(another one of the Lost Files following the Great Server Crash)
“Exempting any group of people from criticism is not a blessing but a curse. Thomas Sowell ”
It was reconciliation week once more last week, a good opportunity to debate some of the more thorny issues surrounding indigenous affairs. I apologise in advance for confusing you, because at the end of my mental journey I find myself in favour of native title rights, but leaning against reconciliation week.
The trickiest issue concerns native title rights. This issue is tricky in any country and the perennial question is how far back historical rights reach. Should the English figure out which Kelts were disowned by the invading Angels 1400 years ago? Should the South Africans figure out which Bushmen were disowned by the invading Bantus 500 years ago? Should the Arabs figure out which Berbers they disowned in North Africa in the Middle Ages? The practical answer to these questions is ‘no’ since the period is so long that it by now has become impossible to trace initial ownership and it would only lead to a war to rake up all these old rivalries.
Yet, land ownership does extend through the generations. Sons and daughters inherit from their fathers and if their fathers stole it from someone else, then in Western legal tradition, the surviving kin of the dispossessed do have the right to legal redress. This principle is not extended back into perpetuity, but within the laws we have adopted for ourselves, intergenerational rights do exist. Since we’re all supposed to be equal under the law, the principle applies equally to indigenous land rights.
How far we should go back with intergenerational rights is ultimately, for a utilitarian, a question of whether we can ignore historical claims within the rules we live by. This in turn revolves around our social norms of inherited rights. The best indicator of our social norms concerning inherited rights is the inheritance tax. Some countries, such as New Zealand, have a hefty inheritance tax of about 40%. With that kind of inheritance tax, no more than 20% of initial rights survives 3 generations, and within 6 generations, any initial right is watered down to a mere 4% of the initial stake. With that kind of inheritance tax, it very quickly becomes irrelevant who owned what in the past. Since generations typically come in intervals of 25 years, a 40% inheritance tax makes historical rights going back more than a century an irrelevance.
Fairness and equality of the law make this seem the best approach to indigenous land rights in Australia: we apply our own current social norms about inheritance and apply those equally to all Australians. It would not matter if this means that claims preceding an era of ownership are then brought up, nor if the ownership was group-based rather than individual based: we have to consistently apply our current social norms backwards.
What is our inheritance tax you then ask? Its zero percent. Well, within a zero percent inheritance tax, historical rights never go away and we should in principle honour the oldest claim that can reasonably be made. Whatever claim can be reasonably proven that’s the oldest should be honoured. Within this line of thought, it is actually not important whether continued attachment can be proven. What matters is whether previous occupation and removal can be reasonably demonstrated. Until we hence change our inheritance tax laws, native title should simply be recognised as a logical consequence of the social norms and laws of Australia.
As to saying sorry, I must first confess a strong personal aversion against saying sorry for what others may have done. I often have to say sorry for my words and that’s fair enough, but I hate saying sorry for what other people may have done. When I arrived in Australia 6 years ago, some well-meaning white academics tried to convince me ‘we rich whites’ owed ‘the aborigines’ an apology and compensation. I retorted that I never laid a finger on anyone and that my ancestry is a 500-year long line of Dutch Catholic peasants minding their own business. On what basis can one ask me to say sorry? The answer was sobering: because I am fortunate and because I am white. I responded that it is the very pinnacle of racism to blame me on the basis of a shared visible trait (skin colour) for what others with that same trait may have done in the past. This emotive reaction is still my core objection to ‘sorry day’: the whole notion that some should say sorry to other fellow citizens on the basis of race is anathema to me.
The final issue is that of reconciliation over and above native title rights. For me, this issue boils down to the following question: whose ancestors should be reconciled? Putting it in practical terms: who alive today is most likely to have non-indigenous ancestors that clashed with the preceding indigenous population pre 1780? This is not an easy question to answer because its very hard to figure out the ancestry of the current generations of people. All we can do is make an informed guess.
Here’s my back-of-the-envelope calculation about ancestry: the best estimate (here) of the population of remaining indigenous people around 1900 is about 70,000 people. At present, the ABS reports here that there are nearly 500,000 people registered as indigenous, with a doubling in the last 15 years. These ‘late registrations’ will mainly be from people who were the result of inter-marriage and who have in the intervening years lost some connection with the registered indigenous population (perhaps as part of the stolen generation). Think about these two basic numbers for a second. It requires a very heavy dilution of indigenous ancestry to arrive at 500,000 now from 70,000 in 1900. At reasonable rates of natural population increase (.6% per year), some 2/3 of the ancestry of the currently registered indigenous population must have been non-indigenous. And furthermore, they must to a very large extent be from the non-indigenous population that was around in the 1780-1950 period.
Let’s now look at the non-indigenous population. To what extent did they derive of the stock of non-indigenous people in the 1780-1950 period? We can simply note that migration since 1945 has almost doubled the Australian population (about 0.6% migration per year since 1945). Greeks, Italians, Dutch, Germans, Asians have come in this period. They might also have largely been from European descent, but are not descended from the non-indigenous population in Australia in the 1780-1950 period.
Hence, as an estimated rule-of-thumb, the average currently registered indigenous person for 2/3 derives of the non-indigenous population that may have something to say sorry for. The average non-indigenous person would be for ½ descended from the non-indigenous population that may have something to say sorry for. What’s the conclusion if we seriously want to shame the off-spring of white invaders? The conclusion is that then, the average registered indigenous person has more cause to say sorry than the average non-indigenous person. It’s a matter of reconciliation within indigenous families. It’s about the 3 non-indigenous grandparents who have to be reconciled with the one indigenous grandparent (indeed, maybe they were reconciled, who knows?).
In my back-of-the-envelope calculations I was loading the dice against current non-indigenous people. If we’d say that even the 70,000 indigenous people in 1900 had a large intermixing component, then the proportion of non-indigenous ancestry amongst the registered indigenous population would be higher than 2/3. The ratio would also go up if we go back further in time than 1900, or if weâd take the lower estimates of the indigenous population in 1900. The real figure is more likely to be 4/5 than 2/3. Having said all this, the above is just my best-guess. I’d be very supportive of the ABS collecting the data that would allow us to improve on my best-guess.
Where should we go with reconciliation in this country when the ‘us and them’ is not so much between the indigenous and non-indigenous community but is in reality more within the indigenous community? Should we advocate soul searching within each indigenous family? Are we to perform a yearly ritual whereby recently arrived white people (which includes the Asians) express remorse for things neither they nor their ancestors did? Should those registered as non-indigenous, or the state as the representative of the majority, publicly adopt blame on behalf of everybody’s ancestors? None of this will alter history but worsens the cultural discomfort within indigenous communities since those registered as indigenous cannot undo their own ancestry. Reconciliation week ultimately can only rip the soul out of the currently registered indigenous communities because it will force the majority of the indigenous population into disowning their own ancestors. In the name of reconciliation we are in fact freshening the wounds within indigenous communities. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to take the route of forgetting about racial differences entirely and to unite under the banner being Australians, equal under the law?