Is Mal Brough a blackfella? The Weekend Australian certainly thinks so. On
Saturday, its front page story proclaimed: “If [Brough’s Aboriginal heritage]
can be proved, it would make the 44-year-old minister… the first federal
Aboriginal indigenous affairs minister.”

Rubbish.

Mal Brough may well
have Aboriginal heritage, but that doesn’t make him an Aboriginal man. At least
not yet. In Australia, there are three components of the test for
legitimately (and legally) claiming Aboriginality:

1. You must have some
Aboriginal heritage (it doesn’t matter how much)
2. You must identify as an
Aboriginal person; and
3. You must be accepted by the Aboriginal community in
which you live.

The last rule is the most important – you may have Aboriginal
lineage, but if you have no ties to the community then you’re not Aboriginal.
Simple as that.

There are, of course, exceptions. Many members of the Stolen
Generations have discovered their Aboriginality late in life. All are welcomed
warmly into the Aboriginal community provided they can prove their Aboriginal
heritage and they show they can respect their culture.

In Mal Brough’s case,
he may pass rule number one, but he fails the final two. In the eyes of
Aboriginal people, he’s as black as John Howard. If Brough does decide to
flirt with his black side and embrace his past, then good on him. But he still
faces an uphill battle.

Australian history is littered with blackfellas
behaving badly on behalf of whitefellas and being Minister for Indigenous
Affairs in a conservative Howard government isn’t a great start. Having a
black face in parliament is all well and good, but if that person is not
advocating for the rights and interests of Aboriginal people, then he or she is
about as useful as t*ts on a bull.

The question of Brough’s Aboriginal
heritage might be “symbolically” important to white historians and members of
the media, but it isn’t to the vast majority of Aboriginal people.

Some
Indigenous Australians may celebrate the personal milestone of having an
Indigenous affairs minister with Aboriginal heritage, just as some may
acknowledge the fact the ALP is led by an Aboriginal man in Warren Mundine. But
most couldn’t care less. There won’t be dancing in the streets.

The ultimate
question for Aboriginal people is not whether Mal Brough has Aboriginal
heritage, but how he acquits himself as Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Will
he support a treaty? Does he advocate for self-determination or does he prefer
the Howard government’s preference for self-management? Does he recognise
Aboriginal sovereignty? And will he wash his face twice a day?

Aboriginal Australians are a patient lot and they will, of course, give
Mal Brough a go. But his Aboriginal heritage isn’t going to assist him
one iota.

Peter Fray

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