Thanks Gough

Thanks Gough
Gough Whitlam, 1955 (National Archives of Australia)

Edward G. (Gough) Whitlam was prime ministor of Australia from 1972 to 1975.

I was only ten years old when he became PM, and a pimply young teen in high school when he made his exit, but during his time he made some tectonic changes to the fabric of Australian life.

Before I start, I should point out that politically I’m a bit of an economic conservative. I once ran as a federal candidtate for the Liberal Party in the 1990’s – a political party directly opposed to many of the philosophies of the Labor Party, of which Gough was a member, and luminary.

After watching an excellent two-part series on Gough Whitlam by the ABC : “Whitlam. The Power and the Passion“, I felt like I needed to express my gratitude to this amazing man for his legacy, of which I am a beneficiary – even though he was only Prime Minister for three years, and left office over 40 years ago.

So, Mr Whitlam, here are the things I’d like to thank you for, in no particular order:

1. Free University Education. What an amazing gift from a country to its youth. I came from a low-income family. I doubt I would have been able to go to uni if I or my parents had to pay full fees. But I got to study at one of the best Universities in Australia (University of Queensland) and didn’t have to pay a single cent. After three years I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and was able to work in my chosen field. My uni degree opened up wonderful opportunities for me, and today allows me to enjoy a much better lifestyle than I would have otherwise had.

2. Universal Health Care. Occasionally, when we have been ill, my family and I have free access to some of the best doctors in the country. Sometimes our health system is criticized, but I am grateful for our doctors and hospitals. In this family, they have saved our lives on several occasions. I can’t imagine ever living under a system where you could only get quality health care if you could afford it, or if an insurance company gave its imprimatur.

3. No-Fault Divorce. As anyone who has ever been through it will tell you, divorce is an unpleasant experience. Gough Whitlam introduced the “No fault” doctrine into Australian Family Law so that divorce proceedings were no longer a witch-hunt to find out whose “fault” it was that a marriage ended, but (more importantly) what outcome would be fairest for all, including the children of the marriage. While I don’t think you’ll ever come up with a system where divorcees come out of the proceedings happy with the process, I think today’s system is much more humane because of the reforms brought in by Whitlam.

4. Ending Conscription. As a primary school kid, I remember the anguish suffered by friends of my parents, whose sons had been “Called up” for military service in the Viet-Nam war. While I wasn’t of military age myself, I’m grateful that Whitlam ended conscription which had, till then, forced young men fight in wars, even though they weren’t old enoughn to vote.

5. The Trade Practices Act. Yep – it might sound like a crusty bit of legislation, but this act gave consumers a whole swag of new rights when dealing with corporations, which till then were almost impossible for average mums and dads to pursue. If you enjoy reasable guarantees and warranties on your purchases today, thank Whitlam for it.

6. Aboriginal Land Rights. What’s that got to do with a whitefella like me? When Gough poured a hand-full of dirt into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, and said “This is your land”, he helped white Australians realize that this continent was not a British outpost. It wasn’t a commodity that was bought and sold by corporations. It had a wonderful heritage that reached back to the dawn of time. Although Aborigines were the custodians of that heritage, all Australians were spiritual beneficiaries.

7. Equal pay for women. I was a kid growing up in a low income family where both parents worked full-time. This law recognized that the work my mum did was just as valuable as the work done by her male counterparts. Our family benefited directly from this recognition. Today, my daughters benefit from this same recognition. They won’t be treated as second-class workers

Yes – there were economic problems associated with the Whitlam government: Inflation, Debt, Unemployment, Scandals. But, for me, the important thing is that that Whitlam made some bold decisions, and those decisions still benefit all of us four decades later.

Tom Petrie Memorial

Originally published at http://blog.neilennis.com/index.php/tom-petrie-memorial/

The unveiling of the refurbished Tom Petrie memorial was an amazing experience for many reasons.

I’ve written several articles here previously about Tom Petrie. The man was remarkable for the way he learned the ways and language of the local Turrbal Aboriginal people, and showed them a respect and honor that was more than a century ahead of his time. It was fitting to remember him on the 100th anniversary of his death.

I also had the chance to meet Maroochy Barambah, an elder, Songwoman and Law-Woman of the Turrbal Aboriginal people. This talented and dignified woman is the great grand-daughter of Kulkarawa, a young Aboriginal girl who ran off with a Sri Lankan man named Shake Brown in the 1840’s. Brown was killed in the 1840’s on the banks of what is now called Browns Creek. By some strange co-incidence I actually took some photos of this area and wrote an article about it a few months ago. So I was overwhelmed to meet someone who was actually related to Kulkarawa (Granny Kitty) and Shake Brown (Grandfather Brown).

This event was the first formal occasion that descendants of Tom Petrie and the Turrbal people had met face to face since Petrie’s death. It gives me hope that things like this happen. The mutual history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia is something that can unite us, and strengthen our souls. It reminds us how precious is the place in which we live. It gives us continuity and reminds us that each of us is here for such a brief time, while the land is always here.
Tom Petrie Memorial - 26 August 2010Tom Petrie Memorial - 26 August 2010Tom Petrie Memorial - 26 August 2010
Tom Petrie Memorial - 26 August 2010Tom Petrie Memorial - 26 August 2010Tom Petrie Memorial - 26 August 2010

Aboriginal Anthems

Aboriginal Anthems
Red Hand Cave, Glenbrook National Park. NSW. Australia by Jeannie Fletcher

Queensland beat NSW last night in the annual State of Original rugby league series.  This year was special for a number of reasons.

It was a clean sweep.  Queensland won all three of the games played this year – the first time they’ve done this in fifteen years.  I think State of Origin football is Rugby League in its highest form.  It doesn’t get much better than this, and to see your state win a series so comprehensively feels great!

But this series was overshadowed by some ugly racist overtones when the NSW assistant coach, Andrew Johns tried to inspire his team by making some racist jibes about some of the aboriginal players on the Queensland team.  Stupidly, he didn’t realize that those jibes would offend some of the aboriginal players on his own team.  Some people must be slow learners when it comes to interpersonal sensitivities.  The end result was that Andrew John’s racist comments galvanized the Queensland team, and tore his own team apart.

The highlight (in my opinion) came last night when the Australian National Anthem (“Advance Australia Fair”) was sung at the start of the game, first in an Aboriginal language and then in English.  Although not unusual by world standards (for example the New Zealand and South African national anthems) , it was a new experience for some Aussies.  In fact, some of them found it a bit hard to take.

Some of my friends made comments such as:

“Excuse me but since when was our AUSSIE national anthem in any language other than English?”

“In Australia we speak ENGLISH. Deal with it or piss off I say.”

“I have a personal issue, with the ones around here that come and steal ya shit while you are at work to pay for thier (sic) rent, drugs and booze”

It seems like a lot of people share Andrew Johns’ attitude towards Aborigines, and feel insulted that something as sacred as our national anthem should be sung in a language other than English.  After all, English is the only true Australian language, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Admittedly, English was the native language of the boat people who arrived here  in the eighteenth century.  But before they arrived there were more than two hundred and fifty Aboriginal languages in use throughout this continent.  Most of those languages have become extinct, while a handful remain and are still spoken.  Indeed there are some Aboriginal people for whom English is only a second or third language after their own traditional languages.

For many of us who only speak, read, write and hear English everyday, we forget the importance of one’s own language.  Our mother tongue is bound inextricably with our culture and self-identity.  It is the language of our soul.  Without it we’re just foreigners trying to express the cries of our spirit in words we don’t fully understand.

Ian Waldron’s aboriginal ancestors come from around Normanton in western Queensland.  He says “I can’t speak my language properly. And that hurts. It was supposed to be mine. It unlocks the Kurtjar world and connects us to the stars and the rivers and everything. It came out of that country near Normanton. Just like we did.”

Perhaps the colonial masters of nineteenth and twentieth century Australia understood the importance of the traditional language when they tried to stamp out all use of Aboriginal languages.  Patsy Fourmile is an elder of the Yirrganydji Aboriginal people.  At a language revival workshop in Cairns she said, “If you were caught speaking language, you were dressed in a rations sack, had your head shaved and locked in the dormitory”.

Perhaps I should make this a bit more personal.  I’m  a whitefella who wasn’t even born in Australia.  I don’t know much about aboriginal culture.  The only language I speak is English, and a bit of high-school French.  I love Australia passionately.  Liz and I own a suburban block to the north of Brisbane.  But the more I fall in love with where I live, the more I realize that I belong to my country – not the other way round.  The words on the title deed to my home say that I own a bit of land, but the reality for me is that it owns me.  No matter where I go in the world, my guts tell me that this place is home.

And as this land infects who I am, I want to know more about it.  Whose feet stood in this dirt before mine did? Fifty years ago?  Two hundred years ago?  Two thousand years ago?  What stories did they tell?  What was important to them? It matters to me because it’s part of the story of my place.  It’s part of me.

And that’s the bottom line.

Whitefella’s like me who love our country need Aboriginal people, their stories, and their dreams.  We need the spiritual link to the land we love, and we can’t get that from a meager two hundred years of European-style land title and tenure.  We are blessed when an aboriginal woman sings our national anthem in an ancient language that was spoken thousands of years before Rome was built, before the Old Testament was written, when Englishmen were still daubing themselves with blue clay.  It gives Australians a sense of spiritual continuity that nothing else can.

The sooner we embrace Aboriginal culture as something that is part of us as a nation, the better.

(More info about Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Languages is available at http://www.fatsil.org.au/)

UPDATE 9-Jul-2010

I found these videos on youtube of the performance: