Fear and loathing
There was a footnote to the recent federal election that stuck in my mind. It was this: in Victoria, One Nation won half of its votes in the electorate of Murray. This detail appeared in The Age a couple of weeks after the election, right around the time that the “Pauline Hanson: Please Explain” doco aired on SBS. One Nation won four Senate seats but none of them were in Victoria, where it gained only 1.8% of the vote. The votes that it did receive came overwhelmingly from rural seats and in particular, Murray.
As it happens, I grew up in that electorate. Its main town is Shepparton – my home town. Shepparton is a big town that supplies health, education and retail services for the surrounding region – much like Dubbo or Wagga or Tamworth in NSW. Like them, it has grown while the smaller towns around it have withered. Outwardly prosperous, Shepparton still hangs on – just – to its rural manufacturing base, with iconic brands like SPC Fruits and Campbell’s Soup based there. It has changed a lot since I lived there, but in some ways it is just the same - deeply conservative, and deeply racist.
When it first emerged in 1996, the Pauline Hanson phenomenon shocked me. Not because of her views or her popularity, but because anyone could be in the least bit surprised by it. And they were surprised, or at least they said they were. They dressed up their reactions in fancy language like “feelings of exclusion” and “responses to globalisation,” which I thought were just nonsense. A vote for One Nation is not a vote against globalisation. It’s a vote for racism. It was as if people didn’t want to say that word. Where, I wondered, have they been?
Not in Shepparton, obviously. I had been there, to visit my Dad. I grew up in racism. All those lines that Hanson spouted, about Aboriginal people getting “special treatment”, getting “paid to go to school” and all the rest of it, were like a vox pop from the pubs of Shepparton. Even from my Dad, who was a Labor man all his life.
“Why do the Abos get special treatment from the government?” he asked during one visit.
I thought for a moment, because my Dad and I rarely talked about political things and never to disagree.
“I think they probably deserve a hand, Dad” I answered.
There was a long silence.
“Yeah well,” he grumbled. “I suppose we did steal their land.”
When I was growing up, Shepparton was an overwhelmingly white Anglo town. There were a few Italians and Greeks and Turks – they seemed mostly to live outside the town. It is irrigation country, where water is as precious as gold. The Goulburn River flows north to Echuca where it meets the Murray and all through the area there are orchards and dairy farms. The wogs had orchards and kept to themselves. In the town, as in most Australian country towns, there was a small minority of Aboriginal people. They lived in the poor end of town in public housing, which is also where my family lived.
They were our neighbours. They swam at the swimming hole in the river, which is where we went on those long, hot summer evenings. They dived for mussels, which I thought was strange and dirty. I didn’t taste a mussel until after I left home. When I was little we occasionally played cricket with the Aboriginal boys in the park on Malcolm Crescent, until someone pooped in the tower on the playground. I just assumed it was one of them. After that, I went to a different park.
In the early 80s there was a bit of an uproar, when an Aboriginal family got evicted from a house in my street. The Shepp News reported that they were living in a tent.
“I heard,” my mother whispered, “that they hadn’t paid rent for two years before they were evicted.” The implication was clear: why should she have to scratch and save to pay the rent while they didn’t? We would be out on our ear if we didn’t pay rent, and long before two years.
They went to my school, but we weren’t friends. In truth, I was scared of them. And not without reason: Tracy Bennett and her sisters pulled me off my bike while I was doing my paper round and roughed me up when I was 12. In fact, the characterisation of Aboriginal people as victims has always bemused me a little bit. I sure don’t remember these kids that way. They were fierce. They were scary. Joanne West, who was in my class in first grade and pretty much every year after that, was not a girl to be messed with. I was shit scared of her.
Joanne left school at 15, as all the black kids did. There was an Aboriginal girl who enrolled at our school in Year 11. That was unusual enough. Then one day she turned up to school wearing a bright red sweater with an Aboriginal flag on the front. It was NAIDOC week. I remember this because the teacher stood at the front of the class and earnestly explained that, “This is a special time for Aboriginal people and we understand that this is special for Jackie and in recognition of this we have allowed her to wear her Aboriginal sweater instead of the school uniform.”
This lecture was shortly followed by a classroom “debate” about land rights. That poor kid was howled down by an angry mob of 30 white kids and I, with my desperate need to belong, was one of them. She ran out of the room in tears.
I grew up in this racism, and it grew up in me.
Why, I wondered years later, would a bunch of teenagers care or even know about land rights? They didn’t know, of course. They were just mouthing the nonsense they had learned from their parents. But their parents didn’t mention the other stuff. The stuff about Aboriginal children being taken away. Or about the fact that there were no jobs - never would be - in that town, for a black. They never told them, either, about what happened to the first people of that region. To be fair, their parents probably didn’t know themselves.
By the turn of the last century those people had been virtually wiped out, and their passing wasn’t considered important enough for white people to talk about.
In 1994, just two years before Hanson was elected, I went to a school reunion. I’d barely said hello when one of the women turned to me and said, “We were just saying how unfair it is that the Abos get all this stuff for free.”
“You’ll get no sympathy from me,” I said, and walked away.
Afterwards, I thought about this exchange a lot. Why, I wondered, did this even come up? There were no Aboriginal people there – of course there weren’t. With people you haven’t seen in years, aren’t there more important things to talk about? And yet none of these people were especially racist, by local standards. “That kind of whingeing and whining about Aborigines,” said Marcia Langton in the Please Explain doco, “for those of us from rural Australia, that was the norm.” It was just normal. More than that, I realised, it was something that we were supposed to share. To bond over. It was their way of being friendly to me, and I rejected them.
I claim no credit for this. My need for approval was, by that time, directed elsewhere, so it was no loss for me.
Credit, if there is any, goes to Kath. I don’t remember her last name but she was a Murri woman who I knew in Canberra in the early 90s. She worked at ATSIC. I remember telling her about my boss – an eminent left-wing political scientist – who had asked me to find a “nice photo of some Aboriginal women sitting under a tree” for her latest book.
“What a crock of racist shit!” Kath scoffed. “If she wants a photo of a black woman, tell her to come down here and take a fuckin’ photo of me.”
And Judy, an Aboriginal woman I met through work when I moved to Sydney. I didn’t make friends in the queer community, but Judy asked me home for dinner. She served roast beef like my mum used to make, and talked to me about her life. She had grown up among white people. Her real mob, she said, were “all gone now”. Judy knew a lot about racism. “Education is not the answer,” she said. “And yet it’s the only answer.”
Those kids that I went to school with, I’ve since learned, came from some of the great Aboriginal families of Victoria. Their ancestors survived the diseases and the massacres and were herded onto reserves and missions. Their grandparents had been at Corranderk and Cummeragunja. They started the Aboriginal Advancement League. In 1939 they walked off Cummeragunja and some of them headed south to Shepparton where they could get work picking fruit. They camped on the river flats between Shepparton and Mooroopna. Those camps were gone by the time my family moved to Shepp in the early 1970s, but the parents of my schoolmates had grown up there. That’s how they knew where to dive for mussels.
In 2006, when my father was very ill, I travelled to Shepp. In the waiting room at the hospital I heard a voice behind me. “Excuse me, but are you Abigail Groves?”
I didn’t recognise the speaker. It wasn’t any of the women from the school reunion.
“Don’t you remember?” she asked. “It’s Jo. Joanne West.”
Joanne West greeted me like an old friend. I told her my dad was sick. “Oh bless him, poor bugger!” she said. She gave me her phone number but I never called. To tell the truth, I was scared.
Once I wandered into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney to find an exhibition by an artist called Lin Onus. He painted huge canvases, of tall gum trees and ghostly rivers. Ethereal, they transported me to another place, another time. When I got to the end I read his bio and it turned out that Lin Onus was from the river country on the Murray. He was one of the Yorta Yorta people, the same mob that I had known at school.
I don’t go back to Shepparton much anymore. My father is gone now. His ashes are in that river. The water is muddy and running with carp – another plague brought by us Europeans. But the river winds its way north and then west and then south and some of that water, somewhere, will find its way to the sea.