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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mabo Day - Validation of indigenous history

The significance of the Mabo Decision, passed by the High Court of Australia on 3 June 1992, should not be forgotten. Whilst the case itself was about native title, the Decision validated the history of indigenous people and formally acknowledged their dispossession. The Mabo Decision proved that there is a lot more to indigenous history than land rights.

Eddie Koiki Mabo had been a tireless campaigner for indigenous land rights. In 1981, after advice from lawyers at James Cook University in Townsville, Mabo mounted a legal challenge against the Commonwealth government regarding the principle of 'terra nullius' (or 'uninhabited land') which had resulted in the Crown legally owning land that had traditionally belonged to his people. Ten years later, and three months after Eddie Mabo's death, the High Court accepted Mabo's case and overturned the principle of 'terra nullius'.

Sunday, 3 June 2012, is the 20th anniversary of the historic Mabo decision. For two centuries terra nullius had been the principle behind the massive European land grab by declaring Australia to be 'uninhabited land' and classifying indigenous people under the Flora and Fauna Act. Whilst the Mabo decision was a significant achievement, much more needs to be done in order to remove the vilification and human rights abuses that continue to plague indigenous Australia.

Aborigines were driven from their homelands and relocated to communities which they had to share with many other displaced tribes. This effectively destroyed tribal blood-lines and familial relationships through the destruction of their complicated kinship laws which determined who could marry whom. Aborigines were unable to marry without the permission of the Chief Protector of Aborigines, children were forcibly removed from families, communities were subject to curfews, alcohol was banned, they were prohibited from voting, movements and employment were restricted, they were banned from speaking their own languages and celebrating their own cultures.

Indigenous workers were either paid below award wages or their wages were garnished by the government and held in trust, literally for decades. A court case which commenced in the 1980s sued the Queensland government for back-pay because of wages that had been held since the 1950s. This case was finally settled 10 years later.

Many non-indigenous Australians see them simply as living a privileged, lazy life dependent on welfare and alcohol, collecting excessive welfare hand-outs and benefits; almost an idyllic life of beer and skittles. Yet, contrary to this, indigenous Australians need to meet more stringent conditions than non-indigenous Australians before receiving welfare. Additionally, many indigenous communities had a 'work for the dole' scheme years before it was introduced for non-indigenous Australians. Yet, they are still amongst the most disadvantaged people in Australia, with higher mortality rates from preventable illnesses, less access to decent and affordable housing, lower quality medical care, lower literacy and numeracy levels, higher unemployment rates, higher rates of incarceration for similar crimes committed by non-indigenous people and much higher rates of deaths in custody than the non-indigenous.

Instead of accepting ignorant, racist opinions, we should firstly put ourselves in the shoes of those who have lost so much for so long. Instead of believing that aboriginal issues are ancient history and that 'they' should just 'get over it', we need to understand that the centuries of abuse are not over. Indigenous Australians are still subject to human rights abuses and racial vilification. This isn't ancient history. It is ongoing.

Some will argue that if they want better conditions, then they should move out of the communities and into larger towns or cities. There are some who have done this, only to find difficulty in securing accommodation and employment because of institutionalised racism. They end up homeless, living in parks or over-crowded accommodation with family or friends, which only reinforces the racial stereotypes.

Successive governments have attempted to address indigenous issues, yet have failed dismally. In 1989, Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke established the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) whose role was to address injustices to aborigines and assist in improving aboriginal conditions. Unfortunately, ATSIC's demise was spectacular and cemented in the mind's of many that indigenous people were incapable of governing themselves. A number of factors contributed to the fall of ATSIC, including sexual abuse allegations against their chairman, Geoff Clark. A review of ATSIC in 2003 also exposed financial corruption.

Around 15 years after it was established, ATSIC was abolished by Prime Minister John Howard who condescendingly stated 'the experiment in elected representation for indigenous people has been a failure'. Howard essentially was stating that aborigines could not be trusted to look after themselves. This was nothing new. Australia had two centuries of laws and policies based on the assumed supremacy of white people over Aborigines and Islanders.

After abolishing ATSIC, Howard sent the Army into aboriginal communities to combat sexual abuse of children. In a move reminiscent of a colonial army marching on unarmed 'natives', the Australian government took control of 73 indigenous communities in what he called the 'Northern Territory Intervention'. The government also cut welfare payments to parents whose children failed to attend school. Failing to provide welfare for children not in school exacerbates an already difficult situation and does nothing to benefit either the children or parents. Howard also reduced funding to the Community Development Employment Project (a work for the dole scheme) which had greatly benefited many aborigines through providing them work in their communities. Following the intervention, the locals still live in sub-standard housing, with poor water supply and limited employment, education and health services.

The Northern Territory Intervention encouraged a supremacist belief in many non-indigenous Australians who viewed the people in these communities as alcoholics and rapists. Yet there are many people involved in the implementation of programs which address alcohol and drugs, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Contrary to the message sent by the Northern Territory Intervention, the majority of indigenous people are not alcoholics or paedophiles.

Rather than the paternalistic, condescending, white-supremacist approach, the government has to work with indigenous people and their representative organisations in order to develop and support sustainable initiatives. Over the years, there have been a number of successful initiatives implemented by indigenous people in the areas of business management, employment and training.

There have been some steps forward. In 1996, in response to a legal challenge mounted by the Wik people of Cape York Peninsula, the High Court of Australia handed down a decision which ruled that aspects of the Native Title Act which previously  had granted exclusive possession to the holder of the pastoral lease and prevented any native title claim over that land, were now invalid. The decision meant that indigenous people now had access to land held by pastoral leases if they could prove traditional ties to that land.

In 2007, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised on behalf of the Australian government for the 'laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians'. Unfortunately, some Liberal Party MPs boycotted the apology in disagreement. In contrast to Rudd's apology, the Liberal Party response delivered by Brendan Nelson took little responsibility for government actions and instead, criticised the victims. Nelson's speech was met with derision and resulted in many people turning their backs on him, whilst Rudd's speech was met with cheers and support from indigenous Australians.

The current Labor government has been supporting homelands, which are small communities comprised of aborigines who have left the larger communities to live on or close to their traditional lands. In the Northern Territory there are around 500 homeland communities and about 30% of the indigenous population live there. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, 'these communities have lower levels of social problems, such as domestic violence and substance abuse, than more populated communities. According to reports, the health of indigenous people living on homelands is significantly better than of those living in larger communities. Homelands are also used effectively as part of substance abuse and other programmes for at-risk Aboriginal youth living in more populated or urban centres.' (

There are a number of events throughout the year which should be embraced and acknowledged by non-indigenous people in order to break down the barriers and improve understanding of indigenous issues. These events include Mabo Day and NAIDOC week (National Aboriginals and Islanders Day Observation Committee - refer to their website at ). There is also the anniversary of the National Apology given by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Even Australia Day should include dedication and acknowledgement of the impact that European settlement had on Aborigines and Islanders, as well as  the contribution that Aborigines and Islanders have made to the development of Australia.

All Australians should learn the true history of their country, including indigenous dispossession, the effect of mining and pastoral leases on tribal lands, the Stolen Generations, the marginalising of indigenous people into remote communities, the wage quarantines, the strikes of the 1950s in Queensland and the government's strike-breaking actions which saw families split up as the male strikers were relocated to other communities, the brave battles fought by Aborigines and Islanders defending their territories against British and European invasion (and later fighting for Australia in numerous wars), the efforts and significant achievements by numerous indigenous organisations, incarceration rates, deaths in custody, the racism that indigenous Australians experience in seeking accommodation, employment, education and even while simply shopping.

The question that should be asked of all Australians is 'what would you do if you experienced this?'.

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