Historians and the Mabo debate

Diane Fieldes

One of the sidelights to the controversy over the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision has been the entrance of academic historians into the debate. The letters page of the Sydney Morning Herald has seen comments from Rupert Goodman, Jo Woolmington and Bev Kingston. Geoffrey Blainey has spoken at a mining industry forum in Perth and ventured into print in August’s Australian Business Monthly. .

Should further evidence be needed of the impossibility of objectivity or neutrality in history, this debate provides it in a most interesting way. While Kingston (SMH 1/7/93) and Woolmington (SMH 12 & 16/7/93) are at pains to give the background which justifies compensation for Aboriginal dispossession, Goodman offers as “a plausible explanation” for supposed Aboriginal backwardness that Aborigines “were of lesser intelligence, a not uncommon feature of primitive tribes” (SMH 12/7/93).

Not only are historians to be found on opposite sides of the argument, it is also quite clear that their political positions bear no necessary relationship to their own research. None makes this as clear as Geoffrey Blainey. While we might dismiss Rupert Goodman’s comments as ill-informed racism from someone whose historical work is in an entirely different area, the same cannot be said about Blainey.

In 1975 Blainey published his Triumph of the Nomads, which made clear the various achievements and successes of Aboriginal society, including medicine, mining, manufacturing techniques, as well as the ability to adapt to harsh as well as kind environments. Nonetheless he now lines up with the simple-minded racism of Tim Fischer, Marshall Perron (Aborigines “are centuries behind us [sic] in their cultural attitudes” – SMH7/7/93) and Henry Bosch (Aborigines as “the most backward I per cent of the population” AFR 27/7/93).

Why does all this matter? First there is the question of partisanship in history. Against the post-modernist stream of fashionable cynicism, labour history in particular has a reputation for this sort of thing. The tradition of siding with the exploited and oppressed is one that is not only worth upholding, but also worth adding to.

Secondly, the role of academic historians in the Mabo debate matters because it throws light on the nature of the debate itself. The “Aborigines will take over your backyard” school of journalism notwithstanding, the controversy over native title has not been led by rank and file rednecks.

The leading spokespeople for continuing dispossession have been pillars of the business community like Sir Arvi Parbo, Hugh Morgan and Henry Bosch. Alongside them have ranged politicians from both the Coalition and the Federal and State Labor governments using rhetoric and legislation to back the sacred right to make profits. And next in line have been the acadpmic mouthpieces for such interests. Their role has nothing to do with “disinterested historical inquiry” and everything to do with attempting to legitimise the ill- (or un-) concealed racism of their masters.