Historical and Political Context

To gain a proper anthropological understanding of the current inequality that exists in Australia, it is important to comprehend the historical and political context that forged the relationships between Aboriginal people and Balanda (White man). The following video  details the foundations on which this unequal relationship was built right from the European colonisation of Australia in 1788:

VIDEO: History


To Australian settlers, Captain Cook is seen as a founding father, a historical figure, a fading hero. For aboriginals he is the disrupter and invader. The very historical  rhetoric that suggests Australia was ‘discovered’ by Cook necessarily discounts the presence of Indigenous Australians who had been there for 40,000 years previously. From this very instant recognition of the indigenous people was put into question and they became subordinate to the dominant ‘White Man’.

From their observations along the east coast in 1770, the settlers judged that Aborigines were few in number, mere nomadic inhabitants rather than proprietors. Accordingly they inscribed their graffiti on the trees to proclaim British possession; and for the same reason the British government regarded New South Wales as a better site for colonial settlement than New Zealand because it required no treaty or act of purchase from the inhabitants.

Phillip and his officers were therefore surprised by the number of
Aborigines round the settlement. They quickly came to appreciate
that these people had social organisation, settled localities, custom-
ary law and property rights. The whole claim of sovereignty and
ownership on the basis of terra nullius was manifestly based on
a misreading of Australian circumstances, not that this prevented
Phillip from hoisting the Union jack in 1788 and expropriating the
owners of Sydney Cove. Not until the High Court gave its Mabo
judgement in I992 was there a legal recognition that Aborigines had
owned and possessed their traditional lands. A similar recognition of continuing sovereignty has not been granted. Macintyre, Stuart (2011)  A Concise History of Australia

The Australian government has played an ongoing role in the structural violence enacted against indigenous people through it’s implementation of paternalistic polices.As depicted in the archive footage in the video, early Christian churches in Australia sought to convert Aborigines, and were often used by government to carry out welfare and assimilation policies such as the ‘protection and uplift’ policy devised by the House of Commons select committee in the 1830 (Dockery 2010). Colonial churchmen such as Sydney’s first Catholic archbishop, John Polding strongly advocated for Aboriginal rights and dignity however the consequences were further damaging to indigenous people.

These children belonged to the ‘Stolen Generation’ who were taken as part of the Assimilation  policy that was presented as being ‘ for the good’ of the Indigenous people, but became just another way of destroying Aboriginal culture.  The removal of children from Aboriginal parents was not a new idea; it had been happening for years on the stations and reserves. The removal policy was stepped up with the introduction of the assimilation policy:

The removal of the children was often not planned. The reserve manager or a policeman could declare that a child was in ‘ danger’ and that child could be taken away immediately. The parents were often not told where their children were going.  During the period from the 1980’s there has been growing support of post colonial liberal multiculturalist approaches such as focusing on Aboriginal self determination. Self determination embodies both a recognition of the legitimacy and value of indigenous culture in its own right and the belief that indigenous people should be empowered to choose and pursue their desired balance between cultural maintenance and engagement in the mainstream economy (Dockery 2010 ).

In 1996 the Liberal national Coalition Government rejected self determination approach as ‘symbolic reconciliation’ instead arguing that economic development was key to success in indigenous affairs  through ‘practical reconciliation’.  However in 2007 a damning report on  childhood sexual abuse within indigenous communities resulted in the government mobilising the army in what it called an emergency intervention:

Video: The Intervention

The intervention brought stigmatisation and further marginalisation  to indigenous people  however it did raise awareness to the poor standards of living.  On 13 February 2008, now known as Sorry Day,  Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister apologised on behalf of the Australian government  for the damage and hurt it had caused to the indigenous people of Australia through its assimilation policies.

However this apology did not apply to, or even reference the intervention as an equally damaging governmental policy effecting Indigenous Australians.

The correct level of involvement for Australian government in improving the wellbeing is clearly a contentious issues. Regardless of political position it is clear to see that current government policy continues to attempt to determine how Indigenous Australians should live despite mounting evidence that modernisation and interventionist plans are not working….

VIDEO: Wellbeing

Evidence from NATSISS (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey)  suggests that continuation of traditional cultural practices has a positive association with a wide range of well-being outcome measures, which are specifically different from socio-economic measures used currently to determine development success. Future generation of Indigenous Australians will potentially benefit from efforts and policies enacted now to maintain indigenous land language and culture (Biddle and Swee 2012) Therefore including indigenous people in employment that might result in the loss of this cultural attachment may in turn have a negative effect on their well-being.

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