Ken Wyatt faces challenges – and opportunities – as minister for Indigenous Australians



The appointment of Ken Wyatt as the first Indigenous minister for Indigenous Australians is a significant moment in the nation’s history.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Eddie Synot, Griffith University

Ken Wyatt is the first Indigenous cabinet minister in the history of the Commonwealth government. That he was also the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives when elected in 2010 as the member for Hasluck, WA, and is now the first Indigenous person to be minister for Indigenous Australians, makes his appointment especially significant.

Wearing his Noongar kangaroo skin booka, the significance of this appointment should not be understated. The short history of Indigenous participation in Australia’s political community is one of exclusion. But that exclusion was never the result of a lack of Indigenous persistence and ability.

Australian society was structured on the exclusion, or limited inclusion, of Indigenous people. Laws targeted Indigenous people for special treatment based on biological and sociological beliefs in their racial inferiority. These attitudes permeated Australian society throughout the protection and assimilation eras. These laws set effective limits on the participation of Indigenous peoples in Australian society.




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Australian society has come a long way since the days of oppressive exclusion. But we still bear the heavy burden of a history of torment and powerlessness. Perhaps more than any other member of cabinet, Ken Wyatt will feel the weight of history, hope and expectation as he faces the challenge of Indigenous affairs.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison seems aware of the significance of this appointment. An example of this awareness is the name change from Minister for Indigenous Affairs to Minister for Indigenous Australians. This fits the narrative of social cohesion that Morrison has deployed to emphasise Australian unity in response to calls for Indigenous constitutional recognition. This rhetoric has persisted despite many emphasising that Indigenous constitutional recognition would unify and enhance Australian democracy rather than challenge it.

The Indigenous affairs portfolio has had a long and troubled history. Nigel Scullion’s tenure as minister was plagued by significant issues and dissatisfaction from within the Indigenous community. Multiple reports have been scathing of the Commonwealth’s policies, especially its flagship Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) and Closing the Gap (CTG).

The 2017 review of the IAS by the Australian National Audit Office was particularly scathing. The report found a culture of arbitrary decision-making, a lack of transparency, poor record-keeping, a lack of oversight and accountability, no access to review of decisions, and a significant number of submissions having been lost.

The reviews of CTG were also scathing. Reports emphasised a continued failure to make significant inroads in targeted outcomes, despite over a decade of policy action.

Most striking, though, has been the clear frustration of the Indigenous community with a government that has ignored Indigenous peoples and worked according to dated and paternalistic practices.

This frustration resulted in the formation of a coalition of peak Indigenous bodies. This coalition in turn was able to obtain a negotiated partnership with the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announced in December 2018.

COAG acknowledged a need for actions to:

align with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ and communities’ priorities and ambition as a basis for developing action plans.

This is important recognition of the desire of Indigenous peoples to control their own affairs through community-controlled delivery of service programs. COAG also recognised that “to effect real change, governments must work collaboratively and in genuine, formal partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as they are the essential agents of change”.

These policy concerns are part of the broader place and understanding of Indigenous peoples within Australia. This foundational issue informed the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its sequenced priorities of voice, treaty and truth. Fully aware of the difficult history and challenges ahead, the Uluru Statement from the Heart asked all Australians “to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”.

The second anniversary of the Uluru statement has coincided with Wyatt’s appointment, National Sorry Day and Reconciliation Week. This timing has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the importance of Wyatt’s appointment, successes to date, challenges ahead, and the acceptance of that invitation from the Uluru statement.




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Wyatt faces a significant challenge. That cannot be denied. Any increased expectations on him because he is Indigenous should be tempered.

The challenge is bigger than the Indigenous affairs portfolio, as recent reports into Indigenous affairs have addressed. Solutions require partnerships across government, ministerial portfolios and the community to be successful. The challenges are not simply those of Indigenous peoples and the minister for Indigenous Australians. This is the responsibility of all Australians.

It is hard to say what Wyatt’s first priority as minister should be, as there are so many issues demanding attention. Indigenous youth suicide and the much maligned Community Development Program stand out. But the relationship between Indigenous peoples and other Australians, including the respect and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, remains front and centre of the work ahead.

Wyatt brings a notable difference to the Indigenous affairs portfolio. He is experienced, having served as a senior public servant and as an MP since 2010. He has been minister for aged care and Indigenous health. He has also been involved in and is supportive of major reform agendas being called for in Indigenous affairs – implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and achieving meaningful partnerships with Indigenous Australians.The Conversation

Eddie Synot, Senior Research Assistant, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How the major parties’ Indigenous health election commitments stack up



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Government policies on Indigenous health have so far largely failed in closing the gap.
From shutterstock.com

David Coombs, UNSW and Diana Perche, UNSW

Eleven years after Australia adopted the Closing the Gap strategy, many pressing First Nations health issues remain unresolved.

The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy, currently 10.8 years for men and 10.6 years for women, is actually widening.

Similarly, the target to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous child mortality has not been met. The Indigenous rate of 164 deaths per 100,000 children aged 0-4 years is still 2.4 times the non-Indigenous rate of 68 deaths per 100,000 in this age group.




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The causes of Indigenous health inequality are complex. They stem from social determinants such as employment, education, social inclusion, and access to traditional land, rather than strictly biomedical causes.

Government policies have a critical role to play here. But funding cuts, policy incoherence, and governments retaining control over resources and decision-making explain why the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous health outcomes are not closing.

Regardless of who wins the federal election on May 18, these enduring health issues affecting Indigenous Australians will require sustained and concerted policy attention.

A look at the major parties’ policy promises reveals some signs of hope, but also plenty of room for improvement.




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The Coalition’s commitments

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups criticised the lack of Indigenous-specific health measures in the Morrison government’s first budget detailed in April.

The budget did include A$35 million for First Nations solutions to family violence, and A$10 million for the Lowitja Institute for health research.

Indigenous youth suicide remains an urgent policy concern, with Indigenous children five times more likely to die in this way than non-Indigenous children. A coronial inquest recently identified complex causes including intergenerational trauma, poverty, and problems stemming from the home environment.




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The Coalition’s budget committed A$5 million over four years to address Indigenous youth suicide. This figure has since been increased to A$42 million following criticism from First Nations organisations and advocates.

Meanwhile, the budget directed A$129 million towards the expansion of a cashless welfare card system that operates in a number of Aboriginal communities. The card quarantines 80% of welfare recipients’ income for use in government-approved stores, and on government-approved items, to prevent spending on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling. This decision was taken despite a lack of evidence these cards reduce social harm or public expenditure.

The government also made some pre-budget commitments around Indigenous health. These included:

The Coalition also honoured a previous commitment of A$550 million for remote housing in the Northern Territory.

The Morrison government deserves some credit for its part in reaching an agreement between the Council of Australian Governments and a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations in December 2018.

This agreement commits governments and Indigenous peak bodies to shared decision-making and joint accountability in devising and working towards new Closing the Gap targets.




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Labor’s commitments

In keeping with its election campaign emphasis on health spending, Labor recently announced a A$115 million Indigenous health package.

The package includes almost A$30 million to reduce Indigenous youth suicide and mental ill-health.

It also offers A$33 million to address rheumatic heart disease, a preventable condition that disproportionately affects Indigenous children. The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) highlighted rheumatic heart disease as one of ten Indigenous health priorities for this election.

Labor has also promised A$20 million for sexual health promotion in northern Australia, A$13 million to combat vision loss, and A$16.5 million for the “Deadly Choices” initiative, which aims to prevent chronic disease through education.

Further, the opposition has announced a compensation scheme and healing fund for surviving members of the Stolen Generations and their families. This could help manage the effects of intergenerational trauma.

What’s lacking

Both parties’ funding commitments must be assessed in the context of the 2014 budget cut of more than A$500 million dollars to Indigenous affairs by the then Coalition government, which only the Greens have committed to restoring.

Impacts have been severe for specific programs, especially those run at the community level. These include youth services in Maningrida (NT) and employment and training programs in Inala (Queensland).

Funding for crucial Indigenous health infrastructure and capital works is also lacking, with the current shortfall estimated at A$500 million. Many Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services are run from old buildings in desperate need of upgrades to accommodate increasing patient numbers and rising demand for services. The Coalition recently announced an incremental increase to infrastructure funding, but much more is needed.




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Neither the Coalition nor Labor has made any substantial commitment to a national Indigenous housing strategy. Inadequate, insecure and poor quality housing worsens physical and mental health through overcrowding, inadequate heating and cooling, injury hazards, and stress.

Similarly, both parties have been silent on reducing poverty in Indigenous communities. Poverty is another social determinant that contributes to Indigenous physical and mental ill-health, as well as high incarceration levels.

What about self-determination?

Labor has stated it will prioritise Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations as the vehicles for delivering much needed health services.

As the Close the Gap steering committee’s shadow report emphasised, “when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are involved in the design of the services they need, we are far more likely to achieve success”.

The Coalition has been silent on the issue of community control, and funding reforms under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and the Indigenous Australians’ Health Programme have destabilised the position of Aboriginal organisations.




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Community control is threatened by the government’s focus on competitive tendering, where First Nations organisations compete with “mainstream” service providers trying to secure contracts to deliver Indigenous health services.

Neither the Coalition nor Labor has outlined a response to these structural issues.

A final verdict

It’s difficult to identify major differences between the two parties’ Indigenous health promises. The likely impact of these polices is also hard to gauge given the significant role played by state and territory governments in service delivery.

Labor has promised to support Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations but specific details have not been announced. Labor’s significant funding pledge for rheumatic heart disease, though, makes their Indigenous health offering perhaps slightly more likely to achieve health gains than the Coalition’s.




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The Conversation


David Coombs, PhD candidate in Nura Gili Indigenous Studies, UNSW and Diana Perche, Senior Lecturer and Academic Coordinator, Nura Gili Indigenous Programs Unit, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Tony Abbott’s appointment as Indigenous envoy was a diplomatic blunder and policy failure



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Abbott’s previous policies on Indigenous issues were characterised by funding cuts, exclusions and silencing – all of which makes his role as envoy highly questionable to Indigenous communities.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Alison Holland, Macquarie University

This piece is part of a series on race and racism in Australia. The series examines this complex and incendiary topic, and the role it plays in contemporary Australia. You can read the rest of the series here


When Indigenous Referendum Council member Megan Davis stood on the red sands close to Uluru and read the Uluru Statement from the Heart in May 2017, she was enacting a tradition steeped in Indigenous cultural and political significance.

It was not just a response to politicians’ requests to consult the Indigenous community on constitutional recognition, it was a powerful political act, enshrined in a message carried by elders and subsequently inscribed in art.

Following substantial months-long consultations, Davis, as envoy of the people, delivered a message to the nation concerning the resetting of “inter-tribal” relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Australia. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was an act of Indigenous diplomacy solemnised in song, dance and ceremony.

Megan Davis has called the government’s rejection of constitutional recognition ‘gutting’.
Peter Eve/Yothu Yindi Foundation handout

The history of Indigenous envoys

Historically, such ambassadorial moments were the glue of politics and negotiations between Indigenous peoples. They built cohesion and peace, facilitated inter-community exchanges and allowed for the settling of disputes.

As messengers, envoys were critical to this diplomatic mesh. Carefully selected, they were highly respected members of their tribes. They often possessed the ability to speak different dialects and were skilled negotiators. They were the bearers of important information, such as the deaths of leaders, appointments of successors and important gatherings and ceremonies like marriages, burials, corroborrees and initiations.




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Given their significance, it is little wonder that many Indigenous peoples described former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent appointment as special envoy in Indigenous affairs as deeply disrespectful.

On every level this was an act of egregious political misjudgement, as many Indigenous people have been quick to note.

Why Abbott’s appointment was controversial

Not only was Abbott’s appointment hasty, ill-planned and unsolicited, it lacked a key requirement for the role – the wider support of his own community.

Beyond lacking all merit, Abbott’s previous policies on Indigenous issues had been characterised by funding cuts, exclusions and silencing. His Indigenous Advancement Strategy was criticised for its destructive consequences to governance within Indigenous communities. Someone who had caused such injury and grief in the past, stripped communities of their capacity for self-determination and seemed so lacking of respect in their own community was largely unwelcome.

There were some, however, who were willing to give Abbott the benefit of the doubt and saw an opportunity in his role.

For them, his task was clear. In accordance with tradition, he needed to come with models and messages of agreement-making and considered responses to the Indigenous peoples’ own message, as conveyed by the Uluru Statement. He needed to bring news of progress on constitutional recognition and the Makaratta Commission – the Indigenous-inspired body to facilitate agreement-making and help reset relations.




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He needed to engage in dialogue, be open to consultations, and most importantly, listen.

As Dennis Walker, the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority chair, believed, Abbott would come to listen to Ngarrindjeri about their concerns: economic development, stable governance and developing better relationships with non-Indigenous political leaders. For Jeffrey Newchurch, the Kaurna Nation Cultural Heritage chair, Abbott’s visit presented an opportunity to discuss important issues affecting them, like burials, social cohesion and how to build good intergovernmental relationships.

Yet, this is not how Abbott saw his job. Disregarding cultural protocols, he arrived with dictates and outsider rules, and a specific agenda aimed at improving school attendance and performance in remote communities.

Even in this, his apparent lack of knowledge, a critical trait of the position, was apparent.

Over a decade’s worth of reports into remote schooling have overwhelmingly stressed the connection between education, language and culture, and the importance of family and community involvement for children. Education programs succeed when Aboriginal people are the architects of their own policies and services. Partnerships between the people and governments must be based on local priorities, and these must be mutually understood.

The proposals Abbott arrived with – more police in the communities and learning in English – only demonstrated his ignorance.

Abbott’s ignorance was compounded by the impropriety of another white elder of his tribe. Earlier this month, news broke of Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion’s approval of grants to a fishing industry lobby group from a fund intended to address disadvantage in Indigenous communities.

Scullion transferred significant sums to the Northern Territory Amateur Fisherman’s Association to pay their legal fees in disputes over Aboriginal land claims.

As the former Indigenous affairs minister, Dr Jak Ah Kit, said, this was totally against the rules. Aboriginal elders are skilled negotiators of their resources, particularly their fisheries. There had been no consultations or efforts to negotiate with them.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion has defended his dispersal of grant money to a fishing lobbying group.
Chloe Erlich/AAP

Diplomatic blunder and policy failure

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s appointment of Abbott as special envoy was more than a diplomatic faux pas. It was a diplomatic blunder and a policy failure.

In foreign policy parlance, a diplomatic blunder results from a judgement blinded by bias and ignorance, while a policy failure is caused by behaviour that is both costly and has undesirable and unanticipated consequences.




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Abbott’s bias and ignorance are palpable and demonstrable. And the policies he pushed — more police in the communities and learning in English — would be costly in the human and economic sense. Investing in policies that aren’t wanted and don’t work will do nothing to reset intergovernmental relations.

Abbott and the federal government would do well to learn from the examples of deliberative and democratic governance demonstrated by the Indigenous political negotiations leading up to the Uluru Statement.

These negotiations demonstrated how politically astute Indigenous elders are. The network of regional dialogues were not about political platitudes of the sort Abbott said to the Anangu – “thanks for putting up with the invasion” — but a recipe for action.

Abbott could also learn from the likes of Megan Davis, whose diplomatic credentials, by contrast, are impeccable.The Conversation

Alison Holland, Senior Lecturer in Australian History, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media watchdog’s finding on Sunrise’s Indigenous adoption segment is justified


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Protestors rally outside Channel 7 studios in Sydney following the controversial segment on Aboriginal adoption.
AAP/Crowdspark

Alana Schetzer, University of Melbourne

In March this year, Sunrise aired a panel discussion about the removal of Indigenous children from dangerous or abusive family situations.

It wrongly claimed that Indigenous children could not be fostered by non-Indigenous families and one panellist, commentator Prue MacSween, suggested that the Stolen Generation might need to be repeated in order to save children from physical and sexual abuse.

The reaction was swift and fierce: the segment was condemned as racist and insensitive, with many questioning why the panel featured no experts or Indigenous people. There were protests at the show’s Sydney studio, and multiple complaints were made to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

This week, ACMA announced that the Channel Seven breakfast show did indeed breach the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice in airing false claims that Indigenous children could not be placed with white families.

It was also found that the segment provoked “serious contempt on the basis of race in breach of the Code as it contained strong negative generalisations about Indigenous people as a group”.




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Seven has defended their actions, labelling the ACMA’s decision as “censorship” and “a direct assault on the workings of an independent media”. They are also considering seeking a judicial review of the decision.

However, it is not correct to assess ACMA’s decision, nor its role, as censorship. Rather, the ACMA monitors and enforces basic journalistic principles governing ethics and responsibility.

The decision is more symbolic than material – Channel Seven will not be forced to pull the segment from online; indeed, it is widely available. ACMA also has no power to order any compensation to be paid to a wronged party or fine the broadcaster; nor can it force Channel Seven to apologise or correct its error.

This dispute is but one of many examples that raises questions over the power of the media and what happens when media make a mistake, deliberately bend the truth or publish information that may cause harm to people, especially from marginalised groups.

In his research on the media portrayal of Indigenous people and issues, and the difference between sensitivity versus censorship, Michael Meadowsargues the media are resistant to admitting there is a problem with racist or insensitive coverage. He writes:

Aboriginal Australians have had to be content with a portrayal which is mostly stereotypical, sensational, emotional or exotic, with an ignorance of the historical and political context in which these images are situated.

While “censorship” is a label that is often used by the media in response to criticism, actual censorship in Australia by government or media watchdogs is thankfully rare to nonexistent. Other issue such as defamation law are greater sources of censorship.

In a 2018 report released by Reporters Without Borders, a worldwide organisation that advocates for a free press, Australia ranked 19th out of 180 countries on press freedom. This was a fall from ninth in 2017 due to of media restrictions on reporting on asylum seekers and refugees in offshore detention centres, not the role of ACMA. In fact, ACMA and the Australian Press Council were not even mentioned.

Australian journalists are expected, although not obliged, to abide by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Code of Ethics. This states that journalists should “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts” and to “do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors”.

ACMA’s finding on the Sunrise segment that featured sweeping claims such as “children left in Indigenous families would be abused and neglected”, is simply holding those responsible to the minimum standards expected, not just within the industry, but from the public, too.

In the era of “fake news”, it is not surprising that the public’s trust in journalists is low; a 2018 surveyfound only 20% of Australians deemed newspaper journalists as being “very” honest and ethical, with television reporters fairing even worse, at 17%.




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The ACMA was created in 2005 following the public outcry over the infamous “cash for comment” scandals in 1999 and 2004. At the time, the then-Australian Broadcasting Authority was criticised for being “too soft” and ineffective in response, the ABA was abolished and replaced by the ACMA.

It’s incorrect to label the ACMA’s role as playing “censor” when they do no such thing. In fact, there is criticism that ACMA, like its predecessor, is a “toothless tiger” that lacks any power to actually hold the media to account.

No media can operate without a basic framework that places public interest, a commitment to accuracy and responsibility to the public.

In a statement released on September 4, ACMA chairwoman Nerida O’Loughlin highlighted this important distinction:

Broadcasters can, of course, discuss matters of public interest, including extremely sensitive topics such as child abuse in Indigenous communities. However, such matters should be discussed with care, with editorial framing to ensure compliance with the Code.

With “clickbait” and inflammatory opinion increasingly finding a home in the media, it’s more important than ever that the media respect and abide by their responsibilities to fairness and the truth. And when they cannot or do not do this, regulatory bodies such as the ACMA are essential.The Conversation

Alana Schetzer, Sessional Tutor and Journalist, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How will Indigenous people be compensated for lost native title rights? The High Court will soon decide


William Isdale, The University of Queensland and Jonathan Fulcher, The University of Queensland

Today, the High Court of Australia will begin hearing the most significant case concerning Indigenous land rights since the Mabo and Wik native title cases in the 1990s.

For the first time, the High Court will consider how to approach the question of compensation for the loss of traditional land rights. The decision will have huge implications for Indigenous peoples who have lost their land rights and for the state and territory governments responsible for that loss.

For Queensland and Western Australia in particular, the outcome will likely provide clarity on the significant amounts of compensation they may be liable for in the future.

Western Australia, for example, has areas of determined native title that are collectively larger than the entire state of South Australia. Within those boundaries, there are a number of potential native title claims that could be compensable in the future.

In 2011, the state’s attorney-general, Christian Porter, reportedly described potential compensation claims as a “one billion dollar plus issue”.

Background on native title

The Mabo decision first recognised, and the Wik decision later clarified, how Australia’s common law acknowledges and protects the traditional land rights of Indigenous peoples. Following some uncertainty and political clamour caused by both of those decisions, the Native Title Act 1993 provided a legislative structure for the future recognition, protection and compensation of native title.




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The act provides a right of compensation for the “impairment and extinguishment” of native title rights in a range of circumstances. However, it provides little guidance on what compensation means in practice. Parliament decided to leave the details to the courts.

Surprisingly, it was not until the end of 2016 that the first-ever compensation claim wound its way to the point of judicial determination – in the Timber Creek decision.

The Timber Creek decisions

The case coming before the High Court today is an appeal following two earlier decisions by the Federal Court.

In Griffiths v Northern Territory (the first Timber Creek decision), Federal Court Justice John Mansfield made the first-ever award of compensation for loss of native title rights.

Mansfield awarded the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples AU$3.3m in August 2016 for various acts of the NT government going back to the 1980s. These acts included grants of land and public works affecting areas totalling 1.27 square kilometres near the remote township of Timber Creek.

Mansfield approached the compensation award in three steps:

  • Firstly, he worked out the value of the land rights in plain economic terms. He did this by looking to the freehold market value of the land, but discounting it by 20% to reflect the lower economic value of the native title. This is due to the fact its use is limited to rights under traditional law and custom, such hunting and conducting ceremonies, but does not include a right to lease the land, for example.

  • Secondly, he considered how to compensate for the loss of the non-economic aspects of native title, such as cultural and spiritual harm. This involved having to:

…quantify the essentially spiritual relationship which Aboriginal people … have with country and to translate the spiritual or religious hurt into compensation.

  • Thirdly, he gave an award of interest to reflect the passage of time since the acts of the NT government occurred.

The decision was quickly appealed to the Full Court of the Federal Court, which corrected a few errors and reduced the award to just over AU$2.8m. But in broad terms, it approved the three-step approach Mansfield used to calculate the award.

Whether the High Court will follow the same path remains to be seen. A number of new parties, including various state governments, have now become involved in the proceedings, each with their own barrow to push.

The challenge of valuing native title

The challenge is that conventional methods for valuing land may not be suitable to reflect the unique nature of native title rights and the significance of those rights to Indigenous peoples. New principles, or adapted versions of old ones, may be needed.

For example, in most cases where a piece of land is resumed by a government for an infrastructure project or some other purpose, the principal measure of compensation is the market value of the land.

But in the case of native title rights, there is no market to value the land. Native title cannot be sold, mortgaged or leased. Further, native title is different in every case, with no uniform content. Native title rights can include everything from a right to exclusive possession of land to a very limited right to conduct traditional ceremonies on a piece of land.




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Whether the Federal Court has taken the right approach – or whether a new approach should be adopted – will be the subject of debate in the High Court.

The Ngaliwurru and Nungali people contend the correct approach would have seen them awarded roughly AU$4.6m. The NT government is arguing, however, that the amount should be no more than about AU$1.3m.

The politics of Timber Creek

Just as Mabo and Wik resulted in political furore, so, too, may Timber Creek.

One sore point is between the federal government and the states and territories over who will pay any compensation. Under both the Keating and Howard governments, the Commonwealth undertook to pay 75% of the compensation a state or territory may be required to pay in future claims (with some exceptions).




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But in 2011, Porter tabled in the WA parliament a letter from Prime Minister Julia Gillard renouncing any Commonwealth obligation “for the cost of native title compensation settlements”.

Porter may now find himself on the opposite side of the table, having shifted from state supplicant to his new position as a Commonwealth purse holder.

Just how much political friction there will be will depend on the High Court’s approach to determining compensation and the potential cost if hundreds of other native title groups pursue compensation claims in the future.The Conversation

William Isdale, Postgraduate Research Student, T.C. Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland and Jonathan Fulcher, Program Director, Energy & Resource TC Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Clarrie Combo, Mrs Brown and Aboriginal soldiers in WW2



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Yorta Yorta women and girls at the Cummeragunja Reserve in NSW with their knitting for soldiers serving in the second world war.
Australian War Memorial: P01562.001

Kristyn Harman, University of Tasmania

During the second world war, a young Aboriginal soldier, Private Clarrie Combo from New South Wales, exchanged mail with Mrs F. C. Brown from Loxton, South Australia — a white woman whom he had never met.

Very few letters penned by Aboriginal soldiers who served in either of the two world wars survive, yet one of Clarrie’s letters has endured in what might seem a surprising context. Mrs Brown contacted the young soldier after seeing an advertisement calling for volunteers to “adopt” Aboriginal soldiers. His reply was printed in her local newspaper, and its survival provides us with a rare opportunity to learn about military service from an Aboriginal soldier’s perspective.

Private Clarence Combo.
NAA: B883, NX30580

Clarence Combo was born in Wardell, New South Wales, on 14 September 1919. Young Clarrie grew up in a harsh environment — Kinchela Aboriginal Boys’ Training Home near Kempsey. Consistent with government plans to assimilate Aboriginal people into white Australian society, children like Clarrie were forcibly removed from their families. At Kinchela, boys were called by their allocated numbers rather than names. Identities and cultures were stripped away.

In a country where discriminatory legislation and practices precluded Aboriginal people from earning a fair wage, voting, marrying non-Aboriginal partners, buying property or entering a public bar, it is not too difficult to imagine why some young Aboriginal men signed up for the military when war broke out. An estimated 1,000 Aboriginal soldiers served in the Australian Imperial Force as black diggers during the first world war. By the mid-20th century it was easier for Aboriginal men to sign up, so around 3,000 served Australia during WWII.

Comfort funds

Shortly after WWII began, the Melbourne-based Aborigines Uplift Society, founded by non-Aboriginal activist Arthur Burdeu, created a comforts auxiliary for Aboriginal soldiers. The idea was that women could “adopt” an Aboriginal soldier. They would correspond with him and arrange comfort parcels to be sent to him at the front.

In the Society’s August 1940 Uplift newsletter, Burdeu explained how “native women have not the resources to do as their white sisters, though they are already at work”. In Queensland, for example, children at the Purga Aboriginal Mission sewed underpants, toilet tidies, calico bags and hussifs (sewing kits), and knitted socks, mittens and balaclavas. Yorta Yorta women and children at the Cummeragunja Reserve (located in New South Wales) were also involved in knitting for the war effort.

Newspaper advertisements ran across Australia inviting women to contact Burdeu about “adopting” an Aboriginal soldier. With at least one son-in-law serving Australia, Mrs Brown may have felt compassion for those men whose families could not afford to send them parcels.

Corresponding with Mrs Brown

On September 25, 1941 the Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record published one of Clarrie’s letters to Mrs Brown under the headline “Aboriginal’s Appreciative Letter”. Clarrie opened his correspondence with Mrs Brown by thanking her for writing to him. He wrote: “it is very nice of you to write to someone you do not know”. At a practical level, Clarrie advised Mrs Brown that he wore size seven boots, as she had offered to knit socks for him.

Aboriginal’s Appreciative Letter extract.
https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/109261185

The young private’s letter provides a unique perspective on his experiences serving abroad. “I was in action for the first time in Greece,” he told his correspondent. He described Greece as “the nicest country that I have been in since leaving Australia”, then marvelled at having seen snow for the first time.

However the horrors of war included being “attacked practically every day by the German planes”. He told Mrs Brown how “a few of my pals were killed over there … There were German planes in the sky all day long and they were always bombing”.

What’s left out of correspondence can also be telling. In War Dance: A Story of the 2/3 Aust. Inf. Battalion A.I.F., Ken Clift provides an insight into racial attitudes amongst some of the men, telling of an altercation between two Australian soldiers, an Aboriginal one named Clarrie and an Indian or Afghan soldier, Tom. As the men argued heatedly, Tom allegedly called Clarrie: “You black bastard”. Clarrie was said to have retorted, “Well Tom, you’re no bloody glass of milk yourself.” Clarrie’s correspondence with Mrs Brown omits any mention of such tensions.

Welcome home

Over five years’ service, Clarrie’s tours of duty included Egypt, Libya, Greece, Crete, Syria, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and New Guinea. He suffered illness and injuries. In 1941 he caught sandfly fever, an ailment commonly suffered by soldiers fighting in North Africa. His “Proceedings for Discharge” notes that Clarrie received two war injuries, one to his right forearm and the other, a gunshot wound inflicted in New Guinea in June 1945, to his left forearm.

Clarrie’s war experiences included seeing some of his mates injured or killed. He would also have been expected to fire on enemy combatants. However, his correspondence with Mrs Brown, replete with anecdotes about foreign lands and peoples, highlights how being part of Australia’s war effort in the mid-20th century also gave him insights into other places and cultures.

The ConversationFortunately, Clarrie survived the war. He was one of five Aboriginal soldiers welcomed home to Wardell by the Cabbage Tree Island Women’s Guild just before Christmas 1945. By the mid-1960s Clarrie was chairing the Aboriginal Cooperative at Cabbage Tree Island and participating in national conferences advocating equal rights for Aboriginal people.

Kristyn Harman, Senior Lecturer in History; Graduate Research Coordinator, School of Humanities; Course Coordinator, Diploma of History, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Closing the Gap results still lag, as Shorten pledges compensation fund for Stolen Generations


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The tenth Closing the Gap report, to be tabled in parliament by Malcolm Turnbull on Monday, shows only three of the seven targets are on track to be met.

The targets for early childhood education and Year 12 attainment are on track, and the target to halve child mortality is back on track. But the remaining targets are not on track – for school attendance, mortality, employment, and reading and numeracy.

The government will hail this year’s outcome as the most promising result since 2011. Last year, only one target was being met – on improved Year 12 attainment.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will mark a decade on from then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology by announcing Labor would set up a compensation scheme for survivors of the Stolen Generations in Commonwealth jurisdictions.

The scheme would give ex-gratia payments of A$75,000 to living survivors. There would also be a funeral assistance fund with one-off payments of $7,000 to Stolen Generations members to assist with their funerals.

The compensation scheme would be accessible to about 150 surviving members of the Stolen Generations in the Northern Territory and any members in the ACT and Jervis Bay.

Labor would also establish a $10 million national healing fund “to support healing for the Stolen Generations and their families – in recognition of the inter-generational effects of forced removals”.

Shorten will say that recently the number of children removed from their families has rapidly increased.

“In 2017, more than 17,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were living in out-of-home care, compared with about 9,000 a decade ago,” he says in a statement with the shadow assistant minister for Indigenous affairs, Patrick Dodson. In response, Labor would convene a national summit on First Nations Children in its first 100 days in office.

Shorten’s announcements would cost $17.1 million over the forward estimates.

With four of the existing Closing the Gap targets expiring this year – child mortality, school attendance, reading and numeracy, and employment – the Council of Australian Governments is working with Indigenous people to refresh the agenda.

The government will point to progress on a range of health indicators:

  • Child mortality dropped by one-third between 1998 and 2015.

  • Overall mortality fell 15% from 1998 to 2015.

  • Fewer Indigenous people are dying from chronic conditions. Deaths from circulatory diseases declined by 45% between 1998 and 2016; respiratory disease deaths fell by 24% between 1998 and 2015; kidney disease death rates decreased by 47% from 2006 to 2015.

  • The proportion of Indigenous adults who smoke fell from 55% in 1994 to 45% in 2014-15.

  • Efforts are on track to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem by 2020. The prevalence of active trachoma in Indigenous children aged between five and nine in at-risk communities declined from 14% in 2009 to 4.7% in 2016.

  • The gap in blindness and vision impairment halved between 2008 and 2016. Indigenous people have three times the rate of blindness and vision impairment compared to the non-Indigenous population. In 2008 the figure was six times.

  • Drinking during pregnancy halved between 2008 and 2014-15, and there was an 8% drop in binge drinking among Indigenous people from 2008 and 2015.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the results demonstrated “the power of a collaborative approach between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Even where we may not be on track, we have achieved solid progress in other target areas compared with a decade ago.”

The ConversationThe government will highlight the success of the Indigenous Procurement Policy. Its target was achieved three years ahead of schedule and it has now passed $1 billion in contracts to Indigenous businesses. Scullion flagged Turnbull would be announcing “new measures to turbo-charge the Indigenous business sector”.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/6jqa7-8776fa?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Full response from Sherry Sufi for a FactCheck on native title


Lucinda Beaman, The Conversation

In an opinion piece published by Fairfax Media, WA Liberal Party policy committee chairman and PhD candidate Sherry Sufi argued that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

The Conversation asked Sufi for sources and comment to support his statement, for inclusion in this FactCheck. Here is Sufi’s full response:

Disclaimer: My article in Fairfax Media and the correspondence with The Conversation are not statements on behalf of the WA Liberal Party or any of its constituent bodies. The views expressed are my own.

As one of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Australia exists as part of a rules-based world order.

Land conquests through war of aggression were only criminalised after World War II.

This prohibition does not apply retroactively. Doing so would throw the entire world map into turmoil.

It applies on future attempts to conquer. The status quo of international borders at the time was deemed ‘frozen’. Lands conquered before the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) are deemed lawful conquests.

Yale Professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro have comprehensively addressed this topic in their recent publication ‘The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World’. Check Part III, Chapter One.

So it follows that if Australia was invaded, then it has been conquered. This would technically negate claims to separate land rights for descendants of native populations.

Yet the Mabo decision rested on the presumption that Australia was settled, not invaded. Therefore, native title is safe.

Sources that support my argument that territories invaded and annexed prior to the prohibition of war are legitimate conquests:

“However, under the doctrine of intertemporal law and pursuant to the general principle of non-retroactivity of the law, the title to territory conquered and annexed at the time when international law allowed acquisition of title by a conqueror, remains legally valid.” – Boczek, A. (2005). International Law: A Dictionary. Scarecrow Press, page 213.

“ … that before the UN Charter and the recognition of the right of self-determination, conquest and colonisation were legal.” – McDonnell, T. (2009). The United States, International Law, and the Struggle Against Terrorism. Routledge, page 280.

Sources that support my argument that Australia was settled, not invaded:

“It is fundamentally to our legal system that the Australian colonies became British possessions by settlement and not by conquest.”
– Gibbs J in Coe v Commonwealth (1979).

“Most legal commentators agree the ‘foundation case’ of the Australian legal system was the UK Privy Council judgement in Cooper v. Stuart (1889), which described the colony of New South Wales as having been ‘peacefully annexed’ by Britain in 1788.” – Windschuttle, K. (2016). The Break-Up of Australia: the real agenda behind Aboriginal recognition. Quadrant Books, page 376.

“The High Court’s decision in Mabo not only preserves the distinction between settled territories on the one hand and conquered or ceded territories on the other, but it also clarifies the law that applies in territories that have been settled in circumstances like Australia.” – Secher, U. (2005). The Mabo Decision – Preserving the Distinction between Settled and Conquered or Ceded Territories

Here are the relevant quotes from the Mabo decision that support my argument:

“International law recognised conquest, cession, and occupation of territory that was terra nullius as three of the effective ways of acquiring sovereignty.”

“As among themselves, the European nations parcelled out the territories newly discovered to the sovereigns of the respective discoverers … provided the discovery was confirmed by occupation and provided the indigenous inhabitants were not organised in a society that was united permanently for political action.”

“The acquisition of territory is chiefly the province of international law; the acquisition of property is chiefly the province of the common law. The distinction between the Crown’s title to territory and the Crown’s ownership of land within a territory is made as well by the common law as by international law.”


Response from Kate Galloway, lead author of the FactCheck:

As to whether the law deems Australia to have been settled, not invaded, the sources Sufi has cited above are correct.

However, Sufi’s final paragraph contains the reason that his claim that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled not invaded” is incorrect. As Sufi has cited from the Mabo decision, “the acquisition of property [native title] is chiefly the province of the common law”.

Following this, Sufi does not examine the common law rules about land ownership that would apply if Australia had been deemed conquered. This is the missing link in his original argument, and why the claim is incorrect.

The ConversationRead the full FactCheck here.

Lucinda Beaman, FactCheck Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

FactCheck: can native title ‘only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded’?


Kate Galloway

… there is a fundamental point which goes to the heart of this debate that literally no one, to date, seems to have picked up on …

Native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded.

– Excerpt from an opinion piece written by Sherry Sufi, chairman of the WA Liberal Party policy committee, published by Fairfax Media, January 20, 2018

Every January, the debate about the date of Australia’s national day intensifies.

The current date of Australia Day – January 26 – marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of Europeans in Australia. To some Australians, this date is known as Invasion Day, or Survival Day.

The Australian Greens party has renewed its campaign to change the date of Australia Day. Greens leader Richard di Natale has lent his voice to the argument that January 26 marks “the beginning of an invasion”.

In an opinion piece, WA Liberal Party policy committee chairman Sherry Sufi said Di Natale was “attempting to undermine native title by implying that Australia was invaded and conquered”.

Sufi argued that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

Let’s look at the law.

Checking the source

When asked for sources and comment to support his statement, Sherry Sufi provided this response:

Disclaimer: My article in Fairfax Media and the correspondence with The Conversation are not statements on behalf of the WA Liberal Party or any of its constituent bodies. The views expressed are my own.

As one of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Australia exists as part of a rules-based world order. Land conquests through war of aggression were only criminalised after World War II.

This prohibition does not apply retroactively. Doing so would throw the entire world map into turmoil.

It applies on future attempts to conquer. The status quo of international borders at the time was deemed ‘frozen’. Lands conquered before the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) are deemed lawful conquests.

So it follows that if Australia was invaded, then it has been conquered. This would technically negate claims to separate land rights for descendants of native populations.

Yet the Mabo decision rested on the presumption that Australia was settled, not invaded. Therefore, native title is safe.

You can read Sufi’s full response and references cited here.


Verdict

Sherry Sufi’s claim that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded” is incorrect.

Native title is the legal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ property rights to Australian land that existed when the English took possession of the territory in 1788. Native title was recognised by the Australian High Court in the 1992 Mabo case.

Had Australia originally been deemed to be conquered – or “invaded” – rather than settled, native title would indeed have existed.

Under English law, if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were conquered, they would have retained their interests in land – or native title – under their own laws, until those laws were overturned by the English.


Responding to Sufi’s argument

As to whether the law deems Australia to have been settled, not invaded, the sources Sufi has cited in his full response to The Conversation are correct.

However, Sufi’s response contains the reason that his claim that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled not invaded” is incorrect.

As Sufi has cited from the 1992 Mabo decision, “the acquisition of property [native title] is chiefly the province of the common law”. Following this, Sufi does not examine the common law rules about land ownership that would apply if Australia had been deemed conquered.

This is the missing link in his original argument, and why the claim is incorrect.

In his article, Sufi justified his claim, in part, on the grounds that “international law recognises all territories acquired through invasion and annexation by force, prior to World War II, as lawful conquests”.

Whether or not that statement in itself is accurate is a matter for an international law expert to determine.

Because even if this is now the status of international law, it concerns the basis of sovereignty in modern times. To the extent that the means of acquiring sovereignty is relevant to native title law, it is sovereignty in 1788 that is relevant.

The High Court of Australia in the 1992 Mabo decision found that an Australian court does not have the power to challenge the basis on which the English claimed sovereignty in 1788.

The status of Australian land law, including native title, is a different matter: it is determined under domestic law, not international law. Australian courts do have the power to alter domestic law, which is what the Court did in Mabo.

So Sufi’s statement about international law, whether correct or incorrect in itself, is not relevant to native title in Australia. The justification does not stand.

Let’s look at the relevant law.

Conquest or settlement?

To assess Sufi’s primary claim, we need to look at what happened when Europeans arrived in Australia in 1788, and at the 1992 Mabo case heard in the Australian High Court, which formed the basis of native title in Australia.

The Mabo case decision is the primary source document for this FactCheck.

In 1788, England sought to establish itself as sovereign – or the governing body – over Australian territory.

There are a number of ways to become sovereign under international law. In considering what happened in Australia in 1788, Justice Brennan – who wrote the leading judgment in Mabo – focused on the three most relevant. They were:

  • conquest – the acquisition of a territory by force,
  • cession – an existing state transfers sovereignty over its territory to another state, or
  • occupation – taking possession of a territory not under the control of an existing sovereign.

In his article, Sufi talks about the consequences of “invasion”. The international law described in Mabo refers to “conquest” rather than invasion. So that’s the term I’ll use in this FactCheck.

Fact or legal fiction?

Of those pathways to becoming sovereign over Australia, the English considered themselves to be ‘occupiers’.

The concept of ‘occupation’ relies on the land being ‘terra nullius’ – or belonging to no one. In its literal sense, this means there were no prior inhabitants in the territory.

Of course, that was not the case in Australia – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had been living in the country for at least 65,000 years before the First Fleet arrived.

But the arriving Europeans took the approach that Australia’s Indigenous peoples were “too low in the scale of social organisation to be acknowledged as possessing rights and interests in land”, and were deemed not to have laws, or to be sovereign over Australia.

This allowed for the application of what Justice Brennan described as an “enlarged notion of terra nullius”, and for the English to deem that they had occupied the land.

It’s important to note that in this case, terra nullius, and therefore occupation, is a ‘legal fiction’: an assertion of a state of affairs deemed by the law to be valid, even though it may not be factual.

Who owns the land?

Having established sovereignty, England needed to determine what law applied in the new colony – and in particular, what law applied to the ownership of land.

This was a question for English law, rather than international law.

Under English law, in territories that were conquered or ceded, the existing laws of the original inhabitants would continue to apply until they were overturned by the English.

Therefore, if Australia had been deemed to be conquered, or “invaded”, the existing laws of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including laws about land ownership, would have continued to apply until the English repealed them.

However, for territory that had been occupied or settled – as was declared to be the case in Australia – English law would be imported, including English land law. Under that law, the Crown owned all land.

The Mabo decision

These concepts were challenged in the Mabo case in the Australian High Court in 1992.

In the Mabo decision, Justice Brennan stated that the concept of terra nullius ignored the reality of the existing inhabitants of the territory.

The Mabo decision found that the legal fiction that Australia was uninhabited could no longer stand. It acknowledged that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples did have a recognised system of laws.

The Mabo decision did not change the international law position that Australia had been occupied. What the Court did do was create a new English law category for working out what law applied: the territory was settled, but inhabited.

Based on this new category, sovereignty and land ownership were separated. The Crown was no longer automatically the owner of all the land.

Instead, the original occupants of Australia – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – remained the owners until the Crown extinguished their interests, or they were otherwise lost. This is native title.

Conclusion

So, what does that all mean for Sufi’s claim?

Sufi said “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

In 1788 Australia was, under English law, deemed to be settled. In 1992, the Australian High Court deemed Australia to have been settled, but inhabited. Because of that decision, native title as we know it today does exist. Land law stopped being English land law, and became Australian land law.

Had Australia been deemed to be conquered (or “invaded”), the interests in the land – the native title – would also have existed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would have continued to own the land until the Crown extinguished those interests.

Either way, whether Australia was deemed to be “invaded” or settled, Australian land law would recognise Indigenous interests in land – that is, it would recognise native title. – Kate Galloway

Blind review

The verdict is clearly correct.

It is not the case that “native title can only exist if Australia was settled, not invaded”.

As this FactCheck points out, it is to the contrary. It has long been a rule of English law that in a colony acquired by conquest the former laws continue to apply until altered by the conqueror, and rights to land continue until they are extinguished.

Some elements of the Mabo decision have been contested by scholars. This is not one of them. It is very clear that native title could exist if Australia were characterised as conquered. – Leon Terrill


The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit is the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

The ConversationHave you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Kate Galloway, Associate Professor of Law

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

First reconciliation, then a republic – starting with changing the date of Australia Day



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Changing the date of Australia Day is the first tiny step for Australia to begin the reckoning with its origins.
AAP/Dan Peled

Maggie Walter, University of Tasmania

As the debate continues over whether Australia Day should be celebrated on January 26, this series looks at the politics of some unresolved issues swirling around Australia Day – namely, the republic and reconciliation. And just for good measure, we’ll check the health of Australian slang along the way.


I have always been rather taken with Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon which depicts a man getting out of bed in the morning, reading a very large poster on his wall that says:

First pants, then your shoes.

This stating of an obvious but critical ordering of events has salience for the debate over whether Australia should become a republic. Reconciliation between the Settler and First Nations populations is a self-evident prerequisite for Australia cutting the ties of colonial dependency with Britain to stand on our own.

If we can’t work out that we need to complete the peacemaking between Indigenous Australians – the sole occupiers of the Australian continent for upwards of 60,000 years – and those whose ancestors arrived at or post-1788, we are not ready to be a republic.

We might be attracted to republican prestige, with its sense of a national coming of age, but we can’t just take the title. Being a republic brings with it the responsibilities of being a grown-up country.

Changing the date of Australia Day is the first tiny step for Australia, both as a nation and a society, to begin the reckoning with its origins. The Australian nation-state is founded on the dispossession of the people of the lands the nation-state now occupies, and from which it draws its wealth and identity.

It’s as simple as that. No ifs, no buts. Australia Day observed on January 26 celebrates the date on which the British flag was first raised in Sydney Cove in the act of colonisation.


Further reading: Why Australia Day survives, despite revealing a nation’s rifts and wounds


The debate over the date

I am heartened by the growing calls from so many non-Indigenous people and groups to change the date of Australia Day. But I am also despairing that so many still do not seem to understand why celebrating January 26 is deeply hurtful to Indigenous people.

Perhaps, as Henry Reynolds suggests, many non-Indigenous Australians simply do not know what January 26 represents. Maybe. But most do know that the date is connected in some way to Indigenous dispossession.


Further reading: Henry Reynolds: Triple J did the right thing, we need a new Australia Day


It is also well known what this day represents for Indigenous people: the massacres, the near-genocides, the abduction of women, the forced relocations, and the denial of basic human rights dictated by the euphemistically named Aboriginal Protection Acts – some not fully repealed until the 1970s. Why would Indigenous people choose to celebrate that?

Or, as Mark McKenna writes, for many, Australia Day is constructed as cut loose from history. The past is the past, it is argued, so why can’t we all just celebrate what’s good about Australia on January 26?


Further reading: More than an excuse for a long weekend – how we came to love Australia Day


Yes, colonisation is a fact that can’t be undone. Nobody knows this better than Indigenous people. But celebrating Australia Day on that date is the opposite of a present/future focus.

January 26 was selected purposefully to commemorate that past by declaring the initial act of colonisation as the most important event in the Australian historical calendar. Why does non-Indigenous Australia choose to celebrate that?

That the political proponents of keeping the date as it is know what January 26 is actually celebrating is clear in their deployment of noble sentiment as obfuscating defence.

Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, in a 2017 speech on the topic, is fairly typical in this regard. Castigating the Yarra Council over its decision to stop referring to January 26 as Australia Day, Turnbull argued Australia Day is the day on which we recognise and honour our First Australians and our newest migrants – and to change the date would be to turn our back on Australian values. He has made similar remarks in recent days.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fmalcolmturnbull%2Fvideos%2F10156167474656579%2F&show_text=1&width=560

I don’t dispute Turnbull’s sentiments. What he describes is what Australia Day should be. But what he describes is not what it is now.

Dressing up the pre-eminent day of commemoration in the Australian calendar as something other than this, as somehow about Australian values or a day that all Australians can take pride in, or – even as Turnbull asserts – a day when we recognise First Australians and our history, is just a dishonest diversion from the actuality.

We are convincing no-one, not even ourselves, that we are doing anything else on January 26 but celebrating colonisation and the dispossession of Indigenous people.

If we aren’t celebrating the colonisation of Australia, then there should be no problem in changing the date. If we are, then be honest about it without resorting to self-deceptions.

An Australia Day worth celebrating

Again, on January 26 this year, I, along with many other Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, will march down Elizabeth Street to the Tasmanian parliament lawns for rousing speeches and emotional protest.

In fact once the date is changed – as it inevitably will be – I will miss the event’s camaraderie. It has become a January ritual.

But imagine what Australia Day could be. What if Australia Day was actually those things Turnbull says it is. What if Australia Day was a genuine celebration of all that’s good and unique about Australia? What if Australia Day celebrated our 60,000 years or so of human history as something that belongs to all of us – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and that we can and should all take pride in?

What if Australia Day was a day on which we came together rather than celebrating the dispossession of one by the other?

Now that is an Australia Day worth celebrating.

But that day has not yet come. Instead, our leaders resolutely insist that this is the date most appropriate to hold our national day of celebration – and sanction those who disagree.

For Indigenous people, this tenacity can only be read as callous disregard. To do so in the shadow of overt refusal of the efforts of Indigenous people to advance reconciliation through the Uluru Statement from the Heart reinforces the political message of callousness. It also demonstrates a national immaturity.


Further reading: Listening to the heart: what now for Indigenous recognition after the Uluru summit?


A developed society reconciles its past with its present, resolving what needs to be resolved, settling what needs to be settled. For Australia, the result could be a new national narrative: one we wouldn’t have to resort to duplicity to celebrate, one more befitting an aspiring republic.

Drawing from the wisdom of the Far Side cartoon: Australia, first change the date to begin a just settling, then contemplate becoming a republic.


The ConversationCatch up on others in the series here.

Maggie Walter, Pro Vice Chancellor (Aboriginal Research and Leadership) and Professor of Sociology, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.