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Antidote for the poison of Australian racism

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The First Inventors explores the modernity of Australia's Indigenous culture and its importance today (Screenshot via YouTube)

Racism still courses through our national bloodstream, but we can begin to wipe out hatred by reflecting on innovations of the past to move forward, writes Bilal Cleland.

THERE IS CURRENTLY an outstanding TV series that addresses the poisonous colonial racism which still exists.

A joint production of NITV and Channel 10, The First Inventors demonstrates the huge influence the First Nations had upon our continent.

The eel traps in southwestern Victoria on the swamps and the lake named by the colonists as Condah are believed by archaeologists to be the first example of aquaculture on Earth.

The landscape was manipulated over many kilometres to create ponds and channels in which eels could be trapped in the breeding season, presenting a reliable food supply.

The area also contains stone houses which suggests that the tribal people were not nomadic.

The eel traps were used for over 7,000 years, coming to an end only with White colonisation, the draining of the swamp and the establishment of the concentration camps called mission stations in the 1800s.

First Nations guardians explain how the Queensland rainforest is composed of recent-growth forest, allowed to flourish since the original caretakers of the land were displaced. Traditional burning and weed control ended with White settlement and ethnic cleansing.

Scientific study of samples of soil down a couple of metres in the rainforest of Tasmania has shown that this, too, is relatively recent.

Over hundreds of years, the soil sample shows grassland and trees, typical of the managed landscapes over 12,000 years, with a sudden and obvious change about 200 years ago when the grasslands vanish and dense eucalyptus tree cover occurs.

White colonisation and genocide brought back the forest.

The first program showed how traditional burning removed weeds, did not endanger trees and permitted wildlife, including insects, to escape the fire.

Such information may provide the antidote to the poison of racism in our society for most people but not for the dyed-in-the-wool haters who are no longer dominant.

Similar information was made available some years ago in Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and it created hysteria amongst the White supremacists who declared that the original inhabitants of this continent were incapable of such sophisticated technology or economic practices.

The depth of racist ideology

That sort of thinking, based on the underbelly of the Enlightenment, so-called “scientific racism”, can be largely laid at the door of Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin.

Galton claimed that a hierarchy of races existed and that the most superior were the ancient Athenians and English gentlemen, with the Australian Aborigines as the lowest category.

His drivel was still being regurgitated in the History Faculty of Melbourne University in the 1930s when J Lyng wrote in 1935, Non-Britishers in Australia: Influence on Population and Progress.

It carried a foreword by Ernest Scott, one of the outstanding Australian scholars at the time.

He wrote approvingly of the French Count Gobineau who contended:

‘The history of mankind proves that the destinies of people are governed by a racial law. Neither irreligion, no immorality, no luxurious living, nor weakness of government causes the decadence of civilisations. If a nation goes down, the reason is that its blood, the race itself is deteriorating.’

There are Right-wing political organisations that still promote this type of thinking, although when challenged they now try to hide it.

It still seems to hold influence amongst otherwise mainstream conservatives, especially when it comes to immigration.

According to a 2018 article in The Conversation:

Former prime minister Tony Abbott has said that if people had been more willing to heed the message of those like Pauline Hanson over the last two decades, “we would be a better country today.”


“And we do have a problem with Islamism that does require decent Muslims to stand up to the death-to-the-infidel extremists.”

Racism in law

The Australian Constitution of 1901, an Act of the British Parliament, presumed to make laws governing the whole continent but did not recognise the First Nations who had lived here for 65,000 years.

We are one of the few colonial settler countries to not recognise the First Nations.

Aboriginal affairs were left to the states but according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, its online page, Constitutional reform: FAQs — Why reform of the Constitution is needed, states:

‘The Australian Constitution also permits the Commonwealth Parliament to validly enact laws that are racially discriminatory and contemplates disqualifying people from voting on the basis of their race.’

While not acknowledging the First Nations,  the Commonwealth Parliament did acknowledge the importance of racial “purity” with its haste to pass the Immigration Restriction Act.

Henceforth all “coloured” people trying to enter Australia would be required to submit to a medical examination and to a dictation test. This test could be in any European language.

To make it hard for non-White immigrants already here, the 1902 Roads Act was passed.

Afghan cameleers were the target. High registration fees were imposed for each camel and added to this, a license fee of ten shillings a year on all camels used in transport.

Then came the 1903 Naturalisation Act which provided that applicants for naturalisation could not be natives of Asia, Africa or the Pacific Islands (except for New Zealand).

Meanwhile, the First Nations continued to be subjected to ethnic cleansing, massacre and incarceration, either on mission stations or in prison.

Growing awareness of the need for change

A recent article in The Shot, ‘The poison in Australia’s bloodstream’, marks Dave Milner’s rejection of the conservative colonisation narrative:

I was taught that the English brought civilisation and law, and alcohol and diseases with them, and that the locals just couldn’t handle their booze or smallpox. I was not taught that the First Fleet arrived with bayonets and rifles, not just to use on the convicts, and that the entire continent is – from the grasslands of Victoria to the Blue Mountains of NSW to the Dead Heart red centre to the jungles along our jagged Northern coast – stained with massacre after massacre of Indigenous peoples.

And he lays the blame for the recent upsurge of the false tale:

‘This fuzzy version of the past is the one that John Howard, former Prime Minister and Patron Saint of the Boomers, viciously fought for while in office. Howard, for all his faults, keenly understood the power of history. Who controls the past controls the future.’

Rejection of the colonial narrative is much the accepted view of a majority of younger Australians, apart from those afraid of cultural difference.

Reflecting on the Voice to Parliament referendum campaign, Milner comments:

‘When clearly disingenuous arguments against the Voice to Parliament are presented to Australia by routinely disingenuous and racist people, they should be treated as such.’

What has not been discussed much outside Twitter is the coagulation of Right-wing mining interests around the “Vote No” campaign.

Do they fear an Indigenous Voice to Parliament will perhaps endanger their entitlement to exploit our natural resources, paying little taxation, in areas where the First Nations voice will be strong?

The antidote to the poison in our national bloodstream is partially information, the truth, but also partially confronting the vested interests which regard the continent and its natural resources as theirs and theirs alone.

Most people seek truth and embrace it, but those with the ideology of mammon seek only self-interest.

Bilal Cleland is a retired secondary teacher and was Secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Chairman of the Muslim Welfare Board Victoria and Secretary of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils. You can follow Bilal on Twitter @BilalCleland.

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