In 1968, the country’s greatest ethnographer, WEH Stanner, delivered his famous Boyer lecture,taking as its theme the Great Australian Silence about its indigenous peoples: the pitiful history,parlous present and precarious future. As true as Stanner’s point was, the silence was already breaking.
Three milestones marked the entrance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into the national conversation of Australia.
In 1972, the indigenous rights struggle symbolised by the Tent Embassy in Canberra heralded themodern era of land and human rights with the election of prime minister Whitlam’s governmentthat year.
Earlier, in 1967, the citizenship struggle of an earlier generation of indigenous leaders and their white Australian allies culminated in the country’s most popular referendum with a 90 per cent “yes” vote. Earlier still, in 1964, the launch of The Australian marked the beginning of serious national reportage and commentary on the original Australians and our affairs.
Australia’s first national paper recorded these developments for 50 years. I look back and read striking and empathetic coverage of the travails of Toomelah and Boggabilla from the 1960s. Long, poignant pieces describing the segregation in western NSW and the travails of Aboriginal families struggling to get by in a world of poverty and exclusion in rural towns.
Frank Hardy reported the Gurindji walk-off from Wave Hill led by Vincent Lingiari, connecting the political insurrection in the remote north to southern readers of the country’s new nationalbroadsheet. The movement for land rights was gaining momentum.
Australian through its first century of nationhood took a long time to grow up. If Federation was the nation’s birth and the First World War its baptism of fire, the country languished long in late adolescence. It is astounding to recall that the Statute of Westminster granting legislative independence from the United Kingdom in 1931 was not adopted in Australian until primeminister Curtin’s government in 1942, and the Australia Acts eliminating remnant imperialpowers came with prime minister Hawke’s government in 1986. Though a nation by constitution,in the 1960s Australia was still to shed vestiges of its callow years.
When the 33-year-old Rupert Murdoch launched the country’s first national newspaper on July 15, 1964, it marked the nation’s transition to adulthood. The country would no longer be acollection of states, but inexorably become one nation: in commerce and social and cultural intercourse, in its federal relations and in the mentality of its citizens. The continental nationneeded a continental newspaper. Murdoch’s prescience was to recognise the time had come for The Australian.
The story of the country’s maturation and the “modern, cosmopolitan Australia finally emerged from its long dormant chrysalis”, is in no small way the story of the relationship between theideas promoted by this newspaper and ideas fomenting the national political and cultural discourse. The Australiann and Australian politics became intertwined from the beginning, and this tensile relationship became clear during the tumultuous Whitlam years.
The paper was and is not just a newspaper of record; it was and is an unabashed and pungently opinionated participant in the politics and culture of Australia. Not for The Australian the conceit of disguising its ideological view: the paper squarely nailed its centre-right convictions to its masthead. Love it or hate it, Murdoch’s great broadsheet did and does not think the fourth estate should be retiring in its participation in the turbulence of national politics.
Little wonder a practising journalist and former editor of this paper is the country’s leading historian of Australia’s political economy these 30 years past. With the end of certainty and the policy responses of the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments, Paul Kelly kept pulse on week- to-week political developments while interpreting them within the larger perspective of history.
It was inevitable a national conversation would include the country’s indigenous peoples. Indigenous affairs received largely peripheral coverage (and still does) from the country’sprovincial papers. The Australian brought indigenous affairs into the mainstream of national reporting and policy debate. Ever since The Australian declared Eddie Mabo its Australian of the Year in 1992, following his historic and controversial victory in the High Court, the paper’scoverage of native title, reconciliation and the fundamental reassessments of indigenous policy of the past dozen years was newspaper campaigning at its relentless best.
In the same way the economic policy reforms of prime ministers Hawke and Keating found a rigorous and demanding fellow traveller in The Australian, the movement from a rights versus responsibilities to a right to take responsibility paradigm in indigenous policy finds The Australian again principled and long-term in its commitment. The paper attends to the daily cycle while keeping eye on the long game. When the history of indigenous reform is written, the place of The Australian under the editorship of Chris Mitchell will be plain. The stories, the issues, the policies and the politics of indigenous reform found forum in The Australian. The dedication with which Mitchell treated the subject was and is unmatched in the country’s media.
Mitchell opened the pages of The Australian to all shades of debate and indigenous leaders andcommentators: no other mainstream platform comes close. Like the paper’s founder, the paper’s editor these past 12 years seems impelled by an unremitting sense of native duty to the nation by taking his -indigenous brethren with utmost seriousness. Rosemary Neill’s courageous coverage of tragic violence against Aboriginal women. Tony Koch’s pursuit of Mulrunji’s death at the Palm Island watch-house. Paul Toohey’s searing stories of the petrol sniffing Hades in the centre. These all echo the proprietor’s campaign in The Advertiser in the Max Stuart Case in 1959 – abolishing the death penalty.
The Australian treated these subjects not because it believed the country’s indigenous peoplesinnocent or guilty, right or wrong, noble or ignoble — but because the paper believes in our humanity, and that we and our affairs should not be left on the woodheap of national policy and politics. No paper welcomed indigenous writer and political leaders more than this one. The lateCharlie Perkins, Marcia Langton, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Patrick Dodson, Lowitja O’Donoghue,Warren Mundine and more have been regular protagonists in the national conversation in the national paper.
For those like me whose reform policies have been steadfastly supported by the paper’s editorials, we have not been spared contrary views and criticism in news reporting and commentary. The dialectic of the national conversation plays out on the pages of The Australian.
It is not just the pity and misery, it is the beauty and depth of the country’s ancient culture and the richness, humour and generosity of its first peoples and the grand vistas and prosaic wonders of the continent that The Australian has presented, articulated, critiqued and celebrated. The paper’s resident long-form journalist laureate — Nic Rothwell — gives this newspaper spiritual and cultural ballast befitting its claim to speak to the Heart of the Nation. Our nation is in three parts. There is our ancient heritage, written in the continent and the original culture painted on its land seascapes. There is our British inheritance, the structures of government and society transported form the United Kingdom fixing its foundation sin the ancient soil. There is our multicultural achievement: a triumph of immigration that brought together the gifts of peoples and cultures from all over the globe — forming one indissoluble commonwealth.
We stand on the cusp of bringing these three parts of our national story together: our ancient heritage, our British inheritance and our multicultural triumph, with constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. This reconciliation will make a more complete commonwealth.
We stand in good stead. Never has the time been more propitious. The planets are moving into alignment. With a large enough lever, we can even nudge the stars. I salute The Australian on this 50th anniversary.