by Gerry Georgatos
June 30th, 2013
… one high level university official once said to me, “Gerry, what do these blacks want? An education? Send them back to the bush where they belong…”
Today, Yothu Yindi’s great songwriter, musician, educator and social justice campaigner is at rest. Mr Yunupingu rocked the boat on racist stereotypes as he called for equality, and through Treaty.
Treaty is still denied. Why? The reasons are disappointing but in time the striving for equality may bring it on. On this day, as Mr Yunupingu is laid to rest I reflect on racism experienced and the road ahead. It is a given that Treaty will arise and that Mr Yunupingu will not be forgotten.
My father, struggling in his 84th year of life, never went to school, and who first left home at the age of 13 because of abject and acute poverty, and the effects of war before migrating to Australia near sixty years ago, taught me, the eldest of his six children, “to put nothing between myself and what is right”. We are a continent apart however in our conversations, as he strains to find the physical strength to muster a yarn, he kindly reminds me of the common good, and that all else does not get people anywhere unless we are prepared to accept divisiveness and inequalities – and in accepting inequality then we accept as natural that the aspiration of humanity is wed by paradoxes – vacuums of inhumanity.
When I was a young child growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney my father said to me that as I grew older I would better understand what he described as the many layers of racism that veil Australian society, and the prejudices and stereotypes that are the stitches on these veils – prejudices and stereotypes shoved down our throats in order to justify racism. I have never forgotten the first time that he mentioned to me our Aboriginal brothers and sisters – I was 8 years old – and he tried to help me understand that Australia, and its governments, in the fullness of time would face an indictment of their maltreatment of our brothers and sisters – worse had been done to Aboriginal peoples, he said, than to any migrants to this great continent.
I learned quite young that ills, like plagues, hit humanity and often much seems forlorn, however I have also learned that there is an unfolding human rights language, and social justice vocabulary, and that though the best of what shall arise in the name of the common good shall not be in our lifetimes, it is coming – for the most part, the world is a better place than most of the days that we have put behind us. My father, for the most part of his working life, a factory worker struggled with the English language however he stood side by side with workers in many class struggles – and in fighting to change the working conditions that many migrants were exploited within. In those days, my father’s generation of a first wave of migrant Greek workers were overwhelmed by the language barriers – and this is where I came in, beginning as a twelve year old. Probably what defined my life and dissociated my identity formation from a pursuance of many life goals others find requisite, were the mesothelioma sufferers I was asked to act as an interpreter for, and then as their ad hoc representative. In those days the unions were not ready for the asbestosis dramas unfolding – I met humanity intravenously wired up, fighting for every breath, bed-ridden and withered and gasping at the end of life – I remember thinking that people should not have to live like this – Their employers denying culpability and denying the victims compensation which was needed to support their families. As a young child on behalf of these people without hope and without real voice I finished up face to face with their employers and I remember thinking that people should not be treated like this. There was no justice for these people who are now long gone, however in the name of their spirit some changes in terms of basic rights have come for other sufferers since – and this is the story of humanity in the light of our unfolding human rights struggle – the aspiration for equality and for the right to be treated with dignity; but it requires people to speak up for those denied these rights and their voice and if this does not occur then many narratives go untold but the injustices done. The challenge is not to tear down others for their transgressions, not to bring them down, the objective is to highlight the moral ground and the ways forward.
During the last decade I spent several years in the university sector, and as a General Manager of a Student Guild, however also as an elected member on university planning boards and committees and on a university board of directors – and I was quite involved, not one to sit back or miss an opportunity to contribute. For all the great achievements along the way that one can give to, I am often inspired to work harder when I see the worst of humanity, the imposts of inhumanity, such as prejudices – for me, none worse than what one high level university official once said to me,
“Gerry, what do these blacks want? An education? Send them back to the bush where they belong…”
That is not where it ended. My battle to break such hidden attitudes in a bastion of identity forming education, such as a university, was acutely traumatic and came with much ostracisation and recrimination.
A Czech philosopher, Karel Kosik, arrested and interrogated for disagreeing with the state, wrote of someone who was put to death during the Inquisition,“A theologian said that all will be well with me and all permitted to the degree that I obey the Council, and he added, ‘If the council were to declare that you have but one eye, despite the fact that you may have two, it is your duty to agree with the Council.’ I replied to him: ‘Even if the whole world were to affirm that, I, utilising whatever reason I may possess, could not acknowledge such a thing without a rejection of my conscience.’” It is like I am listening to my father.
Recently, I read a National Tertiary Education Union report on claims of racial discrimination among highly educated university staff. The report found near 72% of the Aboriginal university workers they had surveyed said that they had experienced direct discrimination and racist attitudes within their workplace – in the university sector I worked alongside Aboriginal Learning Centres and alongside most of the Aboriginal academics and staff. The academics especially described discrimination, tokenism and paternalism. Some of them I represented or assisted when it reached the confrontational. I will return to most of this further along in this article.
The last couple of years have been an interesting time for me as I have made decisions about my direction in life and how I can best contribute to what I’m used to doing, what my father instilled in me, in putting nothing between myself and what is right. As I approached half my life done I heavily reflected on how to best serve the causes I am involved in, and how to best contribute my little bit to the unfolding human rights language, to us being there for one another – and hence I decided to pack up and leave behind a high paying management job, which had me in the top 7% of Australian income earners – and I decided on the very difficult journey of working in the news media. It is no easy ask at my age to move into journalism. For years, on an almost daily basis I’ve spoon fed one story after another to various news media, working behind the scenes to give birth to, and where possible shape, stories that the public has a right to know about – it’s not always easy dealing with chiefs of staff at newspapers, or getting reporters to do the through-care journalism, to follow a story through to positive outcomes, however this is what I divested much of my time to. Many said to me why bother with the mainstream news media which they claimed is heavily influenced by various conservatism and cultures of favour-dispensation, that it is under the thumb, they say, of government and the influences of big business. However, I disagree in not working with the mainstream news media – I believe that there are many good journalists, and that we need to reach people far and wide, and that dissemination is an imperative in expeditiously unfolding positive changes and in articulating a quality human rights language. I do believe that the ability to discover the truth is outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit however it is defeatist not to do what you can, and though the frontiers can be scary and ugly these are not something to put in the way between you and in doing what is right – as others before us, now long gone, have done so we today are at least better off than others of their generation. The National Indigenous Times has given me a valuable opportunity to contribute through their voice as a journalist and I have valued this from the day I started with them – from the day Stephen Hagan, the then editor of this newspaper, phoned me to propose to me the birth of a career in journalism. Just prior to this phone call from The National Indigenous Times I had just tasted a whiff of journalism, having begun writing for a regional newspaper and now more than two years later I am immersed in journalism, still with the National Indigenous Times but also as a co-editor and journalist having launched an online news site, The Stringer.
Someone recently wrote to The National Indigenous Times and complimented that I don’t mince my words and that they appreciate my reporting style, and I want to continue in this vein – and in this article I want to reflect upon what I ferociously believe are this country’s most difficult dilemmas – racism, the hostile denial of this, and the passivity of those who witness racism. My stint thus far with The National Indigenous Times has reinforced the harsh reality of racism, unfettered, Australia-wide, from within the corridors of our parliaments through to the dungeons of our prisons. Racism has cut so deeply with me from within my childhood, because of how I saw my parents treated by others, because of how I saw migrant workers treated by their employers and by how they were neglected by government authorities. It cut through the bone after I left my childhood and lived alongside my Aboriginal brothers and sisters – to my disgust in discovering through first-hand witness no peoples had been maltreated worse than our Aboriginal peoples. It cut so deep that the most part of my extensive university education was dedicated to understanding racism. Early in my university education there would be a fork in my life’s journey from the mathematical sciences and logistics to the study of the humanities – philosophy, philology, Aboriginal studies, both my Masters dealing with the cause and rise of racism, and with Aboriginal disadvantage and my PhD research in the extensiveness of Australian deaths in custody and in understanding our prisons – and my research validates that Australia has one of the world’s most horrific deaths in custody records and that prisons are places where those who go in come out worse for the experience – and I argue the cause and rise to this is founded in harsh judgments upon others and therefore in discrimination.
In my reporting for The National Indigenous Times and for others I have written widely about the police related incident where a 15 year old Aboriginal boy, Rex Bellotti Jr was struck by a police four wheel drive which left him near dead and which has since devastated not only his life but the lives of his parents and his five siblings – his parents worked hard to provide their six children with private school education so they could rise above inter-generational poverty and stereotypes manifest by Australia’s racist past. I have raised allegations in the articles that the police officers who drove the vehicle that in all likelihood accidentaly struck down this boy, in order to save their arses they came out and said that he tried to kill himself – well that’s bullshit, that never happened – Rex Jr was just crossing the road, and I believe it was an accident, I don’t believe the police officer who was driving meant to hit him – they had no time to find, not in a couple of critical seconds at most before impact, swerving all over the place and just missing a teenage girl to have made that irresponsible, and I believe cowardly, assessment. When they realised he was Aboriginal and they tapped into some of the stereotypes and statistics of ‘dysfunctional’ Aboriginal youth, and suicides and then improperly and unlawfully put these comments into the public domain through the news media. This was racism of the worst type. How can we trust the police when the police are prepared to lie like this? How can we trust the Office of the Commissioner of Police when they are not prepared to adequately investigate and hold their officers accountable? How can we trust the Corruption and Crimes Commissions when they are not prepared to make more rigorous findings than they do – and appear to act only when the evidence is like a cream pie in their faces, such as the CCTV footage of Kevin Spratt tasered at least 41 times during five separate incidents involving police and prison officers? Indeed, ‘NO’, we cannot trust them, not when they are not prepared to investigate themselves in the ways they do of those they pursue and arrest from within the civilian populations. Indeed, when they are not prepared to bring their own into line or to account then for sure this smacks, loud and clear, of a rogue sub-culture of police brutality.
If anyone thinks there is little racism in Australia then they are nuts, ignorant, passive or racist. The majority of Australians are not racist per se, however passivity is a layer of racism and that should always remain solid in everyone’s thinking. I am inundated with stories for The National Indigenous Times, and I try to find stories that will role model ways for many of us to move past the wrongs thumped upon our consciousness and remove us from the consequences of those wrongs, however most of the stories I come across reinforce the fact that racism stares us down and that it is widespread with much soul searching yet to arise. I wrote a story where I reported the racist ranting that occurred at a BHP Billiton annual shareholders’ meeting. At the meeting Aboriginal Elders, as shareholders came to raise their concerns about uranium mining and every time they got up to speak as shareholders the chairperson, Jacques Nasser shut them down. This is racism. However, he allowed a non-Aboriginal shareholder from Queensland, Phil Robson to speak freely, and during his turn he said Aboriginals are a conquered race, that Aboriginals have no right to speak about the land, that Aboriginals do not know what to do with money, that Aboriginals are a bunch of drunks. This was racism. Jacques Nasser’s passivity and refusal to intervene was racism. BHP Billiton refusing to respond about its chairperson’s conduct is racism. If you pick up any copy of The National Indigenous Times you’ll find that a significant share of the news items and community news are about Aboriginal success stories, about people overcoming tremendous injustices – injustices most Australians do not endure. You’ll find that the more multicultural The Stringer is similarly so. There are incredible success stories and in most instances you will find that these peoples have not forgotten their own – they are doing everything they can to help lift up those others who have been smashed by the type of racism that Phil Robson throttled out at the BHP Billiton shareholders meeting, while Jacques Nasser effectively gave him the green light to do so.
This is the type of racism that our federal governments are also inclined to dish out. They are no different to Phil Robson and Jacques Nasser – look at what they say about the 29 per cent of the Northern Territory that is Aboriginal. They say the same things about them that Phil Robson said to the 300 shareholders at the BHP annual money talk – in order to justify the Emergency Response in the Northern Territory – the Intervention – and once again they are saying the same things, whether outright or by inversion, to justify a second wave of the Intervention. Peoples’ identity have been made a liability, their historical and cultural identities are held against them, and work against them, and this is racism, and it is a horrific twisted form of torture. For Aboriginal peoples, it is in effect a form of The Stolen Generations, forcing upon them criteria to go ‘white’, to ‘assimilate’, to dissociate from their form and content and in many ways to deny their very existence. This is not Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples, it is abominable eugenics, oppression – slavish social engineering – brutal. On April 15, 2009, the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, in his muddle-mindedness, wrote “It’s so hip to be black…” as he tried to make sense of his skewed thinking which was contemplating who is entitled to claim an Aboriginal identity and who is not, and in his considerations who milks the system. Andrew’s comment – ‘hip’ – has a number of connotations however none impute the myriad truths of what being an Aboriginal person in a racist paradigm means – Andrew did not consider the predicaments, the plights, the suffering imposed upon Aboriginal peoples for being Aboriginal. Would a non-Aboriginal man have been treated differently in the back of the prisoner transport van in which the Warburton Elder, Mr Ward was burnt to death in? – Yes. Would our state and federal governments and other jurisdictions permit non-Aboriginal families and children to live in the squalid shanty camps at Ninga Mia, five kilometres outside of the mining boom town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, or in hovels on the outskirts of other communities Australia-wide? – No.
The former National Indigenous Times editor, Stephen Hagan nailed it in an editorial that stood out like a beacon to me, and he had to because otherwise it would be a hostile denial of the racism that is Australia’s lived experience, when he wrote,“Up to 35% of Indigenous men do not drink alcohol compared with 12% of non-Indigenous men. 29% to 80% of Indigenous women do not drink alcohol compared with 19% to 25% of non-Indigenous women. In the Northern Territory, 75% of Aboriginal people do not drink alcohol at all.” Therefore why have the Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory had their lives smashed by the Intervention? Soon after, National Indigenous Times reporter, Geoff Bagnall did what the Australian government has been failing to do, and consulted Aboriginal Elders in the Northern Territory. On the front cover of the newspaper Geoff’s headline was,“What consultation Minister Macklin?” Minister Jenny Macklin has long claimed that there had been widespread consultation but there is little real evidence of this, and everyone Geoff spoke to expressed their concern that there had been little or no substantive consultation. Geoff spoke to Elders of Ampiliwatja, Urapuntja, Galiwink’u, Mt Nancy, Lagamanu, Tennant Creek, Yuendumu, Borroloola, Kalkarindji and more, and I too have spoken to a considerable many Elders. All of them say that the key issues are that they should be treated equally to other Australians, and not discriminated against, that their culture should not be looked down upon by the Australian government(s) and that the major problem is that governments continue to neglect their obligation to provide the full suite of basic services and opportunities to them; employment, education, electricity, running water and health services. Indeed, by not doing so this is racism, and not just base discrimination. I am not the only one to say so, most people know this, however many remain passive and withdrawn. The UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay, UN Special Rapporteur James Anaya, and Amnesty International’s Shalil Shetty and Irene Khan, all recent visitors to Australia and to the plight of the most impoverished Aboriginal peoples, who number more than 100,000, describe our governments’ actions towards Aboriginal peoples as racist. Amnesty’s Irene Khan, in 2009, said that it was an unexpected tragedy she had found many Aboriginal peoples in and that it was as the result of the Australian government(s)’ underlying racisms.
Australia has one of the world’s worst deaths in custody records – prison and police custodial – however this country’s social wealth is envied by most of the rest of the world. Therefore, how is it possible that Australia, with its social wealth, and high human development index, owns horrific statistics in terms of custodial deaths, in terms of rates of deaths and in terms of crude totals? Aboriginal peoples are disproportionately borne with the brunt of custodial deaths in this country and borne with disproportionately wild incarceration rates. Aboriginal incarceration rates are nearly six times the rate when compared with the last years of Apartheid South Africa, and West Australia’s Aboriginal incarceration rates are nearly nine times the rate when compared with Apartheid South Africa. In any other country these types of targeted imprisonment and deaths in custody rates would have led to a civil war or en masse confrontations. No reasonably minded person can argue down Australia’s contemporary racism.
Where does it all start and where does it end? How long will Aboriginal peoples retain their peacefulness? The Aboriginal peoples’ human rights struggle has been a genuine non-violent one despite their mighty resistance during the first one hundred years of colonialism. They have endured in the name of humanity intolerable inhumanity. We know how and where the racism began, but why and how does it still continue, and when and where will it finally end are the big questions.
Our management systems are moulded by prejudices, biases, hence social engineering, and which the origins-of-thinking prevailing this dominion for two centuries continue inter-generationally – to this day. In 1901, the Western Australian member of parliament for Kalgoorlie, Hugh Mahon tabled a motion calling for a royal commission into the conditions of Aboriginal people in Western Australia and the administration of justice in the lower courts. It was not heeded. 112 years later after the tabling of that motion we are still calling for such inquiries or rather for ‘the justice’. Just as inter-generational poverty perpetuates so do the base premises and stereotypes shoved down peoples’ throats regurgitate inter-generationally. Our parliaments are 90% Anglo-Celtic, with 80% of these parliamentarians with more than one hundred years of familial and settler history – and therefore as much as the unfolding human rights language is challenging paradigms, the form and content of these parliamentarians carries with them a languish of stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions from yesteryear not yet examined and extinguished. I have spoken to hundreds of parliamentarians and half of them are not fit to be representing their electorates or contributing to the management of this nation’s humanity. The brightest minds and the most humane peoples are not necessarily our parliamentarians – there are well meaning parliamentarians and some good ones but we all know that for the most part all it takes to become a parliamentarian is to hang around the particular party and make friends. Our Aboriginal component in the Australian political landscape is minimal, and for Aboriginal peoples has been difficult to enter into. To get in you have to convolute your objectives, as have those very few who are there, with the objectives and anathema of the incumbent political parties.
It is imperative that the Australian consciousness permits itself a true understanding of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, a true history of Australia subsequent the English First Fleet to Botany Bay and the settler invasion and the imposts and Apartheid upon our Aboriginal brothers and sisters two centuries too long. It is imperative that Aboriginal history and a true history since 1788 are taught in all our educational institutions, including universities, compulsorily – it is the only way we can evidence to Australians, especially those born far removed from the sins of those past, the racism that was engineered. While I was at Murdoch University, I spent three years on the University Senate, 2006 to 2008, and four years on its Academic Council, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009. For seven years I had campaigned for the introduction of Aboriginal studies as a compulsory unit to all undergraduate students. The opposition I faced often surprised me even when it should not have – it’s not as if academics and university personnel should be seen as vastly different to our parliamentarians and most of the rest of our humanity. During 2008 I raised the bar with the campaign for the introduction of Aboriginal studies and tabled a series of recommendations to Academic Council. On April 16, 2008 Academic Council heard my arguments for the ground breaking introduction of a compulsory unit of Aboriginal studies to all undergraduates – it would be an Australia-first. However, the Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellors were not supportive, and their argument was that students should be allowed choice, and that the university could lose students. They did not front the April 16 Council meeting and instead sent proxies, staffers who had never attended an Academic Council meeting to vote against the motions I had foreshadowed. To achieve any chance of success in establishing what many Aboriginal scholars had backed me to do, I had to gear myself to the fifth foreshadowed motion in recommending that substantial Indigenous content be included in all Foundation Units. Murdoch’s foundation units are a set of units that undergraduate students must choose one of and which introduce them to university studies. The preceding motions sought a tailor made unit or other more substantive learning opportunities in Aboriginal studies than its limitation to the foundation unit as with the fifth recommendation.
On 16 April 2008 I addressed our Academic Council, and Aboriginal scholars and students were in the gallery hoping Murdoch University would create history. I said, “In terms of its Indigenous population Australia has the worst record of all the OECD countries. Well known facts include the disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples incarcerated, who lack higher and tertiary education, who are worse off in terms of health and housing and who are denied social inclusion. It is a well-known fact that Indigenous Australians on average live 17 years less than non-Indigenous Australians.”
“The Prime Minister of Australia delivered an Apology to the Indigenous peoples of Australia on February 13th. This is considered as a ‘first step’. The ‘next steps’ must ensure they can actually improve the condition of Indigenous peoples in this country. We all have a responsibility to this end. It is higher education that can best deliver every opportunity to ensure this advance. It is all about our identity formation, our national consciousness, about reconciling ourselves with the truth, with understanding one another and hence improving engagement and moving towards bona fide social inclusion.”
“We are still a country heavily governed, administrated and educated from within the constructs of whiteness, conservatism and elitism. An important step forward for all Australians is if our universities move to ensure that there is compulsory study of Australia’s Indigenous history, a true history of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia during the last 238 years, and of cross cultural education, which will ensure inter and intra cultural awareness.”
“Murdoch University can lead the way. In New Zealand Maori history and cultural education is compulsory to year 10 and is also foundational to many tertiary undergraduate programs. It has been evidenced that this has gone a long way to addressing historical and endemic problems between the ‘Pakehas’ and the ‘Maoris’. The University of South Australia is moving forward with a push for Indigenous content in every course by 2010.” I tabled an excerpt from The Australian, by Verity Edwards, February 16, 2007:
“Indigenous content will be added to every undergraduate course at the University of South Australia by 2010, in a national first that the institution says will allow students to focus on how the ‘white community engages with the black community’.
The University will today open the David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research, which will drive the introduction of the course content.
College Dean Peter Buckskin told The Australian that introducing the studies would give students an ‘Indigenous view’ and create ‘culturally sensitive’ learning.
“We’d probably be the only western university to have committed ourself to having Indigenous content,” Mr Buckskin said. “Whether it’s the school of business, whether it’s the division of health sciences, education, nursing, pharmaceutical, there’ll be Indigenous content in the delivery of courses.”
“Queensland University of Technology Deputy Vice-Chancellor Vi McLean said it was reasonable to expect Australian graduates to understand Indigenous culture, but that it was not ‘easily done’.”
“They will have to take great care if it’s not going to be tokenistic,” she said.
Professor McLean, who previously worked in curriculum development and education, said the university would need to either introduce Indigenous core subjects in the early stages of an undergraduate degree or consult with Indigenous academics to ensure studies were relevant.”
Reconciliation Studies senior lecturer Heidi Norman, from the University of Technology, Sydney, said it would be a professional asset for graduates to understand Indigenous issues.
“There’s a shift that’s taken place where Aboriginal people are saying we don’t want to be studied or scrutinised – (cultural studies) might instead take in more contemporary race relations rather than (say) ‘this is a dying culture’,” Ms Norman said.
I then continued, “I believe Murdoch University will benefit as a University in terms of its own reputation and as an education provider by ensuring substantial Indigenous content is taught to all Murdoch University undergraduate students of its South St., Rockingham and Mandurah campuses. Hopefully, with a new government focused on further unfolding the human rights language and policies of inclusion, we are in an era of higher education reform and positive new pathways. If we are the leaders in this Murdoch will be well regarded and renowned, and opportunities surely will manifest where consequently funding streams will arise. Once this education is settled, there shall arise the myriad of opportunities to establish further direction and ensure that Murdoch will be able to provide research and other programs from this exciting direction.”
“All that is being asked of Academic Council is do they believe that we should make substantial Indigenous content compulsory in our undergraduate education. How this shall be enabled is for working parties to explore and hence recommend to Academic Council. The options are many: it may be through a compulsory Foundation Unit, or threaded through all current Foundation Units. It may be delivered by students choosing from the 16 units at Murdoch with substantial Indigenous content, as approved by Kulbardi , or through a tailor made unit(s). All that is being asked of Academic Council at this point is does it wish to ensure that all our undergraduate students study at least one unit with substantial Indigenous content. Whether we move forward with this direction should not depend on impact studies and other research but by deciding whether we want to move in this direction or not, and if we do we will be addressing the endemic problems, in terms of the conditions Indigenous peoples endure and in terms of the perceptions of Indigenous peoples by non-Indigenous Australians. Hence, if we decide to move in this direction the research will be geared in determining the best way to go about delivering this education to all our undergraduate students.”
Twenty six members of Academic Council participated in an hour plus discussion fused with inadvertent racisms and some disturbing remarks and to the surprise of the gallery of Aboriginal scholars and students. The one obstinate argument that frustrated me was when one academic argued whether it would be cost effective to provide such a unit – it just smacked of the same bullshit that our governments come up with in finding ways to deny Aboriginal communities the full suite of funding they are entitled to – and the cost instead is one of disenfranchisement and disadvantage. My first four motions were blocked however the final motion got up, 12 to 5 with a number of abstentions – the 5 who voted against it were the five proxies on behalf of the then Vice Chancellor and the four Deputy Vice Chancellors.
The Motion that was carried:“Academic Council recommends that substantial Indigenous content will be included in all Foundation Units. Academic Council recommends that this should be implemented no later than the commencement of the 2010 academic year.” To move forward from the debilitating racism plaguing Australia there isn’t anything that we could do that we shouldn’t do – and the argument of cost or debt aversion doesn’t wash as the cost of not doing what should be done is worse in every manner imaginable and lived. The worst forms of racist attitudes I have come across are not necessarily from ‘ordinary’ Australians – three years ago my 10 year old daughter and I were called ‘wogs’ and told I should pack my bags and leave with the ‘reffos’ and take with me my ‘coon mates’; this said by a couple of gentlemen at a ‘Border Control Forum’ in Rockingham (south of Perth) attended by 100 locals organised by Western Australia Liberal federal parliamentarian, Michael Keenan. Like Jacques Nasser of BHP Billiton allowing shareholder Phil Robson to rant unfettered so did Mr Keenan not intercede though he was keen to close me down every time I had the floor. I can live with all this, I’ve been doing it since I was kid, and so many others have it so much worse however the worst forms of racism for me are when it comes out of the mouths of our parliamentarians, from renowned pillars of Australian society and from those you would least expect it from – a dash of university academics and high profile university personnel. During an otherwise civil conversation between myself and a high profile university officer, with another person present who has never forgotten that particular meeting, I was pushing for certain privileges for Murdoch University’s Kulbardi Centre (Aboriginal Learning Centre that supports Aboriginal students) – and then oh my goodness this person came back at me with, “What do these blacks want? (he shook his head) An education? (he laughed)Send them back to the bush where they belong.” (he looked at me dismissing my look of horror, and the stunned silence and shock of my colleague). Then he pretty much muttered some of it one more time. This is one of a number of incidents at the time that had led me to push Murdoch University to undertake compulsory anti-racism and anti-discrimination training – two schools would go through this, with one school undertaking the training over three days from every staff member to the Dean. The Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic refused to implement this training as compulsory and insisted it should be at best made available for those interested to tap into – however will a racist undertake this education? The person who said, “What do these Aboriginals want? An education? Send them back to the bush where they belong” has never taken up this training! This Deputy Vice Chancellor said to me that I am ‘full-on’ and people don’t know how to deal with it – well we need to be ‘full-on’ because change comes far too slowly. Former Federal Minister Fred Chaney, and someone whom I respect, once advised me that I need to treat the campaign for social justice as a marathon rather than a sprint, however I disagree – where we need to speak up, where we need to stand alongside others, where we need to make a difference, where we need to be on the frontiers then this is what we need to do – when enough rise, change happens. For the record, the then Vice Chancellor of that university and the Deputy Vice-Chancellors have all moved on, some against their will. However what’s needed is a cultural shift and this does not automatically arise with a changing of the guard. Aboriginal peoples are not three per cent of Australia’s university student population, they are less than 0.5%. This too is racism.
Australia’s racial incidents are far too many to document in this article and for the majority of Australians there is a hostile denial of them, often through a justification, and this is why we need various education so as to unveil our racist layers and free ourselves up from the effects of racist attitudes. As long as there is a dominion of prejudices and negative stereotypes of other peoples – especially of minority groups – then dominant cultural groups will seek to impose themselves upon others – and they will act as if people are the property of people, as does the Northern Territory and Federal Governments over the Aboriginal peoples of the NT, when in reality people are never the property of people, and at best people are the property of freedom. What is occurring in the Northern Territory is not only unlawful and immoral, it is unnatural.
The last two years have been ones of daily reflections for me, more intense than prior as I am now immersed in the news of our nation, of our multicultural nation. During these two years I was involved in a number of campaigns, some with their origin in the news stories I was covering or breaking. There was also the campaign that took up a good part of my life, the struggle to free thereabouts 100 Indonesian children, as young as 13 years of age from Australian adult prisons – and this abuse of children had been indeed racially motivated by our poll driven Commonwealth Government who refused to demonstrate moral leadership and allowed these Indonesian children to languish in adult prisons. Therefore this too was discrimination and racism. In this year I have many times reflected on what was said to me by that university officer,“What do these blacks want?…”and for me it isn’t any different to what an inebriated off-duty Roebourne police officer, in 1983, said to a young Yindjibarndi, Ashley James,“We’ll get you, you black cunt” – and then alongside four other off-duty police officers thrashed into Aboriginal youth and killed 16 year old John Pat, and for a time Roebourne became to West Australia what Birmingham was to Alabama. A university officer and these coppers should have known better. What’s changed? Much and nothing – that’s the tension, we’ve still got a long way to go. A couple of years ago, when I broke story after story on the plight of the Indonesian children one of Australia’s biggest news programs said,“Gerry, Australians don’t care about impoverished Indonesian children even if they are in adult prisons. They hate them anyway because government has fuelled the thought they’re people smugglers. We can’t do a story on this, it’ll hurt our ratings!” This is racism. I didn’t give up, and now many of them have been released with some surety of changes to eventuate – both the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Senate launched long overdue inquiries. The same origins-of- thinking that led to Australians dismissing Indonesian children as not mattering as would if they were their own children are the same origin-of-thinking that underwrites the racism towards Aboriginal peoples. What some parliamentarians have said to me is shocking and as if Plato was correct, that the prospect of being governed by the dumb is always present.
My way is to speak up, and my experience is that my father was correct in what he taught me, that I should not put anything between myself and what is right – it’s what I would want of others for me or my children, for my children’s children in the event that they are blighted and swarmed by inequality and by wrong-doing – that others who have a capacity to effect what is right must never put anything between themselves and what is right. We need to be ‘full on’ in the pursuit of justice for far too many languish, suffer, lose their lives, and we with the loss of our dignity, our nobleness. A journalist is not someone merely who reports events, at least not in my mind – a great journalist is someone who views the membrane between reporting and ‘ justice’ as thin, and contributes with through-care to remedy. I am not one to spend my days, however few or many of them are left on this earth, worrying about what others may say or do to me because I will not put anything between myself and what is right. This is what I ask of everyone. And when that day comes racism, and other wrongs, will burn out – be done with.
Impartiality conflicts of interest: Gerry Georgatos was the General Manager of the Murdoch University Student Guild from August 2006 to December 2009, a University Senator 2006, 2007, 2008, a member of the University’s Academic Council 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009.
Gerry Georgatos is a also a researcher in Australian Custodial Systems and Australian Deaths in Custody. He campaigns for new protocols that include independent inspectorates for police and prisons, and he is a prison reform advocate. His research has concluded that in general people come out of prisons worse than they went in.
He has a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy, a Masters in Human Rights Education. He was recognised by the WA Government’s Department of Community Services in 2008 for his work in Aboriginal education, for working with the homeless and in founding Students Without Borders.
For more than two years he campaigned relentlessly for the release of near 100 of the world’s most impoverished youth, Indonesian children, from Australian adult prisons. He came across them while on a prison visit to speak to Aboriginal prisoners about future pathways, about education as an option.
He believes that Australia is yet to unveil its hostile racist identity, that it wants to but is being held back, but he believes that no Australian should be held hostage to it and that it is important we understand racism so we can move forward together.