Relations between Aborigines and colonists
Friends or foes?
Black Woman and White Man
Rape or love?
Myall Creek Masscare
Causes and consequences of colonial violence
The Stolen Generations
It's not so black and white
Not a good fence builder
Mary Anne Bugg
Justice or resistance?
Contemporary racism against Indigenous People
Convicts and their legacy
How the past shapes the present
Regrets and floggings
Power and morality
Contemporary Examples of Racism against Indigenous Australians
In 1993, prime minister Paul Keating gave his hugely popular “Redfern Speech”, in which he said
"we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion."
Despite the hollow use of “we”, Keating’s speech was an example of the socio-economic prejudice that shapes what is included in the Aboriginal story and how it is told. In short, it is a prejudice that places responsibility for unverifiable injustices on the hands of unknown white colonists (the bogans of the past) rather the politicians and intellectuals that held the reins of power and did things that can be verified. In this way, politicians and intellectuals of the present can not only evade scrutiny of their actions that have caused a great deal of harm to Indigenous people, but can also use fabricated history as a way of feeling superior to the bogans of Australia’s present.
Prohibition on the basis of race
When Keating said, “we brought the alcohol”, he was referring to a stereotype that Aborigines struggle with grog in a way that non-indigenous Australians do not. In one media report, Peter McAllister (an anthropologist and lecturer in journalism at Griffith University) suggested there may be a genetic base to the Indigenous struggles with drink (6). McAllister didn’t state what the genetic problem actually was, but off the public record, some have proposed Indigenous people have low levels of the dehydrogenase enzyme in their liver (an enzyme needed to break down ethanol) which results in them being drunk for longer. It is silly belief because, even if it were true, large people have a greater tolerance to alcohol than small people yet size is not a predicator of susceptibility to alcohol abuse. In short, alcohol abuse is a cultural rather than biological problem.
Research has found a loose kernel of truth in the stereotype that Indigenous people struggle with grog but not because of low levels of dehydrogenase. For example, a 2004 study found that around 15% of Indigenous Australians drank at risky levels of consumption. This figure was almost double the rate of non-indigenous Australians. (1) Of course, the figure could also be interpreted as showing that around 8 out of 10 Indigenous Australians DO NOT drink at risky levels just as 9 out of 10 Australians do not drink at risky levels.
The legacy of past laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to Indigenous Australians provide the best explanation for why non-Indigenous and Indigenous have slightly different patterns of alcohol consumption. Specifically, at the time of colonisation, problem drinking amongst the colonial population was perhaps drawing close to 100 %. In fact, it has been estimated that at time of the first fleet, the colonists drank more alcohol per capita than any other time in human history. This love of grog seemed to endure for decades to come. For example, in 1869, Englishman Marcus Clarke said of Australians,
"They are not a nation of snobs like the English or of extravagant boasters like the Americans or of reckless profligates like the French, they are simply a nation of drunkards."
Despite problem drinking being a defining feature of Australian colonial life, it was Aborigines who were subjected to a ban on the consumption and possession of alcohol. NSW introduced the first prohibition in 1838 and similar bans had been extended to all states and territories by 1929. According to some reports, the prohibition resulted in fear amongst Aborigines that they could be arrested for drinking. In response, they gravitated towards higher alcohol content beverages that were easier to carry (2). Furthermore, alcohol was drunk in unsupervised locations and around children. On the other hand, non-indigenous Australians drank in pubs and hotels where they developed the custom of the round which had a bias towards beer. As a consequence of the round, not only was a safer drink being drunk by non-Indigenous Australians, but it was done so in a supervised location and out of the presence of children. Over the decades, problem drinking reduced to the extent that, statistically speaking, Australia is a very moderate drinking nation by world standards. Although per capita beer consumption is in the world’s top ten nations, per capita spirit consumption is not even in the top 20.
The race-based bans were progressively dismantled in the 1960s but the continuing legacy was cultural bias towards early drinking, goon bags, spirits and parks. In response, in the 1990s, bans were selectively implemented once more. To avoid charges of racism, the bans were based on geography rather than race; however, it just so happens that the bans were on areas dominated by Aborigines. The obvious race-based intention of the bans promoted one Indigenous woman, Joan Maloney, to take her case to the High Court 2013 after being charged for the possession of a rum and coke. The High Court found against her and stated that bans were justified as they were a special measure needed to advance Indigenous people. According to justice French
“The character of a special measure depends in part upon a political assessment about the need for advancement of a racial group and the measure that is likely to secure the advancement necessary, the Court must accept the assessment made by the political branch of government.” (3)
In other words, whenever a political branch of government decides that a policy is good for Aborigines (based upon some statistically difference between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians), governments are allowed to introduce racially discriminatory policies to improve the lives of Indigenous people. There is no need for government to be accountable for side-effects of the policy, to set an end date for the discriminatory policies or even consult the targets of the social engineering program to ascertain whether they want to be moulded in the manner desired by government.
Smolan, Rick (1981) A Day In The Life Of Australia: Photographed By 100 Of The World's Leading Photojournalists
When the sale of alcohol to Aborigines eventually became legal, separatism was a continuing legacy of the past ban. The above photos show white and black Australians drinking on opposite sides of a Darwin street. Aborigines bought alcohol out of a window at the back of the bar called the “dog box”, a process of buying that originated when selling booze to Aborigines was illegal.
Because the ban caused the cultures of alcohol consumption to develop in different ways, it was not always easy to reconcile them in the front of the bar when the supply of alcohol to Aborigines became legal. Aside from encouraging separatism, another legacy of the ban was the choice of alcohol. Aborigines often gravitated towards cask wine or spirits because these were easiest to carry and offered maximum bang for the buck. Non-Aborigines went for the beers commonly bought in a round.
Keating’s comment about ‘bringing the alcohol’ not only reinforced stereotypes of Aboriginal alcoholism, but the inference was that culpability lay at hands of un-named colonists – the bogans of the past. In truth, around 8 out of 10 Aborigines were not problem drinkers and the slightly higher rate of problem drinking amongst Aborigines relative to non-Aborigines could be directly explained as a legacy of the racist policies of politicians - like Keating.
Banning sex across the colour line and the Stolen Generations
It seems to be a universal psychological trait of humanity that in any given community there will be some individuals who are confronted by inter-racial relationships. In Australia’s past, these individuals successfully had sex across the colour line banned. In Queensland, the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld) prohibited Indigenous woman from marrying anyone other than an Indigenous man without the permission of an Aboriginal Protector. In 1918, The Northern Territory Aboriginal Ordinance Act stipulated that Aborigines could not marry non-Aborigines without permission or have sex with non-Aboriginal people. Other states followed the lead over the decades.
The laws were made in the name of protecting Aboriginal women from the sexual predation of white men but the consequence was broken households and children being put into missions as a result of lacking parents. Lowitja O’Donoghue, the former head of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission (ATSIC), was one individual who suffered as a result of the ban. O'Donohue's parents had lived together until the South Australian government amended the Aborigines Act to prosecute white men who were consorting with Aboriginal women. Tom O'Donohue (Lowitja's father) was convicted of carnal knowledge and fined £5 with 10 shillings costs. He was then forced to sell his lease, abandon his defacto wife of 20 years and move to Adelaide. He then placed Lowitja and her four sisters in a catholic boarding school and paid for their care. In short, a loving family was broken apart because South Australian law makers were confronted by the sight of a white man with a black woman and mixed race offspring. While O’Donohue’s family was forcible broken up because of the law, others probably never formed as a result of them. The stigma of the laws (and the prejudicial attitudes underpinning them) made it difficult for whites to have socially respected relationships with Aborigines or even be seen with children of a different colour. Again, the consequence was the abandonment of children.
From the early 1990s, the Stolen Generations have been positioned as the most significant example of injustice towards Indigenous people. The Stolen Generations was a term coined by coined in 1981 by Peter Reid, a white historian from the University of Sydney, in reference to the placement of mixed race children in missions and orphanages. In test cases for compensation (Cubillo and Gunner V The Commonwealth 2003), the individuals placed in the missions and orphanages failed because they were unable to show that the Commonwealth had not been motivated by their welfare when removing them. In addition, the court found that there was no general policy in force in the Northern Territory supporting the indiscriminate removal and detention of part-Aboriginal children.
Despite the findings of the court, in 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations, but refused to pay compensation or name any minister for Aboriginal affairs responsible for the laws that allowed the removal of children. In short, the issue of mixed-race children in care was positioned in such a way that direct government responsibility could be evaded yet still allow a Prime Minister to gain an electoral bounce via an apology.
Although the focus on the removal of children makes it hard to pin responsibility on any government or individual politician, the breaking up of mixed raced families and the social stigmas that resulted in children lacking parents can be pinned directly on governments and individual politicians. If courts had been asked to consider government culpability in creating broken homes (rather than responding to children being neglected because they lacked a parent/s) then perhaps it would have been more difficult to avoid compensation. Furthermore, it would have been more difficult for a prime minister to give an apology that really didn’t accept any responsibility at all.
In the Persecuted Lovers (1957-58), artist Arthur Boyd responded to the disgust he felt at the South Australian community’s unwillingness to accept inter-racial marriages. The laws prohibiting inter-racial marriages and relationships resulted in broken homes and many mixed-race children growing up without knowing who their parents were. The reluctance to even acknowledge the laws by politicians and white advocates for Aborigines perhaps indicates that inter-racial relationships are still confronting today.
Mabo, acknowledge their past ownership but strip them of present ownership
Paul Keating’s response to the 1993 Mabo versus Queensland judgement was a great example of a politician shafting Indigenous people while pretending to be their champion. In simple language, the judgement found that when the British arrived in Australia, all the houses were owned by Indigenous people. The justices also stated that the failure to acknowledge the ownership was an example of racism. For example, Justice Brennan moralised,
“Whatever the justification advanced … for refusing to recognise the rights and interests in land of the indigenous inhabitants of settled colonies, an unjust and discriminatory doctrine of that kind can no longer be accepted.”
Likewise, Justice Deane said that Indigenous people had been treated as a
"different and lower form of life whose very existence could be ignored for the purpose of determining the legal right to occupy and use their traditional lands."
The media picked up the justices’ emotive language and sold the judgement as a great victory for Indigenous people. What the media failed to mention was that the justices also found that the colonists were within their legal right to throw Indigenous people out of the houses and subsequently sell the houses or give them to other colonists without compensation to the original owners.
The one positive was that if any Indigenous people were still in the houses after more than 200 years, and could prove 200 years of unbroken occupation, they could have the opportunity to state why the crown should recognise their title. However, it would be a special title in which the house could not be sold as could the neighbours’ houses. In short, Indigenous people got words saying their ancestors had been the original owners while being sold a judgement saying they had been legally dispossessed.
Many members of the public who heard the justices’ emotive language made the logical conclusion that some kind of compensation or retribution would be in order. Perhaps they also feared their properties they had bought in good faith would be under threat since it appeared they had been “stolen”. Rather than clarifying what the High Court had actually decided, Keating called them racists, as was seen in an exchange with a talkback caller on John Laws' 2UE morning program:
Caller: Yes, good morning. Just a very broad question, Mr Keating, is: why does your government see the Aboriginal people as a much more equal people than the average white Australian?
Paul Keating: We don't. We see them as equal.
Caller: Well, you might say that, but all the indications are that you don't.
Paul Keating: But what's implied in your question is that you don't; you think that non-Aboriginal Australians, there ought to be discrimination in their favour against blacks.
Caller: Not... whatsoever. I... I don't say that at all. But my... myself and every person I talk to - and I'm not racist - but every person I talk to...
Paul Keating: But that's what they all say, don't they? They put these questions - they always say, "I'm not racist, but, you know, I don't believe that Aboriginal Australians ought to have a basis in equality with non-Aboriginal Australians. Well, of course, that's part of the problem.
By supporting the Mabo judgement, Keating was acting like a man in a brothel taking a stand against indecency while his trousers hung around his ankles. He was able to get away with it because the media only filmed him from the waist up and positioned him in front of the brothel’s non-descript décor.
Map of native title in Australia in 2010. Virtually none of NSW, the first colonised state, is in Native Title. In short, the judgement was big on pro-Indigenous words as it stripped Indigenous people of land rights.
Creation of negative stereotypes and subsequent exploitation of them for financial gain
“Aborigines are social failures. Bogan Australians are to blame. Funding for social engineering programs is the solution.”
In 2016, the success of the message had resulted in $30 billion dollars being spent on 500,000 Indigenous people annually. (3) This was almost 50% more than the entire Australian livestock industry generates for Australia.
The stereotype of social failure comes from the selective use of statistics. For example, Wilson et al (2010) (1) cited an estimation that 15 per cent of Indigenous Australians and 7.5 per cent of non-Indigenous Australians consumed alcohol at risky levels. The statistics could be rephrased to indicate two vastly different messages. Firstly, it could be rephrased to indicate that around 8 out of 10 Indigenous Australians have no problem with alcohol. Alternatively, it could be rephrased to indicate that Indigenous Australians are twice as likely to be problem drinkers as non-Indigenous Australians. The two phrasings have a very different connotation about the severity of Indigenous drinking and in turn, the policies that need to be introduced. The later phrasing is the convention amongst policy makers. This could be seen in the Australian Bureau of Statistics Report (2010, Indigenous Disadvantage and Selected Measures of Wellbeing, which showed that Aborigines life expectancy was 10 years less than non-Aborigines, that Aborigines were twice as likely to die before the age of one, four times more likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to need support for a health care problem, seven times more likely to be victims of child abuse, and 13 times more likely to be incarcerated. It also leads to statements, such as the ones by ANU academic Nicholas Biddle, which assert:
"However, in every part of Australia indigenous status predicts poorer socioeconomic outcomes and our policy makers, service providers, educators, employers -- everyone really -- needs to be aware of this."
Admittedly, it is rare to find bogans explicitly blamed for the perceived negative social situation of Indigenous people. Instead, sentences are constructed in the passive to eliminate responsibility. (For example, instead of saying, “bogans are discriminating against Aborigines”, the sentence is “Aborigines are being discriminated against” by????.) Despite not explicitly blaming bogans, they is an inferred blame with references to historical dispossession and neglect. Furthermore, the moralistic tone in the way the politicians, academics and the media report the statistics indicate that they believe people other than themselves are responsible. Certainly, there is no indication that Nicholas Biddle feels that his media campaigns create negative stereotypes of Aborigines that can become self fulfilling prophecies.
The perception that Indigenous people are social failures in turn justifies government spending to remedy that failure. In what could be seen as reflecting the true intentions of many self-styled Indigenous advocates, applause is loudest for politicians who announce large monetary figures that will be allocated for Indigenous disadvantage rather than for politicians that announce statistics of gains that have been made. In fact, there has been no other issue in Australian history (and perhaps the entire history of western democracy) where so much money has been spent with so little accountability.
In 2005, the NSW parliament heard one of the rare cases where a critic demanded some level of accountability in the spending. Specifically, the parliament heard that The Hillsong Church had received $415,000 in funding to run programs for the Riverstone Aboriginal Community, based around Blacktown in Sydney's west. The budget proposed that most of the $415,000 would pay the salary for the project officer and administration. Community activities, such as dance nights and social integration lessons, would account for only a few thousand dollars. Around the same time, the media reported the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs spent $327,784 to administer funding of just $34,318, but the criticism was in the context of a campaign against the government rather than a campaign for funding to achieve results.
Some Indigenous people have spoken out about the exploitation. For example, in 2016, Chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Warren Mundine, said,
“We sat down with the Productivity Commission. We looked at the Indigenous space. $30 billion is spent in this space annually. $30 billion on 500,000 people and you still see the problems you get to see. What that tells me straightaway as a businessman, because I run my own business, is there’s a lot of fun and games going in there and we need to sort that out and we need to find out where the wastage of our funding is.” (3)
Likewise, in 2013, the Indigenous Mayor of Palm Island, Alf Lacey, said,
"The prime minister needs to get a hold of herself. The current closing of the gap strategy at the moment is not closing anybody's gap, let alone the blackfellas in this country. All it does is create a big Aboriginal industry, a big gravy train that everyone else rides on, and wastes taxpayers' money on Aboriginal people with no results to it."
In 2016, the ABC’s Four Corners aired a program titled Australia’s Shame, which showed graphic footage of the treatment of juvenile criminals in detention. In response, the Australian Federal Government launched a Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of juveniles in the Northern Territory Justice System.
Perhaps because 97% of children in NT juvenile detention centres are indigenous, a political cartoonist, Bill Leak, also drew a cartoon that visualised a deadbeat dad to represent the families that the juveniles might have come from. In addition to the Indigenous dead beat dad, the cartoon showed an Indigenous policeman speaking talking about responsibility. Leak’s cartoon was met with outrage. Greens leader Richard Di Natale labelled the cartoon "disgraceful" and said it preyed on "the most awful stereotypes around Aboriginal people". The Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane encouraged members of the public to lodge complaints with the Human Rights Commission.
There were numerous explanations for why the cartoon was treated with such outrage. Firstly, there are norms that propose that it is perfectly acceptable to communicate material that creates negative stereotypes of Aborigines as long as there is a qualification of Aboriginal disempowerment. In other words, Aborigines are bad but it is not their fault. In Leak’s cartoon, the juvenile criminal is disempowered but the father is expected to share responsibility and an Aboriginal policeman is an agent of empowerment and change. By showing empowerment and an expectation for empowerment, Leak undermined the norms governing the portrayal of Indigenous people. Secondly, the cartoon suggested a course of action that was different to what a number of interest groups would have wanted from the program. Specifically, they would have wanted a royal commission where lawyers and consultants get paid millions of dollars to investigate the justice system and make recommendations. Other interest groups would subsequently get paid millions of dollars to put the recommendations into action. These recommendations might be re-training of guards, cultural awareness education programs for guards, changes in reporting systems when there are riots, funding for research papers on children in detention, more funds for legal aid etc etc. None of the policies would do anything to prevent Indigenous youths breaking the law and coming into contact with the justice system. On the other hand, working with the parents of the offenders might actually reduce their children's contact with the justice system. Ironically, by placing responsibility on the parent and making another Indigenous individual an agent of empowerment, Leak was threatening the business model that makes so many people rich. The villification was therefore not surprising.
- Wilson M, Stearne A, Gray D, Sherry S (2010) The harmful use of alcohol amongst Indigenous Australians. Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet. http://www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/uploads/docs/alcohol_review_june_2010.pdf
- Beckett J, Reay M (1964) Aborigines, alcohol and assimilation. In: Aborigines Now. Sydney: Angus & Robertson
- FactCheck Q&A: is $30 billion spent every year on 500,000 Indigenous people in Australia?http://theconversation.com/factcheck-qanda-is-30-billion-spent-every-year-on-500-000-indigenous-people-in-australia-64658
- Patricia Karvela’s October 12 2013 Aborigines disadvantaged across the nation http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/indigenous/aborigines-disadvantaged-across-the-nation/story-fn9hm1pm-1226738606644
- Fight for the right to drink on Palm Island, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/indigenous/fight-for-the-right-to-drink-on-palm-island/story-fn9hm1pm-1226589532727
Our Ned Kelly
A story heard and considered
Dying for liberty
Why is it not celebrated?
White Australia Policy
From Convicts to Chinese
Baptism of Fire or Well of Tears
Simpson and his Donkey
A larrikin and a hero
A larrikin and a hero
Australia's Greek Moment
World War 2
The eastern chapters
The expression of transnational identities
Values and policies of Australian leaders