On 26 January, 1788 the British Crown contravened its own law – and prevailing international law– by laying claim to 7.692 million km² of land that was already inhabited and cared for by over 200 First Nations, each with a sophisticated and ecologically-focussed system of governance. And the trespass continues.
The effects of this trespass (and theft) have been hugely profitable for the Australian government, and utterly devastating for the First Nations people of this land. From that date forward we have been subjected to murders, massacres, mass poisonings, sexual violence, child removal, erasure of rights, decimation of language, identity and the means to collectivise and assert sovereignty. It is little wonder that there remains so much hurt among First Nations people.
January 26 is a symbol of this malevolent history, but despite the sheer absurdity of celebrating a nation on a date that represents the commencement of the brutality, the date itself is not the issue. The issue is that we continue to vehemently cling to this narrative of Australia being a ‘fair go’ society, underpinned by values of equality. This is simply not true whilst we continue denying that First Nations people suffer as a result of the colonising force that keeps subjugating and disenfranchising.
We face arguments about “if not the British then who would you prefer” or “without the British, what would you have.” These are facetious questions and do nothing to advance the conversation. The fact is – we are all here on this beautiful land and we all call it home – but we can all contribute to a future we can be proud of that is not shrouded in guilt, shame or denial by taking action to address the wrongs that First Nations people faced historically and continue to experience.
We have the highest rates of First Nations incarceration since the South African apartheid; deaths in custody are at the same level that prompted the 1991 Royal Commission; our children are still being removed from their families; our children are being tortured in custody; our children are committing suicide at epidemic rates; and community empowerment has given way to a policy of individual wealth accumulation under successive government Indigenous Affairs policies.
We represent less than 3 percent of the population but receive 0.005% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) for programs that are not affected with any First Nations community input or apparent benefit. In fact, the funds apparently earmarked for the First Nations community go to government consultants and report writers who inform policy but routinely fail to engage with communities – talk about a kick in the teeth.
Indigenous policy is paternalistic and further disempowers communities and individuals within communities and, if we are to believe unification rhetoric, this needs to change. Now.
The Australian economy has enjoyed a steady increase in value over the last 230 years, due in large part to the outright theft of lands from First Nations people. The initial thefts which manifested in penal colonies, quickly developed into the theft of our resources such as timber, then burgeoned into livestock and pastoral empires. The economy then expanded to include mineral mining and manufacturing, while all along the way the effects were felt not only by the Indigenous people, but the environment.
Only the slightest portion of the stolen lands have ever been ‘returned’ to traditional owners, and almost all of that land is vulnerable to having native title extinguished, either through mining or 99-years lease provisions. And where water or electricity can be turned off, our communities remain vulnerable to governmental whim.
Despite this grand theft and 230 years of cruel and inhuman treatment – firstly by the Crown, followed by the Australian commonwealth – First Nations people are not hateful and angry people. We are loving, community-oriented and generous. Radical right-wing media platforms would like you to believe otherwise but they are wrong. We do want to de-colonise minds and have people think differently though. This means with more empathy and less valuation based on race, culture and religion. We would like to move forward as a country as much as non-Indigenous Australians do. This cannot, however, be achieved until First Nations people are properly listened to.
First Nations people want the rights and means to self-determine and maintain our culture on country. There needs to be greater understanding of what has been taken from us, and genuine efforts to return land to our communities so we can self-govern and attain self-sufficiency.
We have the opportunity to create a new national narrative together, and there will be nothing more empowering and unifying for the whole community than seeing First Nations people flourish and share their wealth of knowledge and culture with all. Australia is a beautiful country with much potential – it’s time we live up to that potential and become a mature country with our eyes wide open.
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