Since Prime Minister Howard's declaration in 2007 that child sex abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities was Australia's ‘own Hurricane Katrina’, the trope of natural disaster has been a regular feature of print and television media coverage of Indigenous affairs in Australia. The effect of this rhetorical strategy is to separate what happens to Aboriginal people from the fabric of ‘mainstream’ Australian cultural and political life; to render it alien and unconnected to the relative privilege enjoyed by other Australians. This strategy also produces peculiar temporal effects by erecting a cordon sanitaire around Australian history and the national identity that it supports. Howard's comparison of Aboriginal disadvantage with Katrina, if read alongside his politicization of the teaching of Australian history, demonstrates an unwillingness to incorporate systemic injustice toward Indigenous people within the composition of that history. This article interrogates the relationships between the manifold understandings of Aboriginal disadvantage and attempts to commemorate its violent history, as these aspects of Australian life are both integrated and refused by national identity narratives. Specifically, the paper reinterprets the trope of natural disaster as a means of comprehending Indigenous disadvantage and Australian identity by drawing on Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history. Benjamin's understanding of activism as a constructive retrieval of the past will be developed to reconnect catastrophe to history, and to enable an exploration of responsibility for that history as an integral condition of contemporary Australian identity.
Bibliographical noteVersion archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.
- Australian identity
- Walter Benjamin
- Aboriginal history
- state of nature