In a majestic six part series, Dr George Venturini takes an in-depth look at the proposal to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, asking whether it will produce the positive effects on reconciliation hoped for.
In this first part, Dr Venturini looks at the Government’s proposal and expert report, the nature of Indigenous sovereignty, and looks at the long history of Australia’s Indigenous Peoples up to the early occupation of their lands.
On Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution:
A belated homage or yet another swindle? (Part 1)
“There are two issues that will manifest our maturity: first, proper constitutional recognition of the first people; second, independence from the regal pantomime in England.”
~ Peter Gebhardt, 1936 - poet and former County Court Judge in Melbourne
The learned Judge got it right, but not in the correct sequence. To do anything seriously about respecting the Indigenous Peoples of what is now Australia, the country must become a republic. And there is the rub.
The Judge was writing on the occasion of Australia Day (2011), which he called
“…that artificial and trumped-up celebration, the excuse for manufactured emotion, [which] should force us to look closely at our history and the truths of that history vis-à-vis the Aboriginal population and the brutal facts of that history.”
And, for good measure, he went on:
“...a history we have refused to acknowledge, to understand and to negotiate, all to our historical detriment. Succeeding hordes of imprinters do not know and do not want to know. The triumphalism of Australia Day is tainted by the tragedy of ignorance and imposed ignominy.”
On 8 November 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the establishment of an Expert Panel to consult on the best possible options for a constitutional amendment on recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to be put to a referendum. The Prime Minister stated:
“The first peoples of our nation have a unique and special place in our nation. We have a once-in-50-year opportunity for our country.”
The Panel’s terms of reference provided for it to report to the Government on possible options for constitutional change, including advice as to the level of support from Indigenous Peoples and the broader community for each option, by December 2011.
In November 2007, Prime Minister John Howard, in one last opportunistic electoral manoeuvre, had announced his support for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in a new preamble to the Constitution. On 24 November 2007, Howard’s Liberal [conservative] Party lost the election which brought to office the Kevin Rudd/Julia Gillard Labor government, formed on 3 December.
On 23 July 2008, the Commonwealth Government conducted a community Cabinet meeting in eastern Arnhem Land. Prime Minister Rudd was presented with a Statement of Intent on behalf of Yolngu and Bininj clans living in Yirrkala, Gunyangara, Gapuwiyak, Maningrida, Galiwin’ku, Milingimbi, Ramingining and Laynhapuy homelands — approximately 8,000 Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land. The ensuing communiqué argued that the right to maintain culture and identity and to protect land and sea estates were preconditions for economic and community development in remote communities. The communiqué called on the Government “to work towards constitutional recognition of our prior ownership and rights.” Receiving the communiqué, the Prime Minister pledged his support for recognition of Indigenous Peoples in the Constitution.
On 24 June 2010, Ms. Gillard toppled Rudd from the prime ministership. On 21 August 2010, new elections followed, for which the Australian Labor Party formulated a policy proposing that
“…Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be an important step in strengthening the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and building trust.”
A Gillard Labor Government would establish an Expert Panel on Indigenous Constitutional Recognition comprising Indigenous leaders, representatives from across the federal Parliament, constitutional law experts and members of the broader Australian community.
The Opposition, too, had a ‘Plan for real action for Indigenous Australians’. The plan was very similar to that of the Government and provided that the Coalition [of the Liberal and National parties] would encourage public discussion and debate about the proposed change, and seek bipartisan support for a referendum to be put to the Australian people at the 2013 election.
The Australian Labor Party was re-elected, albeit without a majority. Ms. Gillard was confirmed as Prime Minister of a minority government.
In September 2010, agreements were reached by the Gillard minority government with the Australian Greens and three Independent members to hold a referendum “…during the [life of the current] Parliament or at the next election on Indigenous constitutional recognition and recognition of local government in the Constitution.”
On 23 December 2010, the Prime Minister announced the membership of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. The Panel comprised persons from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and organisations, small and large business, community leaders, academics, and members of Parliament from across the political spectrum. Membership was drawn from all States and Territories, cities and country areas. The members of the Panel would serve in an independent capacity.
Throughout 2011 the Panel was supported by an executive officer, a media adviser and the Indigenous Constitutional Recognition Secretariat in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
The Panel met throughout 2011: in Canberra in February, October and November, Melbourne in March, July and December, and in Sydney in May and September; it also conducted much of its work out of session.
The process required:
- the building of a general community consensus;
- the central involvement of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people; and
- the collaboration with Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum.
- lead a broad national consultation and community engagement programme to seek the views of a wide spectrum of the community, including from those who live in rural and regional areas;
- work closely with organisations, such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and Reconciliation Australia who have existing expertise and engagement in relation to the issue; and
- raise awareness about the importance of Indigenous constitutional recognition including by identifying and supporting ambassadors who will generate broad public awareness and discussion.
- key issues raised by the community in relation to Indigenous constitutional recognition;
- the form of constitutional change and approach to a referendum likely to obtain widespread support;
- the implications of any proposed changes to the Constitution; and
- advice from constitutional law experts.
- contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation;
- be of benefit to and accord with the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples;
- be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the political and social spectra; and
- be technically and legally sound.
The Expert Panel was to report by December 2011.
In performing its role, the Panel was to:
The Panel was to have regard to:
At its second meeting in Melbourne in March 2011 the Panel agreed on four principles to guide its assessment of proposals for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, namely that each proposal was to:
In its consideration of options for constitutional recognition, the Panel was strictly guided by these four principles.
The Panel worked closely with organisations such as the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Reconciliation Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission. Congress undertook a number of surveys of its members in relation to recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution. Reconciliation Australia undertook activities to complement the work of the Panel. These included contributing content to the Panel’s website, appointing ambassadors and facilitating public meetings.
In May 2011 the Panel published and had distributed a discussion paper, A National Conversation about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Constitutional Recognition. The discussion paper identified seven ideas intended to provide a starting point for conversation with the public envisaged by the Panel, but in no way to limit the scope of proposals which might have been raised through the consultation and submissions process.
The Panel set up an interactive website providing an online presence, involved social media including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr and a blog feed, and published all submissions on the website unless confidentiality had been requested. The Panel engaged a media adviser to develop a media strategy to inform the public as widely as possible. The strategy included arranging features and opinion pieces, television and radio talkback programmes, and speeches at various events.
Between May and October 2011 the Panel conducted a broad national consultation programme, which included public meetings, individual discussions, presentations at festivals and other events, the website, and a formal public submissions process.
State and local office contacts of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and other contacts developed lists for each consultation. In developing such lists, the Panel concentrated on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, business leaders, community leaders, leaders of organisations with Reconciliation Action Plans, and faith-based leaders.
The consultation schedule included meetings with key interested parties, and public consultations in 84 urban, regional and remote locations and in each capital city. It involved as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as possible. Wherever possible, at least two Panel members attended each consultation. At most places, the Panel held an initial meeting with local elders before holding a public community consultation and, where achievable, meetings with other community and business leaders. At each consultation, copies of the discussion paper, the Australian Constitution, information kits, and a questionnaire were distributed.
Between May and October 2011, the Panel held more than 250 consultations in 84 locations with more than 4,600 attendees.
A short film summarising the discussion paper was translated into 15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, namely Guringdji, Murrinh-Patha, Anindiyakwa, Arrernte, Kimberley Kriol, Pitjantjatjara, Wik Mungan, TSI Kriol, Warramangu, Walpirri, Yolngu, Kriol, Tiwi, Alywarra and Kunwinjku.
Between May and September 2011, the Panel received 3,464 submissions from members of the public, members of Parliament, community organisations, legal professionals and academics, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and individuals.
To assist its analysis of the records of consultations and public submissions, as well as to work together closely on the preparation of its report, the Panel established a research and report subgroup. An external consultant, Urbis, was engaged to provide a qualitative analysis of the key issues and themes raised in submissions.
The Panel was aware that, in holding public meetings and inviting written submissions, it would only be able to obtain the views of a small number of Australians. To gather the views of a wider spectrum of the community and to help build an understanding of the likely levels of support within the community for different options for constitutional recognition, the Panel commissioned Newspoll (an asset of the ‘Murdoch stable’) to undertake research. In February 2011, Newspoll tested initial community support by placing a question on its National Telephone Omnibus Survey which asked:
“If there was to be a referendum to recognise indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution, based on what you know now would you vote in favour of it or against it?”
In March 2011, Newspoll again tested levels of community support. In August 2011, Newspoll undertook exploratory qualitative research designed to assist the Panel better to understand the views of Australian voters on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
In September and October 2011, Newspoll conducted two nationally representative telephone surveys. The first survey was designed to help the Panel understand the level of support for a broad range of ideas for constitutional change as the Panel’s consultation activities were nearing their conclusion. The second survey aimed to test the Panel’s early thinking on possible recommendations, and was timed to ensure that information on levels of public support was available during November and December while the Panel was deliberating on its final recommendations.
In November 2011, Newspoll conducted a second round of qualitative research designed to assist the Panel in finalising the language of its recommendations, and in future communications about advancing constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
The Panel also developed a web survey to test support for ideas raised with it during the consultation period. A link to the survey was provided to people who had given contact details at consultations, and to people on the email databases of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Reconciliation Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Between 22 and 30 November 2011, Newspoll conducted four online focus group sessions in relation to possible wording for recommendations. Online focus groups (‘live chats’) included people of different ages, both supportive of and opposed to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
To some extent, submissions to the Panel were constrained by the way ideas were framed in its discussion paper. Discussions at consultations, on the other hand, were less constrained, and options were suggested which had not been canvassed in the discussion paper. As the Panel’s work progressed throughout the year, its thinking about options for recognition developed. In this sense, the process was iterative. The quantitative research undertaken by Newspoll also elicited responses to specific questions, which reflected the Panel’s thinking at different stages of the process. To this extent, the Panel recognised that the analysis of consultations, the analysis of submissions and the results of the quantitative research are not directly comparable.
The Panel’s terms of reference included the requirement to advise the Government on the “level of support from Indigenous people” for each option for changing the Constitution. One of the principles adopted by the Panel to guide its assessment of proposals was the need for any proposal “to be of benefit to and accord with the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
Testing the level of support for any proposal across the entire Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population would be immensely difficult. No established survey instrument could provide an accurate and representative measure of the opinion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. At the request of the Panel, the possibility of constructing a statistically representative panel of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents to a large national survey was investigated, but found not to be feasible.
The Panel placed a strong emphasis upon ensuring that its consultation schedule enabled it to capture the views of as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities as possible within the available timeframes. In addition to the meetings held in the course of the broader consultation programme, the Panel also held high-level focus groups with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders.
The Panel was also informed by responses to its web survey from people who identified themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The Panel also sought to make use of other sources of information on the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, including surveys of its members conducted by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
Finally, the Panel received submissions from many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations. The views expressed in these submissions assisted the Panel in its discussions and in arriving at its recommendations.
The last of the four principles agreed by the Panel required that any proposal be “…technically and legally sound.” This reflected the requirement in the Panel’s terms of reference that suggested changes have regard to “…the implications of any proposed changes to the Constitution and advice from constitutional law experts.”
The Panel sought legal advice on options for, and issues arising in relation to, constitutional recognition. Advice was provided by constitutional law experts among the Panel’s members, as well as by leading practitioners of Constitutional law. In addition to this advice, legal roundtable meetings were held further to test that the Panel’s proposed recommendations were legally and technically sound.
Submissions were also made to the Panel by many legal practitioners, academics and professional associations. These submissions assisted the Panel in its discussions and in forming its recommendations.
To test community responses to its proposed recommendations, the Panel adopted a number of strategies, including engaging Newspoll.
The Panel also held a series of high-level focus groups in October and November 2011 with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in order further to test proposed recommendations. The lists of interested persons which had been developed for the purpose of consultations were drawn on to invite participants to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander focus groups. Focus groups were held in Adelaide, Brisbane, Broome, Cairns, Canberra, Darwin, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Thursday Island.
These discussions were an important step in obtaining the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in relation to the Panel’s proposed recommendations.
Legal roundtables were also held further to test proposed language for unintended consequences. Six such roundtables were held: one in Brisbane, one in Perth, two in Melbourne and two in Sydney. These were attended by some 40 barristers and academics with expertise in constitutional law.
Roundtables with officials from multiple government agencies were held in Brisbane and Melbourne. A roundtable discussion was also held in Sydney, attended by 20 representatives from non-governmental organisations.
* * *
The Expert Panel Report is divided into eleven chapters, with four appendices, an abundant bibliography and a good index. After an introduction, the chapters present a historical background, a comparative and international recognition, the national conversation dealing with themes from the consultation programme, forms of recognition, the ‘race’ provision contained in the Australian Constitution, considerations on racial non-discrimination, on governance and political participation, on agreement-making, approaches to the referendum and finally a draft Bill.
The Report barely touched upon the claim for ‘sovereignty’ by Indigenous Peoples. It observed, correctly, that sovereignty is explained in ways and with concepts quite varied even amongst Indigenous Peoples. In addition, qualitative research undertaken by the Panel in August 2011 found that the concepts of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘self-determination’ were poorly understood by non-Indigenous Australians and, anyway, any proposal on the subjects would have been unlikely to satisfy the fourth of the Panel’s principles, namely the requirement that such proposal be “technically and legally sound.”
On this matter of ‘sovereignty’ the Report reveals the clash between some of the beliefs of Indigenous Peoples and the language used, not only in the Report, but in the everyday conversation of ordinary non-Indigenous Australians.
The difficulty, almost impossibility, of reconciling current non-Indigenous values with the strongly held beliefs by Indigenous people is glaringly demonstrated by the contents of a statement of Yolngu law which was submitted to the Panel by one of its members: Timmy Djawa Burarrwanga of the Gumatj clan.
The statement, which appears even before the introduction to the Report, reads:
It is really sad that non-Aboriginal people do not understand about our law.
We cannot have traditions unless we know and respect ngarra rom and mawul rom. Ngarra rom is our law. Mawul rom is the law of peace-making. We hold ngarra rom in our identity. We have never changed our laws for thousands of years. It is like layers and layers of information about our country.
Ngarra rom works to enable government within the various Aboriginal nations, led by the dilak, or clan leaders. Ngarra rom also governs relations among nations. Ngarra is also a knowledge system. Under ngarra, there are djunggaya or public officers who make business go properly. There are djunggaya all over this country — for Yolngu, Arrernte, Walpirri, Murri, Koori and Noongar and all the Aboriginal nations.
We Yolngu have ngarra or hidden knowledge. Ngarra holds the Yolngu mathematical system about relationships among all people, beings and things in the world — land, sea, water, animals, plants, the wind and the rain, and the heavens.
We Yolngu have never been anarchists or lawless.
The Constitution in 1901 did not change ngarra.
In 1901, the Constitution ignored ngarra rom. Without acknowledgment in the Constitution, there is lawlessness and anarchy. Without acknowledgment in the Constitution, we are separate.
The preamble to the Constitution is a short job. The Constitution is a barrier to understanding the indigenous cultures of this country. No more British preamble. Let us be together in the Constitution to make unity in this country. This means ‘We are one. We are many of this country’.
~ Timmy Djawa Burarrwanga, Gumatj Clan.
There could be no better way to express the firm view that, for the last 224 years, the Indigenous Peoples and the new Australians who began to arrive with Captain Phillip in 1788 have been speaking different languages, irreconcilable to either group.
New Australians have been using words such as Constitution, modern liberal democracy, equality, fairness, justice, law, elections, government and indeed sovereign and sovereignty, which hardly live together.
Furthermore, there is a religious tone to the statement which is not understandable to and shared by new Australians. The ‘whites’ have been in turn acting as ‘abandoned Britons’ and ‘multicultural’ acquisitions and accretions — and all aspirants or practitioners of the fine arts which demand Anglo supercilious politeness and/or the ‘playing of the game’ which goes with it.
In this race to assertion the Indigenous and Torres Straits Islanders Peoples have always come second — when they have survived.
Much use was made during Prime Minister Howard’s eleven-year period of the expression “black armband view of history”. That was the appeal of John Winston Howard, whose main achievement was a grand waste of time: he wanted to appear ordinary to an extraordinarily ordinary populace, when all he had to do was to be himself — by definition, ordinary. Almost at the end of a long period of Philistinism he spoke of ‘practical reconciliation’, while preparing to send in the Army to re-occupy Indigenous Lands. He was a grand consumer of words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Those virtues were alright for the new Australians, so long as they continued to vote for his Coalition. And with those words went other mantra-like mystical words: ‘the Westminster System’, ‘parliamentary democracy’, and of course ‘the Mother Country’ – from time to time subject to re-definition – and the Monarchy. It was a sclerotic world, in which history would not really matter much, confined in the popular view to recall name and particulars of such and such match, player, race, horse, march — and The Queen, with Her dysfunctional but Royal Family and Her Royal Firm.
What follows will be a “redeeming view of history.”
It is believed that the ancestors of Indigenous Australians arrived in what is now called Australia at least 40,000 to 60,000 years ago — and probably as early as 70,000 years ago. They developed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, established enduring spiritual and artistic traditions and utilised stone technologies. For tens of thousands of years, they performed religious practices associated with the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime, or the Dreaming is a sacred era in which ancestral Totemic Spirit Beings formed The Creation. The Dreaming established the laws and structures of society and the ceremonies performed to ensure continuity of life and land. Recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained. People appear to have arrived by sea during a period of glaciation, when Papua New Guinea and Tasmania were joined to the continent. The journey still required sea travel, however, placing the Indigenous Peoples among the world’s earlier mariners.
The greatest population density developed in the southern and eastern regions, the River Murray valley in particular. Indigenous Peoples lived and utilised resources on the continent sustainably, agreeing to cease hunting and gathering at particular times to give populations and resources the chance to replenish. ‘Firestick farming’ amongst people of the northern regions was used to encourage plant growth which attracted animals. Indigenous Peoples belong to the oldest, most sustainable and most isolated cultures on Earth.
The Dreaming was and remains prominent in Indigenous Peoples’ artistic expressions. Such art is believed to be the oldest continuing tradition of art in the world. Evidence of Indigenous art can be traced back at least 30,000 years and is found throughout Australia.
Despite considerable cultural continuity, life for Indigenous Peoples was not without significant changes. About 10-12,000 years ago, modern Tasmania separated from the mainland, and some stone technologies failed to reach the Tasmanian people — such as the hafting of stone tools and the use of the boomerang.
There is evidence that, when necessary, the Indigenous Peoples could keep control of their population growth and in times of drought or arid areas were able to maintain reliable water supplies. In south-eastern Australia, near present day Lake Condah, semi-permanent villages of beehive shaped shelters of stone developed, near bountiful food supplies. For centuries, Macassan trade flourished with the Indigenous Peoples of the present day Australian north coast, particularly with the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land.
When Indigenous Peoples first set eyes on Captain James Cook in 1770, the population consisted of some 250 distinct nations, within each of which there were numerous tribes or clans who spoke one or more of hundreds of languages and dialects. Complex social systems and ‘elaborate and obligatory’ laws and customs differed from nation to nation. Under the laws or customs of the relevant locality, particular tribes or clans were, either on their own or with others, custodians of the areas of land from which they derived their sustenance and from which they often took their tribal names. When Cook arrived at soon-to-be-called Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia on 29 April 1770, he was carrying instructions from the Admiralty issued in 1768. Those instructions provided, among other things:
“You are also with the consent of the natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.”
Of his first encounter with local people, Cook wrote in his journal that “all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone.” Cook continued to chart the eastern coast to the northern tip of modern Queensland and raised the British flag at sans dire Possession Island, off present day Cape York Peninsula. He ‘took possession’ of the whole eastern coast of Australia and named it New South Wales.
In October 1786, the British Government appointed Captain Arthur Phillip as first governor of New South Wales, which was designated to be a convict place. By the time Phillip was commissioned to lead the First Fleet, his instructions from King George III had nothing to say about the “consent of the natives.” Phillip’s instructions counselled him to “live in amity and kindness” with the natives, but anticipated the need for measures to limit native “interference”. On 18 January 1788, Phillip arrived at Botany Bay with a fleet of nine ships. Between 26 January and 6 February 1788, 827 convicts (580 males and 247 females) as well as 211 marines landed at what was to be called Port Jackson.
Phillip – clearly the first thief – was authorised to grant land to those who would ‘improve it’ — that is to say, to ‘receivers of stolen goods’.
The operation was eased by the convenient fiction that the land was terra nullius — which belongs to no-one. It was so to be for 204 years, and only through the exertion of force by and on behalf of the British Crown and the views of sycophantic historians. No-one had sought permission to land, no-one had consented, no-one had ceded. Sovereignty was not passed from the Indigenous Peoples by any actions of legal significance voluntarily taken by or on behalf of them.
‘The natives’ were found to be quite ‘different’: scantily covered, un-receptive to the Christian religion’s blessings, unable to speak English, unwilling to acknowledge the majesty of a foreign boss called the King — why, ‘barbarians’.
They turned out to be quite resistant to the dispossession, and the promise of real estate agency, the lure of banking business and commercial enterprise, which in time would develop under the protection for several decades of a military dictatorship.
The earliest record of an armed encounter between Indigenous Peoples and the occupiers is dated May 1788. Violence developed and systematised, never turning into a programmatic effort of extermination — except for Van Diemen’s Land, modern day Tasmania, where a ‘Black Line’ of death was drawn and, incidentally, failed.
One George Augustus Robinson then proposed to set out unarmed ‘to mediate’ with the remaining tribes-people. With the assistance of a woman named Truganini as guide and translator, Robinson convinced remaining tribesmen to surrender to an isolated new settlement at Flinders Island, where most later died of disease, but above all of loneliness.
People who ‘belong to the land’ – as any Indigenous person would say – would suffer exceptionally from being separated from the native place. As a sublimation of sheer brutality, forced ‘relocation’ would knowingly be the tool for the ‘dispersion’ of Indigenous Peoples. A new form of the English language was about to take foot.
Raids, murders, massacres of Indigenous Peoples continued in different parts of the continent to the 1930s as the land was being taken over by new arrivals and expansion. Prejudice, the natural child of ignorance, survives to the present. The period of armed conflict is rarely mentioned; it is portrayed as a sequel of scaramouches necessary to assert and defend the ‘right of property’. Serious historians, unpaid for their opinion, often refer to this as the time of ‘the frontier wars’.
One of the last known and documented massacres of Indigenous Peoples took place from 14 August to 18 October 1928 near the Coniston cattle station, in what is today the Northern Territory.
The massacre occurred in revenge for the death of a dingo-hunter named Frederick Brooks, killed by ‘natives’ in August 1928 at a place now known as Yukurru. Official records at the time stated that 31 people were killed. The then-owner of Coniston station was a member of the punitive party for the first few days and estimated that at least twice that number were killed between 14 August and 1 September. Serious historians estimate that as many as 110 ‘native’ men, women and children were killed. Some clans: the Anmatyerre, the Kaytetye and the Warlpiri believe that up to 170 died between 14 August and 18 October.
Even before the arrival of the occupiers in local districts, imported diseases often preceded them. A smallpox epidemic was recorded in Sydney in 1789, which wiped out about half ‘the natives’ around Sydney. It then spread well beyond the then limits of the occupied area, including much of south-eastern Australia; it reappeared in 1829-30, killing 40 to 60 per cent of the ‘native’ population.
The impact of the occupation was profoundly disruptive to ‘native’ life and, though the extent of violence is still debated, there was considerable conflict on the frontier. At the same time, some of the occupiers were quite aware they were standing on Indigenous land. Rarely British justice would take its blind off to see. Thus, when in 1838 at least twenty-eight ‘natives’ were massacred at the Myall Creek in New South Wales, not even the occupying authorities could fail to have seven ‘whites’ tried, convicted and hanged by the colonial courts.
‘The natives’ also attacked white intruders. In 1838, fourteen of them were killed at Broken River in Port Phillip District, which was to become Victoria in 1851, by Aborigines of the Ovens River, almost certainly in revenge for the illicit use of Aboriginal women.
In 1845, one of the ‘receivers’ attempted to justify his position by writing:
“The question comes to this; which has the better right — the savage, born in a country, which he runs over but can scarcely be said to occupy ... or the civilised man, who comes to introduce into this ... unproductive country, the industry which supports life.”
This is the substance of life in a mercantile society.
Early commentaries often, and conveniently, tended to describe ‘the natives’ as doomed to extinction following the arrival of the English. An ‘inferior black race’ was bound to disappear.
From the 1830s, colonial governments established what were going to become the controversial offices of the Protector of Aborigines in an effort to avoid mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples and conduct government policy towards them.
Captain Hutton of Port Phillip District once told Chief Protector of Aborigines George Augustus Robinson that “if a member of a tribe offends, destroy the whole.” That was the practice of the time: there is records that it translated, in places such as Afghanistan for instance, into an English unwritten order ‘to butcher and bolt’.
Queensland’s Colonial Secretary Arthur H. Palmer wrote in 1884:
“…the nature of the blacks was so treacherous that they were only guided by fear — in fact it was only possible to rule…the Australian Aboriginal…by brute force.”
Robinson had come upon a word which would work absolute magic to successive generations of occupiers: protection. The use of the word would become a great contributor to the development of ‘Antipodean’ English.
‘Protection’ was really of, by and for the occupiers and would be applied for a long time, up to the present indeed, against ‘the other’, ‘the outsider’, ‘the enemy’ from time to time as conveniently defined.
In the context of the time, ‘protection’ was the omnibus formula against ‘the intruders’ and all those who could be seen as a threat to ‘the settlement’ of the colony. That view of life in the colony would crystallise into the ‘White Australia’ policy.
The 1838 massacre at Myall Creek was followed by the adoption of a ‘policy’ to describe Australia’s approach to immigration, long before federation and until the latter part of the twentieth century. ‘Protection’ favoured applicants from certain countries — soon to be specified as Anglo-Celtic countries. Now, there is another example of double entendre. There are no Anglo-Celtic countries. There is England, and there are Ireland and Scotland; maybe in the process the Welsh were either left out of the glorious classification or assumed to be some sort of enlarged village, there, just outside England proper — hard to be specific in such lunacy.
‘Protection’ of the ill-gotten ‘settlement’ was meant to be from Asiatic ‘races’ — mainly the Chinese who had arrived in search of gold.
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