Andrew Bolt, of course, had a torrid time of it last week. He spent it in court. He’s being sued by nine Aboriginal people over some columns and blogs that the Melbourne Herald Sun published two years ago. [See below.]
There’s no question that they would have been deeply offensive to those nine people–and indeed, to plenty of other folk too.
In brief, Bolt accused the nine, and others–political activists, academics, artists, all of them light-skinned people, of mixed ethnic descent–of “choosing” to identify as Aboriginal because that is “the one identity . . . that has political and career clout.”
He added that “this self-identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality.”
Andrew Bolt has admitted that he got some of his facts wrong. For example, in his original article he wrote of academic Larissa Behrendt that she “has also worked as a professional Aborigine ever since leaving Harvard Law School, despite looking almost as German as her father” (Herald Sun, 15th April, 2009) and in a typically snide Boltism, he wrote that Behrendt “is often interviewed demanding special rights for ‘my people’. But which people are ‘yours’, exactly, mein liebchen?” (Herald Sun, 15th April, 2009)
But Behrendt’s father was born in Australia to an Aboriginal mother, and her grandfather, despite his German name, came from England. If Behrendt had been suing Bolt for defamation, that mistake might have cost News Ltd a lot of money.
And it wasn’t the only inaccuracy by a long chalk.
But the nine aren’t suing for defamation. They’re suing under the provisions of the federal Racial Discrimination Act, which states in clause 18C that it’s unlawful to do something that “is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” (Racial Discrimination Act 1975 clause 18C (1) (a)) and “is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin”(Racial Discrimination Act 1975 clause 18C (1) (b)) of the people concerned.
That provision in the Act comes under the heading “Prohibition of offensive behaviour based on racial hatred” (Racial Discrimination Act 1975).
So for an offensive act to be unlawful, must it be motivated by, or likely to incite, racial hatred?
The Act doesn’t say so. In fact, other than in that heading, the word “hatred” doesn’t appear at all.
To my mind, to declare something unlawful just because it causes offence–on the grounds of race or anything else–is an unjustified curtailment of our freedom of speech.
Admittedly, the Act does exempt “a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest” (Racial Discrimination Act 1975 clause 18D (c) (ii)).
So far, as I understand it from people covering the case, neither side has had much to say about that exemption. But you’d have to think the argument is coming about whether or not it applies.
There’s an irony here. Many countries have a Bill of Rights or a Constitution that gives freedom of speech the status of a fundamental right; for example, there’s this famous clause in the American Constitution: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (First Amendment to the US Constitution).
Clause 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act would probably never have become law in the United States. And in the UK, a judge would have to weigh it in the balance against a legally-recognised right to free speech.
But in recent years, the push for a Bill or Charter of Rights in Australia has been rebuffed–not least, thanks to a chorus of News Ltd columnists like Andrew Bolt. Here’s what he wrote in 2007: “a Bill of Rights is actually a bid for power by an unelected elite that has about exactly enough of it right now” (Herald Sun online, 5th September, 2007).
By “unelected elite”, Bolt meant the judges. In this case, a judge will decide whether he’s breached an Act of Parliament, unconstrained by any need to give special weight to freedom of speech beyond what the Act itself says.
Much as I’d like to see Andrew Bolt apologise for his columns, I think it would be bad for our freedoms if he were told to do so by a court. But to some extent, he’s helped to make the bed he finds himself lying on.
In New South Wales, there’s another legal battle going on with even more profound implications for freedom of the press:
Subpoena to Produce
Plaintiff: New South Wales Crime Commission
Defendant: Police Integrity Commission
— NSW Supreme Court Subpoena served on Sydney Morning Herald, 16th March, 2011
Two of the state’s most powerful criminal watchdogs are at war with each other–and the Sydney Morning Herald is caught in the crossfire.
We’ll look at that issue, and the new federal shield law which the states ought to adopt, but so far haven’t, next week.
Until then, goodnight.
MEET the white face of a new black race–the political Aborigine.
Meet, say, acclaimed St Kilda artist Bindi Cole, who was raised by her English-Jewish mother yet calls herself “Aboriginal but white”.
She rarely saw her part-Aboriginal father, and could in truth join any one of several ethnic groups, but chose Aboriginal, insisting on a racial identity you could not guess from her features.
She also chose, incidentally, the one identity open to her that has political and career clout.
And how popular a choice that now is. Ask Annette Sax, another artist and–as the very correct Age newspaper described her–a “white Koori”.
Her father was Swiss, and her mother only part-Aboriginal. Racially, if these things mattered, she is more Caucasian than anything else. Culturally, she’s more European. In looks, she’s Swiss.
But she, too, has chosen to call herself Aboriginal, which happily means she could be shortlisted for this year’s Victorian Indigenous Art Award.
Shall I go on? Not yet convinced that there is a whole new fashion in academia, the arts and professional activism to identify as Aboriginal?
Not yet convinced that for many of these fair Aborigines, the choice to be Aboriginal can seem almost arbitrary and intensely political, given how many of their ancestors are in fact Caucasian?
Then meet now Tara June Winch, who is just 26 and has written only one book, Swallow the Air, yet is already an ambassador for the Australia Council’s Indigenous Literacy Project. Yes, indeed, because despite her auburn hair and charmingly freckled face, she, too, is an Aborigine, who claims her “country is Wiradjuri”.
Yet her mother, who raised her in industrial Wollongong, is in fact boringly English, and her father has both Afghan and Aboriginal heritage.
She could call herself English, Afghan, Aboriginal, Australian or just a take-me-as-I-am human being called Tara June Winch. Race irrelevant.
Instead, she’s an official Aborigine, and hired as such in a nation that now institutionalises even racial differences you cannot detect with a naked eye.
Larissa Behrendt has also worked as a professional Aborigine ever since leaving Harvard Law School, despite looking almost as German as her father.
She chose to be Aboriginal, as well, a member of the “Eualayai and Kammillaroi nations”, and is now a senior professor at the University of Technology in Sydney’s Indigenous House of Learning.
She’s won many positions and honours as an Aborigine, including the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writers, and is often interviewed demanding special rights for “my people”.
But which people are “yours”, exactly, mein liebchen? And isn’t it bizarre to demands laws to give you more rights as a white Aborigine than your own white dad?
How much more of this madness can you take? Meet now Associate Professor Anita Heiss, who says she’s a “member of the Wiradjuri nation” who prays to Biami, the tribe’s creator spirit.
Heiss’s father was Austrian, and her mother only part-Aboriginal. What’s more, she was raised in Sydney and educated at Saint Claire’s Catholic College. She, too, could identify as a member of more than one race, if joining up to any at all was important.
As it happens, her decision to identify as Aboriginal, joining four other “Austrian Aborigines” she knows, was lucky, given how it’s helped her career.
Heiss not only took out the Scanlon Prize for Indigenous Poetry, but won plum jobs reserved for Aborigines at Koori Radio, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board and Macquarie University’s Warawara Department of Indigenous Studies.
I’m not saying any of those I’ve named chose to be Aboriginal for anything but the most heartfelt and honest of reasons. I certainly don’t accuse them of opportunism, even if full- blood Aborigines may wonder how such fair people can claim to be one of them and in some cases take black jobs.
I’m saying only that this self-identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality.
I T’S also divisive, feeding a new movement to stress pointless or even invented racial differences we once swore to overcome. What happened to wanting us all to become colour blind?
Of course, the white Aborigine–or “political Aborigine”–is not new.
In 1972, Pat Eatock, founding secretary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, officially became the first Aborigine to stand for federal parliament in the ACT, even though she looked as white as her Scottish mother, or some of her father’s British relatives.
Indeed, Eatock only started to identify as Aboriginal when she was 19, after attending a political rally, so little did any racial difference matter to her before her awakening to far-Left causes.
But she thrived as an Aboriginal bureaucrat, activist and academic, leading the way for Leeanne Enoch, who stood for Labor in last month’s Queensland election as its “first Aboriginal candidate” in a winnable seat, despite looking as Aboriginal, or not, as Premier Anna Bligh.
The white Aboriginal artist, too, is more than 15 years old. Kim Scott was hailed as the first Aborigine to win the Miles Franklin Award, and calls himself a Noongar, despite conceding that the Aborigines who did not know him called him wadjila–a white.
No doubt he has Aboriginal ancestry, but why does he not also identify with his obvious European background?
That is now a question even for our most famous Aboriginal leaders. Geoff Clarke, the last chairman of ATSIC, the Aboriginal “parliament”, had an English father. Lowtija O’Donoghue, another ATSIC chairman, had an Irish father. Fair Michael Mansell, the Tasmanian firebrand, clearly has more European than Aboriginal ancestry.
EVEN Professor Mick Dodson, the Australian of the Year and a fierce advocate for a treaty between black and white, had a white father and from the age of 10 was a boarder at a Victorian Catholic school. Sign a treaty with yourself, Mick.
Or take the most prominent Yorta Yorta leaders–Melbourne University academic Wayne Atkinson and Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group co-chair Graham Atkinson. Both are Aboriginal because their Indian great-grandfather married a part-Aboriginal woman.
I think it sad if we harp on about differences and rights based on trivial inflections of race.
And how comic. We get fair-faced Dr Mark Rose, Victorian Aboriginal Education Association head, falsely claiming as “a member of the western Victorian Gundjitamara Nation” that the northern Australia didgeridoo is banned to women.
We get Daniel Browning, host of ABC radio’s Awaye! program for Aborigines, insisting he’s Aboriginal when he looks more like one of his West Indian ancestors, and could just as correctly claim to be South Sea Islander, English, Australian or who-cares.
TO me, this blacker-than-thou offends the deepest humanist ideals, and our “enlightened” opinion is debased when it takes a Casey Donovan, a mere Australian Idol winner, to hint at the healthier truth, saying she’s proud of being Aboriginal, but “proud of being half-white, too”.
In fact, let’s go beyond racial pride. Beyond black and white. Let’s be proud only of being human beings set on this land together, determined to find what unites us and not to invent such racist and trivial excuses to divide. Deal?
|Left to right: Tara June Winch, Annette Sax, and Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal artists.|