Australian likes to see itself as the Lucky Country, the land of the fair go, home of the ‘Aussie battler’. We like stories of underdog battling against the odds, even if they don’t always overcome them – Ned Kelly, ANZACs at Gallipoli, the Australian farmer, convicts, bushrangers – these are our national heroes.
These are how many Australians still like to view themselves, even though most Australians today have never farmed the land or even ridden a horse, have never fought in a war (thankfully!), were not sent to Australia in chains, and have never even worn a trashcan on our heads while having a shootout with police.
Last week a number of major national and international media outlets were outraged at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) for “re-writing history.” Although this claim was completely unfounded, it did spark a much-needed dialogue about the true identity of Australia.
Page 2 of the October 1952 edition of Dawn, a ‘Magazine for the Aboriginal People of NSW’ published by the Aboriginal Welfare Board. Through the 40s and 50s many Aboriginal girls were forcibly removed from their family’s and interned as wards of the state at the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Training Home
Incredibly, the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families continues to this day.
The recent shenanigans around the use of ‘invasion’ instead of ‘settlement’ was annoying on so many levels. Not least of which was the stark reminder of how many Australians just require an inciting ‘green light’ from media to let loose a tirade of hatred and ignorance aimed at Aboriginal people.
It can happen at the drop of a hat, over the most insignificant of events. Even a years old document stating things that have been around for decades can set it off. Never mind that it is not an enforceable document demanding students think and talk in a certain way. Never mind Captain Cook, who wasn’t even mentioned in the document in question, was not the first white person to come to Australia. Never mind that the Australian national ethos can proudly embrace historical criminals who opposed government in the form of bushrangers, but feels threatened by the acknowledgement of Aboriginal resistance fighters. Never mind that the edicts from England which spoke of peaceful negotiations, purchasing land and forming treaties were completely ignored in favour of the myth of Terra Nullius, or that the infamous posters pictorially claiming that both white people and Aboriginal people alike would be hung for killing each other was completely ignored (the only white people to be hanged for killing Aboriginal people was after the Myall Creek Massacre, the only massacre that has entered mainstream Australian consciousness, not because of the horrific nature of the massacre itself, but because of the fact that white people were punished for it). Never mind any of that, because as amateur historian Kyle Sandilands said, “get over it, it’s 200 years ago.”
That slogan is decades old, and it’s meaning hints at white Australia’s long standing reluctance to meaningfully acknowledge Aboriginal people and perspectives in the telling of our national history. Earlier this year a person wearing a shirt with this slogan on it was forced to turn it inside out before being allowed to enter Parliament House. Apparently this seemingly obvious concept is still perceived as threatening to the white Australian ideal of this land being ‘settled in peace and not war’.
Earlier this week, our most recent former PM went to great lengths to rewrite his own history in an article for Quadrant, and although he didn’t mention the words ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ whatsoever in his article, he did manage to include the line that ““Unlike France or Britain, we lack a colonial past to complicate the present,” – this was just the latest in a long line of similar comments from Abbott in denying the existence of Aboriginal people (“Nothing but bush”) and the realities of invasion (“a form of foreign investment”).
Ever since Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, this week has been one of the bigger weeks in media and Government for discussion of Indigenous issues. Each year we hear updates on the Government’s Closing the Gap initiative, as well as the Close the Gap report. We hear discussions and reflections on the Apology, at the time called ‘The First Step’ in addressing our past and creating pathways to a better future.
One topic which is notably underrepresented during this increased focus on Indigenous issues is perhaps the most relevant to what the Apology was about, and that is the overwhelming number of Indigenous children who continue to be removed from their families. The rate of which is today higher than at any point in Australia’s history.