Opinion: Still Australia’s greatest shame

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On my most recent trip to Australia I observed the election campaign in the division of Chisholm, an ethnically diverse electorate southeast of the Melbourne city centre. Testament to the multiculturalism and multilingualism of the area, working on election day at a local primary school I greeted local voters with “Gidday” and “Ni Hao” in equal measure. This is the modern Australia. The lucky country. A nation built by immigrants. A place described by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as “the most successful multicultural country” on earth. The place eyed by Kiwis for years as the destination for jobs, opportunity and a new chance at life.

The day after the election I was driven into the city centre by a worker for local Greens candidate Josh Fergeus, who I had befriended the day before. Originally from the United Kingdom and having spent most of her life in Australia, my new friend seemed genuinely shocked and appalled by some of the details I gave her regarding some of the recent legislation passed by the New Zealand government in the way of workers’ rights. Moments later, we passed a central park where police were forcing a group of homeless people who had built a makeshift camp.

The group were ousted from the park, their tents removed. The day was cold – the coldest I had felt that winter on either side of the Tasman – and that’s saying something being a Wellingtonian. 6 degrees, icy rain and piercing winds. The treatment of the people wasn’t what shocked me – the local mayor, Robert Doyle’s position on homelessness is well-documented and fiercely criticsed as callous by opponents. What shocked me but seemed so-so to my friend was all the people gathered there were Indigenous Australians, who make up only 0.8% of the Victorian population. They were the only homeless people I saw that day – and the only Indigenous people I saw on my stay in Melbourne.

It reminded me of a family trip to Sydney four years before – my first experience of the lucky country. On my first morning, my Grandmother and I went for a walk around the suburb of Woolloomooloo, just east of the city centre. Around the harbour the area had an air of affluence – joggers, large black SUVs rolling past and a pleasant grouping of local Liberal Party activists canvasing the area for what I suspect must have been for a state or local by-election. Venturing just off the beaten waterfront we were confronted with profound poverty, drug abuse in broad early-morning daylight and scores of homeless people. Again, all Indigenous Australians. And, again, the only Indigenous Australians spare a few buskers outside the Sydney Opera House that I would encounter throughout that trip.

That morning has stuck with me for a few reasons. One, because it was vivid – I witnessed a girl aged no more than 16 surrounded by her family take an unidentifiable pill and then moments later drop cold before them. Second, because it began my wondering around how a group of people could be treated so badly that this was there reality in modern Australia. A country with enough abundant resource to give everyone that quintessentially Australian social value of “a fair go”.

The reality for Indigenous Australians is quite different and has left activists asking “the lucky country – for whom?”. As Australia celebrates the annual ‘founding’ of their nation in 1788, a new report by the Institute of Public Affairs has found pride in Australia, and being Australian has never been higher. A whopping 91% of respondents to questions by the Institute were “proud to be an Australian”. 85% insisted Australia Day was a time for a celebration while a still clear majority (78%) said Australia had a history of which to be proud.

The authour of the report, James Paterson, wrote; “It is no wonder that Australians love their country. We are all treated equally before the law. People who work hard get ahead… We live in a pluralistic, tolerant liberal democracy. On Australia Day we are often told ‘Australia needs to change’. This poll shows those people are wrong… We don’t need to apologise for our past”.

Along with this, and reinforcing of Mr. Paterson’s view, in 2013 Australian investigative journalist John Pilger asked those celebrating Australia Day on Sydney’s waterfront if First Australians had a special place in their country and if the day might be considered offensive to them, given the historical origins of the day. His first response was from a father present with his family who told Mr. Pilger he was “full of shit” before storming away from the camera. The overwhelming response from those interviewed was “we are all Australian” and “the past is the past”.

But, nine years after Kevin Rudd stood before the Australian parliament and gave a 35-minute apology to the stolen generations, it is still not up to James Paterson, those asked by his pollsters or White Australia that the country should be proud of this history. That is up to the Indigenous Australians who have borne generations of discrimination, racist government policies that at times implicitly called for racial cleansing, and the continued ramifications of colonisation.

And there is no denying that those ramifications still exist today, and that the lucky country is still divided between White Australia and Black Australia, lucky Australia and Black Australia. As the life expectancy and general health of the average Australian citizen continues to soar to some of the most impressive rates in the world, Indigenous Australian figures languish with statistics on level with many African and Middle Eastern nations. Whilst many Australians can now expect to live past 90 – nine decades spent with loved ones – the average Indigenous Australian can expect to live nearly two decades less, and one third shouldn’t expect to live to 50.

Venturing out to Indigenous communities, and it isn’t hard to see why. The quality of life of these Australians has become a political football, and continued promises of any real change to these conditions has largely come to null. Inefficient plumbing and toilet facilities has ensured the spread of disease, and led to the comparison to the conditions faced by working class England in the 1800s by visitors. Meanwhile housing stock continues to largely be shacks assembled by locals by any spare, dumped resource, rather than adequate housing supply most recently promised by Kevin Rudd in his apology speech.

But poor water, plumbing and housing quality isn’t the sole reason for Indigenous Australians having their lives cut so short. Crime and alcohol abuse remain serious problems in these communities, particularly in the Northern Territory. These problems have become generational offsets of discrimination and the struggle to find employment – in the 1960s Indigenous Australians were still fighting for basic labour rights, as cotton field workers reported being paid pittance, and were compared to communists by media in their struggle. The two major towns in the Northern Territory, Darwin and Alice Springs, top the nation in homicide rates. In 2009 Alice Springs Police recorded nearly 1,500 assaults – close to four recorded assaults every day, and 65% involved alcohol as a key factor to the crime. And the situation is getting worse as jobs become more scarce and living conditions become worse in the Territory – the 2009 figures are double that of 2004.

Following the trap of crime on the Territory’s streets, for many young people the next stop is Police custody or imprisonment, and it is here Australia has copped so much controversy. For instead of ending the cycle here, prisons, and the treatment of Indigenous people in them, are criticised for helping rather hindering continued crime. To put it all in context, while Indigenous Australians make up only 2.5% of the overall population, they make up 26% of the Australian prison population. In 2012, the Australian Bureau of Statistics concluded the imprisonment rate among Indigenous Australians was fifteen times higher than non-Indigenous Australians, and represent 1 in 5 of all deaths in custody.

1 in 98 of the population, but 1 in 5 of all deaths in Australian or State Level Government Police care. A case investigated by the journalist John Pilger in the Northern Territory in 2013 found an Indigenous man being held in police custody having committed no crime – instead the man was intoxicated, extremely ill and in need of urgent medical attention. Surveillance footage of the officers interacting with the man who is spread out across the ground show them failing and trying to get him to stand up. One officer is heard telling the man to “stop being silly” multiple times, before another picks him up and throws him against a reception desk, making audible impact with his head. He is eventually escorted to a prison cell while officers return to the room where the incidents occurred to clean the floor. He died that night.

In 2016 New South Wales Indigenous woman Rebecca Maher died in Police custody after a report showed she had consumed no drugs or alcohol prior, despite Police claims to the contrary. The parents of Ms. Maher told media the Police could have contacted her or a doctor, but she was instead left to die in an overnight prison cell. The family is still pleading for answers.

The reports grow more concerning with a mid-2000s case of a man who died after being exposed to temperatures reaching nearly 60 degrees in a Police van in Western Australia, and the recent case of exposed ‘torture’ methods being used on Indigenous boys in Government youth detention centres.

Knowing this as being the modern reality for Black Australia, surely their history post-colonisation is nothing glamorous – and, surely, it’s impossible for any Australian to be proud of.

The popular Western Australian tourist attraction of Rottnest Island off the coast of the state’s major city and economic powerhouse offers for many a peaceful day’s trip for families away from the activity of Perth. The stunning coastline and reserved flora and fauna is exactly what the new Australia wants to showcase to the world. In the now present state election campaign, both the incumbent Liberals and the opposition Labor Party promise to preserve and build on the success of Rottnest as a key to the state’s tourism activity, and a jewel in its crown. But the history of Rottnest is dark, and unbeknownst to so much of the population the island served as a place of imprisonment and a place of concentration. Whilst there are many locations across Australia where mass-killings have taken place, Rottnest has a marked mass grave for the many of the victims of the concentration camp – marked with a path which allows vehicles to drive straight through. The buildings that once housed prisoners, reportedly in deep shock after witnessing the execution method of hanging for the very first time, are now luxury hotel rooms for which tourists can book for upwards of $200 night. Unsurprisingly, the tourism booklets, under the ‘History’ section mention nothing of those recorded atrocities.

Indigenous Australians still view Rottnest with unease, and thus few ever make the journey. Many are left asking the question why a destination such as Auschwitz is now, quite rightly, a reserved place for respect and reflection following the darkest actions of mankind against its own people, while Rottnest is boasted as a place of fun, relaxation and high-standard accommodation.

By its insistent critics, Australia Day is referred to as “Invasion Day”. The day Captain Arthur Phillip of the First Fleet raised the union flag at Sydney Cove in 1788. In the decades that followed Indigenous Australians, one of the oldest continuing cultures on earth, had their lands taken, and thousands of their people were killed. By the time the White Australia policy was enacted by parliament in 1901 the Indigenous population of Australia had sunk from around 310,000 to under 100,000. The White Australia policy was enacted by Australia’s first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, under the proclamation that “the doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply” to those who weren’t British. In the decades following that, the population continued to decline with government policies worsening conditions and putting it into law that welfare officers were permitted to take Indigenous children and “half-bloods” (children the result of government policies forcing white men to bare children with Indigenous women to ‘phase out’ black pigmentation) from their families. It was the planned, calculated and government-funded genocide.

Frustration from White Australia still exists over Indigenous Australians failing to assimilate and succeed ‘like the rest’ despite many alive today being of the stolen generation, who have lived lives so painful and dark. With parties like One Nation, who have spoken out in the past against “Aboriginal special treatment” now on a concerning rise, let’s refuse to forget this history that has set back a whole group of people. There is so much to be celebrated about Australia – it’s invasion and the treatment of its native people, an inconvenient truth that has been criticised by numerous international organisations including the United Nations is not among one of those things to be celebrated. Some Indigenous Australians have even compared the reality and rift between White and Black Australia as like apartheid South Africa, only without the blatant signs saying “white here” and “black here”.

A patriot does not stand ready to tow the status-quo line without question, second thought or hesitation. A patriot hopes the best for his or her country, and fights against injustice besieged against fellow countrymen, preventing it from being the best.

Nobody wants to see the Australian flag burned on Australia day. What is required is national dialogue over what Australia truly sees as worth celebrating out of love for their country.

– Bennett Morgan, Capital HardTalk 

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