Australia has a new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt. It is being widely reported that Ken is the first minister in this role with an Aboriginal heritage which, to be fair, is somewhat surprising given that the role has existed since 1968.
Regardless of whatever political persuasion you gravitate to, the fact that neither the left or the faux right have been able to find someone from that community to make decisions on behalf of them is not a great look, is it? Just to pick on one previous Prime Minister (but the same goes for all the others), Kevin Rudd could tearfully say sorry for something he wasn’t responsible for that happened before he was born but he couldn’t find an Aboriginal to be Minister for Aboriginals?
Little wonder why people are cynical about the motivation of politicians….
Back to Ken, though. Let’s be gauche and point out the obvious; he doesn’t look very Aboriginal.
That statement is not offered in bad faith, but as a lead to a discussion about what ethnicity means and whether it does or perhaps should have any place in decisions about the allocation of employment, particularly those that wield power?
What exactly does it mean to be Aboriginal in Australia in 2019? How is it defined? What difference does it make?
There are three components to the official government definition of who is considered to be Aboriginal;
- A person who has Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent; who also
- Identifies as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person; and
- Is accepted as such by the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander community in which they live (or come from).
#3 seems to be the most critical of these; if you can show other “official” Aboriginal people agree you are one of them, you’re one of them. Cynically, this might be considered as somewhat analogous to the Medieval Relic Trade, where a nail from the True Cross could be rubbed on a brand new nail and, lo! the new nail was imbued with the magical qualities of the original.
Yes, I know, I’m sure nobody is deliberately defrauding the public purse with false claims of ethnicity in Australia, I’m just saying the possibility of mendacity is there if someone was so motivated…..
But ethnicity is a funny concept, isn’t it? I have a friend, let’s call him Rupert, who was born to two sub-Saharan African parents. His skin tone is extremely dark and has the facial features one would expect from someone with a long heritage of ancestors from, say, Kenya. Rupert was privately-educated in very expensive schools in England, and consequently speaks and has mannerism like Hugh Grant. If you spoke to him on the telephone, you wouldn’t correctly guess his ethnicity. Culturally, he’s about as English as it gets. We’ve spent many pleasant afternoons together drinking beer watching sports matches at Twickenham and Lords. So, can he really claim to be African?
Similarly, in addition to his Aboriginal ancestors, Ken Wyatt has ancestors from England, Ireland and India. That’s a lot of non-Aboriginal genes.
It’s entirely possible that there are more people alive who are officially recognised as Aboriginal in Australia today than there were when Captain Cook arrived. The British “genocide” of the indigenous people was, frankly, bloody incompetent by that metric.
It’s great that, finally after 50 years, someone from the Aboriginal community is now in the office responsible for making decisions on their behalf.
It does raise some questions about whether or not we really need people to be selected for jobs simply because of inherent factors like gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. Of those, ethnicity seems the most difficult to define at the margins.
We risk dividing people along lines that are subjective to the point of farce if we take this approach much further along its current course.
Personally, I have no issue with Ken’s “identification” as Aboriginal (and I’m sure he’s going to sleep more easily tonight with the knowledge of my approval); he grew up in an institutional home for Aboriginal children so, even if he was 100% ethnic Faroe Islander, he’ll have a better understanding of Aboriginal issues than most other candidates for his current job.
However, here’s an idea; why not remove the position of Minister for Indigenous People completely, and, while we’re at it, repeal any laws that legislate differently for different ethnicities (of which, there are a few). Finally, enforce existing laws equally; if you physically abuse a child in a remote community, the investigation, trial and punishment should be no different to the same offence committed in a metropolitan area and regardless of “ethnicity” and “culture”.