Books & Literature

Book Review: The Colonial Fantasy, by Sarah Maddison

An analysis of the relationship between black and white Australia and why whites can’t solve black problems.

Using many examples, the author demonstrates the continued failure of top-down approaches to solving ‘black problems’.

From the very beginning, Sarah Maddison, Professor of Politics at the University of Melbourne, acknowledges the importance of language: how we name ourselves and others, and how this contributes to an often-unconscious framing of the discourse. This work draws on a wide variety of Indigenous and non–Indigenous voices.

Using many examples from here and overseas, the author amply demonstrates the continued failure of top-down approaches to solving ‘black problems’, a term which Indigenous commentators rightly object to while wondering why the root of the many issues – dispossession in so many ways, land, language, children, and culture to name just a few – remains unaddressed by those at the top.

Overall, I find Morrison’s arguments uplifting where she writes of Indigenous people reclaiming their cultural power as a first step towards economic and political power. Indigenous-devised and led programs are teaching young people traditional languages and ways of living on, and connecting to country. These developments can enable positive changes in school attendance, poverty reduction, reduce crime, and improve health outcomes.

Maddison defines herself as a settler, a term she uses for anyone who arrived in Australia from 1788 onwards, and names Indigenous people in terms of their nation/clan groups, while still recognising that this binary division is, of course, limited when both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians may be mixtures of both. Nonetheless, this definition points to how settlers benefitted from colonisation and the dispossession of Indigenous Australians from their land and cultures.

The book argues that colonisation is still in process and remains problematic, especially when leaders such as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott can actually say, and presumably believe, that the arrival of British settlers and convicts was overall of benefit, even for Indigenous peoples, as ‘it brought Western civilisation to this country’. Statements such as this bring into sharp focus the underlying racism of white Australia as it perpetuates the discredited view of a hierarchy of civilisations, with white western civilisation being at the top.

Even progressive, non-Indigenous settlers will be discomforted by Maddison’s examples as she argues that only true self-determination led by grass roots Indigenous campaigners can address the myriad social, economic and political issues of our First Nations people. While the apology to the Stolen Generations was generally approved of and well received by most Australians of whatever background, how do we then explain the acceptance of the fact, and terrible consequences of the Intervention which both sides of politics allow to continue in the Northern Territory and in other disadvantaged areas?

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: April 2019
RRP: $34.99

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