Australian of the Year?

Aboriginal lawyer and activist Michael Mansell caused, as he is wont, quite a stir this week by refusing to accept his nomination for Senior Australian of the Year. Among other things, Mansell said that accepting such a nomination would be akin to a Palestinian accepting the title ‘Israeli of the Year’.

Mansell has long been a controversial figure. In 1977, he famously gatecrashed the Queen’s royal visit to Tasmania, reminding her in no uncertain terms that white Australia has a black history. A decade later, he travelled to Libya to present at a revolutionary conference staged by Colonel Gaddafi, before creating headlines in 1988 when he was held at Sydney airport for trying to re-enter the country using an Aboriginal passport.

A product of the Black Power movement that emerged to fight for land rights during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mansell has long campaigned over the issue of sovereignty for Australia’s Indigenous people. Where many other Indigenous leaders threw their lot in with political snake-oil salesmen, Mansell remained a vocal critic of the Howard government’s rhetoric of ‘mutual obligation’ and the Rudd government’s apology to the Stolen Generations.

Mansell’s refusal to accept a nomination for Australian of the Year is a flashpoint in a dormant debate around reconciliation.

For instance, Shelley Reys, a former board member of Reconciliation Australia and current Deputy Chairwoman of the National Australia Day Council, said she was proud that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were being recognised for their work.

‘In my opinion, any person (not just Aboriginals) who accepts these nominations without condemnation of the essence of Australia Day celebrations, lacks a social conscience,’ said Mansell.

Should Indigenous Australians simply accept the trickle-down gratitude and sympathy of a largely apathetic and disinterested population? Indigenous Australians continue to fight hugely disproportionate rates of incarceration and rates of poverty, not to mention Dickensian diseases and the other legacies of dispossession. In this regard, without proper political representation, tangible compensation and uniform land rights, what use is an award – or indeed, an apology?

Like many Indigenous leaders we don’t like hearing from, Michael Mansell’s work has revolved around land and self-determination, two seemingly forgotten principles of the Aboriginal rights movement. In a delightfully-titled paper, ‘The mutual obligation for fascists, racist scum and cold hearted pricks’, Mansell wrote:

A land base can lead to some form of community stability. Roots to that land gives the group a common ground, literally, and the social and political organization can grow from there. There is nothing wrong with outside influences – don’t we all suffer that – but planning and decision making rests with the people themselves. It is true self determination.

Fellow activist and historian, Gary Foley, has put it more bluntly in conversation with Helen Razer, who has documented their exchanges on her website, Bad Hostess. ‘I am not a fucking Elder,’ says Foley. ‘I will not Welcome You to Country. I do not have an ancient Ooga Booga relationship to the land. I have the need for land as an economic base from which to survive.’

These are, of course, forgotten Aboriginal voices in an era where uniform land rights has been reduced to Native Title and self-determination has become the right to welfare. As it turns out, a national apology actually proved rather easy. It was a day where, as a society, we could collectively cleanse ourselves of our history of genocide, dispossession and paternalism towards Australia’s first people.

Especially as it wasn’t followed up, as Mansell noted at the time, with compensation packages that might actually help the lives of Indigenous people in any material way.

Without a hint of irony, the Rudd Labor Government complimented the apology with the continuation of the Northern Territory Intervention, which quarantined the welfare of people the state regarded as ‘bad parents’ and removed sections of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Mansell once wrote of reconciliation that ‘the white man’s dream continues the Aboriginal man’s nightmare’. In 2008, Brendon Nelson, then Liberal Opposition leader, gave us a glimpse into the shallowness of this dream by commenting: ‘These calls for compensation will seriously undermine the goodwill of good-hearted Australians that are prepared to go along with this apology.’

Nelson’s comments remain a glimpse of where we’re at in the reconciliation debate. There have long been ‘good-hearted Australians’ encouraging everybody to be a bit more friendly with Aboriginal people and their history. But when it comes to cash, the collective response has been ‘let’s not go nuts’.

In this context, given Mansell spent his life fighting for the rights of Australia’s Indigenous population, to accept and celebrate such an award given out on Australia Day would make a mockery of his own history. As he wrote: ‘while I am grateful for the thoughts behind my nomination, I would be a hypocrite to accept it.’

Of course, the decision probably won’t make him very popular. Australians aren’t big on uppity blacks, especially when we’re trying to kick-down some confected nationalism or integrate them into our national celebrations. Why can’t he just be happy we took notice of his work with Tasmania’s Indigenous population? As usual, the spectre of assimilation looms large, and self-determination be damned.

Mansell’s award nomination reads: ‘His advocacy has struck a raw nerve with some, but his courage and tenacity are admired by many.’ Indeed, Mansell was once a prominent critic of the Bicentenary celebration held on Australia Day in 1988. The symbolism and the rhetoric might have changed slightly, but twenty-five years on, why would anybody honestly expect Mansell to take part in Australia Day?
In an attempt to move forward, we neglect our own history. His nomination might be a nice gesture, but it fundamentally misreads the nature of his activism.

Joe Gorman

Joe Gorman is a sports writer who occasionally writes about politics and food. His work has featured in Guardian Australia, New Matilda, the SMH Good Food Under $30 Guide and The Roar. He tweets @JoeGorman_89.

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