Charles Perkins: A Biography 
by Peter Read.
Viking, 352 pp., $30, October 1990, 0 670 83488 2
Show More
Show More

There is no birth certificate to give a precise start to Charles Perkins’s story. The only Aboriginal Secretary of Australia’s Department of Aboriginal Affair’s entitles his 1975 autobiography A Bastard Like Me, turning his unofficial auspices into a metaphor for his irascible, unsettling presence within Australian political life. Stood down as Secretary in 1988, four and a half years after his appointment, his effrontery remains undiminished. As a consultant to the New South Wales Government, he has been implicated in debate over that State’s recent amendments to the 1983 statute giving Aborigines limited rights to land. Some New South Wales Aborigines have accused him of misleading the Government into supposing they would accept the amendments. Because his Arrente grandmother had children by a white miner, his family were known as ‘half-castes’, and were thus subject to officials’ improving efforts, which removed them from the influence of traditional ‘full blood’ Aborigines. Perkins’s mother Hetti was ‘dormitory girl’ in an institution, the Bungalow, dedicated to that purpose in Central Australia. Administrative fiat made most of the inmates adherents of the Church of England, and an Anglican priest, Percy Smith, saw a future for Charles other than as a stockman. Charles and several other boys would be saved by being sent to school in Adelaide.

White Australians, rudely confident of their superiority over ‘boongs’, were starting to adjust to non-British migration. The milieu such immigrants created in Adelaide’s working-class suburbs centred on the one pleasure in Charles’s life, soccer. He proved so good at it that, in 1957, an Everton scout suggested he bring his boots to Liverpool. But the Everton lads were unwelcoming; in training they’d place the ball just where this interloper could not make it work for him. Nor were his fellow workers at the Merseyside shipyard any more accepting. Only among the miners of Wigan did he find friendship. Then came invitations from the Bishop Auckland and Manchester United clubs. He also found that in England he was not a ‘boong’. Girls would dance with him; in arguments (never far away with him) his Aboriginality was not an issue.

But it remained one back in Adelaide, in 1959. He was still a footballer, but without getting an ‘exemption’ certificate (which he refused to do), Perkins could not join his teammates in the pub. He helped the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines to circulate a petition against the Aborigines Protection Act, and by 1961, he was Vice-President of the FCAA (a lobby then led by whites seeking Aborigines’ ‘assimilation’). Speaking to the press, he compared Queensland, where ‘protection’ was most restrictive, with the Congo, predicting violence. His sporting fame boosted his confidence as a public speaker, and soccer was beginning to become a means to an end.

In 1961, he transferred to a Sydney club, and enrolled at Sydney University in 1963. Study and travel around New South Wales persuaded him that ‘assimilation’ was a flawed programme if it was to mean the extinction of Aboriginal culture. Others were conceding that, within an Australia much changed by non-British immigration, there might be a place for a modified Aboriginality. A sense of that heritage need not undermine Aborigines’ competent participation in Australian society.

How to articulate in the one message Aborigines’ rights to citizenship, to land and to their heritage has emerged as one of the great problems of Australian politics. Australian political culture, forged in the anti-Chinese and anti-Aboriginal struggles of the 19th century, has been aggressively mono-cultural, postulating a notion of rights which promote the virtues of the achieving individual but deny the claims of non-British cultures to be considered ‘Australian’. Had Australians been more accepting of ‘well-trained’ Aborigines such as Perkins (who, as a lad on a visit to Alice Springs, once urged his mother to serve butter cut into squares), the sense of Aboriginality as a common heritage of rejection would never have grown so strong.

Perkins’s other preoccupation in the mid-Sixties was the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, its advisory panel stacked with bishops, mayors, academics, professionals, and a former deputy police commissioner. Middle-class whites of ‘good will’ were asked for money to set up facilities for Aborigines migrating from country districts to Sydney’s inner-city slums. ‘Aborigines were not a racial problem but a social one,’ Read glosses the Foundation’s non-threatening message. Perkins told one suburban audience in 1964 that it was time Aborigines rid themselves of welfare dependency ‘and started doing something about our problem ourselves’. Read labels the Foundation ‘Christian-liberal’ and contrasts it with the rival ‘Christian-socialist’ Australian Aboriginal Fellowship.

Relations between white and black activists in such organisations began, in the late Sixties, to be strained, as Aborigines saw less reason for white leadership. A Commonwealth minister sensitive to these changes told Prime Minister Holt that Perkins was ‘not a bad man, but may get into bad hands’. Early in 1969, Perkins accepted an invitation to join the Commonwealth’s new policy unit, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. In the OAA, Perkins’s mentors sought to make him less emotional. Perkins recalls that his memos were ignored; his seniors told Read otherwise.

The year 1972 was in two senses a turning-point. Perkins’s kidneys had collapsed, and home dialysis (still new then) was turning his thoughts to suicide when he was given a kidney transplant: ‘I could actually feel my brain moving and throbbing.’ Then the government changed. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam promised to enact the OAA’s proposals, including granting land rights to Aborigines.

That Perkins was quickly promoted in the new department only encouraged his outspokenness, fighting public service proprieties in the name of accountability to an Aboriginal constituency whose expectations were soaring. Whitlam’s efforts to control this volatile new department brought Perkins into conflict with a fresh minister from the Labor Party’s Left, confirming Perkins’s view that sympathy with Aboriginal demands was lacking in that quarter of Australian politics. His minister was ‘susceptible to racist influence’, he publicly alleged in 1974, severely taxing the defensive resources of his public service patrons.

When Perkins calmed an Aboriginal man holding a gun to two senior DAA officers (‘I’m arresting you for the wilful murder of black kids,’ the man had said), he helped avert his own public service execution. He was sent on a training course for two months and then overseas. Seizing the chance, Perkins used every contact with the British and US media to embarrass Australia for its record of racial oppression. By 1975, the soon-to-be-sacked Whitlam exclaimed: ‘I have had Charlie Perkins by now.’ Like Perkins, Read sees the years 1974-5 as a period of creative tension in Aboriginal affairs politics. The expression of Aboriginal impatience had been overdue.

Returning to duty in 1976, Perkins found his old arguments for Aboriginal self-sufficiency consistent with the thinking of his new Liberal minister. The Aboriginal Development Commission, created in 1980, with Perkins as its first chair, was to invest a capital fund so as to create an independent revenue, meanwhile spending a general fund on houses, land and enterprises. Read captures the high expectations initially felt by the ADC’s proponents: ‘land rights, compensation in urban areas, equity in Australian society, Aboriginal status, purpose and dignity’. Shirley McPherson, the ADC’s second chair, claimed that the ADC Act was the envy of other indigenous peoples. But DAA officials were dismayed at Perkins’s wide interpretation of the ADC’s brief, and a series of ministers were wary of its promotion of an Aboriginal sense of what was now possible. The Capital Fund was soon killed, and ADC found itself occupied primarily with a housing policy, trying to mix grants with loans so as to meet the demands of both ‘welfare’ and ‘enterprise’.

Read is insensitive to ADC’s resulting contradictions. ADC injected into welfare housing programmes an inappropriate economic rationalism which tended to measure this ‘investment’ in terms of the dollar value of bricks and mortar. Perkins’s ideological leadership, including his at times almost Thatcherite denunciations of ‘welfare’, must be held partly responsible for the pressures this placed on Aboriginal housing associations. As for the ADC’s ‘enterprise’ programmes, it has recently been revealed, in a review by the Department of Finance, that ADC’s loans and grants for Aboriginal businesses have been so sheltered from commercial imperatives that they could better be regarded as ‘welfare’ expenditure. Such are the confusions and self-deceptions that arise within a political culture in which it is still not possible for a government to acknowledge that white Australians owe Aborigines an enormous debt of compensation. For some Aboriginal leaders, that was reason enough for the ADC. Yet the purchase of land for the many Aboriginal people without legislative means of claiming it commanded only the tiniest proportion of ADC funds in its ten-year existence.

Indeed, land rights, the most resisted of Aboriginal demands, has been the least of Perkins’s achievements. As an earnest of reformist intentions, the Hawke Labor Government appointed him Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 1984. But pressure from mining companies and from Western Australia’s Labor Government prompted Hawke’s Cabinet to dilute and then to abandon their concern with Aboriginal land rights – the greatest defeat for Aboriginal people since the first stirrings towards reform in the 1960s.

Read points out that Perkins delegated most of the negotiations over land rights law, preferring to concentrate on the efficiency of DAA’s programme delivery. He defended the strategic dilution of the Government’s land rights proposal and later blamed its defeat on an alliance between Labor’s Left and intractable elements of the Aboriginal constituency: a common view, which overlooks the Hawke Government’s capitulation to the mining industry and condones the divisiveness of the land rights proposal, whereby Northern Territory Aborigines would have suffered a weakening of their ability to negotiate with miners.

It was a Labor Left MP, Gerry Hand, who became Perkins’s next minister in 1987. Hand proposed that DAA and ADC be replaced by an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) of elected Aborigines. In the consultations that prepared the ATSIC Bill, Perkins felt alienated from Hand. When the ADC Commissioners objected to the ATSIC proposal (seeing it as a threat to ADC independence), Hand sacked them, installing Perkins and seven other Commissioners to bring ADC’s support behind him. But Hand’s growing impatience at opposition to ATSIC made him reluctant to listen to Perkins’s criticism that ATSIC would be too accountable to the Minister. Several non-Labor senators (some of whom were needed to support the ATSIC Bill) alleged Perkins’s corruption as an administrator and made it expedient for Hand to stand Perkins down. Perkins supporters jeered: ‘Hand out!’ Subsequent investigations cleared him. Deflecting the true but trivial observation that Perkins is ‘careerist’, Read makes much of Perkins’s vulnerability. The narrative follows a trajectory of hurt from those wasted days in Adelaide. If it lacks attention to public policies, this is appropriate enough in relation to a man whose ideological vision has often gone no further than to make of him an electric prod rammed into the bovine hide of Australian racism.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences