Author: Jacob Hill
Indulge the political junkie for a second, won’t you?
A couple weeks ago, there was a federal byelection in the seat of Aston. I know, such a sexy topic, but bear with me! What should’ve happened is the Liberal Party (who are not liberal in the sense of ‘progressive’…or any sense, really) retained the seat.
Instead, it was an historic defeat – the first time in 103 years the government (Labor – without the ‘u’) won a seat off the opposition (Liberal-National Coalition)! This would be like California voting for Trump.
If you look up ‘wake-up call’ in the dictionary, there’s a picture of the Aston electorate. It was imperative for the Liberals to undergo serious, uncomfortable soul-searching to understand the root just why they were abandoned by previously loyal voters.
Or…you could pivot to something else and kick the can down the road, which is exactly what Liberal Leader Peter Dutton did! And in a way, I’m glad he did.
The dust had barely settled from the Aston debacle when he announced the Liberals will oppose “The Voice to Parliament”. What the Voice? Essentially, the Voice is a proposed body that provide recommendations and comments to government about how federal laws may affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It’s based off of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a short but powerful petition created in 2017 after years of consultations across the nation.
Later this year, a referendum will be held in Australia to determine whether such a Voice will be constitutionally enshrined (in other words, it will be a permanent body), and the Opposition will actively campaign against it. This is effectively a doubling-down on the policies that resulted in the Aston annihilation.
So now, the Voice is front and centre in Australian politics. While I have known about the Voice for some time now, I didn’t give it much attention. But Peter Dutton’s staunch opposition got me curious. Dutton’s copped the “racist” label, but that’s not an argument against his points. Besides, some Aboriginals staunchly oppose the Voice. So, there must be some legitimate reasons for a ‘No’ case, right?
So I started to do some research. What happened was falling down massive rabbithole into Aboriginal Australian history, culture, customs and policy regarding them over the course of a century. Although familiar with many of the topics, my knowledge has deepened and I experienced a major shift in perspective.
The more I research, the more I support a Federal Voice to Parliament and the more I understand why the Opposition’s alternatives simply aren’t adequate or acceptable (or accepted). So, I want to thank Peter Dutton for opening my eyes to a world that was always in front of me.
And thank you, the reader, for indulging the political junkie!
Suffice to say, most of my research topics are incredibly depressing, so I want to start off with an encouraging story. And I figure why not write about David Unaipon, the man on the $50 note and a trailblazer (as was Edith Cowan, the woman on the $50)? His life was one of contradiction, but that’s the case for all the greats, is it not?
David Unaipon was born in 1872 near Tallem Bend, where the Murray River flows into Lake Alexandrina. His parents were Ngarrindjeri Aboriginals of the Coorong who lived in the Point McLeay Christian Mission (present-day Raukkan). Point McLeay was founded by Rev. George Taplin (d. 1879), a member of the Aborigines’ Friends Association (AFA).
Founded in 1858 in the lower Murray area, the AFA’s objective was to ensure the wellbeing of Aboriginals since they had endured cultural destruction, disease and massacres from the arrival of Settlers. Taplin was appointed by the AFA to found Point McLeay as a Christian Mission for the benefit of Aboriginals.
Unaipon’s father was the first Aboriginal convert in the Mission and David would be heavily inspired by his father’s Christian example, although he ultimately believed that Christian and Aboriginal spirituality were compatible.
Rev. Taplin was responsible for Unaipon’s early education. Taplin was devoted to his missionary work, learning David’s language to preach more effectively and allowing traditional Aboriginal mythology to be learnt. In turn, Unaipon mastered English and studied the Bible intensely. In dark times, the Bible served as Unaipon’s light.
Unaipon was a precocious child with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Seeing this, the mission sent him to Adelaide to work as a servant for C. B. Young, a prominent member of the AFA. Unaipon was in good hands. Young encouraged Unaipon’s interest in literature, philosophy, science and music.
He would stay in Adelaide until he was eighteen, where he was exposed to ideas from around the world. He explored world religions, learned Ancient Greek and Latin and became a amateur anthropologist, learning about other Aboriginal customs and cultures. He also learned about winemaking, despite being a complete teetotaller (not even cigarettes!).
Unaipon returned to Point McLeay in 1890 where he apprenticed as a shoemaker. He also worked as the Mission organist and shopkeeper. But this tiny town just wasn’t stimulating enough for Unaipon, whose curiosity was never going to be satisfied on the Mission. As he put it, “[his] desire persisted for a walkabout among the white race”.
His family was having none of it, but he set off back to Adelaide in the late 1890s for intellectual work, thankfully avoiding the deadly and definitely real Birdman of the Coorong. But there was one glaring problem with this optimistic plan: David Unaipon was an Aboriginal. Nothing wrong with that now, but in the 1890s that was enough to bar him from most employment.
He managed to get a job as a storeman, but this was too tedious and boring a job for a man of David’s temperament. The more he tried to get a job that suited his abilities, the more frustrated he got. His education and abilities didn’t mean squat to white Settlers – he was an Aboriginal, the ‘dying race’ that was not intelligent or capable enough to survive into the 20th century. Defeated, Unaipon returned to Point McLeay to work as a bookkeeper.
He was able to tinker and experiment in his spare time, which honed his mechanical engineering skills. But it appeared the young genius was destined to live at the Mission forever, since it was the only place that would accept him for who he was.
But there was one connection he could leverage: the AFA. Unaipon found work with them collecting subscription money. This gave David some money (though not much) and the chance to travel across South Australia and provide support for the Mission. This brought him into contact with other well-educated people, including white Settlers who were concerned about Aboriginal welfare.
This work gave him a chance to hone his oratory skills and talking points about Aboriginal spirituality, culture and advocated for political rights and equality. He also learnt a lot from these Aboriginal sympathisers and how to connect to white Settlers and advance his points in a way that would resonate with them.
He noticed that the people he spoke with were impressed with his language skills – he spoke and wrote in a classical style instead of the common Aussie drawl. He soon figured that English was the perfect political tool through which Aboriginal voices could finally be heard by white Settlers. This led him to being obsessed with speaking “correct English” (whatever that means).
His efforts paid off: he was regarded as a brilliant and effortlessly eloquent man, which blew giant holes in the ‘dying race’ narrative. He became an in-demand speaker and travelled throughout southeast Australia on multiple speaking tours. He spoke for over fifty years despite having a hard time securing accommodation due to racism.
By 1914, he was known throughout Australia, often hailed as “The Black Leonardo” (or, distastefully, “The Cleverest Darkie”). The media were forced to switch from the ‘dying race’ narrative to a newer one – education could serve as a path for an Aboriginal to advance beyond the ‘unfortunate circumstances’ of his race. Even Unaipon used to say “Look at me and see what the Bible can do”.
Note that the media wasn’t referring to socio-economic disadvantage, but rather the innate inferiority that Aboriginality. This also allayed government fears, who dreaded the rise of ‘half-castes’ destroying society. After all, this was the time of scientific racism, and Australia took the bait hook, line, and sinker…
But that’s a story for another time.
Unaipon’s advocacy centred around gradual change. He recognised that white Settlers weren’t going anywhere, but neither were Aboriginals. He opposed State-sanctioned segregation, yet believed Christian missions were beneficial – at least, the best alternative at the time. He wanted an Australia where both sides were included and promoted reconciliation.
Astonished how white Australians were simultaneously interested in yet completely ignorant of the plight of Aboriginals, he wanted to alert them to the problems that Aboriginals faced. He participated in several Royal Commissions where he recommended Aboriginals should transition into European society gradually while white Australians should listen to their special stories and embrace them within their own culture. The government did shift away from trying to eradicate Aboriginals and it decided to embrace integration.
But the government’s idea of ‘integration’ involved forcibly removing children from their parents, placing them in white families and ‘breeding out the Aboriginality’. This also destroyed so much culture that was orally transmitted and thus lost forever – none of which the government wanted any part of anyway. This was the polar opposite of what Unaipon was advocating for.
Unaipon occasionally ran into legal trouble while campaigning. He was a respected voice and the authorities granted him exemptions to the rules that kept other Aboriginals down…but that meant he couldn’t visit Point McLeay without permission. He was arrested at least once for ‘consorting with Aborigines’, i.e. his own family. He also landed in hot water for advocating for a separate territory for Aboriginals in Northern Australia, as evidenced by getting arrested soon after for ‘vagrancy’ charges!
“BUT I HOPE, NOT THE LAST”
David Unaipon didn’t just preach for Aboriginal rights – he also used the tours to demonstrate his inventions. However, he drew criticism (especially from Mission authorities) when he asked for financial support. See, Unaipon didn’t make a dime off of any of his inventions. He was able to take out provisional patents for nineteen of his inventions, but he couldn’t afford to get any of them fully patented.
Nor did he receive credit for his innovations. His most successful invention was a shearing machine with a piece that moved laterally, not in a circular motion like contemporary shears. It was incredibly efficient and revolutionised the Australian economy (lots of sheep to be sheared) and remains the basis for modern mechanical shears. A news clipping gave him props in 1910, but he didn’t receive widespread recognition until the late 1980s.
Some of his other inventions include a centrifugal motor, mechanical propulsion device and a multi-radial wheel. He also had done research on polarisation of light, designed helicopters and was fascinated with perpetual motion.
Unaipon is also recognised as the first Aboriginal author (at least, to publish in English) with his work, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. It came to be after he studied Egyptology in Adelaide. He researched different Aboriginal cultures to foster understanding of Aboriginal culture amongst white Australians – which did mean he had to change the stories up a bit. But it was still a lot better than anthropological texts to that point, which were usually patronising and inaccurate because no Aboriginals were consulted about their own culture.
However, the book wasn’t published under his name until 2006. Why? Because it was stolen by William Ramsay Smith in 1930. Smith was seasoned in stealing from Aboriginals – he was arrested for smuggling Aboriginal remains to overseas universities in 1903. And so he robbed Unaipon of due recognition (and royalties) for eighty years. However, Unaipon still wrote many other works and publications which made Aboriginal stories more accessible to the public.
Unaipon continued speaking until 1959, when he retired and returned to Point McLeay. He continued to tinker well into his nineties, convinced he was about to break the secret of perpetual motion (which is impossible to achieve). David Unaipon died in Tallem Bend in 1967, unappreciated and unrecognised. He was ninety-five.
But in 1988, his achievements were recognised as Sydney’s bicentenary fired up Aboriginal activism and politics became polarised. The David Unaipon award was created in 1989 for unpublished Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and credit was finally given for his inventions. He was placed on the new $50 note introduced in the 1990s, which featured the Raukkan church and his designs for his shearing machine. The new version of note showcases symbols of Ngarrindjeri culture and Unaipon looking off into the distance, lost in a world of his own.
David Unaipon forced Australians to question their racist assumptions about Aboriginals. He also showed there was something of value in the world’s oldest cultures. Most importantly, he stayed true to himself: A curious man with a thirst for knowledge that couldn’t be slaked.
Ironically enough, Unaipon only received recognition after his death – the 1967 Referendum, held mere months after he died, passed with over 90% of Australians in favour of allowing Aboriginals to be counted in the census. Italso removed the “race power” clause, which was used by government to make laws that applied to Aboriginals only (and theoretically anyone else).
Since then, many landmark cases have brought Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders closer to political parity. In 1974, the Aboriginal Land Fund Act was passed, and Uluru was returned to the Anangu people in 1985. In 1992, The Redfern Speech acknowledged past wrongs inflicted on Aboriginals and the Mabo decision effectively overturned the idea of Terra Nullius. In 2008, the Australian government formally apologised for the Stolen Generations.
Perhaps in 2023, another step will be taken on the path of reconciliation and put Australia on a better path. There’s still plenty of denial over past atrocities (and unhealthy guilt on the other extreme) and not much goodwill left, but I think the Voice can be a useful bridge to cross a uniquely Australian divide. I find the alternative solutions proposed to be purely symbolic or a way to shut down an uncomfortable discussion. But uncomfortable as it might be, this can has been kicked down the road for hundreds of years: it can no longer be punted to future generations.
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