By Susmita Abani:
On Friday April 10, organised marches of thousands gathered in central Sydney and Melbourne triggered by a few deeply offensive words spoken by our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. Words that resurrected the ghosts of European invasion. Most people would prefer to forget the colonial past. The racist grounds on which nations like Australia were established are simply distant occurrences, topics discussed only by those craving intellectual fodder. Today, indigenous communities such as the Red Indians of America, native South Africans and Aboriginals of Australia are acknowledged primarily through token gestures in media and politics – but the enduring effects of apartheid, dishonour and bloodshed suffered by them are seldom remembered.
Late last year, the Western Australian state government had voiced intentions to close over 100 remote Indigenous Australian communities within the next three years, on the grounds that the current costs of providing essential services such as water and electricity to distant localities are unsustainable. PM Tony Abbott supported this move by stating that the government “can’t…endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”, a poor selection of words that have attracted controversy. Despite his claims of being passionate about Indigenous affairs, this is not our PM’s first display of tactlessness, having previously suggested that Australia was unsettled before benefitting from British colonisation.
To understand the indigenous debate, it’s important to revisit the days when Aboriginal people were the sole custodians of Australia’s vast land. Between 1606 and 1770, a number of European charters sailed to the eastern coast of Australia. Despite observing the clear presence of Indigenous people on their journeys, the nation was declared as “terra nullius”, or no-one’s land. In 1788 the first fleet reached Australia under the captaincy of Arthur Phillip, and a penal colony was established: one primarily comprised of convicts, marines and their families. Initially, relations between Aboriginals and the newcomers were friendly. But as some Aboriginal people grew increasingly wary of the Europeans and their apparent hijack of Aboriginal society, they began to revolt.
The Aboriginals were nomadic people, migrating in tandem with seasons. Their lifestyle allowed greater room for leisure – cultivating a culture rich in ritual traditions, languages, music and dance. Their spirituality was intimately connected to the land and animals, telling stories of sacred ancestors who shaped its expanding plains into twisting rivers and undulating mountains. Prior to European settlement, there were over 750,000 Aboriginal people inhabiting Australia. The arrival of the Europeans eventually led to the elimination of 90% of the Indigenous population, through both armed combats and the introduction of foreign diseases. Efforts to “civilise” Aborigines soon heightened in the late 19th century, where a stolen generation of half-caste Aboriginal children were snatched from their homes to be educated in European institutions and foster care. A number of powerful films and documentaries, such as The Rabbit Proof Fence, The Tracker, and Utopia offer insights into these historical injustices, and how they continue to impact the present state of affairs.
The matter is thus immensely complicated. When one combines several hundred years of emotional and cultural erosion of a community with economics and politics, the debate becomes uneven. I am not denying that the service of remote towns is expensive, and the greater benefit to all Australians should be prioritised above the sensitivities of a minority group. But some sensitivities transcend practicality, and the debt of robbing an entire society of their homeland will take decades to repay.
The wounds of Aboriginal suffering run deep. To them, the destabilisation and uprooting of their very essence and identity is a recurring phenomenon that’s permanently replaced their early ways. To simply dismiss their homes as an inconvenient lifestyle choice is therefore insensitive, and a careful consultative approach is necessary when resolving the economical issue. It is inherently prejudiced to assume that the city-based, working lifestyle naturally adopted by Western civilisation will attract every community equally. People like our PM often forget the impacts a mere adjustment of language can have in a conversation. Every conflict has an origin, a context, that cannot be ignored – and the fact that Australia once belonged to the Aboriginal people must never be forgotten.