Bob Gould, 2000

Paddy McGuinness, Hermannsburg Mission and Howard government policy formation

Source: Self-published leaflet, December 12,2000
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Since John Howard opened the new Sydney office of the conservative magazine, Quadrant, editor Paddy McGuinness obviously feels he is an important government adviser on Aboriginal affairs.

In his column, “PM, Aborigines and the missionary position”, Sydney Morning Herald, December 9, 2000), he refers to Keith Windschuttle’s contradictory mantra that some missionaries in the past who exposed the massacre of Aboriginal people on the Australian frontier were deluded liars, but conservative missionaries who are critical of present Aboriginal leaders and land councils are heroic figures.

Any serious examination of the historical literature about Christian missions in Australia shows that the story is not so simple. There are three reputable books: One Blood by Evangelical Anglican John Harris (a comprehensive overview of the Christian missionary experince, published 1990); Aboriginal Australians by Richard Broome; and The Lie of the Land, by Paul Carter (1996).

McGuinness speaks approvingly of Pastor Paul Albrecht, who is associated with the Lutheran group of missions that were centred on Hermannsburg, and therefore an examination of the history of Hermannsburg is appropriate.

One Blood describes how the Hermannsburg Mission was established by German Lutherans and how pioneer missionaries repeatedly exposed Aboriginal massacres perpetrated by white setters.

These early Lutherans were one of the prime sources of evidence about these systematic massacres.

The Hermannsburg Mission was used by groups of Aboriginal people as refuge, and the missionaries strenuously defended the lives of the indigenous people from predatory white settlers and police.

The main defect of these missionaries, despite their courageous testimony against massacres, was an intense Protestant hostility to traditional Aboriginal culture and religion. This is described in detail by John Harris.

Later generations of missionaries at Hermannsburg included Carl Strehlow, his son T.G.H. Strehlow and Frederick. W. Albrecht, Paul Albrecht’s, father.

They also had a negative attitude to traditional Aboriginal religion, although they learned Aboriginal languages thoroughly.

The chapter, A reverent miming in Paul Carter's book The Lie of the Land is well worth reading, despite Carter's rather difficult postmodernist style.

It describes movingly the pressure exerted by Pastor F.W. Albrecht on the traditional Aboriginal religious leaders to convert to Christianity and to surrender Aboriginal religious artifacts known as tjuringas.

Cutter also describes the official Lutheran ceremony of “desacrilisation” of the Manangananga Cave in which these objects had been preserved for many generations.

Paradoxically, Carter draws his main account of these events from the diaries of T.G. Strehlow.

The two Strehlows, father and son, accumulated an enormous collection of indigenous sacred objects. This collection is now in dispute between the Strehlow estate and central Australian Aboriginal activists who want to retrieve them for Aboriginal culture in case they are flogged off overseas via Sothebys or Christies.

One of the painful paradoxes of Aboriginal history is that much of the definitive record of Aranda culture is the extraordinarily comprehensive anthropological work of both Strehlows, who despite their Eurocentric hostility to aspects of Aboriginal culture and religion, recorded it meticulously.

McGuinness makes his usual throwaway attacks on present Aborigina activists and on land councils and ridicules Aboriginal democratic consultative procedures as “phoney”, invoking Paul Albrecht in this context.

He does not give the full picture. It is worth quoting One Blood in this respect:

A more recent controversy has been the protracted negotiations over the return of the mission lease to the Aranda people. On the one hand, the Hermannsburg missionaries vigorously opposed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Bill, and became finally in 1982, the last Northern Territory mission to return their lease to the government, thus allowing Aboriginal owners to reclaim their land. On the other hand, the mission authorities — particularly Friedrich Albrecht’s son Paul, who became field superintendent of the mission — had a schedule for handing the land back. Their resistance to pressure to relinquish their lease was based to a large extent on their mistrust of the new Central Land Council, which they did not believe truly represented the interests interests of the Aranda people.

To summarise it simply, part of Paul Albrecht’s critical stance towards present Aboriginal activists has its background in a dispute over land.

McGuinness, who makes sweeping historical references ought to give us a more balanced and detailed account of the events, rather than using history for his polemical conservative purposes.

The developing nexus between high-powered white conservative think tanks and the Howard government

Paddy McGuinness is indirect, selective, and less than candid when he refers in his column to a symposium held in Melbourne. This week-long event was a high-powered, conservative white gathering, with close and instrumental links to the Howard government.

It was convened and organised by Peter Howson, a former Liberal minister for Aboriginal affairs. Participants included Senator Herron’s wife, the head of Senator Herron’s Aboriginal Affairs Department (the only obvious Aboriginal attendants were several departmental public servants), Tasmanian Liberal Senaror Eric Abetz former Labor MP Garry Johns (now associated with conservative Institute of Public Affairs) and right-wing ideologues and columnists, Geoffrey Partington, Ron Brunton and Keith Windschuttle. Paddy McGuinness was minute-taker. The after dinner speaker was Geoffrey Blainey.

It was invitation only, including selected journalists, the condition of whose attendance was that any report they wrote had to be vetted, which suggests that McGuinness’s elaborate story about a priest worrying about his bishop was a euphemism covering other constraints.

Missionaries participating were not the central focus, and on occasion disagreed with the right-wing proposals of other participants. The timing of the event (a week or so before Howard’s impending statement on Aboriginal affairs) and the significant participation of government representatives, presents the alarming picture of policy formulation by the Howard government being primarily based on input from an unrepresentative group of white conservative ideologues.

Urban intellectuals like Paddy McGuinness and his conservative mates, or for that matter Bob Gould and other progressives, are inevitably rather inexpert in finding concrete solutions to the intense immediate problems faced by remote Aboriginal communities.

What we urban white pundits all have is a set of opinions based on our reading and experiences.

We are, of course, entitled to try to influence broad streams of public opinion, as we do. A sense of proportion is required, and we should remember that the detailed policies and practices for the solution of the problems in Aboriginal affairs will have to be worked out in a process of negotiation between the Australian government and the authentic and diverse representatives of the Aboriginal people, who will inevitably be chosen by the democratic processes that McGuinness regards as phoney.

Democracy has its weaknesses, but is preferable to dictatorship. The necessary process of negotiation between the Australian government and the many-stranded Aboriginal leadership is dangerously overshadowed by the direct access to the formation of government policy by unrepresentative white conservatives suggested by Paddy McGuinness’s column, and the influential seminar about which his column is so lacking in candor.