Australia's original sin

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This December, I will have lived in Melbourne for 17 years. The anniversary prompts reflection, and there would be reasons to say that Australia has been good to me. But it is also a country that breaks you.

Australian frontier warsIt started with learning that Aboriginal children were taken from their families well into the last century. Everything unravelled after that, and the more I read and heard, the more threadbare Australia seemed. It left me cold. This is a rite of passage for those not born here.

Successive governments do not let us forget the past. More than 300 Indigenous people died in prison and police custody since the final Royal Commission report in 1991. This week (yet another) Royal Commission highlighted the particular ways in which Indigenous Australians are crushed within the mechanics of law, even as children.

There are casual cruelties, too, like dismissing a carefully crafted proposal that Indigenous people have a formal voice in parliament. The pattern of recent years has been constant deferment on the things that matter to Aboriginal peoples.

Sooner or later, they get caught in the crossfire of internecine political conflict or — given that our politicians are versatile in their indecency — get derailed in the immediacy of other concerns like the safe resettlement of refugees, the postal survey on marriage, and the defence of Muslim Australians from ethno-nationalists.

It is not that Indigenous peoples compete for space, though this benefits those who make them do so, but that so much flows from original sin.

The supremacist bent that first laid low nations on this continent is manifest in the reinforcement of borders, hegemonic framing around Christian values, and lingering overreaction to people who criticise such things. Until section 44 of the Constitution tripped up so many in parliament, citizenship was something to bludgeon minorities with. Many oppressive policies, especially in welfare, start out in Aboriginal communities.

 

"As long as Australia's original sin remains unexpiated, our sense of what justice looks like will remain incomplete, even distorted."

 

It seems entirely possible that reconfiguring our relationship with First Nations peoples, perhaps even centralising it, would give us the language and impetus to reconfigure everything else, including the way we resolve conflict, think about the environment, and make decisions about vulnerable members of society. Perhaps this is precisely why governments continue to defer doing anything substantive when it comes to Indigenous peoples. It upsets the order.

But as long as Australia's original sin remains unexpiated, our sense of what justice looks like will remain incomplete, even distorted. Anything that we make right for disadvantaged groups like LGBTI, disabled, refugees and Muslims (and we should) will seem to rest on the continuing dislocation of Indigenous peoples from national life. I cannot begin to imagine the hurt that engenders.

For a while I made the mistake of thinking that the terrible things done to Indigenous peoples was something that white people did. I found a 'we' that I had struggled to find in the way that powerful people speak about and enact laws against minorities. It can be a useful sense of solidarity, that shared experience of being up against whiteness, which is shorthand for the systems and structures that protect the status quo.

The truth is that my being here is part of an ongoing history of colonisation. It is not an easy thing to live with, the idea that I ultimately benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples no matter how much I believe myself to be on their side.

The very least I can do perhaps is to say it is time to make them the priority.

 

 

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Aboriginal Australians


 

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Well said Fatima, 'we' are all implicated. It's not just past actions by previous generations but also actions, and inactions, by us, now. I was appalled by Turnbull's off-hand dismissal of the Referendum Council's proposals. There was no attempt to understand what was being proposed or to tease out what practical options might be developed. It was a case of 'don't confuse me with argument, I've made up my mind'. So instead of returning to our true origins and confronting them, we create alternative foundation myths, the glibbest of which is probably the Anzac one, and then we wonder why we get involved in so many other wars in so many other places
Ginger Meggs | 23 November 2017


Thank you. That continuing process of uncovering previously unrecognised ways in which relentless colonisation processes are imposed is something that has dominated my life. A different path from yours, being very WASP. Piecing it all together might allow some sense of justice to discovered. Long road ahead though eh?
Bev henwood | 24 November 2017


Thank you for timely and insightful commentary - particularly the recent casual cruelty of the dismissal of the carefully crafted proposal to Parliament. You have named a deep underlying damage that we need to pay close attention to. I also agree with your description of the ‘hegemonic framing around Christian values’. - we so need voices that disclaim this narrative.
Julie Perrin | 24 November 2017


How do you "benefit from the dispossession of indigenous peoples", Fatima? Please explain - I don't get it - but then I'm probably blind-sided by the glaring "whiteness" of it all. Are you equally distraught by the taking of non-indigenous children from their families by a government agency, something that happens up until this very day. Such has always been done to protect children neglected or disadvantaged by remaining in their families. Is that fair enough for the non-indigenous but a no-go zone for the indigenous? We shouldn't ignore the fact that not all indigenous people support the Uluru proposal but all are already entitled to vote and to be elected to government in this country. Many whom I know who have come and settled here from other lands have not experienced the racism with which Australia has been labelled. In an indigenous community in which I worked for many years an elder told me that the greatest racism his people experienced came from Pacific Islanders and some Maoris. What does this mean, I wonder ?
john frawley | 24 November 2017


A few years ago I met an Aboriginal woman from the "stolen generation". She told me that she was very grateful she had been stolen. She was grateful to the government and the nuns who gave her an education and helped her get a career. Some time ago she decided to visit her family in central Australia. She said she never wanted to see them again because of their drinking etc. She also told me that the Aboriginal community told her to be quiet about it as her story didn't fit the preferred narrative of victim. This isn't everyone experience but it is the experience of many. Talk of original sin is never helpful, far better to roll up one's sleeves and try to improve the lot of those who have fallen through the net. Btw my family used to employ Aborigines and from what I hear, they were extremely well looked after with pay and conditions, including food, clothing and housing.
Jane | 24 November 2017


Fatima, your article is "spot on". On a day when we are standing by watching the events unfold on Manus Island, your words ring so true. Our sense of justice surely needs refining. In the North East of Victoria there is a cafe that employs young people from an indigenous town in the Northern Territory, has a school exchange program and teaches an indigenous language at the college. Don't despair there are small scale pockets of redress in some communities. Actions speak louder than words and giving indigenous people a sense of empowerment through jobs and education will surely help. Those in power in government seem to have different priorities, attitudes and values
Celia | 24 November 2017


Fatima, thanks for your thoughtful essay. I believe that our original and persistent sin is not the choice to eat from the tree to know good and evil, but our claim to have the right to determine for our benefit what is good and what is evil. I hope for a common way forward towards repentance and change. It requires us to experience with an open mind and heart the effects of the pursuit of our own interests. At some stage, we need to undergo an intellectual conversion that sees through and rejects frameworks in which we have located ourselves as superior to others who differ from us. We can unlearn our prejudgements and found our ethics on compassion and doing justice. Our political parties, with opposition and other strategies to retain power uppermost in their mind, insist on the right to determine what is right and wrong for our country. Our indigenous sisters and brothers are good learning partners to help us see clearly and take steps that would make us into a community that honours this land and its many environments. "Business as usual" , greed and "blindness" to others sustains a persistent preference for evil.
Alex Nelson | 24 November 2017


Thanks you Fatima for your excellent insights into our current failures as a nation. I was born here and my education of all things indigenous and our terrible history was more or less absent. I really had to learn it myself. The governments then and now refuse to acknowledge our past. Thanks again.
Tom K | 24 November 2017


All too true. I was struck by your phrase "our politicians are versatile in their indecency". Powerful and too sadly true.
Eric | 24 November 2017


Can we expiate original sin? Or do we simply have to accept that it is part of the 'fallen nature' of our country? Just a thought.
Margaret | 24 November 2017


Fatima there are several issues here. I note with interest Jane's experience with a lady from the stolen generation who saw a positive outcome from her experience. Unlike most of the readers,my brother and I were boarders throughout our schooling to Year 12.My mum was a widow.The experiences affected both of us deeply. After being a 'model' pupil at school ,he 'went somewhat off the rails' , had very rocky relationships including two failed marriages before his present very happy one. My experience of boarding school was not a happy one. The nuns and brothers were emotionally cold and in some cases very cruel, particularly for boys who did not fit 'the mould'. I realise many of them were emotionally immature and should never had charge of children. Some brothers were child molesters. I knew of two. I am relating this as I believe I understand a little what it means to be one of the 'stolen generation', although in my case I continued to have contact with family during holidays. A Maori elder in N.Z. said to me that "they need to get off their bums", again I agree with Jane. Our politicians DO need to get off their bums
Gavin | 25 November 2017


Thanks for your very thoughtful remarks, Fatima. I too am appalled by the ongoing injustice that allows me to benefit from the deprivation of our first people.
Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 25 November 2017


Thank you Fatima for your thoughtful essay. My family came to Australia from northern Italy in 1995. I was 6 years old. I share your concern of being part of the problem in that my family has prospered in this stolen land. I hope that First Nations people achieve a treaty before I cut this mortal coil. Further, I hope for a Truth and Reconciliation process that will establish agreed-upon truths of Australia's colonial past. However, given the direction of contemporary politics and increasing fault lines in the fabric of Australian society, I find it difficult to imagine that, in our two-party Westminster system, the right-wing conservatives will relinquish the culture wars and their 'arm band of history' ideologies. Until there is truth, there can by no reconciliation. I feel, therefore, that initiatives to amend our Constitutions in order to be more inclusive of First Nations peoples are doomed to failure. They are mere stalling tactics by the conservative reactionaries. I cannot see any way of achieving an agreed-upon truth without engaging head-on in the culture wars, which must be won to expose and accept the truth.
Claudio Pompili | 29 November 2017


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