The politics of childhood: is Australia finally able to grow up? | Sana Nakata | Australia news
I grew up in the 1990s, the daughter of a white Australian and a Torres Strait Islander.
Imperfect memories of my childhood are punctuated by things like Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the Murray Islanders going to the high court, Eddie Mabo’s tombstone being desecrated, governments generally messing with our lives. I grew up with Pauline Hanson, and the vitriol that she legitimised, spilled over into the schoolyards I hid from. As an adult, when I’ve reflected on how I’ve come to do the work I do, interested as I am in the politics of childhood, these are the faded moments I recall. As an adult, when I’ve seen deeply controversial political moments take hold, I’ve always noticed the children at the heart of them: the children not thrown overboard, the children of the Northern Territory intervention, the kids of same-sex parents during the recent marriage equality plebiscite. Because though they are rarely seen and rarely heard, children are never far from the political struggles of a nation.
I was born as a citizen with access to a full education – a member of the first generation of my Islander family to have these things. Everything that everyone had fought for and sacrificed in the century prior had been for those two things: citizenship and education. So I was meant to actually do something with it. I was meant to grow up and become me. Not an activist, not an Indigenous leader, not some bleeding heart liberal fighting the good fight, but just me. Pursuing whatever passions and talents I desired. I was meant to grow up and become free of the politics and struggles that had defined Islanders’ lives for so long. I was meant to grow up free of existential questions about identity, personal and national. And I’ve tried. I really have. In the duration of my short career, I have professed to mentors and colleagues: I don’t do Indigenous stuff. It’s not my thing. I’m not interested.
I am interested in childhood and I am interested in politics. I am especially interested in how modern ideas of childhood coincide so often and so comfortably with the idea of modern democracy. John Locke wrote about modern democracy and childhood; Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about modern democracy and childhood; John Dewey wrote about modern democracy and educating children. And when politicians seek to gain control over a debate, when they seek to place a claim beyond political contestation, they often do so by making a claim about children. When politicians want to appear to move above the merely “political” to claim a moral trump card, I guarantee that, irrespective of party or ideological persuasion, you will nearly always see this done through the figure of the child, be it over famine, war, refugees, gun reform in the United States, the environment, LGBT+ rights or education.
In Australia, we’ve had royal commissions into institutional responses to child sex abuse, the Northern Territory youth justice system, the Bringing them Home report, the Little Children Are Sacred report and subsequent Northern Territory Emergency Response. We’ve had the death of Elijah Doughty. The clusters of Indigenous child suicides.
So, it turns out that I don’t get to be interested in politics and the concept of childhood, be an Australian and not do Indigenous stuff. It turns out that, in Australia, the politics of childhood is predominantly about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It turns out that the history of Australia is a history of interventions into the childhoods of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Damning by infantilisationFor as long as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been recognised as human, various forms of knowledge have sought to reduce that humanity. One key way in which that humanity has been diminished is through the infantilisation of Indigenous peoples. Historically, this has been predicated upon the “fact” that we lacked the maturity, the autonomy and the rational capacities to be extended any civil or political status. Indigenous peoples’ relationship to new colonial nation-states can be characterised as that of an unwanted child borne of an illegitimate relationship between the crown and the lands and seas it colonised.
An infantilised view of Indigenous Australians as permanently without any potential to become “civilised” damns them to sub-human status and to violence aimed at eradicating the population – what we now call genocide. However, the view that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children could “grow up” damned us to something else – to assimilation procured through separating children from their mothers, and their mothers from their land. From this infantilised construction of Indigeneity, to raise children into adults demands they be taken from their mothers at an age when they will carry no memory of their parents.
I remain unpersuaded, across hundreds of pages of historical records, that the belief in doing good by Indigenous children was ever the priority over building and sustaining the white imagination of the Australian nation. Because as long as these children ceased to exist, as long as they either died or could be successfully assimilated, the legitimacy of the new white Australian nation-state could remain intact.
That we have lived, that we have had the audacity to reproduce, to hold our children close, to call them our own, and to refuse, resist and rise against our would-be eliminated future has also denied Australia the possibility of its own white, settled, future. And so we are left, as we have always been, standing on ancient ground uncertain of our future. And we all look to lives and bodies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children for resolution.
‘What is to be done with these people?’This year, in the Uluru Statement From the Heart, Aboriginal lawyer and academic Megan Davis spoke these words on behalf of the Referendum Council:
Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future … We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish.If Makarrata is the coming together after struggle, then Australia’s struggle with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children requires confrontation and provocation. As an academic, my current research is an effort to account more fully for the ways in which children appear in politics irrespective of their lack of political status. This is why understanding the close proximity between educational pedagogy and political philosophy in western thought matters for our discussions of Australian democracy. This is why understanding that the idea of childhood as “growing up”, and the idea of Indigenous peoples as people who can never “grow up” matters for Australian democracy.
The democratic problem that arises from infantilising Indigenous Australians is that we think we can simply grow out of the political conflicts that have shaped our nation. That with the right interventions in the lives of a single generation, it might be possible to solve the harms, injustice and mistakes of the past and ameliorate the contemporary effects on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And that the enduring, vexed question of what is to be done with these people? might finally, once and for all, disappear.
But the other way to make enduring questions disappear is to stop asking them. The difficult politics that our Indigenous bodies produce for the state is perhaps not a question at all, but the defining condition of our nation. We make Australia what it is. And our problems, which arise from the historical legacy and contemporary practices of child removal, child incarceration, child abuse and child suicide, are the nation’s problems.
Controlling the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children has never been just about the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it has been about trying to make certain that which can never be certain: the future of the Australian nation. Creating space to include Indigenous Australian children in the imagination of the Australian nation is about accepting futures that will never be made certain. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will tell you, that, as discomforting as it may be, it is perfectly possible to live with uncertainty. And it is necessary to have a democratic political system that can change.
When the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, refused Makarrata, I was surprised at how disappointed I felt. I was not remotely surprised at the refusal, so why would I feel disappointed? Hurt? Angry? Sad? Indigenous Australians are so incredibly familiar with having doors closed in their face, even at the point at which they thought they’d been invited in. (That’s not a metaphorical statement. I’m pretty certain most of us have had that experience.) So why did it make many of us feel so bitter?
For me, it comes down to this: Turnbull’s reductive, misleading characterisation of the proposal as inevitably becoming “a third chamber of parliament” is infuriating. Not just because it is such a sharply political mischaracterisation of what was proposed but because implicit in his dismissal was this: these blackfellas think they can come here, to my house, with the audacity to suggest we change our political system? Our perfect Australian democracy? What do they know? They know nothing.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always known what Australian democracy is. We appreciate its strengths, but we also know its weaknesses more acutely than any other group of people who stand on the lands of this great continent. We understand politics. We know what’s at stake. And not just for us; we understand what’s at stake for the government too. We get it. It’s hard. We don’t just know all these things because we have lived it, and have lived it since childhood, we know because we did it the white way, too: law degrees, PhDs and by reading every dead white man’s political treatise on what an ideal, good and just society looks like.
In that context, it’s pretty galling to have a fairly conservative proposal dismissed out of fear of change. An Indigenous voice to parliament is an example of democratic renewal; it brings in a new generation of thinkers who seek a form of political change that better realises the core commitments of the political system that operates. To create more responsible government, to be more representative of Australian life and being.
The children are not the problem
Australia’s democracy is deficient. It does not meet or
realise its own ideals. It does not just fall short for Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander people, but its shortcomings are felt especially
keenly by us. It falls particularly short for all children, who are told
to wait their turn and to participate only according to the rules that
the previous generation has set for them. But it falls especially short
for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are more likely
to be in out of home care, more likely to incarcerated, more likely to
die from suicide than their non-Indigenous counterparts. And those
problems – abuse and neglect, crime, mental health – are real, urgent
But the children are not the problem. Indigenous people are not the problem. We never have been. We are the threads picked out from a democratic system that never really stitched itself together properly. Australian democracy requires change, it requires renewal and we cannot achieve that if we do not give space to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to imagine themselves in the future of this country. They are entitled to a place in the past and present, yes. They are also entitled to a place in the future of this nation, irrespective of the uncertainty that their existence produces.
If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children can imagine themselves in Australia’s democratic future, as those who will grow up to become not its problems but instead its makers, its keepers, its believers, then it will be because something else extraordinary has happened. It will be because Australia finally grew up, too.
This is an edited extract from Griffith Review 60: First Things First, edited by Julianne Schultz and Sandra Phillips