped-for reconciliation. In exchange for acceptance, wealth or glory, we must absolve Australia. We must soften the blow. It falls to Indigenous people to be generous, forgiving, inclusive. We ritualise this with welcome to country ceremonies on land stolen and still not properly acquitted. We seek to reconcile before we have truly recognised.
This is what is troubling about reconciliation: it is too eager to bypass justice and go straight to healing. In a public lecture in 2018, Yawuru leader Peter Yu lamented that reconciliation had “lost its moral and political gravitas”. The commitment to a full political settlement, he feared, “no longer exists”. What is at stake, he said, is Australia’s “moral and ethical national character”.
Reconciliation treads the fault line of our shared history. A dark place, a place too easily hijacked by culture warriors and identity police. It can so easily be weaponised or turn toxic. I am an Australian; all of my country’s history lives in me – where the Dreaming meets the Enlightenment. I am black and I am white, but the bones of all of my ancestors rest uneasily in this land.
In a speech at the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention, Noel Pearson spoke powerfully of the weight of history, something he called a “troubling business” for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
“For our people,” he said, “it is a troubling business because there is the imperative of never allowing anyone to forget the truths of the past, but being able as a community to rise above its demoralising legacy … But it’s also a challenge for non-Aboriginal Australia. A challenge to understand that in the same way that they urge pride in Gallipoli, and in Kokoda … can we as a community and a nation also acknowledge the shameful aspects of that same past?”
New voices are speaking into the great Australian silence. These are the voices not content to merely speak back to white Australia but to speak powerfully from black Australia. I think of Natalie Harkin’s book of poetry Dirty Words, a subversive dictionary. A is for apology, B is for boat people… G is for genocide… S is for survival.
“How do you dream,” writes Harkin, “when your lucky country does not sleep?”
Bruce Pascoe, Ellen van Neerven, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch, Anita Heiss, Tara June Winch, Kim Scott, Alexis Wright – how I could go on and on. These are voices writing a new nation into being. This is where the Dreaming challenges the Australian dream. These are voices that shatter the myth of terra nullius – this land was never empty.
The Australian Dream, I hope, is part of this resurgence. I hope it helps us, in its way, to write a new country. But it is far from a final word. It is, I hope, a moment for Australian audiences to think about the words of Gilbert McAdam:
“What would they know… what would they bloody know.”
The Australian Dream is in cinemas from August 22.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 17, 2019 as "Dream of consciousness".
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