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We knew it back then, so when did we cave in?

By Jennifer Michel

Whilst researching a book I stumbled across information about an event called preventing the punitive expedition into Arnhem Land in 1933. The accounting by Paddy Gibson described how the Australian Unemployed Workers Union was the backbone and fundamental movement that saved the people of Arnhem Land from the last officially sanctioned act of genocide. Paddy tells of how every day Australians were pushed to the outskirts of towns, forced to live in squalor alongside the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Making friends with each other these individuals realised there were very little differences between them, besides the cultural beliefs. Being members of the Unemployed Workers Union they worked together and fought to prevent the massacre that was planned by both the NT Administration and a department within Canberra responsible to the Federal Government. They fought because they realised many Australians were being forced to endure the same conditions that lead their forefathers to become convicts upon a ship bound for the ‘new land’. Their message was simple we are not different and deserve equal rights.

Almost 100 years later not much has changed for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations, and equality is an aspect many Australians still do not see. Within the colonial world these lands have become families struggle to support themselves, medications have been shown to be widely inaccessible for many, further education is entirely out of reach for a large percentage. For individuals like myself, learning the cultural values of my Aboriginal forefathers is impossible. Unless I am willing to sleep with 20 others in a three-bedroom house and give up the ability to access fresh running water, electricity and fresh foods for my young family.

How many of us grew up on stories about England as it was 200 years ago? Take a look around at the truth of our society we find that Australia is not all that far from those conditions, we simply got trickier at hiding them. We call ourselves the ‘Lucky Country’. I would argue it is only lucky for some.

Meet the Australian Dream as I understand it: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Share in the Lucky Country as it means to me: Don’t find yourself in circumstances you
didn’t expect, you get punished for them.

Australia has proudly boasted of not having a social class system within the shores of this country, but let’s be honest with ourselves for once, since colonisation there has always been a system of social class seen. Historically it was settlers, then convicts, followed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island clans who were considered the lowest of the low. Today, those of us who have Indigenous roots have repetitively seen the Aussies who are allocated to the lowest ranks of the Australian Social Class; people we call family. Some of us, also like myself, have grown up in single income/parenting families, and/or life on a pension.

Being forced to live on the Carers Pension when my child was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder is difficult, to say the least. After working for years to better my circumstances creating opportunities for a career within the Human Resources Industry; I am in a worse situation than my parents ever were on one income. The most recent inquiry into the disability industry has shown many Australians have gone without to see their children can have something as simple as fresh fruit and vegetables, let alone a piece of chocolate once in a while. We have families unable to afford the medications they require or the therapies needed to improve both mental and physical disability.

COVID-19 has revealed deep cracks within our society and its ability to provide for all in an equal manner. Many Australians today who have found work are still struggling to make ends meet. We often hear of the underemployment rate but it is not explained in full detail every time. The word literally means people have jobs that do not provide the hours for them to earn enough to support their lives. Government programs have offered pathways to retain employment, such as JobKeeper. We have seen many divides formed within our society over the handling of this program, and personally I feel these would have been spotted by other governments of the past, but we never really will know what could have been.

Newer programs initiated by the Morrison Government are designed to move individuals not living in regions to locations where the jobs are. Many opinions I have read on social media suggest this program does not consider a wide array of aspects when it comes to uprooting even a single individual for employment. As a child, my father’s career was as a mechanic, we moved many times which resulted in a life of lost opportunities as much as it provided for others. Depending on the location we lived in we were considered to be wealthy – places like Katherine and Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory.

Australia’s Social Class is something I have witnessed and experienced my whole life, often I have looked at those on TV, politicians such as Scott Morrison whom proudly boasts of his 5x grandfather being a convict subjected to horrific hardships. My eyes turn towards my clans living in Ngkurr and Borrollola in the Northern Territory and do not see the same Lucky Country our Prime Minister spoke about on Christmas Day in 2020. Neither do I see the ‘one’ the anthem change suggested on New Years 20/21. I see the Prime Minister’s images from his plush home, projecting the wealth his family has gained over 5 generations, showing off his family and wishing us good tidings from a religious belief I do not share. Whilst I likewise see 20 people living in a three bedroom home where children have contracted Acute Rheumatic Fever due to over population. These two images clash in my mind, is this what a first world country is? One unable to provide the treatments nor enact simple preventative measures to save children from life threatening illnesses. Conditions the World Health Organisation have eradicated in third world countries such as Trachoma. How can we claim to be the Lucky Country when one section of it lives with the financial ability to do anything they can dream of and the other cannot even feed themselves? Again, I suggest we cannot claim either title, because we are not as lucky as we let on, and neither do we behave in a manner
that would see us come first.

In February 2021 the United Nations came together for a five-year review of the Human Rights of all member nations. During the convention more than thirty countries turned to this first world country who claim to be lucky and accused us of breaching the international laws we agreed to uphold on this subject, Australia breaches human rights, frequently. We are one of the few first world countries not to have created and enacted a Federal Human Rights Act after agreeing to do so when we signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Australia too signed the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, only to turn around and refuse to enact the legal framework to abide by the minimum standards towards the rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations of Australia.

Australia’s Social Class is heavily centred around the values this country was founded upon, including the White Australia Policy. Legislation that prevented the immigration of any individual outside of the regions of Europe with a predominantly white population. We see aspects of this policy in place today; we only need to look at the way our politicians vote towards the treatment of refugees to know this is true. There are ways segregation is still in place within Australia, too. I remember being a young woman in a nightclub and looking around to see all the multicultural aspects of the country mingling between their own groups and never straying to others. This is also true of the number of Aussies who integrate with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, how many have lived with us instead of just buying something from a white owned retailer. We suggest there is no Social Class, but we should be admitting we failed at that as much as we have failed at human rights in general; anyone else hear the call for women’s rights to be improved just then? Oh gosh, I must be hearing things again. Oooh, I’m sure heard it again…

My mind always boggles at the privilege our nation displays to the world. Because, until our first world country behaves like the Lucky Country, there is no basis for the titles we apply ourselves. These titles mean privilege, look around Australia do we fit the bill?

#FederalHumanRightsAct
#UNDeclarationOnTheRightsOfIndigenousPeoples
#EqualHumanRights

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14 comments

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  1. Tina Clausen

    Australian Unemployed Workers Union is very much around and very active. What a shame the contrary has been put in this article, that does NOT help the cause. 😡

  2. Jennifer Michels

    Hi all, Sorry for not making myself more clear, the Unemployed Workers Union from the time is no longer around. I do know there is one today but it’s different to the one who aided in preventing the punitive expedition into Arnhem Land in 1933. I should have acknowledged this in the article but it slipped my mind. Apologies for the confusion.
    Jennifer Michels

  3. RomeoCharlie29

    There was no Northern Territory government in 1933. The the NT was under the control of the Commonwealth Department of the Interior( Department of the NT from ‘72 until Self Govt. ( but not indigenous affairs) in 1978.

  4. Jennifer Michels

    RomeoCharlie29 – There were governmental officials under the control of SA in the NT & they were responsible for approving the massacres that took place.

  5. Michael Taylor

    RC, I changed it to NT Administration. A simple faux pas.

  6. Michael Taylor

    Jen, and the SA premier who oversaw the NT massacres was the grandfather (or great grandfather) of Alexander Downer. There’s something about that family I’ve never liked. 😡

  7. Jennifer Michels

    Michael, yes that is also true! Right there with you not liking that family! Forest family is on the same list for me, their millions came from the slave trade!

  8. Michael Taylor

    Jen, your article brings to mind something one of my lectures in Adelaide said:

    Early in the 19th Century, on the shores of what are now known as West Lakes an Aboriginal man would go hunting in the morning for magpie geese. He would only kill enough to feed his family for the day.

    In the afternoon he might spend hours with his son, teaching him traditional hunting skills or any life skills he might need. He might have also spent time with the other men, exchanging stories etc.

    It was a noble but idyllic life.

    Meanwhile, at the same time, England had child slave-labour, high crime rates, high poverty rates, inequality, disease, etc etc.

    And then the English went to West Lakes, saw the local Aborigines, pointed a finger at them, and yelled out…

    “Savages!”

    Who were the real savages, I wonder?

  9. DrakeN

    “And then the English went to West Lakes, saw the local Aborigines, pointed a finger at them, and yelled out…

    “Savages!”

    Any excuse for rape and robbery will do for the already wealthy and priviledged and that accusation was used as far back as ancient Greek history.

  10. Andrew J. Smith

    Interesting, but what we observe has always been round, but subjected to more palatable rebranding along with radical right libertarian socio-economic ideology.

    Under the white Australia policy (and modern day reincarnations), although ‘workers’ are told that indigenous were below them, but nowadays like ‘immigrants’ are blamed for any employment issues, British (and European) colonialism was underpinned and justified by eugenics, that still exists.

    Miserable Malthus the preacher whose work ‘Principle of Population’, influenced Darwin’s ‘theory of natural selection’ which in turn inspired Galton’s ‘science of eugenics and racial hygiene’; now known as ‘social-Darwinism’ and much to do with the social or pecking order.

    However, it still exists and is found coursing through neo white Christian nationalism and demographic ‘research’ used by the GOP, and LNP via legacy media, with a smorgasbord of proxies e.g. in Oz it’s refugees, immigration and population growth based upon Malthus and Galton, rebranded in ’70s via Paul ‘population bomb’ Ehrlich (like Malthus his catastrophic junk science predictions never eventuated but is still taken seriously…e.g ABC’s Q&A) as a modern environmental cause, but also feeding ‘dog whistle’ politics and the ‘great replacement theory’…….

  11. Jennifer Michels

    Michael, I have similar stories in my family history too, both my Grandmother’s & Grandfather’s countries have more than a few genocides recorded upon them. Most were from poisoned waterholes but a few were also shootings; those ‘punitive’ expeditions’ they had back then. Then I’m also a descendant of the Stolen Generations so I’ve grown up knowing my ancestors oppressed my ancestors. Not an easy place to reconcile yourself from. We have the Lore of Obligation which means we are obligated to protect, including life of those who did not protect ours… I’ve always asked who were the real savages!

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