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Australia needs to recapture the urgency felt in the early 20th century about achieving an honourable and just settlement with Indigenous people. Takver/flickr, CC BY-SA

How can Australia build on a century of struggle over Indigenous citizenship?

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

The issues and discussions that surrounded Indigenous affairs in the early 20th century reverberate in Australia’s current political climate.

Amid regular press reports of legal injustice, police abuse and ill-treatment, inter-racial violence and unease (particularly in the Northern Territory), demands for royal commissions and periodic concern about the health and wellbeing of communities on the brink, there were appeals for constitutional change even then.

Concerned citizens and Indigenous leaders spoke of the crisis that was Indigenous affairs. The history wars thus obscured a historic fact: there is a deep connection between past and present in Indigenous affairs in Australia.

There is a great divide in how Australia’s history is perceived.


One of the key differences is the expectations between then and now.

Back then, a new century and a new national government injected a sense of possibility and responsibility into the Indigenous space. Now, despite hope, fresh claims of crisis and urgent calls for the relationship between governments and Indigenous people to be reset, there is less of that optimism and even less of that sense of responsibility.

Recent allegations of human rights abuses in juvenile detention in the NT impelled the minister responsible to claim the territory government had learned from past mistakes.

It pays to avow the past. In 1927, a report of the royal commission established to investigate the Onmalmeri massacre in Western Australia found two policemen were responsible for the deaths and subsequent burning of bodies of Aboriginal people.

Not long after, a group of concerned citizens made a request to the responsible minister for a royal commission into the status and condition of Indigenous people thought to be dying as a result of white civilisation. We – white settler-subjects – were the problem.

Two months later, under the terms of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, several citizens demanded constitutional change to enable the nationalisation of Indigenous policy. One said:

We are deeply convinced that the question of the protection of the surviving Aborigines, and the amelioration of their present and future condition is greater and more urgent than is generally realised in Australia.

That was in 1927. One Indigenous rights advocate of these years, William Morley, referred to this being a case of national honour and character:

The humane treatment of the Aborigines would have a reflex action on the national character.

Moves toward activism

In the first 30 or so years of the 20th century, it was not unusual to hear such public consternation and aspiration.

In particular, concerns about police brutality and legal injustice thundered across the interwar years as massacres and incarceration continued. Several cases of police brutality in the north hit the southern press.

Timing had something to do with this: a new century, a new Commonwealth and even a new world order. The League of Nations put the humane treatment of Indigenous peoples on the international agenda for the first time.

As leading advocate Mary Bennett proclaimed:

The point is that exploitation by white races of coloured races is becoming precarious, cannot continue much longer and must be replaced by justice and humanity … we really need the tonic of voluntarily dragging our dark practices into the light of day and asking the co-operation of any international judiciary like the Hague Tribunal. It would make the perpetration of evil-doing by white governments a little awkward, as they are themselves aware.

UWA Publishing

Bennett capitalised on the moment to write her first human rights treatise. In The Australian Aboriginal As Human Being, she wrote that the Aboriginal question was not ours alone but a world problem. As bad as things were, there was still time to forge an honourable settlement with the Aborigines in the NT and found a just relationship between them and the settlers.

That was in 1930. This was the most important business of the 20th century, Bennett argued. Beyond their own families and communities, legal equality, education, medical assistance and food were required.

This was at a time when those classified as full-descent Aboriginal people were numerous in the north.

But the national paranoia about those classified as mixed descent led to the wholesale dispersal of families and the removal of children – despite the fact that those classified as full-descent and living in remote, northern parts constituted the majority Aboriginal population into the postwar period. They are the ancestors of these same communities today, the majority of whom continue to live in remote parts of the north.

Bennett was the most persistent and noisy critic of Aboriginal family dispersal and child removal from the 1930s until her death in 1961. Yet it was the genocide of those classified full-descent that was a recurring refrain of her advocacy. It was largely for these people that the voices of discontent were raised in the first place. Their position was a national crisis needing urgent attention.

However, notwithstanding more than two decades of concerted agitation (including calls for forms of self-government), governments washed their hands of the issue.

By the eve of the second world war, Aboriginal lives hung precariously in the balance: become detribalised or die. Intervention was too costly.

For Bennett, what governments styled as “the destiny of the race” was Australia’s own “final solution” for Aboriginal people on the eve of the war – a policy of breed out and die out.

While intervention was necessary for mixed-descent communities, for the full-descent it was unnecessary and too costly. The concerned few worried that detribalisation in a discriminatory system and society spelt destabilisation. At the very least, ill-health. At worst, death.

For Bennett, non-intervention was too costly for Aboriginal people but also for “us”. In losing them we lost a people from whom we had much to learn: a civilisation that was grounded in a fundamentally humane code of spirituality, temperance, generosity and respect.

Even more importantly, we lost mates, partners, friends, companions and workers - people on whom we had depended to forge a place in this land. This history was the underbelly of the Australian achievement and it was worth celebrating and building, rather than destroying.

It was this sense of connectedness between the Aboriginal custodians of the land and ourselves as immigrants that propelled the broader sense of urgency in these years.

As David Jackson, member for the Tasmanian seat of Bass, reflected at the opening of the first national parliament in Canberra in 1927:

The nation … owed [an obligation] to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

A new era?

Despite the historical continuities, there are differences between the beginning of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Most noticeably, this sense of national responsibility is now missing. Until very recently, the language has been of irresponsibility – not of governments and their agents – but of Indigenous people themselves. There has certainly been intervention, but would we call it humane?

Gone too is that sense of national honour. I’m not sure what the “national code of honour” was in 1927 when William Morley invoked it. Was it wrapped up in the idea of the Anzac spirit? If it was, then surely aspects of it applied to Indigenous-settler history and relations: sacrifice, stoicism, loyalty and endurance.

Certainly, the hundreds of Indigenous people who fought for Australia in both world wars thought it applied.

And in making claims about the role of the federal government in Indigenous affairs, all advocates of yesteryear were espousing a particular view of Australian democracy that placed the national government at the helm of a morally and politically mature and responsible nation.

If Bennett was right, it would seem governments are ill-equipped to deal with the ongoing survival, needs and rights of Indigenous communities in the north because they didn’t bargain on them still being there. Perhaps this is why they stumble on constitutional recognition. Hadn’t the mid-20th century policy shift militated against the possibility?

In the circumstances, Indigenous survival is testament to an incredibly resilient society and culture. In itself this is worth celebrating and building.

As Aboriginal leaders ask that the 45th parliament be the beginning of a new era in Indigenous affairs, heeding the past seems more pertinent than ever. A start would be a nation that recaptures some of the urgency of the past, as well as some of its appreciation and respect for Indigenous humanity.

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