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Australian Identity

Does Australia Need a National Identity?

Why is the Australian Identity so Weak?

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Australian Values

Australian LanguageLanguage and Identity

Iconic Australians
Iconic Australians

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Australian StereotypesAustralian Stereotypes

Aboriginal RightsAboriginal Rights

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Fact or fables?



Racism Against Aborigines in Australia

Aboriginal Rights

"Unfortunately there has now developed a group of Indigenous Australians who claim leadership of our people who wish also to preserve us as museum pieces as well and keep us locked in poverty and socially dysfunctional communities. It keeps them in a job." Warren Mundine

In 1967, 90 per cent of Australians voted in favour of a referendum that was sold as being about advancing Aborigines. For Australian politicians, the message was clear; there are votes in helping Aborigines. Almost 50 years on, Aborigines are defined by statistics of disadvantage despite the federal government spending almost $3.5 billion dollars each year to alleviate the disadvantage. (This is roughly half of what Greece needs to spend each year to service its national debt.)

While the federal government has been implementing its policies, various Aboriginal groups have been advocating for an assortment of rights that have sometimes been consistent with government policy and sometimes inconsistent. In 1972, four Aboriginal men set up a tent embassy on the lawns of Parliament House to demand land rights. Almost 50 years on, the embassy still exists but the demands have changed.

The ability of the federal government to advance Aborigines has been complicated by the diversity of experiences within the Aboriginal world, which have in turn made it difficult to respond to Aboriginal protests that lack a unified set of concerns. For example, 70 per cent of people who identify as Aboriginal live in cities. As a result, land rights and cultural rights mean something very different to them than the 30 per cent who live in rural areas and have had native title recognised over the land they live on. Likewise, an Aborigine who has black skin may feel they are discriminated against when taxis refuse to stop for them. On the other hand, an Aborigine with white skin wont struggle to get a taxi on the basis of how they look, however, they may feel they are victims of discrimination because other people don’t consider them to be Aborigines.

Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging the diversity, there has been a tendency from government and Aboriginal protesters to homogenise it. As a result, government policy towards Aborigines is made according to race rather than need or circumstance. Not surprisingly, the policies have mostly failed because one-size never fits all. Furthermore, Aboriginal leaders have asserted an agenda that may be in their personal interest but may not in the interests of many others. As a result, they have often divided not united.

What Aborigines want

To be subjected to intervention

Issues of concern to an Aboriginal academic in inner-city Sydney are very different to those of an Aborigine living in a bush camp in the Northern Territory. For example, indigenous lawyer Larissa Behrendt, who lives in Sydney, was opposed to the Federal government intervening in the Northern Territory (2007) to help Aboriginal people living there. Among other things, the intervention included an increased provision of commonwealth social services, restrictions on alcohol and pornography and compulsory acquisition of townships held under native title. The intervention was supported by Bess Price, an Indigenous woman who lives in the Northern Territory. In response to hearing Price state her support for the intervention, Behrendt said that she found watching bestiality to be less offensive that Price's views.

Likewise, Indigenous leader Warren Mundine responded to a UN report saying the intervention was racist by saying

"I think this Rapporteur's report should be dealt with the same as every other Rapporteur's report; just drop it in the bin and actually get on with the job.

What is detrimental about the protecting of children, the protecting of women against sexual assault, physical assault?

When Aboriginal women or Indigenous women I should say, are being raped then we need to have policies in place that deal with the rape of those women."


Attitudes to the invention changed according to who was being asked. Some defined it as racism because the intevention was based on race.

To have policy based on need not race

Collectively, the three tiers of Australian government have scholarships, jobs, affordable housing, welfare, and social assistance reserved for Aboriginal people. It has been argued that, because the programs are offered on the basis of race instead of need, they have created an an incentive for people who have had a distant Aboriginal ancestor to seek to be recognised as Aboriginal despite lacking the disadvantage the programs are designed to alleviate.

Some Aborigines have advocated changing the criteria for provision so that it is based on need not race. Not only would providing on the basis of need make Aboriginal identification less of a public issue, but it would also ensure that money would be spent on helping those Aborigines in need, not further enriching Aborigines who are already well off. In words of Professor Marcia Langton:

"You won't have what Andrew Bolt, Pauline Hanson and so many Australians are angry about, and that is a resentment towards people claiming to be Aboriginal, purportedly in order to gain some financial benefit,"

"Of course it's not true in the main, but there is an element of truth with it."

"Welfare dependency has a large reach in the Aboriginal world - much larger than in the rest of Australia - because there are so many programs, and all these programs are constructed, when you get down to the essence, on the belief that Aborigines can't do it because they are racially different."

To be seen as an Aborigine, to be seen as an individual or to change the Aboriginal stereotype

Social identities are a source of conflict. Sometimes they cause conflict because individuals adopt a social identity and subsequently become offended when others continue to treat them as individuals rather than a member of the social group. Sometimes they cause conflict because individuals adopt a conception of a social identity which is not always shared by others. Sometimes they cause conflict because the social identities are applied onto individuals who would rather be treated as an individual.

Shane Mortimer was an example of an individual adopting a social identity and being offended that someone continued to see him in individualistic terms. In his 30s, Mortimer discovered that he had Aboriginal ancestry and he subsequently created an Aboriginal social identity that included speaking about his ancestors and wearing a possum skin coat. Mortimer’s chosen identity was a source of amusement of Don Atkin, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra. Atkin wrote on a blog that Mortimer’s references to his ancestors had him scratching his head and that his possum cloak was too regular in its markings. Mortimer was outraged and sued Atkin for $6.5 million, claiming the insult upon him was an insult upon all Aboriginal people.

Anita Hess was an example of someone being offended because other people had a stereotype of the Aboriginal identity that was inconsistent with her own. Hess' identity as an Aboriginal was formed by growing up in a household with an Austrian father and an Aboriginal mother.  In her book, “Am I Black Enough for You?” Hess described herself as  "a concrete Koori with Westfield dreaming." She rejected the traditional stereotype of Aborigines as ochre face painters and boomerang throwers. Furthermore, she noted the inconsistency of western society celebrating its cultural diversity when it opened itself to change but then sympathising with Aborigines for “cultural loss” when it did the same. Basically, she had an identity as an Aboriginal person but wanted to be treated as a westener that was open to change and modern society.

Dallas Scott was an example of someone who wanted to escape the negative social stereotype that was always applied to him. Scott was dark-sinned Aborigine who grew up with white foster parents. Because of his obvious Aboriginal appearance, Scott never had to wear possum cloaks or speak of his ancestors in order to be seen as Aboriginal. Instead, his concern was that he could not escape the stereotype of Aboriginal disadvantage (criminality, poor education, domestic violence) that was always applied to him on the basis of his physical appearance. In his own words:

“They seem wary of me because they know that Aboriginal people are over-represented in our jails, and jails house people who have committed crimes. Possible criminal by default – proceed with caution. On the flipside, you get people who want to use you to demonstrate just how much their first year Indigenous Studies Professor has taught them about “my struggles”. They tell me “you’re a true Australian” or loudly exclaim that they “support the First People like me in their just plight against the white man” or simply must tell me about some rally they attended to “make a difference…(they) never seem to stop being able to view me as a victim or as anything other than an Aborigine. They speak to me like I’m an idiot, that because of the colour of my skin, I was discriminated against in education and therefore lacking against their University educated prowess so they must make concessions for me and expect a lower standard of me at every opportunity. They seem to believe that I am unaware of how the modern world works, or worse, believe I need some of their do-gooderness to overcome a disadvantage that I clearly don’t have. I’m a cause, not a person to them.”

Aboriginal Identity : Shane Mortimer, Anita Hess, Dallas Scott

Shane Mortimer, Anita Hess and Dallas Scott all had identities as Aborigines but their experiences as Aborigines were not uniform nor was their conception of the Aboriginal stereotype.

To be recognised as Aboriginal, or to have others not recognised as Aboriginal.

Aborigines do not all have the same skin colour and their physical differences shape their experiences as Aborigines. Some of the issues associated with identification were discussed on SBS’s Insight program. On the show, a black skinned Aborigine named Dallas Scott explained how his experience as an Aborigine was different from the white Aborigines on the basis of his skin colour. He gave an example of how the other Aborigines in the audience could walk out of the studio and easily hail a taxi because they looked white; however, he would struggle because he was black. Scott also explained that when he applied for a certificate of Aboriginality, it was denied, even though he was obviously of Aboriginal descent. Ironically, someone who was treated as an Aboriginal in in the operation of all aspects of his daily was not legally recognised as an Aborigine.

Northern Territory MP and full blood Aboriginal woman Bess Price has also expressed concern that people with a dubious link to Aboriginality are claiming to be Aboriginal. For Price, the concern seems to be that the white Aborigines are recogniseed as cultural experts despite having no links to culture. Price has likened the situation to an American with a distant Russian ancestor being appointed to a diplomatic position to Russia on the grounds that he or she is Russian and therefore has knowledge of the culture. Just as Russians would be somewhat offended when having to deal with such a person that really doesn’t have insights into Russian culture, Price has been offended by having to deal with the white Aborigines that claim to be cultural experts but really know nothing at all. Finally, Price also stated that the white Aborigines were causing conflict by only identifying with their Aboriginal ancestry as they were creating an us-and-them dynamic with non-Aboriginal people. (Price was married to a Caucasian man and has mixed race children.)

The white Aborigines have usually reacted with hostility when their Aboriginality has been questioned. For example, some white Aborigines who had their Aboriginality questioned by white journalist Andrew Bolt took him to court for racial discrimination. Bolt was found guilty and ordered to cease making the claims that they were identifying with Aboriginality for personal advantage.

One white Aborigine, Kerryn Pholi, gained numerous benefits from her identification but then decided that the whole system was racist and she subsequently destroyed her certificate of Aboriginality. When explaining her actions, Pholi wrote:

"It also feels good to do proper work; sitting around a government office essentially being paid to be Aboriginal is both undiginified and boring. I miss the money, but I don't miss the racism."


Dallas Scott on Insight


Previously, Aborigines had a kind of self-government in the form of ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission.) ATSIC aimed to give Aborigines an independent voice and the power to run programs to help their people. This was a body created by the Hawke Labor government in 1990. It was dismantled by the Howard Liberal government in 2004 with the support of the Labor opposition . 

ATSIC was shut down after it was broadly agreed by almost everyone outside of ATSIC that it had failed in its intentions. One problem was that many Aborigines didn't feel it represented them or their interests. For example, many referred to the body as "Aborigines Talking Shit in Canberra". Further reflecting the alienation, only around 10% of Aborigines voted in ATSIC elections. Some prominent female Aborigines also criticised the body for being dominated by males. Finally, there were numerous concerns raised at perceived financial irregularities (corruption).

After ATSIC was dismantled, Federal governments started hand picking individual Aborigines who they deemed would speak on behalf of all Aborigines. Those Aborigines that were chosen concurred that they could speak for others. Many of those who were not chosen did not concur.

Land rights

The initial tent embassy protest in 1972 was about land rights. In response to the protests, in 1975 the Federal government established regional land councils and provided them with land that would aid Aboriginal economic empowerment. Sometimes this was land that the Aborigines were already on and sometimes it was land that the government purchased off farmers for them. They also gave the councils the power to restrict entry if the land council so desired, or veto mining if they so desired. The initial bills were framed for the Northern Territory but designed in such a way that they could be applied Australia wide at a later date.

The nature of land rights changed in the 1980s when the Labor Party developed the five principles approach to land rights that proposed: 1) Aboriginal land be held under freehold title 2) full legal protection of Aboriginal sites 3) Aboriginal control in relation to mining on Aboriginal land 4) access to mining royalty payments and 5) negotiated compensation for lost land.

Politically, the principles were difficult to implement so they remained principles only.

In 1992, an altenative approach to land rights was created after Eddie Mabo, a Torres Straight Islander, won the 1992 Mabo versus Queensland judgement. In the judgment, the High Court stated that land rights were not automatically extinguished when Queensland annexed the Torres Straight in 1879 and by extention, mainland rights had not been extinguished when Britain annexed Australia in 1770. In addition to stating the land rights had not automatically been extinguished, the High Court also created a set of rules about how land could be claimed by Aborigines and subsequently used once claimed.

The stipulations on land acquisition and use were quite different from those previously designed by the Federal government. Basically, the court said that if Aborigines could demonstrate continuous association with the land since 1788, then they could claim it; however, once claimed, it could not be sold. Unlike the Federal government's previous legislation, the criteria was designed to preserve traditional culture rather than aid economic advancement.

Because demonstrating over 200 years of continuous cultural associations was a difficult task, it needed the expertise of anthropologists and lawyers to show the associations in a way that a court could understand. It subsequently became a prosperous time to be white person working on Aboriginal land claims. If the justices had simply applied the common law test that a number of years of continous occupation constitutes ownership then these white professions would not have profited the way they did.

Environmentalist were another interest group that benefitted from the judgement. With an anti-development platform, the environmentalists believed that if crown land could be transferred to Aboriginal ownership, then the land could be protected against farming, mining and property development. The restrictions on Aborigines reselling the land or individually owning it made the land very difficult to develop economically, and therefore helped the environmentalists. This became apparent a few years later after titles were recognised and restrictions imposed. Aborigines then started getting pissed off at being told what they could do with their land. One of these was Warren Mundine, head of NSW Native Title Services, who said:

"We own a couple of billion dollars' worth of land and it means sweet bugger-all for the Aboriginal community."

Richie Ahmat, chairman of the Cape York Land Council, went further and explained in more detail how environmental groups wanted Aborigines to behave:

"Wilder nullius, which is a vision that TWS (The Wilderness Society) has for indigenous homelands across northern and remote Australia, allows for black people in the landscape but in a highly restricted form. These blacks are not supposed to engage in any form of wealth creation or development. They are only allowed to pursue traditional activities. They are to eschew employment or consumption, and not participate in or be in favour of any form of industry.

If the blacks abide by the role envisioned for them, then TWS will arrange for the environmental agencies of government to provide funding programs for them to be employed as rangers and so on. If they step outside of this role, then TWS will get the government to stop the funding. Only compliance to the TWS vision of wilder nullius will receive support."

Aside from imposing restrictions on land use and sale, the Mabo judgement caused some concern because it offered nothing to the 70% of the population who lived in cities and therefore were unable to show 200 years of unbroken association with the land.


Drysdale Ruins

Drysdale The Ruins (1965): An Aborigine stands over the failed attempts of colonists to expand inland

Sovereign government

Some Aborigines want to establish their own governments that function independently of Australian governments. Their legal power to do so was tested in the Isabel Coe v The Commonwealth (1993) decision. Claiming to act on behalf of the Wiradjuri nation, Ms Coe sought recognition of the sovereignty and autonomy of the Wiradjuri people. The claim was rejected because it sought to challenge the sovereignty of the state.

Even though there is no legal base under current Australian law for sovereignty, the Federal government would probably be open to it if it believed it had a chance of working. The cold economic reality is that the provision of welfare, education, health and housing for Aboriginal communities is more costly than any tax or any income derived from exploitation of the resources where the Aborigines are based. Furthermore, the image of Aborigines from these communities ending up in jail, dying young or complaining about human rights violations is embarrassing for governments.

The decision to grant independence to Papua New Guinea in 1975 but not Torres Strait Islanders perhaps best illustrates how the Australian government would be open to Aboriginal sovereignty if 1) it believed it could work and 2) that it was wanted by most Aborigines. By giving independence to PNG, the Federal government saved itself a lot of money and a great deal of international criticism. At the time, Papua New Guinea also wanted the Torres Straight Islanders between PNG and Australia to be part of their country; however, the majority of the Torres Straight islanders wanted to remain part of Australia.

In regards to creating a nation state for Australian Aborigines, not only are there different tribal identities that don't really want to be a shared nation, but native title is spread throughout Australia and 70 % of Aborignes live in cities. This would make it impossible to consolidate Aborigines with their land under new nation state.

Potentially, Aboriginal tribes that have had their title over land recognised could create a homeland like the type that existed in apartheid South Africa. In many respects, such homelands already exist in outback settlements that are largely left to their own devices except for the provision of limited health, education and welfare services. There is little prospects of these settlements creating a soveign economy as the land often has little economic potential and is too isolated to be a gambling or tax haven.

Torres Straight Islanders could perhaps become sovereign or join Papua New Guinea. It has been suggested by politicians such as Bob Katter and Anna Bligh that this would be a good idea. Presently, the desire for Torres Straight indepedence seems to be more driven by non-Islander politicians; however, land rights activist Eddie Mabo did suggest it would also be a good idea. The lack of political activism by the Islanders for indepedence probably reflects a widespred belief that they are better off as part of Australia.


When invading China, the Americas and New Zealand, the British colonial government signed a treaty with the locals that clarified land use provisions and the locals' rights as British citizens. The treaties were always signed after the locals rebelled against the British and forced them to the bargaining table. No treaty was ever signed in Australia because warfare had largely been absent. Perhaps there wasn't any war because the colonists were wiped out by the environment when they tried to expand inland. Perhaps it was because the Convict population was denied guns to fight Aborigines, or saw Aborigines as potential allies in an uprising against the authorities. Perhaps it was because kangaroo populations increased as a result of colonisation thus reducing conflict over food resources. Perhaps it was because the colonists were more concerned with appearing as protectors of Aborigines than victors over them - as was the case in many colonial countries.

In recent years, Aborigines like Megan Davis, the director of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of NSW, have lobbied for the federal government to sign a treaty with the Aboriginal people of Australia.

Numerous obstacles have prevented a treaty from being designed and signed. The first obstacle is who would sign on behalf of Aborigines and what would be his or her legitimacy to sign. A more significant problem is deciding what rights each side would agree to, and how these would be ascertained.

Cultural reflections - Cowboy battles Indian for America. Convict escapes and lives with Aborigines


Re-writing history so it tells the "truth"

Footballer Andrew Goodes was awarded Australian of the Year after taking offence to a 13-year-old girl who called him an ape during a football game. Once he was Australian of the Year, Goodes used his position to campaign for Aboriginal rights. Goodes' chief concern seemed to be that the Australian history being taught in school was “based on lies.” To justify the claim, Goode’s referred to his own education where he claims a teacher had told him that Australia was “founded by Captain Cook”. Goodes wanted Australian children to grow up knowing this was not the case.

The view that Australia was founded by Captain Cook has no public support and never has. It is almost universally accepted that Captain Cook claimed Australia for Britain in 1770 and 18 years later, Arthur Phillip landed with criminals to found a penal colony. Perhaps Goodes misunderstood what his teacher said or perhaps the teacher made a mistake that Goodes just presumed all other teachers would also be making.

In regards to historical lies, there have been claims of dishonesty amongst academia as part of the History Wars. Ironically, most of the verifiable lies have come from white academics claiming to be working for Aboriginal interests. For example, academics Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan cited statistics in historical documents when claiming massacres of Aborigines occurred, but when the documents were checked, it was found that there was not the statistical evidence that had been cited. In other words, the academics' history was based on lies.

Cultural awareness in education

Some Aborigines want cultural education to be a two-way street. As well as learning from mainstream Australia, they want mainstream Australia to learn about and understand them. Because the government has been very open to such requests, it funds cultural awareness lessons for police, social workers, health workers and teachers. The aim of the lessons is to help the organisations understand how Aborigines think so that the cultural understandings can be relied upon when Aborigines are encountered.

The actual research that has been used to conclude how Aborigines think has sometimes been highly dubious. In the case of some of the education programs, the instructor is often deemed to have insight into the Aboriginal mind because he or she has some Aboriginal ancestry. Defining someone as an expert on Aboriginal cultures because he or she has some Aboriginal ancestry is a bit like defining someone an expert on winemaking because he or she has French ancestry or someone as an expert on cricket because he or she has British ancestry. In reality, cultural insights are not recorded in DNA. Rather than skin colour, initiation scars may have been a more valuable visual cue to decide if someone knew about culture.

Just as dubious methods have been used to define the experts of Aboriginal culture, the experts' conclusions and the use of their conclusions has sometimes been highly dubious as well. In education, researchers Hughes, More and Williams (2004) created a set of criteria that they deemed to define Aboriginal learning styles. Specifically, they wrote:

  • Learning through observation and imitation rather than verbal instruction
  • Holistic learning
  • Learning through trial and feedback
  • Group more important than the individual
  • Visual –spatial skills – information is best received in visual mode
  • Contextual learning
  • Spontaneous rather than structured

Although the research might have been well intentioned, the research was extremely racist because it homogenised behaviour and learning style on the basis of genetic ancestry. In truth, in any group of people, there are a diversity of learning styles and behaviours. Irrespective of whether someone has Aboriginal ancestry or not, some people are visual, some linguistic, some kinetic, some introverted, some extroverted, some considerate to others and some egocentric. Admittedly, individuals are socialised in a culture defined by some common behavioural styles, but Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia are not uniform and cultures never completely suppress individual personality. For example, some Caucasion Australians see the group as more important than the individual despite individualism being championed in Australian myths while some Chinese put themselves before the group despite Chinese cultural myths advocating the opposite.

In Queensland, a program designed to show respect to Aborigines was an example of the racism turned into a lesson. A silly curriculum writer proposed using rocks and leaves to teach Indigenous perspectives in a maths lesson. (1) It seemed a great idea to a principal who subsequently instructed a teacher to issue rocks and leaves to an Indigenous student as part of the program. (Other students in the class were to be given calculators.) The teacher on the coalface found it highly racist and refused. Perhaps the principal was just an idiot, but the more likely explanation was that he or she wanted their resume to state that he or she had implemented a learning program to help Aboriginal students. Such a line would definately help their career, irrespective of whether it harmed the Aboriginal students.

Arguably, the stereotypes of Aboriginal learning styles are defined to justify the style of teaching, not to meet the needs of Aboriginal students. Specifically, the stereotypes suit the teacher that wants to get away from fact retention, writing and sequential planning in favour of some kind of holistic creativity that he or she can make up on the day. Catering to "disadvantaged Aboriginal students" becomes the justification for the style of teaching and the exercises created. While giving an Aboriginal kid leaves and stones in a maths lesson may be visual, unstructured, contextual and a good example of trial and error learning, showing the student how to use a calculator would have opened far more doors for the student.

It isn’t only High Schools that have implemented cultural awareness lessons of dubious merit. Aboriginal man Dallas Scott has taken aim at Monash University for stereotyping Aboriginal women as abused and Aboriginal men as oppressive under the guise of cultural awareness. According to Scott:

“Our budding medical students are asked to forgo common sense, logic and fact ... and accept any nonsical statement as truth- as long as it comes under the Aboriginal banner...As long as you prefix your racial stereotyping and racism with the word ‘Aboriginal’ and do it under the guise of ‘cultural awareness’, anything goes. And just for the record, in case you’re dreaming up new fictional case studies over there at Monash, we’re not all child predators either.”


The right to be targeted for race-specific laws made by the Federal government

When the Australian constitution was written, the Federal government was given the power to make laws targeted at any race except Aborigines. The intention of these laws was to give the Federal government the power to discriminate against Chinese and Pacific Island labour that was undermining union power, and also pass laws that could advantage whites who might be having trouble competing with non-white labour.

Although the Federal government could not make laws targeted at Aborigines, state governments could. They used this power to create laws aimed at protecting Aborigines, but in truth, dehumanised and isolated them. For example, the consorting provisions of the South Australian Police Act were designed to protect Aboriginal women from white "sexual predators", but they were also used to prevent socialising between men. One white Australian man even discovered that he was breaking the law because he gave his Aboriginal mate a trip to work.

Not only were Aborigines victims of these laws, so were whites who wanted to socialise with Aborigines. In all probability, many of the white men who abandoned the children they had with Aboriginal women only did so because they could have been prosecuted for having relationships with Aboriginal women. Even if they weren’t prosecuted, the social stigma created by the laws would have persuaded many men to run away from their relationships.  

Aside from leading to tens of thousands of abandoned children, the extreme nanny laws probably contributed to severe substance abuse problems in many Aboriginal communities today. For Australia’s first 150 years, alcohol abuse was a problem in all sections of Australian society. In fact, the first European settlers in Australia drank more alcohol per head of population than any other community in the history of mankind. Concerned citizens wanted to have alcohol banned outright, but only managed to have laws created that prohibited it being supplied to Aborigines. Mainstream Australia started to get the abuse under control because they could freely drink in the front of the bar where other patrons could help educate them about drinking etiquette or security could protect patrons against those who were being abusive. In other words, by being able to drink openly, they eventually created a culture of drinking responsibly. Unlike it was with mainstream Australia, Aboriginal drinking was pushed underground. Because it was illegal to supply Aborigines with alcohol, they were often sold grog out the back door of the hotel in what became known as the "dog box". They subsequently went to parks where they drank with children, without supervision of security and without the kind of etiquette that developed in pubs.

By the 1960s, it had become quite apparent that state governments were not using the power wisely and that it was problematic having different laws for different states. Consequently, the Federal government proposed a referendum aimed at extending its race power laws to include Aborigines. The aim was not to discriminate against Aborigines, but to discriminate in their favour (as the states believed they had been doing.) The Australian public at large probably didn’t know much about the Federal government's exact intentions or the laws themselves, but equality sounded like a good thing and 90% voted yes.

Not all Aborigines were happy with the result of the referendum either. The chairman of the Northern Land Council, Mr Galarrwuy Yunupingu said:

"The historic 1967 referendum - where Australians voted overwhelmingly to make Aborigines citizens and for federal government powers to legislate on their behalf - had been forced upon the Aboriginal nation.

Aboriginal people have never wanted to be equal with the white people of Australia.

The referendum had been inspired by guilt and had never considered the rights we Aboriginal people really had, or who we really were."

Aboriginal Vote


Citizenship rights

Aborigines on the eastern half of Australia gained the rights of British citizens in 1770 when Captain Cook claimed eastern Australia for Great Britain. They claimed Australian citizenship rights in 1948 when Australian citizenship was created.

Admittedly, Aborigines' status as Australian citizens was restricted by state laws defining them as Aborigines in need of special protection. To claim equal citizenship, Aborigines had to stop being classed as Aborigines. In an absurd case, artist Albert Namatjira was prosecuted for sharing alcohol with his family. Namatjira had taken out full Australian citizenship, which gave him permission to drink alcohol, but because his family had not, he was not allowed to share a drink with them.


Voting rights

When the colonies of Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and NSW framed their constitutions in the 1850s, they gave the vote to all male subjects over the age of 21, Aborigines included. Admittedly, most Aborigines didn’t know about their voting rights and perhaps didn’t care. It wasn’t until the 1890s that any Aborigines actually commenced voting.

When the various colonies federated into one nation in 1901, Aborigines were not given the federal vote; however, they did retain their state voting rights and these state voting rights gave them federal voting rights. Under section 41 of the federal constitution, any person who held a state vote also held a federal vote. Legally, Aborigines in NSW, Tasmania, Victoria, and South Australia have been allowed to vote in all federal elections. Admittedly, most Aborigines didn't know about their federal voting rights and perhaps didn't care. For people living in the bush, there are more interesting issues to think about than Question Time in Canberra.

The Federal government officially gave the Commonwealth vote to all Aborigines in 1962. The states of Queensland and WA gave Aborigines the state vote around the same time.

Acknowledgement of past wrongs

A common t-shirt and bumper sticker found in Australia carries the slogan:

"White Australia has a black history."

Presumably, the t-shirts and stickers aim to raise awareness of the fact that Aborigines have suffered great injustice since 1788, which mainstream Australia just isn't aware of. If so, the campaign designers were quite ignorant to the way history has been taught for decades. In 1993, white historian Geoffrey Blainey coined the phrase "black armband view of history" in reference to the dominant discourses that seemed to be writing about Australian history while wearing a black arm band of mourning, grieving, or shame. In other words, Blainey felt that raising awareness of the negative black history was the dominant discourse in Australian history instruction. In response, a group of academics accused Blainey of wearing a "white blindfold." They didn’t deny they the black arm band was their focus, but they felt it was morally justified.

Just as white historians have been keen to raise awareness of injustice suffered by Aborigines, so have prime ministers. In 1993, white Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech in which he stated:

"It begins, I think, with the act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion."

The speech helped transform Keating’s image from that of a cold economic rationalist to a humanitarian with a social conscious. He subsequently went on to win an election that was thought to be unwinable. In 2007, listeners of ABC radio voted Keating's speech their most memorable by an Australian. Internationally, they ranked it second to Christ's sermon on the mount and above speeches by Winston Churchill and Martin Luther-King.

It is debateable as to whether the whites writing the Aboriginal narrative in victim terms are actually helping Aborigines. All stereotypes, including those of victimisation, have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.  Perhaps this is most clearly felt in the education system where many Aboriginal kids commence schooling with a belief that the teachers will not give them fair treatment. Their belief is only enhanced by Black Armband curriculum content that suggests the Aboriginal students are disliked by "mainstream" Australia. Likewise, trying to forge reconciliation by doing the academic equivalent of tying up a Convict and flogging him in order to impress an Aborigine is not restorative and it definitely doesn’t heal. Finally, few white Australian historians want to see themselves as victims because it is disempowering. As a consequence, most would feel uncomfortable with foreigners highlighting their Convict heritage in order to give them a victim label. Furthermore, they would uncomfortable if the international community used Australia's drug users, drunks, criminals, or battered women to define the Australian stereotype as "disadvantaged" in comparison to Europeans, Americans and Asians. Yet despite not wanting to be bound by a victim history and disadvantaged stereotypes themselves, they feel pride in defining Aborigines with those same disadvantaged stereotypes.

Admittedly, recognising the errors of history is the best way to ensure they are not repeated; however, the white historians don’t recognise the errors of history. Instead of recognising the harm done by nannying policies over the last 100 years, the historians blame problems in Aboriginal communities on some unknown colonists before the 1850s.

White Australia has a Black History

Of course, it isn’t just non-Aborigines promoting the victim narrative.  The narrative is also heavily promoted by the urban Aboriginal academics who are not personally disadvantaged. Perhaps their motivation is to assert an Aboriginal identity. Because these Aborigines are often disconnected from culture and only have a little bit of Aboriginal genetics, they need some kind of victim narrative to stop others questioning their Aboriginal credentials. Alternatively, perhaps it is a way to argue for the need for federal government programs to eliminate disadvantage that they will personally administer. Basically, without an Aboriginal problem to solve, the federal government has no need for an Aboriginal expert opinion. As Indigenous leader Warren Mundine said of some other Indigenous leaders:

"Unfortunately there has now developed a group of Indigenous Australians who claim leadership of our people who wish also to preserve us as museum pieces as well and keep us locked in poverty and socially dysfunctional communities. It keeps them in a job."

As for the actual communities being defined, sometimes a different image is desired. According to George Campbell, Yarralin elder:

"FED up with accusations that they are dysfunctional places riddled with child sex abuse and domestic violence, some remote indigenous communities are fighting back. ‘I'm proud of what we are doing here. Look around — my people are happy and they are doing things that give them pride as well’

Campbell's views tend to be supported by statistics. Despite rural Aborigines being more prone to be defined as 'disadvantaged,' research by the ABS (3) has found that Aborigines in rural areas are more happy with their own lives than are Aborigines in the cities.


Flying the Aboriginal flag

In Aboriginal protest marches in the 1960s and early 1970s, Aborigines were outnumbered by non-Aborigines wanting to show their support. Being outnumbered by whites was a concern to Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas, so in 1971 he designed the Aboriginal flag. Thomas hoped it would be a rallying symbol to get more Aborigines to come along to protest, and also signal Aborigines as a distinct group. The black is said to represent the Aboriginal people, the red the earth and their spiritual relationship to the land, and the yellow the sun, the giver of life. Thomas said he deliberately put black on top of the red to make the flag appear more disturbing and reflect its protest function.

The Aboriginal flag was first raised in Victoria Square in Adelaide on National Aboriginal Day in 1971. It was adopted nationally by Aborigines after it was flown above the Aboriginal tent embassy outside of the old Parliament House in Canberra.

Ironically, many governments and schools now fly the Aboriginal protest flag aside the official flag. A further irony is that many non-Aborigines want to be represented by the flag as well. So much so, they have called for the flag to replace the Union Jack on Australia's official flag. This is unlikely to occur as Harold Thomas has declared his desire for it to remain separate. 

Cultural rights

Some Aborigines have lobbied to have cultural rights in which any dispute between Aborigines is heard in koori courts in accordance with Aboriginal customary law. Some koori courts have been created; however, they only deal with relatively minor issues. Extending the power of the koori courts has been complicated by the fact that while many perpetrators want to go through the koori justice system, many victims want equal rights as Australian citizens, which requires access to the Australian legal system. For example, in 2005 an Australian court heard that a 55-year-old Aboriginal elder anally raped a 14-year-old Aboriginal girl, imprisoned her for four days and repeatedly beat her. The man's actions were perfectly acceptable in his culture and he was surprised at appearing before the courts. As far as he was concerned, the girl had been promised to him at the age of four, but she had dishonoured him by having a boyfriend before their marriage. According to tribal law, the elder was perfectly entitled to educate her in the manner that he did. In fact, if he didn't educate her, he was not fulfilling his duties as an elder. The girl's family had further legitimised the actions of the man. Her grandmother had collected the girl, and taken her to the man so that he could rape and beat her. While the 14-year-old understood the cultural laws, she did not want to be bound by them. Consequently, she reported her rape, beating and imprisonment to the police.

Northern Territory's Chief Justice, Bryan Martin, was keen to show his respect for Aboriginal culture, and only sentenced him to a month in jail. Martin then expressed his sympathy for the Aboriginal man's predicament. By giving such a lenient sentence, Martin denied the girl the right to equal justice as an Australian citizen.

Aboriginal leader Warren Mundine subsequently criticised Martin and stated:

"How would that judge like to be dragged off the bench, bashed and anally raped? The man's a disgrace and the treatment of that girl is a disgrace.

Indigenous Australians are quit civilised and quit capable to distinguish what is Indigenous customary law and what is assault and anal rape of a child. Obviously that judge can't. We're not museum pieces but it seems he is and anyone defending his decision are as well."


Acknowledgment of Aboriginal custodianship of the land

Welcome to Country ceremonies are performed to acknowledge that Aborigines are the traditional owners of the land. They are performed before many political rallies, school assemblies, civic openings, art exhibitions, public service information sessions, weddings, sporting events, and basically any place where people gather. The ceremonies go:

"I would like to respectfully acknowledge the (insert tribe) people who are the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we stand."

The custom was created in 1976 by Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley in 1976 and quickly spread throughout Australia.

Compensation for the stolen generations

From the 1980s to the early naughties, many Aborigines were campaigning for a formal apology and compensation payments to mixed race Aborigines who ended up in Catholic missions from the 1900s to 1970s.

The campaign was started by Professor Peter Reid, a white historian from the University of Sydney, who said his research showed that 100,000 people had been removed from their mother's communities. The stories of the Stolen Generations was told in the official 1997 report : "Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families." The report concurred that 100,000 had been removed, which was about one in three children.

White academic Robert Manne later revised the figure to 30,000, which was one in ten. White journalist Andrew Bolt then challenged Manne to produce the names of 10 people who were removed because of the colour of their skin alone. Manne was unable to provide the names.

In 2008, the white Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the stolen generations, but refused to pay compensation. After delivering the apology, Rudd recorded the highest level of popularity of any prime minister in Australian history.

For numerous reasons, paying compensation was impractical for the Federal government. From a legal perspective, the Federal government wasn't liable because it had been constitutionally forbidden to make laws targeted at Aborigines until 1967. If Aborigines had ended up in Catholic missions due to the colour of their skin, it was not due to Federal government policy. State governments had the power to remove Aborigines but this legal fact was ignored in media campaigns. Perhaps this was because most activists and politicians felt that in order to be a unifying campaign, it needed to be one campaign not a state-by-state campaign. That meant targeting the Federal government despite recognising the Federal government was not legally responsible.

Another problem with paying compensation was that the stories of removal would have had to be checked and public servants would need to be named and shamed. The potential problems of such checking was apparent when journalists took it upon themselves to check the history of some of the activists who said they had been stolen (something the Bringing them Home Report had failed to do.) In one case, a journalist revealed that Lowitja O'Donoghue, the former head of the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Commission, had not been stolen as she had previously claimed. In reality, her white father had placed her and her sisters in a Catholic boarding school, and paid for their upkeep. The publication of the story eroded the credibility of an Aboriginal icon. Furthermore, if O'Donoghue had not known the truth, the revelation undermined her identity and relationship to her family. Potentially, the deflating experience suffered by O'Donoghue would have been suffered by thousands of others who believed they had been stolen from loving mothers when perhaps the truth was they had been abandoned by parents who didn't care.

Shamming public servants had also been divisive. In the movie Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), Reverend Neville had been shamed as a racist, but his own descendants found the accusation to be defamatory and inconsistent with how he was thought of by the Aborigines he associated with.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was smart enough to realise that just saying sorry would give him an electoral bounce while allowing him to avoid all the divisive issues that the campaign would open if investigated more deeply.

Even though the federal government ruled out paying compensation, Aborigines were still able to access the courts to have their cases individually checked if they so desired. In 2000, legal action was initiated by Lorna Cubillo, 62, and Peter Gunner, 53 - both of whom had been removed as children in the Northern Territory (administered by the Federal government). Both Ms Cubillo and Mr Gunner wept as they testified about the way they were stolen from their mother's communities, and subsequently suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of missionaries.

Official records did not support their claims that the government had used skin colour to decide that they should be taken. The official records showed Lorna Cubillo was taken from her grandmother's care in 1940 and placed with the Aboriginal community in the Ration Depot at Seven Mile Creek. The community was moved to Six Mile Creek in 1942 and to the Phillip Creek Settlement in 1945. In 1947 she was taken from Phillip Creek to the Retta Dixon home in Darwin. She stayed at Retta Dixon until her 18th birthday in 1956. Peter Gunner was born on the 19th of September 1948 on Utopia Cattle Station. He was committed by the Director of Welfare, Harry Giese, to St Mary's Hostel in Alice Springs on the 24th May 1956. In a deflating revelation for Mr Gunner, the government was able to show that the committal was only approved after receiving the consent of his mother.

On August 11 2000, Justice Maurice O'Loughlin dismissed the federal government's liability on the grounds that there had been a failure to prove that the Commonwealth authorities had ignored the children’s best interests by removing them from their families.


To be mentioned in the Australian constitution

In 2012, a panel of Aborigines, appointed by the Federal government, delivered the Federal government a report outlining plans to change the Australian constitution to specifically mention Aborigines. The panel claimed to have consulted widely in Aboriginal communities and found that they wanted to prohibit the commonwealth, states or territories from creating laws that discriminated on the grounds of race, colour, ethnic or national origin. However, the panel added that this did not preclude the making of laws or measures for the purpose of "overcoming disadvantage, ameliorating the effects of past discrimination, or protecting the cultures, languages or heritage of any group".

The two statements were contradictory and perhaps reflected the mixed feelings that the Aboriginal panel had in regards to Federal government power. On one hand, they recognised that previous empowerment programs had harmed Aborigines with their nannying policies. However, perhaps they also looked at the annual expenditure of $3.5 billion on Aborigines and imagined what they could do if they were able to administer or guide the programs themselves. Perhaps they also realised that if the Federal government did not have power to specifically target Aborigines, then it would be pointless for Federal politicians to speak to Aboriginal leaders in the future, or even create panels of Aboriginal leaders. Perhaps the panel realised that the Fedral government wanted it to deliver certain findings and if it didn't, the government would assemble another panel of Aboriginal leaders that would give the findings that the government wanted.

While the panel proposed altering the constitution, it didn't propose changing the current powers of the Federal government. Specifically, the Federal government presently has a racial discrimination act that makes racism illegal, but still has powers to make laws for all racial groups. Race-specific laws are deemed to be necessary to overcome disadvantage and are therefore are interpreted to be progressive, not racist. Because the panel's findings didn't propose striping the Federal government of power, its recommendations could be seen as a largely symbolic gesture. For this reason, it could be argued that the referendum was proposed by Prime Minister Gillard to boost her electoral prospects. Gillard was well aware that any prime minister that champion a symbolic gesture that shows support for Aborigines will receive an electoral bounce. Floudering in the polls, Gillard's office knew the race card was her best hope of surviving. Inciting a race riot against the opposition and then coming in with a referendum to "heal" was part of a strategy to win votes.

To express their own voice

Many of the Aboriginal protesters at Canberra's tent embassy refuse to talk to government. They are not on any hand-picked advisory panels, they do not write reports in return for funding, and they do not receive awards on Australian Day and proceed to give a speech supporting government policy. In many ways, they are the closest thing there is to an authentic Aboriginal voice in Canberra. Unfortunately, refusing to accept money and honours by government has not been enough to prevent whites from trying to manipulate their thinking and expressions. The 2012 riot sparked by the office of the Prime Minister was simply a long line of examples of whites proposing to be the Aborigines' best friends, when really they were just trying to exploit widespread goodwill towards Aborigines for their own advantage.

Aborigines have been well and truly shafted over the last two centuries, but the perpetrators haven’t been the working class whites that occupy an outback pub, they have been two-faced politicians, academics, journalists, justices and public servants pretending to be their friends.


Tent embassy protesters express their voice

Questions to think about

How would politicians feel about being subjected to the policies that politicians have imposed on Aborigines?

Over the last century, politicians have developed numerous strategies to counter problem drinking in Aboriginal communities. Meanwhile, binge drinking has been rife in Parliament House. For example, Australia’s first prime minister, Edmond Barton, was known as Toby Tosspot" due to his fondness for a drink. Another Prime Minister John Gorton, inspired the euphemism "Gorton's Flu" in reference to a hang over. Still another, Bob Hawke, held an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for sculling 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds. Aside from the leaders, countless politicians have been renowned for their long lunches, and their use of grog to pass the time. More recently, it was alleged that Peter Slipper, the former Speaker of the House (deemed to be the most moral position in parliament), got drunk and urinated out a window, frequently passed out in Parliament House from drinking red wine, and was thrown out of a bar for being drunk and obnoxious.

Would the following strategies would be effective in countering problem drinking amongst politicians

  • Quarantining the expense accounts of MPs so that they can't be used to purchase grog.
  • Quarantining the salaries of MPs so that they can't be used to purchase grog.
  • A complete ban on the "rivers of grog" that flow into Parliament House.
  • Prosecution of any liquor licence owner that supplies grog to politicians.
  • A tax on alcohol supplied to Parliament House.
  • Creating a Problem Drinker Register amongst MPs and banning the supply of alcohol to these MPs.
  • Helping politicians by running a media campaign in Australia's major newspapers that "raises awareness" of MPs struggling with alcohol addiction.
  • Running an education campaign targeted at MPs that raises awareness about the dangers of alcohol.
  • Printing pamphlets for MPs, which have the slogan, "Say No to grog."
Would any of the following outcomes be expected to flow from the policies designed to help the politicians
  • Quarantining the salaries of politicians forces them to get grog in underhand ways, such as exchanging a "favour" for it.
  • Grog is smuggled into Parliament House to avoid the ban. In the process, politicians lose respect for the law and start subverting other rules.
  • A politician goes out to dinner with lobbyists or friends. He or she is then refused entry to a restaurant or bar because the licence owner can't serve grog to politicians. The others go in and enjoy a drink. The pissed off politician wanders the streets.
  • The politician named on the problem drinkers register struggles to get a promotion and with self-esteem as people talk about his or her problem.
  • The media campaign that raises awareness of alcoholism amongst politicians stereotypes all politicians as drunks. The stereotype over shadows any of the positive achievements of politicians.
  • The pamphlets that encourage politicians to say No to grog make a government department some money but are thrown straight in the bin. The politicians find that they are a bit insulting to their intelligence.


What is Aboriginal “disadvantage” ?

According to Posselt (2000)

“Measuring socio-economic disadvantage is not a straightforward exercise because disadvantage is a relative concept which involves value.” Posselt, H (2000) Socio-economic disadvantage across urban, rural and remote areas. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from

  1. Create your own definition of disadvantage
  2. Create your own definition of advantaged
  3. In your opinion, what is the advantaged model that Aborigines should aspire to be like?
  4. Are you personally advantaged or disadvantaged? Why?

Look at the pictures below. They were taken in Darwin in 1981 and show Aborigines and non-Aborigines drinking on the opporsite side of the street.

Photos: Alex Webb Darwin 1981

  1. Are there any racists in the pictures?
  2. Who is disadvantaged and who is advantaged? Explain your reasoning
  3. Comment on the respective choices of alcohol that appear to be drunk
  4. Are you bothered by race being an obvious pattern in the cultures of drinking?


Aboriginal representation in crime statistics


"Statistically, Australian Aborigines comprise just two percent of the population but make up 12 percent of the homeless, and 19 percent of the prison population. Aboriginal children comprise 40 percent of all children in corrective institutions.

The high rate of criminalisation may be attributed to a number of factors. One factor is family breakdown caused by past state laws that resulted in non-Aboriginal men abandoning the children they had with Aboriginal women out of fear of prosecution or the social stigma of being labelled a sexual predator. Without strong male role models in their lives, many children ran wild and themselves failed to learn how a parent should act. The legacy of the past was then passed onto their own children, who today don't know how a parent should act. A second factor is social problems associated with alcohol abuse that are a legacy of laws forcing Aborigines to drink illegally. Alcoholism used to be a problem in almost every section of Australian society, but by being allowed to drink it legally, non-Aborigines were able to develop customs that encouraged responsible drinking. Aboriginal drinking was forced underground and the customs that developed did not encourage responsible drinking. A third factor is a legacy of the dehumanising laws that were broken in the name of equality. In the process of breaking the laws targeted at Aborigines, respect for all laws may also have been eroded. For example, by breaking the law to buy alcohol, Aborigines became exposed to the world of criminality, which might have made buying pot, heroin or other drugs less significant than it would for non-Aborigines who didn’t have to break the law to have a drink. A fourth factor is a lack of respect for non-Aboriginal society, which has perhaps been sustained as a result of Aborigines constantly being told they are victims of white society, which may make it difficult for some Aborigines to have any respect for white society. Ironically, by whites constantly weaving stereotypes that Aborigines are victims of whites, they are ensuring that the stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies. "


The Aboriginal Industry

Annually, the federal government spends up to $3,5 billion on programs to alleviate Aboriginal disadvantage. It also likes to use Australia Day ceremonies to give awards to people who have been part of the funded programs.

Many of the programs seem devoid of accountability. For example, in 2005, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs spent $327,784 to administer funding of just $34,318. Likewise, in 2005, the NSW parliament heard allegations that The Hillsong Church had exploited black groups to gain federal funds. It was alleged that the Hillsong church 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.

  1. In your opinion, why is there so little accountability in regards to how money is spent?
  2. In your opinion, why has so much money failed to alleviate disadvantage?
  3. In your opinion, why would governments fund organisations to help Aborigines rather than fund Aborigines directly?



1)Binnie, Kerrin (2010) Rocks, leaves on Indigenous learning agenda

2)Hughes, P., A More, A. J Williams, M (2004). Aboriginal Ways of Learning. Adelaide.

3)Robinson, N (2010, September 30). Indigenous urban dwellers better off but not happier The Australian Accessed 2010

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