This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday December 23 2012
In the Australian Federal Parliament on 13 February 2008, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an official apology to the Stolen Generations. From 1909 to 1969, it was the official policy of the Australian Government to remove Indigenous children from their families. 100,000 children were taken from their families. The policy was similar to Nazi eugenics in that it was designed to “breed out” Indigenous people. Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were removed from their families on genuine welfare grounds, and some benefited from greater opportunities.
However, stolen children were more likely to suffer from depression, have worse health and a shorter life span than other Indigenous people, and are more likely to be imprisoned than other Indigenous people. 50 percent of deaths investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were of Indigenous people who were removed from their families as children.
Rock Art and other historical sites show that the first Australians have the oldest surviving culture on the planet, with people living on the mainland over 60,000 years ago and on the Torres Strait Islands for more than 10,000 years.
Indigenous Australia was not one nation, but up to 400 aboriginal nations, speaking about 250 languages. The indigenous population could have been up to a million people. According to the 2011 census, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population on census night was 548,370. This was an increase of 20.5 percent on the 2006 census.
When Anthony Trollope visited Australia, he noted: “There has been some rough work…We have taken away their land, have destroyed their food, made them subject to our laws, which are antagonistic to their habits and traditions, have endeavoured to make them subject to our tastes, which they hate, have massacred them when they defended themselves and their possessions after their own fashion, and have taught them by hard warfare to acknowledge us to be their master”.
By 1911, 123 years after settlement, the “rough work” had reduced the Aboriginal population to 31,000. Colin Tatz examines the question of whether the treatment of Australia’s indigenous people constitutes genocide. Professor Noel Butlin, an eminent economic historian, concluded that the single most effective killer of Aborigines was smallpox. While the origins of “the main killer” are obscure, “it is possible and, in 1789, likely that infection of the Aborigines was a deliberate exterminating act”.
Stephen Kunitz argues that the 25 percent decline in the Queensland population was caused by “the savagery of the settlers and their calculated slaughter of the indigenous population”. Kenneth Minogue believes that accusations of genocide made by Raimond Gaita and Robert Manne are extreme and offensive, “exploiting … a prefabricated emotional charge” but Minogue himself admits “Aborigines were raped, killed, dispossessed and so on”.
The first white settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1803, and by 1806, the serious killing had begun. In 1824, settlers were authorised to shoot Aborigines, who were regarded as vermin. Aboriginal children were abducted for use in forced labour, women were raped and tortured and given poisoned flour, and the men were shot. White settlers killed some 10,000 blacks in Queensland between 1824 and 1908.
Although the 2011 census shows an increase in the indigenous population, all is not well today.
In 2007, the Howard Government announced a national emergency response to child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory (NT). New welfare laws involved an Income Management Regime replacing 50 percent of welfare payments with cards that could only be spent on food and clothing, and only at specified major retailers. The rules applied, not just to negligent parents, but to all the Aboriginal people living in particular communities.
Indigenous Australians continue to be disadvantaged in employment, education, housing law, justice and health. Indigenous people experienced poverty when they were moved off their traditional lands, cut off from their traditional lifestyles, also denied equal wages. This has led to poor health over the generations. Indigenous people also experienced racism from doctors, with some doctors and hospitals refusing to treat Indigenous people. 45 percent of Indigenous males and 34 percent of Indigenous females die before the age of 45. The corresponding proportion for non-Indigenous males and females is 10 percent and 6 percent.
From 2001 to 2007, ‘practical reconciliation’ was the official policy of the Howard Government. The government purported to focus on practical things that improved the living standards of Indigenous people. This did not lead to many practical improvements. More funding was given to ‘mainstream’ agencies rather services run by Indigenous people.
‘Rights-based reconciliation’ means recognising that problems will be solved more quickly and for the long term if Indigenous people are supported to manage the issues themselves. This is the principle of ’self-determination’ which is recognised in the International Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It also means respecting the special rights that Indigenous people have as the original custodians of Australia, such as the right to own and manage their traditional lands.