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ThinkEd: “Strewth! She’s a funny place mate!”

Stuart Middleton


3 August 2010

I have been in Australia a bit lately, conferences and a holiday.

The issue of relations between our respective governments and our respective tangata whenua has been not only something that New Zealand and Australia share but also a key point of difference. While New Zealand in recent decades has got on with washing up the dishes after the colonial party by addressing historic grievances, making settlements not only in the form of the return of land but also through the payment of considerable sums of money in compensation for the wrongs now clearly and unequivocally accepted, Currently a party representing many Maori plays a constructive part in the government.

Meanwhile Australia has seemed to struggle at pretty well every point in its history, only recently bringing itself to a “sorry” from the now deposed Kevin Rudd.

This is not to say that there has not been some progress. Over the past twenty years, attending Australian education conferences has been a barometer for me of the changing attitudes in Australia. This has seen such events move from the point where there was a complete failure to acknowledge the first peoples of Australia, through the varying degrees of attempting an acknowledgement that was sometimes excruciatingly awkward and at others as offensive as the previous omissions, to a confidence in giving space for acknowledgement of the people of the land. There have been some gracious and moving openings to recent conferences I have attended.

We are richly blessed in New Zealand to not only have representatives of our tangata whenua community present in most gatherings but also to have access to a shared indigenous language and format for greeting visitors and paying respects to those who have gone before. This is matched by a willingness to do these things. They are important and no longer give cause for comment or for awkwardness. Especially among the young.

It has been a great thrill for me to experience the growing confidence of Australians in similarly recognizing the people of the land and in so doing making visitors feel so welcome and comfortable. On my last conference trip to Australia, imagine my surprise when at the start of the State of Origin rugby league match (which I was watching on television) we were treated to a version of the Australian national anthem sung in one of the indigenous languages followed by it being sung in English. That seemed to me to be a milestone in a country that struggled to get to sorry, a move forward that pleased many Australians I was with.

Just as it has become de rigueur  to sing the New Zealand national anthem in Maori first and then in English – that’s how it is done and everyone is generally now able to do it justice – especially the younger ones. This is not an amazing feat when you consider the gusto with which South Africans sing their national anthem in three languages.

But it was during a period when I was a tourist that I was reminded how fragile advances can be. When you are a tourist you go on little trips, sometimes in buses with guides. It was on one of these that it became clear that under the outward progress being made by governments and in public there lay another challenge – the “secret courts of men’s hearts” as Harper Lee put it.

It started with a considerable amount of patronising talk from a tour guide on a long bus trip who got onto the topic of Aboriginals – “they are pretty good sorts” sort of talk through to, yes, “some of my friends are….” But the piece de resistance was a lecture delivered to an unsuspecting and captured audience who had done no more than want to see Australia and its special physical and cultural treasures. This harangue addressed the issue of the government intervention in the north. Alcohol and gambling were no worse here than in other communities we were told – the only difference was that “we” did it in our homes behind closed doors and “they” did it under trees out in the open. Then the issue of sexual abuse was addressed – again the behind closed doors and under the trees analysis was expounded. Finally, an exceptional cave painting of a key mythical figure was deconstructed as meaning no more than telling young ones about “stranger danger”.

What you do to your tourists is a pretty powerful lens through which another country , in this case Australia, is judged and the advances being made at conferences and suchlike count for little when out on the streets the frontline troops are letting you down.

But it’s not all bad news. Another little bus tour I went on, Darwin this time, has as one of its stops the first QANTAS hanger in Australia. Now as a New Zealander I had known through general knowledge tests drummed into us in school that QANTAS was an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Air Services – so as hangars go this was going to be a pretty important building.

Well it turned out to be in a poor state of repair and was filled with old classic cars and bit and pieces of machinery. The little tour bus roared into the site, a couple a characters from a  Baz Luhrmann film stuck their heads out from under a car bonnet to see it head straight into the hangar, the guide shouted out that “Those marks up there are where she was strafed during the war but you won’t be wanting to linger any longer here!”, stuck the bus into reverse and roared off ina cloud of dust. It was in the best tradition of those splendid Australian comedies such as “The Castle”.

Australia sure is an interesting country! Perhaps we are too.

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