Australian rights and wrongs

Gerard Henderson, founder of the "Sydney Institute", is a ubiquitous right-wing cut-and-paste propagandist in Australia. In his letter (11 October) he says I was wrong in my film Welcome to Australia to suggest that Aborigines were denied the vote in the 1950s. Whatever constitutional "right" Henderson says they had, the truth is that Aborigines - who, unlike the sheep, were not even counted - were not required to register to vote and no attempt was made to extend Australia's compulsory voting law to them. In this way, they were denied one of the most fundamental of human rights.

The parallel is with the southern United States, where the civil rights campaign was based on voter registration. It was not until 1962 that those Aborigines who were in effect imprisoned on vast, isolated reserves in Queensland, Western Australia and Northern Territory were given the right to vote in federal elections. Even then they were not compelled to register (Macquarie Library Book of Events, Sydney). As for being "citizens", as Henderson claims, tell that to the Aborigines who fought in Australia's wars, including Vietnam, then were denied Australian passports. A friend is one of them.

As for Henderson's "institute" holding "no position" and doing "no lobbying", the fact is it grew out of the hair-brained right that emerged in the US under Ronald Reagan, where Henderson attended a major conference run by the far-right Hoover Institution and the CIA-backed Association for Cultural Freedom. In the Melbourne Age recently, Professor Robert Manne of LaTrobe University, former editor of the right-wing Quadrant magazine, challenged Henderson to say who funded him, and he refused.

By the way, the New Statesman rightly published Henderson's letter unedited, as it did the irrelevant waffle from Murdoch's man, Bruce Wilson (Letters, 4 October). In Australia, which has the most monopolised press in the western world, the same unfettered right to reply is now virtually non-existent, as I was reminded recently when I sought to correct the kind of distortion above. Behind the postcard images, a great deal of effort goes into distracting attention from Australia's enduring, shameful treatment of its indigenous people.

John Pilger
London SW4

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?