A recurrent theme in Australia’s history has been how to deal with the perennial ‘problem’ of the Aboriginal population. Assimilation, as policy for much of the twentieth century and continuing today in the Northern Territory has ranged from economic to biological, the latter more commonly known as eugenics. This paper looks at the issues confronting Australian Aborigines in their quest for acknowledgement as equals with a ‘white’ colonizing force, building upon a historical perspective leading to evidence of the ongoing marginalisation suffered by the original owners of this land. A brief analysis provided of the extent to which the Australian Government fails to investigate abuses by law enforcement agencies, pursuing an active but subtle policy of racial discrimination against Indigenous Australians. The paper also seeks to explore the reasons why so many Australians harbour negative sentiments towards Aboriginal Australians.
To dream the impossible dream
Any form of assimilation entails absorption into the wider community. The problem facing Aboriginal Australians is that such policies feed a racist undercurrent in the Australian psyche which views Aboriginal Australians as something less than equal, leading to abuses of the rights of Aborigines both as individuals and as a race. A senior ACT Public Servant made the following remarks in a letter written to the Chief Executive of ACT Treasury:
This confirms my experience that Aborigines are compulsive liars and criminals and unsuitable to hold management positions (Anon, 2002).
The author maintained his position while the ‘target’ suffered the indignity of a racially motivated hate campaign by the Stanhope Government, until the victim ended his life.
Assimilation requires one culture being totally lost to history. True integration that respects the values and social norms of Aborigines is impossible as long as they are marginalised by the wider community and racial intolerance is accepted as a way of life.
Urban Aborigines in the south confronted different, though no less debilitating issues than their by northern, more traditional counterparts. In the south, control was exercised less through institutionalisation and more through a caste barrier of colour prejudice and discrimination, which makes Aborigines outcasts in their own land. The marginalisation of Aborigines within the wider community owes a great deal to the negative perception of Aborigines engendered by the policies of various Australian state, territory and commonwealth governments in their efforts to solve the ‘Aboriginal problem’, through racially discriminatory legislation, economic and biological genocide and finally propaganda.
The process of forced assimilation, which began at the beginning of the last century, continues to this very day. In January 2009 a Group of Aborigines from the Northern territory made a formal complaint to the United Nations under its urgent action procedures, against the race based intervention measures adopted in the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (Cth) (NTNERA) (Newhouse & Ghezelbash, 2009).
The thrust of the complaint to the United Nations is that “The income management regime…establishes a system of differential treatment between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people on the grounds of race in breach of article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (the CERD).”
Half-castes and assimilation – end of the Dreaming
From the end of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth, officialdom expressed concern about the proliferation of what was known as the ‘half-caste’, ‘quadroon’ or ‘octoroon’ progeny who could claim both ‘white’ and Aboriginal ancestry. In New South Wales (NSW), a government report stated that ‘… these children … are increasing with alarming rapidity’ (Aborigines Protection Board, 1991). Many of the remote stations and townships relied heavily on Aboriginal labour (Evans, 1997). Aboriginal women were employed mainly as domestics (Haebich, 2000) and as there was inevitably a short supply of women in these areas, ‘sexual service’ was assumed (Evans, 1997). Naturally this led to an increase of the birth of children of mixed descent who were known as ‘half-caste’, ‘quadroon’ or ‘octoroon’ depending on the percentage of ‘Aboriginal Blood’. Walter Edmond Roth, in his capacity as Northern Protector of Aboriginals, recommended that ‘half-caste’ women, upon reaching the age of fourteen:
… should all be sent to a mission station. No matter how well they are watched, it is my experience that they invariably get into trouble by some unprincipled white man, who only laughs at the poor unfortunate whom he has seduced. It is almost impossible to prove paternity… (Roth, 1903).
Roth’s concern about the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal females, and the proliferation of the mixed descent population significantly influenced the implementation of the various ‘separation and guardianship’ statutes imposed upon the Aboriginal population. The States became increasingly frustrated by the ever increasing mixed descent population living on the reserves and amended their powers under these various Acts in order to increase control over Aboriginal people, as illustrated by The Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW). In 1918, further amendments were passed, redefining the definition of ‘aboriginal’ to mean only those people who were ‘full bloods’ or ‘half-caste’, thus excluding ‘quadroons’ and ‘octoroons’ from government reserves. Introducing the amendment the Acting Premier of New South Wales, Mr. Fuller, explained during parliamentary debate:
If this Bill is passed, quadroons and octoroons will be merged in the white population, and the camps will merely contain full-blooded aborigines and their descendents. There is hope that the operation of the amendment…will tend towards reducing…expenditure considerably, and that in years to come the expenditure in respect of aborigines will reach vanishing point (NSW Parliamentary Debate cited in Link-UP NSW, 1996. Subsequent amendments to the Act of 1936 considerably increased the power of the Aboriginal Protection Board. A new provision under section 18B, effectively allowed a ‘court, judge, coroner, magistrate, justice or justices’ to determine the question of ‘aboriginality’ if, ‘having seen such a person’, the subject was, in ‘their own opinion’, Aboriginal (Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act, 1909). This removed racial determination for the control of Aborigines themselves, opening an avenue for the Aborigines Protection/Welfare Board to remove lighter skinned children from reserves and place them with welfare organisations and agencies (Link-UP NSW, 1997). Later, many Aboriginal girls who had been ‘put into service’ and had then become pregnant would be sent back to the reserve and their children removed at birth.
1937 Commonwealth and State Native Welfare Conference
In April of 1937 the premiers and territory leaders held a conference at Parliament House in Canberra to discuss the issue of an Aboriginal affairs policy. Dominating the conference were those jurisdictions with the largest Aboriginal populations: Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory. The conference passed a resolution supporting the complete ‘absorption of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia into the European population. Titled ‘Destiny of the Race’, it stated:
… that this conference believes that the destiny of the natives of Aboriginal origin, but not of full-blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end (Link-UP NSW, 1997).
This ‘dying race’ concept was evident as early as 1901, when the then Attorney-General, Alfred Deakin, alluded to “… the aboriginal inhabitants of the continent”. He expressed his “… hope that in their last hours they will be able to recognize not simply the justice, but the generosity of the treatment which the white race, who are dispossessing them and entering into their heritage, are according them.” (Beresford & Omaji, 1998). The idea was at its strongest in the first four decades of the twentieth century (Austin, 1993), particularly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, asserting the belief that a discrete ‘race’ can somehow ‘die out’. This idea has many points of origin, but perhaps the most important is that of ‘eugenics’. Based on a relationship between racial strengths and human heredity, eugenics was seen by its founder, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, as practical Darwinism (Austin, 1993). First defined in 1884 (Sanger cited in Bajema, 1976), eugenics argues that ‘weaker races’ should be bred out of existence (Brock, 1993). One conference delegate described eugenicists’ view as the only solution to the Aboriginal ‘problem’ (Austin, 1993).
Within this broad policy, the Aboriginal population was broken into two subsets: those of mixed decent who were to be absorbed, ‘regardless of their wishes in the matter’ and those deemed ‘full bloods’ who would be left on the reserves (Lippmann, 1992). The conference’s unanimous consensus was that the ‘full blood’ population would eventually die out (Beresford & Omaji, 1998). One commentator states that it was universally accepted at the conference that the various governments had the right to impose biological as well as economic assimilation upon the Aboriginal peoples (Austin, 1993). The actions of the Commonwealth Government sanctioned by the NTNERA are hauntingly similar to the views canvassed at the 1937 state and territory conference on Aboriginal policy, where it was accepted that the various governments had the right to impose biological as well as economic assimilation upon the Aboriginal peoples..
Post World War II
The dominance of the eugenic policy of biological absorption began to wane after 1945, pressured by the United Nations to repeal its discriminatory laws. Hiding the policy’s racially discriminatory basis was simply impossible, especially as Australia took a prominent role in the newly formed United Nations (Lippmann, 1992).
In 1951, at a meeting between the Commonwealth Minister for the Territories, Mr. Paul Hasluck, a West Australian, and the relevant state’s minister, stated that ‘assimilation’ was formally spelt out and became official government policy. In this context, assimilation meant that all Aborigines:
Shall attain the same manner of living as other Australians, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and being influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties (Lippmann, 1992).
Integral to the 1950s assimilation process was the separation of Aboriginal children, more so the ‘half-caste’, quadroons’ and ‘lighter skinned’ children, from their parents to be raised in the ‘white ways’ in missions, government institutions and foster homes. Most of these separations were made pursuant to Aboriginal specific legislative provisions.
Jedda, a study in propaganda
The Australian feature film Jedda (1955) (released in the United States as Jedda the Uncivilized), centres on the tragically doomed liaison between a mixed race Aboriginal girl named Jedda and Marbuck, a ‘tribal’ and dangerously sexy Aboriginal man replete with spears, boomerangs, head band and tribal bodily incisions. Set on a pastoral property somewhere in northern Australia, the film presents an idealised picture of station life and the relations between the Aboriginal employees their non-Aboriginal (in some cases part-Aboriginal) masters and mistresses. Jedda, assumed to be successfully assimilated into white society, is expected to marry the ‘good’ resident half-caste Aboriginal stockman, Joe. Marbuck sings a ‘love magic’ song to attract Jedda in a dreamlike trance, winning his sexual prize. They run off together and eventually throw themselves over a steep cliff to their deaths.
Jedda is typical of the stereotypical image of Aboriginality in the 1950’s. Marbuck, the untamed savage, is sexualised, portrayed wearing a shiny red loin cloth that draws the viewer’s eye to his crotch. The very act of singing his ‘black magic’ to trap his quarry, speaks of the forbidden. By contrast, the stockman Joe, played by an actor in black-face, has a clipped Oxbridge accent, emphasising the level of civilization that Aborigines are able to attain so long as they have a bit of ‘white’ in them! He even describes his intended as a “… nice piece of chocolate”.
Made at the height of assimilation policies that affected both Aboriginal people and immigrants, Jedda paints a picture of idealised station life. Relations between the Aboriginal employees who work and their non-Aboriginal (in some cases part-Aboriginal) masters and mistresses, portrayed as content and genial. Smiling Aborigines go about their menial tasks, never complaining about their lot. The sheer drudgery of station work endured by Aborigines and the documentary evidence that there was a good deal of resistance to this state of affairs is completely glossed over.
The film fails to acknowledge that this is a colonising encounter. The relationship depicted between the colonizers and colonized is that of patient, caring parents and contented children. In reality, Indigenous Australians working on pastoral properties at the time were, for the most part, paid in barely adequate food rations.
This film is imbued with the ideology of the inevitability of ‘reversion’ of Aboriginal people to their essentially ‘primitive’ state. This creates real tension in the film, questioning the point of the assimilation policy in the first place. Nowhere in the film is this ideology more apparent than in the scenes in which Marbuck performs his ‘love magic’ ritual, which must be regarded as a gross travesty of the ‘real thing’, a form of epistemological violence.
A new millennium, but no new beginnings
In 2006, in a project intended to take no more than two years, I set about collecting statements outlining potential human rights violations committed against Aboriginal Australians from remote, rural and urban centres around the country. The research focuses specifically on the incidence and severity of violations incurred since the year 2000. Whilst the year is arbitrary, it serves as a ‘line in the sand’ that has social and cultural significance; the beginning of a new millennium, with new ideas, hopes and aspirations. It is also not so far removed from the present that the government can argue relevance of the allegations and write them off as being ‘ancient history’ or ‘watershed moments’ in our history.
Review and statistical analysis was to have been completed by March/April 2009, but the sheer number of self-identified victims who have presented their claim and the unexpected time it has taken to verify each one has resulted in the process taking an extra year. Currently there are approximately 1,000 victim statements and 4,000 supporting statements and the collection and verification process is expected to continue into early 2010.
Once collection and verification has been completed, I will attempt to place each verified claim into a crime category corresponding to the Commonwealth Crimes Act 1914 and into one or more of the provisions of the various international treaties to which Australia is a signatory. The following table details my primary research to March 2009.
VIOLATION NUMBER OF VICTIMS
|Sexual assault (Rape-Female))||387|
|Sexual Penetration Foreign Object (Female)||167|
|Sexual Penetration Foreign Object (Male)||436|
|Assault AABH (Female)||678|
|Assault AABH (Male)||987|
|Murder/Unlawful Killing (Female)||4|
|Murder/Unlawful Killing (Male)||12|
|Supply Drug Of Dependence (Police Officer)||427|
|Supply Drug Of Dependence (Other Govt.)||897|
|Causing serious mental harm||987|
|Forcibly removing children of the group to another group||356|
|Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group||139|
Almost all victims reported multiple violations, often at the hands of multiple assailants (67%). Most are physical in nature and sixteen, or a little over 1% of these violations, resulted in the death of the victim. Whilst the percentage of violations which resulted in death is low, it must be remembered that this is coming on a background where there is no armed conflict between the groups and in a country where the rule of law is said to prevail. To the best of my knowledge, at the date of writing, not one person has been charged or investigated over these violations.
John McLaren an Aboriginal resident of Bourke (without a criminal record) made the following observation in 2008 whilst providing statements for my United Nations application:
They [the police] go like that [as if pointing a gun] as they are driving past…they’re really teaching the younger blokes to be racist. Half of them wouldn’t have seen an Aboriginal person before, probably only in books or TV. So they’ve come out here and they’ve turned them into rednecks straight away. One copper has been harassing me. He drives down past my house every day, gives me smart looks.
This type of behaviour which has been complained about by all Aborigines who have provided evidence to me serves only to broaden the divide between ‘white’ and ‘black’.
The Aboriginal ‘problem’ will not be solved by addressing only half of the equation. ‘White’ Australia needs to be educated about the effects of stereotyping and innate prejudice. Changes must be made at the highest level of our society, by the governing and law enforcement bodies that purport to be the protector and supporter of all Australians. As long as segregative legislation is imposed and the rights of the Indigenous Australians are curtailed compared to their ‘white’ counterparts, justice will not be served and a truly symbiotic relationship will continue to remain a dream in this country.
Aborigines Protection (Amendment) Act 1909. (s 18B), NSW Government Printers, Sydney.
Aborigines Protection Board, Annual Report of the Aborigines Protection Board, 1911. NSW Government Printers, Sydney.
Anon, 9 May, 2009. Letter to Mr Howard Ronaldson Chief Executive ACT Department of Treasury.
Austin, D., 1993. I can Picture the Old Home So Clearly: the Commonwealth and ‘half-caste’ youth in the Northern Territory 1911 – 1939. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
Beresford, Q., & Omaji, P., 1998. Our state of Mind. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle.
Brock, P., 1993. Outback Ghettoes: Aborigines, Institutionalisation and Survival. Cambridge university Press, Cambridge.
Commonwealth of Australia Aboriginal Welfare – Initial Conference of Commonwealth and state Aboriginal Authorities, 1937. Australian Governemnt Printing Service, Sydney.
Evans, R., 1997. Documenting Australia’s Federation: 1901, Our Future’s Past. MacMillan, Sydney.
Haebich, A., 2000. Broken Circles. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Freemantle.
Newhouse, G., & Ghezelbash, D., 2009. Calling the Northern Territory Intervention Laws to Account. Law Society Journal. 47(9), pp.56- ?59.
Lippmann, L., 1992. Generations of Resistance: Aborigines Demand Justice. 2nd ed. Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.
Markus, A., 1990. Governing Savages. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.
NSW Aboriginal Corporation, 1997. Link-UP NSW. Sydney. [internet] [Acceesed March 2005]. Link no longer available.
NSW Aboriginal Corporation, 1996. Link-Up NSW: In the Best Interests of the Child: the Present Effects of Separating NSW Aboriginal Children from their families and Recommendation to Redress the Ongoing harm of Separation. Sydney [internet] [Accessed March 2005] Link no longer available.
Roth, W.E., 1903 Annual report of the Northern Protector of Aboriginals for 1903. Queensland Government Printers, Brisbane.
Sanger, M., Dangers of Cradle Competition. In C.J. Bajema, ed. 1976. Eugenics Then and Now. Dowden Hutchinson and Ross, Pennsylvania, Ch. 2 p.108-120.