Australia divided: What comes after the apology?

by Alix Barré

When I moved to Sydney last winter, I wanted to use it as an opportunity to learn more about the Aboriginals in Australia. It is a topic in Europe that we never hear about in depth and I was interested to know if it would be similar to what happened with the Native Indians in the United-States. The first thing I found out pleasantly surprised me, and that was that the government actually apologised to the Aboriginals.

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In 2008, the then Prime Minister of Australia gave an apology, though each state and governments had already given an apology by 2001. What exactly did the government apologise for? In Rudd’s own words: “We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.”

These apologies were especially directed at an event that happened in Australia from more or less the year 1900 until 1969,  called “The Stolen Generations”. The government issued an act that allowed Aboriginal children to be removed from their homes, the reason why it was done is debated. On the one hand, it is said that it was to put an end to the aboriginals, on the other it is said it was because of Child Welfare. Whichever the reason, the policy was bad enough to deserve an extended apology.  Since 1998 there is an annual National Sorry Day as well as a Reconciliation Action Plan that work towards improving the relationship between the Indigenous community and the broader Australian community.

At first glance this all seems very nice and positive, but once you take a closer look you realise it is not as ideal as it seems. It is quite clear that there is still a big divide between the two cultures and that they have become a minority. The Indigenous people lived on the continent by themselves for 50 000 years, about 200 years after James Cook’s ship entered Australia, they now represent a meager 3 % of the entire population. Massacres of Aboriginals were still going on as late as the 1920’s in the Northern Territory.

More recently, in 2006, there was an act implemented that caused quite a bit of chaos. Under the Howard government, the Northern Territory Intervention act came into place. It was done to face the issue of child abuse and had as a goal to reduce drinking and domestic violence in Aboriginal communities. But the way it was done was criticized as simply further suppressing and disempowering the Aboriginal people. The Howard government sent military troops to solve the problem, which created a reaction of fear for those living in the Northern Territory.

Barbara Shaw, an Aboriginal  resident of Alice Springs, in an article she wrote for the New Matilda, explains what she felt when she heard the news on TV: “I have never been more frightened in my life. I locked the gate of my town camp and kept the kids inside for two weeks for fear of them being taken.” The Guardian reports that the main message the Indigenous got at the beginning was: “We’re coming to take your children; all your men are sexual predators and offenders”

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Another criticism is that the laws of the Intervention have not solved the issue. The Sydney Morning Herald reported this August that the main arrests that were made were not child abusers or sex offenders, but driving convictions. Barbara Shaw also pointed out that many come to town just to drink now and she has witnessed a daily increase in drinking and fighting.

While the issues the NT intervention set out to deal with are real and need a solution, the way it was done was not necessarily the best. The UN reported its concern in 2012 about the Stronger Futures bills, which is what the NT intervention evolved into. The Stronger Futures bills represent a new policy that maintains the key elements of the previous intervention and became something that caused worry within the UN and international community. “The Stronger Futures bills could serve to exacerbate the discrimination against and stigmatization of indigenous people and thus undermine efforts to improve their situation.”  If you wish to learn more about what the NT intervention is, you can do so here.

The gap between the two cultures still requires a lot of improvement, the way Indigenous issues are being dealt with creates more tensions and conflicts than actually solving the issues at hand.  There are some processes such as already mentioned, the Reconciliation Action Plan, that positively work towards the goal of a more equal society. They should continue to stand together and fight together, in the words of Barbara Shaw: “Black and White unite!”

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