Aboriginal Australia

By (Guest Contributor) Pink Panther

Recently Pope Francis caused a stir when he described the mass killing of Armenians by the Turks in 1915 as the first genocide of the 20th Century. In the context of the anniversary of World War 1, this was timely and not entirely wrong. Genocide had occurred. His fault was in labelling it as the first of the 20th Century. Namibians attempted a correction by referring to the Herero and Namaqua Genocide of 1904 and 1905 as the first of that century. They were wrong too. The first genocide was already under way in Australia when the 20th Century began.

From the moment white settlers landed in Australia the indigenous people were ruthlessly driven off their land and hunted down like animals. The last Aboriginal hunt was in 1910 in Tasmania. By then up to 90% of some tribes had been wiped out by introduced diseases, particularly smallpox. An indication of how swift the population decline was, is revealed by the fact approximately 314,000 Aborigines lived in Australia about the time Cook landed in Botany Bay (though some estimates put the figure between 500,000 and 700,000 people) but only 74,000 were alive by 1933.

When Australia became a Dominion in 1901 Aborigines were meant to be Australians with full rights in theory but in reality they were denied the basic rights enjoyed by others. An indication of how much they had been cut out of mainstream society is the fact it wasn’t until 1967 that Aborigines were included in the Australian census!

Aborigines were mostly confined to reservations located in remote places where the land could not be developed, such as desert areas. They faced widespread discrimination in housing, jobs and access to basic services including education and health care. They were denied access to social welfare assistance. Their children could be seized with little or no justification and placed in homes where physical and sexual abuse were common in what became known as the Stolen Generations.

It wasn’t until 1962 that they were granted the right to vote in federal elections. Reformists with a vote fetish would do well to notice that this did not noticeably improve their situation. Even to this day they are subjected to widespread police brutality, high imprisonment and discrimination in jobs and housing, as documented by various Amnesty International and United Nations reports. Growing awareness of the ill-treatment through documentaries made by groups like the Freedom Riders and the growing rural to urban drift of Aborigines, led to greater awareness of the treatment of first nation people among other Australians as the 60’s progressed. It also fed the growth of protest movements including the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy outside Parliament from 1972. Deaths in police custody, endemic levels of discrimination in every aspect of their lives and socio-economic deprivation, still continues in the day to day lives of most Aborigines. An indication of this is that as late as 2005 the Financial Times World Reference Guide stated that their life expectancy was twenty years below that of other residents of the continent.

Only for a very brief period of time were first nation people offered any compensation, land or apologies for their terrible suffering. In 1992 the Mabo Judgment ruled that Aborigines had the right to land. In 1999 a Motion of Reconciliation, amounting to a hollow word fest, was passed by Parliament to supposedly recognise the injustices against Aborigines. Despite such minimal nods in the direction of improving conditions, other actions such as the 2007 invasion of communities in the Northern Territory, only reinforced the long standing strong armed approach of the Australian state. In 2008 Kevin Rudd ‘apologised’ to the Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations, though simultaneously it was made clear no compensation would be paid to them. The current government under Tony Abbott has continued the bi-partisan policy of closing down numerous communities under flimsy pretexts. In addition they have started whitewashing school history textbooks to rid them of what he calls “left wing bias”. That has included downplaying or ignoring the appalling treatment of the indigenous people last century.

Traditionally, Australia Day has been the day to protest against injustices. However, the “back to the future” attitude of the government has triggered a current wave of
protests throughout Australia. On May 1st for example, 10,000 marched in Melbourne, and thousands of others did likewise in Perth, Sydney and Hobart. Rallies of solidarity were held in Auckland, Britain, USA and elsewhere internationally.

The actions of the Australian state are not acceptable and many Australians realise this. Conservatives in Australia and elsewhere can latch onto the comments of people like Francis and claim the Armenian Genocide of 1915 was the first in the 20th Century. However that dubious honour belongs to what happened to the Aborigines – and the Abbott government chooses to whitewash this despite thousands of protesters throwing light on the fact. These protests must continue and be extended for as long as it takes to bring universal recognition of historical truths and the restoration of the material and cultural dignity of the indigenous people of Australia.