The stories of the nine plaintiffs have been lost in the outpouring of emotion for and against the racial discrimination judgement against fact-free columnist Andrew Bolt. One of the nine, Graham Atkinson, said in court that Bolt’s articles reduced Aborigines “to that invisible group of people that government policies or government authorities tried to create in the past”. It is not just Bolt who makes them invisible. The Aboriginal plaintiffs continue to be written out of the argument that has followed the controversial case. Regardless of what you think the implications are for free speech, Eatock v Bolt offered the chance for nine Aboriginal people to tell their stories. When the dust finally settles, they will emerge as the most haunting and most illuminating part of Judge Bromberg‘s 149-page judgement.
According to Bolt, Anita Heiss's choices were “lucky, given how it’s helped her career”. Heiss is a NSW author whose maternal grandmother and great aunt were part of the Stolen Generation. Her mother was Aboriginal (not part-Aboriginal as claimed by Bolt) and father was an Austrian who became a part of the Aboriginal community. Their marriage produced six children, three fair-skinned including Anita and three darker-skinned. Her colour didn’t stop the racial abuse. At school she was called an “Abo”, a “Boong” and a “Coon”.
Others reacted badly when she told them she was Aboriginal. At university she became conscious of injustice to Aborigines and did a PhD on indigenous literature and publishing in Australia. Since then Heiss served on numerous boards and committees involved with indigenous issues most of which are voluntary.
Heiss told the court about the irony of having been discriminated against for being dark and now being discriminated against because she is not dark enough. She was also offended by Mr Bolt’s “blood quantum” approach to racial identity and its focus on how people look.
Bolt said Bindi Cole “rarely saw her part-Aboriginal father” and chose “the one identity open to her that has political and career clout.” Cole is a Victorian artist who lived with her single English mother till she was 7 until she became unfit to be a parent. Her mother always told her that she was Aboriginal.
She then went to live with her Aboriginal father’s family for 4 years, living with her grandmother and her large family who were all Aborigines. Cole kept close ties with the family even after she moved back with her mother, aged 13.
Cole studied to become an artist and photographer in 2001 and is recognised within the Koori community and the broader Australian art community as an Aboriginal artist. In 2008 she and exhibited a series of photographs called “Not Really Aboriginal”, referred to and misunderstood by Bolt.
The series questioned the perception of the stereotypical look of an Aboriginal person based on her personal experience of being fairer skinned. Cole said she was intimidated by Bolt’s articles and insulted by his phrase “distressingly white face.” The article affected the whole Aboriginal community and her aunt rang to ask her “why are they saying that about us?”
Geoff Clark is a Victorian and the former chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. His mother is Aboriginal and his father is Scottish-Australian. His parents never lived together. Clark and his two sisters were raised by his Aboriginal grandmother at Framlingham, near Warrnambool.
Framlingham is one of the longest established Aboriginal communities in Victoria established in 1861 and Clark has lived there most of his life. Here he watched his grandmother making traditional medicines, baskets and food and here he went hunting and fishing with his uncles. Relatives and elders passed on traditional knowledge of sacred sites and stories and he is now a custodian of this knowledge and an elder of the Tjapwhuurrung people.
Clark first became exposed to racism and prejudice at high school in Warrnambool. His classmates talked about their grandfathers shooting and poisoning Aboriginal people and told him he was too white to be Aboriginal. This casual racism motivated his involvement in Aboriginal issues. He was a delegate to the Convention of the International Labour Organisation dealing with the rights of indigenous people elected Victorian ATSIC representative in 1999 before becoming national chair. Clark was outraged by Bolt’s articles which he said were the essence of prejudice and racism in Australia.
Wayne Atkinson is a Victorian academic whose parents are from the Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung tribal groups. He had one great grandfather born in Mauritius of Indian heritage. Atkinson was raised by his maternal grandmother until his early teens on the riverbanks of Mooroopna in an Aboriginal fringe camp. He spoke English and Aboriginal languages at home and experienced racism at school.
He dropped out at year eight in order to work in unskilled jobs. After a decade, he began his studies about his history and culture and work for his community. He is now a senior elder of the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation a principal claimant for their native title claim and teaches Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.
Atkinson told the court the idea he was not sufficiently Aboriginal to be extremely offensive and was frustrated after 30 years of teaching about his culture, people do not accept who he is. He said Bolt affected a huge number of people in the Aboriginal community with the content of his articles.
Graham is Wayne Atkinson’s brother and a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council and chair of the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation. Being Aboriginal was not something Graham had to think about growing up until he and a cousin were the only Aboriginals at a technical school. Students taunted him with “Blackie”, “Abo”, “Boong” and “Nigger”.
His parents and siblings supported him which strengthened his self-esteem and pride in his identity. He also experienced racism whilst serving in the army in Vietnam. In 1977 he was one of only three Aboriginal students at Melbourne University and he graduated with a degree in Social Work and later he gained an MBA.
He told the court he was highly offended Bolt said he identified as Aboriginal only because Thomas James had married his (and Wayne’s) great-grandmother. He said the attribution of identity based on skin colour as making no sense.
Part 2 tomorrow looks at the stories of the other four plaintiffs.