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Professor McClonksey's work on modernity laid the foundations for an article about Enlightened England making Australia great - did The Australian's Gary Johns read her right?
Julie Nimmo

22 Sep 2017 - 5:48 PM  UPDATED 25 Sep 2017 - 2:47 PM

“Every one of us has been both damaged and improved by history. There is no good way to unwind it.”

Does this ring true for you?

How do we as Indigenous Australians - a People still suffering the affects of colonisation - relate to this statement?

The claim is made by distinguished Professor of Economics and of History Emerita, Professor of English Emerita, Professor of Communication Emerita from the University of Illinois, Deirdre McCloskey who describes herself as a literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. “Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian libertarian.” 

So, what does Professor McCloskey bring to a conversation about Indigenous Australia, you ask?

Her work was the driving force behind an opinion piece in The Australian by Gary Johns, published this week. A piece which argues that Australia’s European heritage owns the “intellectual property” of the country and Indigenous people are asking for 'rent-money' without contributing to growth and wealth of modern Australia.

“The enlightened of England declared: Out with the old ideas, in with the new. By contrast, the idea that the original settlers are entitled to share equally in the bounty — without contributing equally to it — is Luddite thinking,” writes Johns.

“How about we call it quits and you be grateful that the Great Fact came to your land? … All of the sneerers at the bourgeois save their breath; you need them, it pays for job”.

Professor McCloskey was quoted in some very strong statements, claiming that modern economic growth is thanks to the 1700s European bourgeoise. Johns’ assertion then says that the success of the West are united by this heritage, rather than their Indigenous cultures, who contributed nothing to this industrial and economic 'achievement’.

Johns writes, “Any claims to ownership of Australian intellectual property [sic] - that is, how it became the Australia of today - that rests on the landscape and peoples that existed before the coming of the liberal English, is as barren as the outback.”

After asking whether the esteemed academic agrees with the way her work has been interpreted in Johns’ triumphalism, McCloskey - who admits she is hardly an expert on Australia or Aboriginal life - says she agrees with Mr Johns’ praise for modernity and his doubt that much is to be achieved by compensation for the “conquests”.

“I agree [sic] that it is not a good idea to turn Aboriginal life into a living museum for the pleasure of outsiders. Aboriginal people should be allowed to flourish, or not, on their own, as all Australians should,” McCloskey told NITV.

When asked about the 'living museum' metaphor, she elaborated. “The Aboriginals are, of course, most famous in the world for their ‘pre-contact’ life. Some people are, I think, sentimental about hunter-gathers and want them to stay that way.”

“Aboriginals do not need compensation for past abuses, no more than Irish-Australians need compensation for abuses by English colonists in Ireland. Every one of us has been both damaged and improved by history. There is no good way to unwind it.”

While McCloskey finds value in Johns’ argument, she also says she strongly objects to his Ockerish tone.

“In Mr Johns’ view it’s ‘Screw you, mate, I’ve got mine’. A generous liberal society gives honour to all.

“We should honour what the Canadians call ‘First Nations’ - most thoughtful Australians do. An American visiting Australia is astonished by its egalitarianism; respecting all in a way that Americans claim to do, but often fail to do. Please keep it.”

As Gary Johns asserts that Indigenous Australians are not entitled to share equally in the land and Professor McCloskey says we don’t need compensation for our past abuses, the reality is that this debate is happening in the light of treaty discussions in Victoria and on the eve of a potential Referendum, which will be focused on the rights of First Australians.

The now disbanded Referendum Council has recommended to the Federal Government that there be a process of Truth-Telling, which will happen simultaneously with a Makarrata Commission supervising a Treaty process and Indigenous Voice in Parliament that will advise Government on proposed legislation.

Like it or not, history is a key ingredient in all these conversations and negotiations about modern-day Australia; politically, socially and emotionally. And so long as history is hushed up, dismissed or overlooked as unimportant, we are all impoverished in our quest for peace, for equality and improvement. Let the Truth-Telling begin in earnest, I say.


With additional reporting from Sophie Verass.

Professor McCloskey is a prolific writer on economics and history, and I would implore anyone interested in such topics to look at her website and learn more about her argument.

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