Melbourne Writers Festival – Mid-Week Reviews

By Hanne Watkins and Sam Ryan
Melbourne Writers Festival

Earlier this month the annual Melbourne Writers Festival provided more than a week of discussions, performances and launches. We attended three human rights-related events.

Indigenous Exceptionalism

By Sam Ryan

Is ‘race’ is an inherently negative word and is it time we stopped using it?

‘Racism’ has been a useful term for defining and addressing undesirable attitudes and conduct, but race – a term devised by European explorers – is often a simplistic, generalised method of identification that relies on physical appearance, rather than nationality, culture, ancestry or any meaningful feature of identity. We are, after all, members of a single human race, comprised of millions of ethnicities.

Professor Marcia Langton, Chair of Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, was part of an expert panel set up by the federal government to look into recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution. In a Melbourne Writers Festival address, titled Indigenous Exceptionalism, she discussed race and the need to remove reference to it in the Constitution.

Until 1967, the Constitution allowed the parliament to legislate in the interests of “the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

Following the referendum of 1967 the words “other than the aboriginal race in any State” were removed.

… race [is] an out-dated, crude concept – historically used to justify colonialism by portraying non-white peoples as inferior …

However, the lingering reference to ‘race’ remains problematic, and the panel’s recommendations, handed down in January this year, included removing it, as well as acknowledging Indigenous Australians as the first peoples of Australia and the aspiration for cultural maintenance, including languages.

Professor Langton called recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution “a large, fraught topic full of legal, as well as moral, challenges.”

She called race an out-dated, crude concept – historically used to justify colonialism by portraying non-white peoples as inferior – and one that is “such a discredited biological and social construct that its citation in a democratic constitution is undesirable.”

“Defining Aboriginal people as a race, as the Constitution does,” she said “sets up the conditions for Indigenous people to be treated, not just as different, but exceptional and, moreover, inherently incapable of joining the Australian polity and society.”

“In the slowly building campaign for constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, it is vital that we broaden the understanding that the constitutional tradition of treating Aborigines as a race must be replaced with the idea of first peoples,” Professor Langton said.

The problem of race is evident in comments … [that race is] based on appearance rather than lineage and ties to place and culture.

The problem of race is evident in comments such as those by Andrew Bolt, who was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in 2011, for implying that some fair-skinned Aboriginals were not true Aboriginals. Such perceptions are based on appearance rather than lineage and ties to place and culture.

Professor Langton actually shares Bolt’s cynicism towards some claims to Aboriginality by people seeking access to special treatment. The difference is, however, that her criticism is not based on skin tone but abuses of special treatment by those who cannot be described as disadvantaged, and those who claim Aboriginality on paper to claim benefit, but not in public.

Where temporary special assistance is required, she argued, the test for assistance must be economic disadvantage not Aboriginal ancestry. Aboriginality does not automatically equate to economic disadvantage and Professor Langton believes the entitlement mentality that has developed is poisoning Aboriginal society just as much as it is poisoning Australian attitudes towards Indigenous people.

The challenge ahead is addressing “the poorly understood friction between bringing Indigenous Australians firmly into the national polity and, on the other hand, maintaining their exceptional status as inextricably different.”

Langton is a formidable speaker and one of those wonderfully fascinating and considered people who seem impossible to pin down on the traditional political spectrum …

Despite her strong stance, Professor Langton believes a referendum should not be rushed, citing Australia’s record of rejecting constitutional change and the potentially harmful outcomes a negative result would have. Not only does she fear defeat would prevent the change being made in her lifetime, but she believes it would also lead to disappointment and bitterness among the Indigenous community, and Australia being seen internationally as racist.

Whether you agree with her views or not, Professor Langton is a formidable speaker and one of those wonderfully fascinating and considered people who seem impossible to pin down on the traditional political spectrum, making it all the more difficult to dismiss her argument’s challenge to one’s own perceptions. On such an important issue, even if a symbolic one, it is important for us all to keep an open mind and consider our own perceptions.

Do They Hate Us?

By Hanne Watkins

One day, when Samah Hadid was 14 years old and living in Western Sydney, she was harassed by a group of men who shouted religious and racial taunts at her. Now, ten years later, she describes the event as a catalyst, a moment that inspired her to raise her voice and speak up as a Muslim woman in Australia. Samah Hadid is now the Australian Director of The Global Poverty Project, and the 2010 Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations. As a women’s rights and anti-poverty campaigner, she was a natural choice to speak with Leslie Cannold at the Melbourne Writers Festival on 25 August, when the original guest, Joumana Haddad, unfortunately was unable to attend to speak about her book.

Cannold and Hadid were great conversation partners; as an audience member I had the impression that I was listening in on a friendly chat held around a family kitchen table. A very serious friendly chat, however, as the discussion topics ranged from Reflections – the publication Hadid and her friends started when they were teenagers – to the Arab Spring and Hadid’s visit to Egypt, and further on to the burqa and the hijab. Hadid herself wears a hijab, and when questioned by Cannold, said that it was a form of “cultural resistance”, a way of challenging conventional ideas of beauty. Later, she referred to herself with a laugh as a “walking contradiction” for also wearing make-up and jewellery, gesturing at the earrings dangling like elegant bunches of grapes above her shoulders.

While I’m often on the look-out for contradictions or signs of hypocrisy in the talks of public figures and activists, I found Hadid’s way of expressing her views refreshing and straightforward. For example, on the one hand she didn’t deny that the question of a ban on the burqa was a complicated one, but on the other hand she had no qualms about stating that “I hate the burqa and what it symbolises”. A ban, she claims, is not the best option, because the effect of it would be further confinement for oppressed women. Hadid also wondered, however, whether any woman (or man, I would add) is living in a space that is absent of social norms and pressures. I wish this question had been discussed further, but instead the conversation meandered onwards, as friendly conversations do, to Slutwalk, the media, and Beirut as a cosmopolitan city.

I remained captivated and awake throughout (no mean feat, on a Saturday afternoon when I had woken at 7am), and when the hour of conversation and questions from the audience was over, I felt informed and enlightened. Hadid and Cannold’s conversation inspired in me a sense of optimism for Australian multiculturalism, and I look forward to hearing more from this young voice in the years to come.

Hanne M Watkins is the Relationships Manager for Right Now. She tweets  #qanda for @rightnowinc on Mondays, and is completing an MPsych/PhD in her spare time.

Launch: The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights

By Sam Ryan

The launch of The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights at the 2012 Melbourne Writers Festival had caught my interest, and I was keen to find out more about the book. So it was at least a little disappointing that the book’s co-author, Olivia Ball, used her 20 minute speech to talk about her next project.

As the audience settled into their seats, The GetUp Mob’s version of Paul Kelly’s enduring From Little Things Big Things Grow set the mood, while endorsements for the book from such prominent names in the field as Mary Robinson, Ariel Dorfman and Brian Phillips flashed up on a projector screen to the left of the stage.

The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights is part of a series published by New Internationalist that provides “rigorous analysis and explanations of a number of global justice issues”. Other titles in the “no-nonsense” series cover issues such as globalisation, fair trade, climate change, world history, conflict and peace, science, and animal rights.

Sarala Fitzgerald … launched the book, and noted its primary theme of human rights being interlinked and indivisible.

Sadly Ms Ball’s co-author, Paul Gready, was unable to attend the launch, as he lives in York. In fact the two haven’t seen each other in over ten years.

Sarala Fitzgerald, formerly of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, launched the book, and noted its primary theme of human rights being interlinked and indivisible. She tied this back to efforts in Victoria, where the Charter of Human Rights covers political and civil rights, but not economic, cultural and social rights. This has required creative work by lawyers, she said, to extend protection of civil and political rights to these other important areas.

She believes there is a sense that economic, cultural and social rights are murky, difficult and expensive to protect, but said “they’re expensive because they do important things”. Ensuring the right to a fair trial is also expensive, but no less important because of its cost.

… the central discussion of the book [is] how to approach building human rights culture, starting with rights as rules, then bringing them into structures and institutions, relationships with government and between citizens, and into the way we do things …

She then used the central discussion of the book – how to approach building human rights culture, starting with rights as rules, then bringing them into structures and institutions, relationships with government and between citizens, and into the way we do things – to score Victoria on it’s performance. While Victoria has some way to go, it is well on the way to establishing rights – with robust courts, a Human Rights Commission with power but little money, and an incredibly strong civil society – she feels that complacency with these structures means that we feel we don’t have to do much more to enhance human rights in relationships and processes.

Olivia Ball spoke next, but said little about her current book other than to mention the notable fact that none other than Desmond Tutu contributed the forward.

Instead, she took the opportunity to discuss her next book, titled All the Way to the UN: Australia’s Untold Human Rights Status 1994-2014, which will document the hundreds of complaints by individuals to the UN of human rights violations – particularly those made against Australia – since the first such decision was handed down in 1994.

This may well be a book to look out for in a couple of years, but it was a shame that the launch of a current book was overshadowed by its own author making a pitch to potential publishers for a future project.

the event did provide an interesting, broad discussion of human rights issues such as Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights, public housing, refugees, privacy and rights in prison, to name a few.

That said, the event did provide an interesting, broad discussion of human rights issues such as Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights, public housing, refugees, privacy and rights in prison, to name a few.

And I did pick up a copy of The No-Nonsense Guide to Human Rights on the way out, which I look forward to reading; so perhaps the session met its objective after all.

Latest