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Racism Against Aborigines in Australia

Treatment of Aborigines in Australia

The majority of Australian literature concerning the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people has been written by white people. When reading contemporary material, it is important to acknowledge that the author's desire to personally demonstrate that he or she is not racist has had a significant impact on how the material has been written and analysed.

The demonstration of a non-racist personality has typically been achieved in two ways. Firstly, the author writes of an injustice inflicted upon Aborigines that the author can denounce. In this way, the author demonstrates that he or she is unlike the perpetrators of the injustice. Secondly, the author chooses to write about material where the perpetrators are removed from the author’s peer group and institutions that he or she works for. This distances the author from any personal responsibility or guilt by association.

The desire to demonstrate a non-racist personality by denouncing injustice that is removed from the author’s immediate responsibility has led to a significant amount of historical fabrications that can be shown to be factually inaccurate at worst and gross distortions at best. The 2014 citizenship guide produced by Department of Immigration and Border Protection provides a good example of these factual inaccuracies and distortions. Under the heading Treatment of Indigenous People, the guide proposes:

"In the 1940s and 1950s the Australian Government policy on Aboriginal people changed to one of assimilation.This meant that the Indigenous people were told to live as the non-Indigenous population lived. This did not work because Aboriginal people did not want to lose their traditional culture.

In the 1960s the policy changed to integration. Most men in Australia gained the right to vote in the1850s, but Commonwealth voting rights were not extended to all Indigenous Australians until 1962.

With integration, Aboriginal people were given civil liberties but they were still expected to adapt to non-Indigenous Australian culture. Further change came in 1967, when more than 90 per cent of Australians voted ‘YES’ to allow Aboriginal people to be counted in the census. This referendum was a historic milestone. It showed that the vast majority of Australians wanted Indigenous people to be included and given the same rights as everyone else."

The paragraphs aimed to communicate that previous generations of Australians were not as enlightened as present generations, and in particular, the authors and present day policy makers. This has resulted in factual inaccuracies, distortions and inferences that are incorrect.

In regards to past government policy, in truth, the Australian Government had no policy towards Aborigines in the 1940s and 1950s because it was constitutionally forbidden from having a policy for Aborigines until 1967. Only state governments had powers to make laws targeted at Aborigines and these varied on a state-by-state basis. For example, South Australia banned non-Aborigines from socialising with Aborigines, the supply of alcohol to Aborigines and sex across the colour line. Arguably, these policies aimed to protect Aborigines from "immoral" Australians, not assimilate them. Meanwhile, Tasmania and Victoria had no specific Aboriginal policy.

As for the claim that Aboriginal people did not want to lose their culture, this statement homogenised all Aborigines as one when in fact many were fascinated with non-Aboriginal culture and wanted to be seen as British subjects. In regards to voting, the paragraph again distorted by failing to clarify that Aboriginal men in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia had state voting rights since the 1850, which in turn allowed them to vote in federal elections. As a result of this lack of clarity, most readers would assume that Aborigines could not vote until 1962.

In regards to the 1967 referendum, the paragraphs omitted the true purpose, which was to extend the race power provisions of the constitution to include Aborigines. These powers were originally created to allow the federal government to disciminate against non-white migrants, which it did with the White Australia Policy. By the 1960s, it was felt that by extending the powers to include Aborigines, the federal government could use them to advantage Aborigines. In other words, use the power as a force of good not evil.

Admittedly, the paragraphs were correct when they stated that the 1967 referendum aimed to include Aborigines in the federal census; however, their inference was that Aborigines had been dehumanised by previous generations and therefore not deemed worthy of being counted. Historian Keith Windschuttle took a different view and argued that it was intended to pressure Queensland and Western Australia into giving Aborigines the vote. Windschuttle quoted Section 25 of the Constitution, which stated:

"For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State, all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that state shall not be counted."

According to Windschuttle, because NSW, Vic, SA and Tas gave people of Aboriginal descent the state vote, the states gained greater representation in parliament. These states wanted to use this power to pressure Queensland and WA to give Aborigines the vote in the hope that there would be universal franchise laws.

Because politicians tend to be secretive about their intentions, it is hard to know the truth about why they excluded Aborigines from the federal census. Even politicians are confused about the intentions of politicians. For example, when politicians proposed the 1967 referendum, they argued that the only reason they had not been included previously was that it had been too hard to count all Aborigines living in the bush.

Finally, it is possible to debate the inference that the decades since the 1950s have seen a more enlightened government approach. Specifically, once it gained the power to make race-based policy targeted at Aborigines in 1967, the federal government started raising awareness of Aboriginal social failure in a way that would justify policies sold as remedying Aboriginal failure. Arguably, federal governments have justified policy by raising awareness of Aboriginal failure so that the policy can be celebrated by voters. A side-effect is that almost nothing positive being said of contemporary Aborigines in Australia today. Instead, government constructed stereotypes of Aborigines revolve around crime, poor educational outcomes, domestic violence, poor health and low life expectancy. The negative stereotypes in turn justify exceptionally high government spending on Aborigines. Specifically, the federal government spends $30 billion each year to remedy perceived Aboriginal failure, or in its own words, “close the gap.” (1) This is roughly 4 times what Greece needs to pay each year to service its debt. By the government's own measures, the gap is not closing.

In short, if contemporary governments are measured on outcomes rather than rhetoric, then it is hard to see them as being more enlightened.

1967 Referendum Concerning Aborigines

Most Australians believed the 1967 referendum was about equality of rights, not extending the Federal government’s power to make race-specific laws.

1) FactCheck Q&A: is $30 billion spent every year on 500,000 Indigenous people in Australia?



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