Earlier this week, Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, told BBC radio that this nation’s past is one of racism and denial.
Unsurprisingly, it’s sparked a backlash back home.
The fundamental point that Goodes was making was that education is the key to understanding the Aboriginal perspective. It comes at a time when the Abbott Government, for example, is trying shut down the teaching of the Aboriginal perspective in the National School Curriculum.
So in that spirit, here’s a quick, simple guide that might help educate, with one important caveat. While non-Aboriginal people can try and empathise, we will never entirely understand what it’s like to live the Aboriginal experience in Australia. But effort counts… so read on.
Australia Day is the greatest day on earth
From a non Aboriginal perspective, Australia Day celebrates the arrival of the British.
From the Aboriginal perspective, it celebrates the day they lost their land, their children, their wages, many aspects of their culture, their freedom. In short, it celebrates a day of widespread death and dispossession.
How can anyone possibly expect a race of people to celebrate that?
How would you feel, for example, if, every year on November 11, the Turkish community in Australia held a ‘We Kicked Their Arse Day’, replete with a national holiday and people draping themselves in the Turkish flag.
Ask yourself this simple question: If you really do believe in a ‘day all Australians can celebrate’, do you really believe that January 26 is appropriate?
If we didn’t invade, someone else would have.
This old chestnut has a lot of currency in Australia. It’s predicated on the notion that the British were somehow less brutal than say, the Indonesians might have been.
It’s a matter of historical record that Aboriginal people in the Top End traded with Indonesians peacefully for hundreds of years.
But set that aside: the argument is like saying, ‘I stole all your stuff, raped and killed your women, but you should be grateful it was me. It could have been that other guy over there, and he’s a real arsehole.’
The point being, if you’re the victim – or your ancestors are the victims – it doesn’t matter who the perpetrator is. What matters is what happened.
Ask yourself these simple questions: If Australia was invaded tomorrow, when would you give up fighting? And would you expect your grandkids to abandon your fight, or honour your legacy?
They’ve got land rights, what more do they want?
Some Aboriginal people in some jurisdictions of Australia do have some land rights. But those rights are always under threat, and they always give way to white interests where the interests are seen to conflict.
NSW, for example, has what many regard (including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, James Anaya) as the best land rights legislation on earth.
So let’s look at what it has delivered so far.
At one time, over 200 years ago, Aboriginal people were the custodians of 100 percent of the land now considered NSW. Today, NSW land rights legislation (introduced more than 30 years ago) has delivered less than 0.01 percent of the total NSW land mass back to Aboriginal hands. That’s less than one tenth of one tenth of one percent (ie. less than a hundredth of one percent). Does that sound fair?
And we don’t even want them to have that. The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights legislation was the subject of an attack by the NSW Government only last week, and remains under threat today.
Nationally, in the Mabo High Court case, Australian law found that Aboriginal people did have rights to land – ie. Aboriginal people proved under our law that they still had rights to land. Rights which had been denied them for more than 200 years.
And so what was our response? We simply changed the law.
If that was done to you, how would you feel? And remember, the law was changed less than two decades ago. It is not something ‘from the past’.
Land is at the heart of every Australian’s economic base. Why do you think it shouldn’t be at the heart of the Aboriginal economic base? And if you deny Aboriginal people that economic base, are you surprised they’re mired in poverty?
Ask yourself this simple question: if land is so important to non Aboriginal Australians (and it obviously is, given our reaction against land rights) then why on earth would you think it’s not also important to Aboriginal people?
They took the children away… for their own good
This is one of the great myths of Australian history, and it is false.
The truth of the Stolen Generations is littered throughout Australian archives, much as we try to deny it.
Over more than a century, Aboriginal people were forced onto missions and reserves on the fringes of Australian towns. They were denied the same basic rights as everyone else, and their access to things like employment and health care were either withheld or severely restricted.
South Africa’s Apartheid system is modeled on the Queensland Protection Acts, a fact little known in Australia.
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There is, of course, only one possible outcome of laws like this: abject poverty.
So having forced Aboriginal people into poverty, our governments then stepped in and said, ‘Look they can’t care for their kids’. And then they took them away.
None of this, of course, takes into account the stated, deliberate policies of numerous governments that the plan was to ‘breed out the black’, who was regarded as a dying race.
Ask yourself these simple question: If your family suffered the same fate, how would feel about the government who did it today? And how would feel about the society that not only let it happen, but directly benefitted from it?
How many times do we have to say sorry?
Sure. And how many times do we have to say thanks. Let’s cancel Anzac ceremonies from this point forward, and tell the diggers and their descendants to ‘move on’.
Let’s also pretend that the policies for which we apologised – for example, forced child removal – are not still continuing… even though today, the rates of Aboriginal child removal are substantially greater than they were decades ago.
Ask yourself this simple question: Are Aboriginal people still asking you to say sorry again and again, or are they asking that we all respect and acknowledge our true history?
Stolen wages, what stolen wages?
One of the most unrecognized parts of Australia’s past is our slave history. While America abolished slavery hundreds of years ago, it was still well entrenched in this nation 50 years ago.
In a bi-partisan report handed down in Federal Parliament in 2008, both major parties acknowledged the practice of stealing Aboriginal peoples’ wages.
Young black men and women were forced into servitude, and then had their wages and savings controlled by government, only for that money to disappear into state coffers.
In Queensland, for example, they used Aboriginal wages and savings to build infrastructure like hospitals, which Aboriginal people were then prevented from accessing.
Thousands and thousands of claimants who had their money stolen are still alive today.
These are not contested facts. Both major parties have acknowledged them.
Ask yourself these simple questions: Where do you think you would be today if your ancestors had been denied the opportunity to build generational wealth? Do you think you’d be richer or poorer today as a result? And why do you think so many Australians have never heard of the ‘stolen wages’ scandal?
That was all in the past
The first major act of Australian Parliament after Federation in 1901 was a piece of legislation called the ‘Immigration Restriction Act’. It’s also known as the ‘White Australia Policy’, and it wasn’t formally abolished until 1973. Anyone aged over 41 today lived under it.
In 1986, Aboriginal government workers in Queensland were still paid less than non-Aboriginal workers for the same duties. 1986 was two years before our bi-centenary. Anyone aged 28 or over was alive when this policy was in place.
Australia’s jailing rate of Indigenous peoples in 1991, at the height of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody was one of the worst on earth. Today, it is much, much worse.
In 2014, Western Australia jails black males at a rate at least eight and a half times greater than South Africa did in the dying days of Apartheid. There is no state or territory in Australia that jails black males at a rate less than Apartheid South Africa.
Some of the tragedies of this nation are in the past. But many are not. Many are still occurring, and they are the inevitable result of two centuries of brutal dispossession and control.
Ask yourself these simple questions: If these things were done to you, or to your mother and father, by the Australian Government where do you think you would be today? Would you support the Australian state?
I had nothing to do with it
It’s true that many Australians alive today had nothing to do with the brutal policies enforced against Aboriginal people. But many Australians still alive, like John Howard for example, did.
When Aboriginal people were still not paid award wages, John Howard had been in federal parliament for more than a decade. Tony Abbott had been a member of the Liberal Party for several decades, and Bill Shorten was already active in the union movement for over a decade.
As child removals increased, Julia Gillard was already an active member of the Labor Party. Kevin Rudd was rising through the ranks of the public service.
Even so, you might not personally have anything to do with the atrocities of our past. But here’s the problem: They were done in your name, so that you could access the rights and privileges you enjoy today.
You might not have ‘done it’, but you sure as hell have benefitted from it.
You live in one of the world’s most prosperous nations. The wealth and relative advantage that you enjoy today was built from land and resources stolen from other people, without their consent.
That may not be your fault, but you are still advantaged by it.
So ask yourself this simple question: If I am the beneficiary of something terrible done to other people, do I owe those people, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the truth of what occurred?
It’s time to move on
Of all the silly things Australians say about Aboriginal people and our past, this is possibly the silliest.
How can Aboriginal people be expected to move on when their legitimate grievances have never been addressed?
A good example is Tony Abbott’s comments in 2012, while the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was celebrating its 40th anniversary in Canberra.
Abbott suggested that things had improved, and it was ‘time to move on’. Of course, the Tent Embassy was established to fight for treaty, sovereignty and national land rights. None of these things have ever been delivered. They are still ignored, with the current push for ‘constitutional recognition’ within a constitution that denies their very existence.
So why should Embassy activists move on? And why should Aboriginal people more generally simply move on?
Every other nation on earth in this situation – such as New Zealand, America and Canada – have signed treaties with their First Peoples. That’s not to suggest things are perfect in those countries – they aren’t. But here in Australia, things are much worse.
Aboriginal Australians have one of the worst life expectancies on earth; Aboriginal Australians have the highest recorded rates of rheumatic heart disease on earth (a disease which can be prevented with simple government investment); Aboriginal children and adults still suffer from trachoma, a third world disease eradicated in most third world nations; Aboriginal people in Australia have the highest Indigenous jailing rate on earth.
Ask yourself these simple questions: If these were my life statistics, would i just ‘move on’? Where do I ‘move on’ to? And if my land was taken, would I think a treaty was an unreasonable thing to ask for? And if you’re the beneficiary as opposed to the victim, do you really think you get to decide when it’s time to ‘move on’?
These are just some of the truths of our past and our present. They’re the same truths that Adam Goodes, and many others, have come to understand, and are asking you to at least acknowledge.
But when Adam Goodes and others try to speak of them, they’re howled down.
This explains precisely why Goodes, and many others, are so angry.
We can face up to this past honestly, or we can continue to ignore it. But sooner or later, the truth will come out.
One final question: Do you want your generation to be the one that does the hard work and faces the truths of our past, or are you content to leave it to other generations to resolve?
If you want to change things, then do what Goodes says – educate yourself, and stop denying our collective past.
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