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Indigenous disadvantage tells us much about our history

Long title: What do major issues that impact on Aboriginal people in contemporary Australian society tell us about our history?

It is difficult to isolate any of these issues. Each issue weaves into another: identity; health; housing; education; self-determination; recognition of sovereignty; gender issues; custodial issues and racism can all be connected. For example, discussions on identity can be traced to forced removal (through pastoral expansion or the policy of assimilation) which in turn can be traced to racism. Discussions on health lead to housing, which can also be traced to racism. Black deaths in custody is one of the major concerns in custodial issues, again, racism is a key element. Land rights are an issue linked to self-determination and recognition of sovereignty. Denial of these is also racist.

It is evident that the first European colonisers in Australia declared their belief in white supremacy, and this declaration is unchanged by the majority of white Australians today (1). Over the last two hundred years this attitude has been lodged into our history.

To many Aborigines their identity has been shrouded due to the forced removal from their lands, or the forced removal from their families. This alienation from the land disrupted ceremonial life and eroded Aboriginal identity.

Children were removed from their families as governments pursued a policy of assimilation, cast in the hope that Aboriginal children would assimilate into European culture. However, these children – now as adults – remain unsure about their own identity though wanting to return to their Aboriginal families.

Aboriginal people suffer from many disadvantages in our society, and the most damning indicator of the disadvantages is their rate of illness and shorter life expectancy. Statistics provide the evidence: The mortality rate of Aboriginal babies is three times that of other Australian babies; Aboriginal mothers are up to five times more likely to die during childbirth; and life expectancy is up to 12 years less than other Australians.

Poor health correlates with poor housing, and the living conditions of many Aborigines reflects their status in Australian society and their low-income potential (2). Their resultant segregation provides limited access to facilities such as sewerage, rubbish removal, or clean water. The health and housing conditions of Aborigines are a result of their marginalisation in society.

Elements of racism are also accountable for the low education standards attained by Aboriginal people (3). Statistically, it could be argued that Aborigines do not consider education to be important (4). The statistics summarise that their achievements in literacy and numeracy are substantially below average levels, as is their participation rates in compulsory schooling. The argument for the racist element, however, is stronger. It is questionable whether the education system is catering for the needs of Aboriginal people. The education system inhibits Aboriginal learning styles with Aboriginal values being replaced with our own values, and our way of understanding and doing things. This in itself assumes that our culture is superior and Aboriginal children are conditioned into accepting the culture of the dominant white society.

The rights to maintain self-determination have been denied to the Aboriginal people since white colonisation; itself an act of discrimination that places Aborigines in a subordinate position in Australia today (5). The denial of self-determination, which is a denial of a people to identify with their own history and the perpetuation of their culture bears a strong connection to the reasons behind a lack of identity.

The attitudes of discrimination rife in Australian society have left their scars on the matriarchs of the Aboriginal people: Women are also victims of chauvinism as well as being placed in the lowest status positions (6). This contributes to a lack of awareness of how dispossession, racist practices, incarceration and violence have fragmented their position in society (7).

The statistics on custodial issues reveal further imbalances: Young indigenous people are eighteen times more likely to be held in detention than other Australian youths (8). The imprisonment rate of Aborigines is the highest in the world, leading to a conclusion that Indigenous people face discrimination within the legal system.

More telling however, is that over-representation is shadowed by a more disturbing statistic in the issue: Aborigines are dying in custody. No suitable reason can be found to explain the deaths. It is at the grass roots level that prevention should be focused. In the 1980s, 67% of Aborigines taken into custody were jailed as a result of alcohol-related detentions (9). The Commissioner of the inquiry into Black Deaths in Custody reported the abolition of the offence of drunkenness should reduce our prison populations without threat to public safety. This advice has been all but ignored.

But the issue still needs further examination. Forty-three per cent of Aborigines who died in custody had, as children, been forcibly removed from their families under the policy of assimilation, and only 1% had finished their formal schooling (10). It is relevant to ask: Is Australia’s past treatment of Aborigines central to their current rates of arrest and imprisonment? (11)

All Aboriginal people suffer in every aspect of their lives from racism. The denial of self-determination is racist (12). Racism is evident in the education system, the legal system and the political structures of Australian society (13). It exists at the legislative and bureaucratic levels and weaves down into public opinion. Aboriginal people have had to contend with the European attitude of white supremacy. These issues are all bound together with racism (14).

These major issues indicate that a history of racist views and policies began in Australia in 1788 and still manifests society today. History books account of the struggles of Europeans to claim this continent as their own, whereas a curtain of silence has shielded generations of students from recognising how European expansion swept away the land rights of the original inhabitants.

In the advancing colonisation the Aboriginal people were conveniently treated as part of the country’s past. ‘History,’ proclaimed an old university lecturer of mine, ‘treated Aboriginal people as little more than impediments standing briefly in the way of inevitable white progress across the nation’ (15).

So I ask, what do major issues that impact on Aboriginal people in contemporary Australian society tell us about our history? And do they, perhaps, explain the strong showing the No vote (for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament) is gathering?


(1) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(2) Tarrago, I. (1992), ‘Aboriginal families’ in National family summit report, Batchler-Wheeler Associates for Capital Reporting, Parliament House, Canberra, pp 63-71.

(3) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(4) Tarrago, I. (1992), ‘Aboriginal families’ in National family summit report, Batchler-Wheeler Associates for Capital Reporting, Parliament House, Canberra, pp 63-71.

(5) Bird, G; Martin, G; and Nielsen, J.(1996), editors Majah: indigenous peoples and the law, The Federation Press, NSW.

(6) O’Shane, P. (1993), ‘Aboriginal women and the women’s movement’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(7) Miller, L. (1993), ‘The women’s movement and Aboriginal women’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(8) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(9) Lippmann, L. (1994), Generations of resistance, 3rd edition, Longman Australia, Melbourne.

(10) The Path to Reconciliation (1997), Commonwealth of Australia booklet, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

(11) O’Shane, P. (1993), ‘Aboriginal women and the women’s movement’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(12) Bird, G; Martin, G; and Nielsen, J.(1996), editors Majah: indigenous peoples and the law, The Federation Press, NSW.

(13) O’Shane, P. (1993), ‘Aboriginal women and the women’s movement’ in Refracting voices, feminist perspectives, Southward Press, NSW.

(14) McGrath, A. (1993), Women and state, LaTrobe University Press, Bundoora.

(15) Edwards, W.H. (1988), An introduction to Aboriginal societies, Social Science Press, Wentworth Falls, NSW.


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  1. Andrew Smith

    Good overview, concern one has is the ‘No’ campaign playing it hard vs. ‘Yes’ playing it ethically (Crosby says negatives move ppl, positives don’t), while the former can rely upon (too) many older voters, including post WWII immigrants, who may not appreciate the history of indigenous, but have been conditioned by our RW nativist media; while the Fed/QLD LNP opposition are also using it as electoral campaign, just to muddy the water more and run a Brexit &/or Trump like rage (John Howard!?).

    On the other hand, not sure how confident the No campaign is when using more, let’s say career PR indigenous in the foreground and friendly media platforms, but all could be deemed a little hypocritical.

    The other is clear evidence of social media campaigns from months ago by the No campaign including bots, trolls, astroturfing etc.; highlighted by ACTU’s McManus, but not aware of the Yes campaign trying to analyse, rebut and counter, e.g. a Vatnik Soup type database used to identify pro Russian ‘tankies’ based on their Twitter accounts and educating on social media manipulation (very useful tool developed by Finnish researcher Pekka Kallioniemi). (lists &/or cites a few Australians)

    Finally, can’t speak for all, but one would think that many regional conservative voters will ignore the noise and not hesitate to vote Yes in recognition of The Voice; especially after years of neglect by the neo urban NP which favours doing the bidding of the IPA, Big Ag, mining and fossil fuels etc……

  2. K

    A noble attempt, but, with all due respect, you are judging based on your own privileged beliefs.

    “Poor health correlates with poor housing, and the living conditions of many Aborigines reflects their status in Australian society and their low-income potential (2). Their resultant segregation provides limited access to facilities such as sewerage, rubbish removal, or clean water. The health and housing conditions of Aborigines are a result of their marginalisation in society.”

    They managed quite well without this for oh… some 60 millennia.

    By making this statement, you are, in fact perpetuating the policy of assimilation.

    Judging based on white societal standards.

    Which, from my limited reading and experience, is totes not cool. And misguided.

  3. B Sullivan

    Social injustice issues are not based on racism. Racism is just a ‘go to excuse’ for not addressing social injustice. There are no races to be racist against. Just people racialising other people as an excuse for discriminatory treatment of those people who they claim are not the same as themselves and therefore not entitled to be treated as equals. There is no scientific basis for the belief that humans are divided into races. Social injustice issues are based on people with power over the powerless exploiting their disadvantage to maintain their own advantages. (By the way, ‘power over’ is what the word sovereignty means.) Racism is not the motive, it is a fake excuse. We now should know it is a wilfully ignorant belief. Racism is a 19th Century fantasy that has been exposed as such by genetic science for more than two decades now. Yet still people cling to the fantasy, and still exploit the exploitable no matter what race they ignorantly believe their victims belong to. All this effort spent on denouncing racism as the cause of social injustice ensures that the real causes of social injustice will be ignored and the exploitation will continue to be tolerated and remain unaddressed.

    As for land rights, who has the right to arrogantly claim that the land belongs to them? And rights are not rights unless they apply universally to all. If they don’t they aren’t rights they are privileges masquerading as rights. So let’s all be honest and discuss the issue of Native Land Privileges, and realise that we are not talking about basic human rights but the opportunity for more exploitation by the privileged over the unprivileged. If you believe people are entitled to privilege based on their birth what do you suppose that makes you? How does anyone have self-determination of where or of whom they are born?

  4. New England Cocky

    Geez Michael, you have been very easy on 17th & 18th century English thinking that ”white means right” and everybody else is naturally inferior. Sadly the ignorant who have probably never read Darwin’s ”Origin of Species” plus too long encouraged by the Roman church that Europeans were ”God’s chosen people” and so blessed when they raided other populations across the world creating chaos and tribute returns ….. just contribute to the Vatican building fund for your forgiveness and salvation.
    The historical record in Australia shows that the European colonisers, searching for a solution to European over-population, resorted to fatal retaliation when Aboriginals objected to their women being raped, their food stocks being burned, their food animals being slayed for fun. Indeed, it was the Toongabbie Incident that persuaded Phillip to ignore his Admiralty instructions for peaceful co-existence with Aboriginals and allow fatal retaliation against these damned determined Aboriginals defending their country from outsiders.
    Naturally this policy expanded to ”shoot on sight” when ”pastoralists” expanded over the Blue Mountains on the Aboriginal route ”discovered” by the Irishman Ward in 1797. Indeed, massacres became the preferred ”solution” until deep into the 20th century across Australia.
    Your fine article makes no mention of any treaty between the English invaders and any of the about 600 Aboriginal nations, merely notes the consequences of over 200 years of ingrained racist beliefs finally written up in the 1901 Australian Constitution. With the assistance of Isaac Isaacs in about 1906 state sponsored genocide became formalised ”to allow the lower races to die out or be bred into white people”.
    So, who owns the land now called Australia?

  5. Anthony Judge

    I much appreciate the mapping of interrelated issues. I would have liked to see them shown as a map — like an underground or transport map, in systemic terms. My bias. That said, missing for me in the configuration is the whole question of symbol versus token. The Yes campaign is focused on symbol as suggestive of a magic bullet to rectify historical ills. The No campaign is exploiting the ability to frame the Voice in terms of tokenism. There is a case for being suspicious of both and the manner in which both tendencies are manipulated. So my vote for “neither” relates to the unexamined optimism of the Yes enthusiasts and their probable willingness to find a degree of tokenism acceptable. I confess to weariness with initiatives that are insensitive to the possibility of their own perversion. What will the optimists say to the First Nations people when a Yes vote changes nothing? Better than nothing?

  6. Phil Pryor

    It is a good article and a resource, so we might refer and reflect rather than comment much now. However, one must be pessimistic about “yes” succeeding in a system of majorities in both votes generally, and in states. This is still a post-Horne place, with many interpretations of that, certainly not a positive, progressive, enlightened, generous place. There is much fear now, e.g, cost of living, mortgages, renters, casualisation of jobs, climate “scares” of all types, media maggots mischief making, and “future” depression, where wars, AUKUS rubbish, USA evils,etc., all contribute to a relative stubbornness to face up and aim for truth and clarity. So, Michael need have few doubts…

  7. Fran

    Anthony Judge, the same and same again, sitting on the wall to “neither” does not solve our pressing issues. Is it not best to at least try and see if 10 or more years of nothingness eventually shows results from the willingnes to start going down another not so well travelled road?
    If the good people of this land open up and do the right thing by voicing their frustration into a YES vote, make their voices heard… there is nothing to be lost by trying. Going forward also means that things/issues and amendments can be improved over time. It is not a short term solution. It is not acceptable that we have a system that puts 10year old children into jail! The system as it stands has to change and we the people are the once to change it by action and not with a NO voice.

  8. Roswell

    I never expected to see this disgusting crap in 2023. But then again, Tony’s still in 1950.

  9. Anthony Judge

    I guess the Tony “disgusting crap” comment is addressed to me — there being no Tonys commenting. So am I still in the 1950s? My question would be how much “trying” has been done since the 1950s and who has learned anything from it? Climate change? Sustainability? Human rights? My learning over that period is that there is amazingly vast scope for “trying” in order to be able to claim something is being done — as politicians tend to do. It is a great means of salving consciences. As to voting “neither”, it is my sense that there is a case for indicating that Yes or No are not adequate responses to the problem and that new thinking is required. Neither does NOT imply No, except for Yes fanatics. Of course the great thing about separating Australians into Yes and No categories, is that each can frame themselves as “good” and the others as “bad” — or maybe trapped in the 1950s as Roswell claims. As to Fran’s fence sitting accusation with regard to “neither”, Scotland is one of the few judicial systems allowing a jury to conclude “not proven”. Buddhist logic — crappy though it may be, allows for “Yes”, “No”, “Yes AND No”, and “Neither Yes NOR No”. Just another form of crap?

  10. Roswell

    It wasn’t addressed to you, Anthony. I hadn’t even read your comment.

    I was appalled at Abbott’s “tribal chieftain” label.

  11. Clakka

    Yes, indeed, Michael, a good and accurate article and resource.

    It’s all very well for BS to go on about an academic viewpoint regarding that matter of ‘race’ and ‘racism’, I have done so myself, preferring, in making a point, to call it a matter of ‘equity’. Nevertheless, the objective reality is that the vast majority of folk, at least on the surface, understand and have brought to common use, ‘race’ and ‘racism’ because they have been bidden to define ‘otherness’. And they have only just begun to hear the term ‘white supremacy’, but to a large extent turn to it the blind-eye of convenience or outright rejection. And therefore, in the current circumstances, sadly it has to be the ground upon which the ‘battle lines’ are drawn.

    Like AJ, I too in the debates have a weariness with initiatives that are insensitive to the possibility of their own perversion. We only have Albanese’s assurance that he will seek to implement the Uluru Statement in full (presumably including the Makarrata process including treaty and truth telling within the (post-successful YES) legislation. Yet it is evident a huge number don’t trust him in that.

    It’s also all very well to say “Do the research.”, but people don’t. Right through primary and secondary school I was not taught, nor did I learn any truth, or any relevance as to colonisation and the First Nations folk, rather I was fed pompous British and British / Australian nationalist, militarist bullshit, accompanied with atlases full of pink.

    Following perusal of a 1950s Australian Encyclopaedia and it’s stories and plates of magnificent tribal blacks in all their celebratory regalia, and eventually after hearing the humanist stories of multiple generations of my father’s ancestors, did I commence my quest for their stories, and their perspectives. Slow at first because of a dearth of information, but accelerating over the subsequent 40 years, It has taken about 30 books, the advent of the internet (esp Trove etc) and much travel to form reasonable knowledge and perspective of the course of events (much concealed) of Oz over 245+ years, the cause and effects wrought by the colonists and the culture and perspectives of the the First Nations folk. But who, in the comfort of their socks, does that?

    I watched on Tuesday 5th, on ABC, ‘Makers of Modern Australia’, a good précis, but how many would have watched and moreover, how many would have seen the point?

    Meanwhile, the tedious coming ready or not and Gotchya argy-bargy continues.

  12. frances

    YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    View The Statement

  13. wam

    Sadly, Michael, almost all of the history in this article is not history because it is visibly applied today by people who do not consider their actions, as applied, racism. Nevertheless, I am with Pearson, in the belief that there are not more than 45% of Australians who would deny Aboriginal people a voice in laws that are directed at them only.
    how can the rabbott use ‘we’? It is like the loonies on houses or climate action??

  14. Teiresias

    Michael, information we need to know but mostly don’t and at least one set of numbers we need to look at with shame, someting Jacinta Price refuses to acknowledge: the horrors inflicted on First Nations people after 1788. Charles Massy, Call of the Reed Wabbler (2017):”…it is probable the Indigenous in 1788 was somewhere between 750,000 and one million or so. Within 140 years (six generations at most), Australia’s indigenous population had collapsed to but 6-8% of the 1788 levels, or to a mere 60,00.” (p. 31)

    On these pages is a picture of Tony Abbott, sadly PM in 2013-15. “…in May 2014, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy was announced and moved into the PM Department and cut $534.4m from the Indigenous programs and activities…with limited notice to Indigenous communities whose programs and activities were overnight disestablished.” Megan Davis & George Williams, :”Everything You Need to Know About The Voice.” (p. 104)

    And there is much, much more.

  15. Michael Taylor

    Hi, Teiresias.

    We’ll never know the true answer as to how many died, though at uni the suggestion was very broad, from between 250,000 to 750,000.

    As for direct murders, police records are inaccurate. They were probably not even recorded. It wasn’t until the Myall Creek massacre that whites were even charged for killing Aborigines.

    More accurate numbers would have been handed down from the Elders, generation to generation, but these too have been lost to time and would have been impossible to collate nation wide.

  16. Teiresias

    Michael, thank you for your reminder about numbers. We have only approximate numbers for deaths in WW11 and the Spanish pandemic around WW1 and any number of other historical events.
    But Jared Diamond who compiled these numbers had some reason to post these, and by any standards they are horrific.
    I am reminded of the “Fabrication of Aboriginal History” in 2002 by Keith Windschuttle. He claimed to have discovered fabrication of violence against aboriginal people in Tasmania 1803-1847 written by left-wing historians. He looked at official documents and newspaper reports and produced a “definitive tally of only 118 definitive deaths.” John Howard had said he hoped to make Australians”relaxed and comfortable” about their past, opposing the Black Armband idea of history The NO campaign today uses that against the Uluru Voice from the Heart.
    Robert Manne’s “Whitewash” (2003) showed Windschuttle had read few primary sources other than Colonial Secretary’s Office papers, or recent research, had methodological flaws and numerous errors, and offensive theories propounded about pre-settlement Tasmania.

    There are some brilliant books about early prehistory Aboriginal life, such as Billy Griffith’s deep history and Peter Sutton’s “The Dark Emu Debate.”

    And on another topic, the hideous corruption and politicisation of the Higgins/Lehrmann incident and the role of Murdoch, here and in the Voice Referendum and everywhere.
    A good website to explore is Shane Dowling’s Kangaroo Court of Australia.

  17. Michael Taylor

    Teireseas, it’s been a couple of decades since I was at uni so I’m sure that your more recent numbers are closer than mine.

  18. Teiresias

    Michael, discoveries can change dates, especially here in Australia. The Juukan Gorge in WA was considered to be 32,000 years old, until 2014-18 discovery showed it was in fact 46,000 years old. Rio Tinto destroyed it on 24th of May, 2020!

    In SW Tasmania, in the Franklin-George River area, the Kutukina Cave was discovered in 1977 and explored in the 1980s. First inhabited at the beginning of the Ice Age 20,000 years ago, reached its peak 17,000 years ago, and ended suddenly due to changing climatic conditions at the end of the Ice Age 13,000 years ago. It was further evidence of the vast antiquity of Aboriginal culture in Australia. There were 35,000 years of Aboriginal culture in that area.

    Michael, you will remember the glacial ice scratchings on Fleurieu Peninsula.

    In 1983, the new PM, Bob Hawke forbade any further construction of the Franklin dam.

    Over 20 more caves were found in that area, and 1000 Aboriginal heritage sites and Indications of fire-stick farming, and of paintings which are comparable to that of Lascaux and Altamira in Europe.

    I have wept many tears in my reading of Aboriginal ancient history.

    (some information here from Sutton/Walsche, Hunter-Gatherers?. The Dark Emu debate, and

  19. Florence nee Fedup

    Racism over my 82 years keeps changing in this country. It amazes me we are back in the 1950s with the same accusations about our First Peoples. A time when Apartheid was the norm. Except for Redfern & La Peruse, one rarely seen even what was called half-castes. They were restricted to reservations & were hidden away or isolated in homes such as Cootamundra or Kinsella. Many in the community hid their ancestry or kept a low profile. The Aboriginal Protection Board carried unbelievable power over these people.

    As a child, I witnessed my mother arguing with the above board. She didn’t believe they had the right to tell her how to treat adult women. Not that she obeyed. Whole suitcases of clothes, which she replaced, went into the fire. She paid, full wages, as well as sending off what the Board demanded. I can’t recall whether they wanted 1 or 4 fifths.

    Mum hired women from a detention centre near Lake Cargelligo. One went miles through a forest to where they were housed. Before you were allowed in, you pulled everything from the boot for protection. At ten, I still recall my mild father’s obvious anger. In my teens, I had a friend who was blond with a beautiful girlfriend. Later I found out he was half-cast, that horrible word again. I got to know his brothers who were all dark. He wouldn’t marry because he was afraid his children would be dark. To him, that would be unfair to their mother.

    I was reared in a home where racism was not allowed. Recall often conversations about native people. Mostly cloaked in pity because in my grandfather’s words, were childlike. In my teens, I realised as well-meaning as my family was, this was patronising.

    Racism raised its unhappy head with the Irish, who were made to know their place in society. Overlaid with the angst between the Anglican & RC faiths. Of course, one must not forget the Chinese, who kept themselves in Chinese archives until the Vietnamese began to arrive. As the wave of refugees came after the second war, racism moved from one wave to another. Racism ever-changing found new people to hate.

    My Mother was semi-invalid & needed assistance in the home.

    Mum gave the last woman we had a beautiful wedding. The curse here, she was a practising Anglican, marrying a nearby farmer’s only son. No church in Wyong would marry her, except for the Baptist. I am talking about 1955.

    Many at the time were brainwashed into denying their heritage. Something I hated. Took a while to convince the mother of three of my grandsons, that her originality was something to be proud of.

  20. Florence nee Fedup

    Teiresias, I have wept, or more accurately angry, at the lack of history since 1788. Despite the terrible things, we have grown into a great country. Yes, a black armband view description is spot on. It is time for us to welcome our First Peoples into the fold. Uluru for the heart statement that asks for a Voice, Makarrata & treaty is long overdue.

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