There are many countries across the globe which have a very poor record in their dealings with indigenous people but Australia stands out for three reasons: it’s relatively recent settlement, the fact that it happened directly as a result of the actions of Great Britain, and the close ties it enjoys with our nation. Whilst Australia projects itself onto the world stage by holding international events such as the Grand Prix, it seems necessary to try and bring back issues into the light of day which have been so successfully hidden away by successive Australian governments, Australia’s European-descended citizenry and the global community more generally.
This is not simply a list of historical wrongs, of which there are a huge number in Australia’s dealings with Aborigines, but more a call for change in the present. This is important as, too often, indigenous issues are conceived of by Australians, and the global community, as rooted in the past and relating to irrelevant groups of people who may need a symbolic apology at some point but little more. This is a diversion on the part of a citizenry unwilling to open their eyes to the wrongs they carry out in the present through their continued squatting of a land never legally theirs, and a government who has strong vested interests in maintaining the landless and marginalised status of peoples who once roamed the huge landmass as their own. Worth noting here is that the majority of Australia’s strong economic ‘growth’ recently, has been fuelled directly by the extracting of metal compounds from the interior, a far easier process with the land essentially vacant and with no guardians to prevent the plunder of the earth.
In keeping with a long tradition in Western society, it is fitting to start this tale not at the beginning but very near to the present and act as if this was the beginning. Our start date is the one that counts. This has been the rule which has applied to all western settlement drives. The goings on of the savages prior to the arrival of Europeans was not important, the native only served as a means of self-affirmation; a blank template upon which to project European ideals. It was with this attitude that the settlement of Australia was undertaken beginning in the 1780s. Dispossession was not regarded as in any way untoward, if anything the Natives would eventually be civilised by it.
The white settlement brought a savage end to an illustrious uninterrupted period of human habitation (at least 30,000 years). First came the crippling bouts of disease, to which there was little native resistance, and then a continuous line of dispossession working its way outwards from areas of European habitation as and when they lusted for more acreage. A landmass with a staggering range of tribal groups and customs all united by an animistic conception of the world around were, in a relatively short period of time, slaughtered in large numbers, harried, hunted and resettled into ‘stations’, quite similar to the reservation model used in the United States. The Aborignals were deprived of all that they had known and forced to become sedentary, holding a front row seat to witness the decay of their own culture. Communities deprived of air were left to fester, over time witnessing the breakdown of past norms, their huge array of languages, their complex and far reaching religious practices and the essence of everything which once was. Hope was and continues to be lost and substance abuse continues to be self-prescribed as a remedy to the gaping hole left by the actions of white Australia.
It is to this backdrop then that the perpetrator/concerned parent figure emerges. After hundreds of years of flagrant cruelty, dispossession and ‘Abo’ hunting (the last of which unofficially occurred in the early 1960’s), the Australian government speaks of their concern for the Aboriginal peoples. Apologies are offered for the past (see Rudd’s gem for stolen generations offered up in 2008) and solutions presented for the natives ‘improvement’. Papers are written and policies announced, not usually paying attention to the wishes of the Aboriginal people themselves, naturally. How can white Australia be in a position to present ‘solutions’ to the issues affecting Aboriginal communities when the vast majority of the problems stem from the dispossession carried out by the now “concerned” party? This insanity can be put into perspective with an analogy. A handsome house in Mayfair is taken over by a group of drug users who force the original inhabitants of the house into a small and filthy attic space. At what point do these new tenants become the official owners in the eyes of the local community? Would you not consider it strange if those uprooted by the squatters were then offered help by the same people as to how they could improve their condition? One would say that their condition would be improved by the returning of their property.
The need for change is pressing. Even if, to begin with, this means only discussing the issue of the continuing violation of a peoples’ rights. There is no established narrative at all in our society concerning the plight of indigenous people in the present day. From the reservations of the U.S where life expectancy squats in the early 40’s to the tribes of Brazil facing bullets from loggers lusting for hardwoods and to those Adivasi in India waging a suicidal insurgency against the state. It is important that we recognise the suffering and wrongs in the present. And if wholesale injustice isn’t enough for you, there is a strong argument to be made that indigenous communities around the world offer a large proportion of the antidote to western society’s elixir of ‘progress’ which brings us ever closer to the cliff edge of global destruction.
Piece I wrote in early 2013. Page where it was originally published: http://www.catch21.co.uk/2013/03/australias-late-hypocritical-concern-for-aboriginal-peoples