Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal People and the Australian Nation by Russell McGregor, 229 pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2011, ISBN 9780855757793, $39.95.
This book is a welcome addition to the field of Indigenous history in Australia, written by one of its foremost scholars. It offers an engaging and readable account of the quest for Aboriginal inclusion in the Australian nation over the middle decades of the twentieth century. Tracing the incremental, often partial, successes of that quest, McGregor provides a new perspective on familiar events, policies and ideas, arguing that the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the nation was often thwarted by the apathy and indifference of white Australians.
The nation – or rather conceptions of it – are at the heart of McGregor’s story, which as he explains is one concerned with ‘the transformation of the Australian nation’ (p. xii). It is this transformation, from an idea of the nation that was strongly embedded in ethnic nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth century, to a wider, more inclusive concept of the nation placing greater emphasis on civic elements, that provides the framework for McGregor’s careful elucidation of the ideas which drove attempts to bring about Aboriginal people’s inclusion in the nation. The strength of this approach is the fresh perspective it brings to bear on familiar episodes in the history of Indigenous-settler relations in this country. One example is his treatment of the policy of biological absorption pursued in Western Australia and the Northern Territory in the 1930s, and of its abandonment in favour of sociocultural assimilation. McGregor observes that despite the continuities between these approaches, the move toward sociocultural assimilation suggested a significant change, away from a nation conceptualised in strongly ethnic terms and toward one imagined in civic terms (p. 17). Another example is his discussion of the 1967 referendum, an event in Australia’s political history that has been frequently misunderstood. In McGregor’s view, the real significance of the referendum victory was as an affirmation of the principle of Aboriginal inclusion in the nation (p. 158).
Approaching his subject through the lens of inclusion versus exclusion leads McGregor to critique some previous scholarship and widely held assumptions about Aboriginal affairs in the mid-twentieth century, especially in relation to the ideal of assimilation. McGregor explains in his preface that an aim of the book is to ‘promote a more nuanced understanding of what assimilation meant in mid-twentieth-century Australia’ (p. xii). In this he succeeds admirably, building on the work of scholars like Tim Rowse, Rani Kerin and Anna Haebich, all of whom have turned their scholarly talents to the topic of assimilation in recent years. While acknowledging the terrible consequences of child removal and cultural devastation, McGregor emphasises that ‘the meanings of assimilation were not exhausted by these practices’, and that many of those who supported assimilation were opponents of such actions. In complicating understandings of the idea of assimilation and its close relation integration, the book helps to explain the appeal of the concept to Indigenous activists as well as to many white reformers and administrative officials. Likewise, considering appropriations of Aboriginal artistic and cultural elements in the 1950s and 1960s, McGregor observes the positive aspects of the phenomenon – a greater receptivity to the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the nation – as well as its superficiality and appropriative nature.
This is an unashamedly political book. Aboriginal history has in many ways always been political. Many of its early practitioners were passionately concerned to achieve social justice for Aboriginal people, and were open in their political stances. This book continues in that tradition, speaking explicitly to current political debates in both its preface and its epilogue. The book’s politics will not appeal to all its readers. McGregor’s rehabilitation of the concept of assimilation, partial as it is, will be particularly polarising. But this is good scholarship, attentive to the nuances of the past and to the historical context of the ideas and reforms under discussion. The book offers a valuable contribution to our understanding of Australia’s past, the changing ways in which the nation has been conceived, and the gradual, though incomplete, success of the efforts of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal reformers to achieve Aboriginal inclusion in that nation. In that sense, the book is a fine sequel to the author’s earlier work, Imagined Destinies, revealing how the destinies of Aboriginal people were imagined by a range of players in the middle of the twentieth century.
McGregor, Russell 1997, Imagined Destinies: Aboriginal Australians and the Doomed Race Theory 1880–1939, Melbourne University Press, Carlton.
The Australian National University