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Tea Leaves

Protests highlight Australia's black-white divide

Despite diverse population, improving status of indigenous Aborigines is country's greatest challenge

When British explorer James Cook landed on Australia in 1770, humans had already been living there for 60,000 years. (Photo by Geoff Hiscock)

Growing up in Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s, the one "fact" I knew with certainty was that British explorer James Cook had discovered Australia in 1770. In history lessons at school the nomadic Aboriginal presence before Cook was barely mentioned, and we learnt nothing about the preceding 60,000-plus years of Aboriginal society and culture.

Cook met an unhappy end on a Hawaiian beach in February 1779, stabbed to death during a melee with native inhabitants. That was nine years before what Australians call the First Fleet arrived in what is now Sydney, carrying British colonizers and transported convicts, but it is statues of Cook, rather than the fleet commander Arthur Phillip, that have become targets for anti-racism protesters in Australia.

Today, young people are much more aware of Aboriginality, and the spill-over of U.S. Black Lives Matter protests into Australia has renewed attention on the inequalities  between indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the Australian community.

On every measure, from rates of imprisonment to life expectancy, income, health, education, job opportunities and access to services, indigenous people lag behind, despite a succession of governments spending billions of dollars to close the gap. Discrimination and racism remain part of the everyday experience of many Aborigines.

Amid the protests, there is hope that a planned Aboriginal "voice to parliament" organization will narrow the equality gap and give indigenous people more recognition and a role in the way the country is run. Along with a voice, Aboriginal people want a treaty and a truth-telling about historical abuses.

Much has changed since I went to school. Aboriginal studies is now embedded in the national curriculum, and two teenagers in my family circle are researching Aboriginal society as part of their high school studies. But Aboriginal educator Michael Donovan, director of indigenous strategy at Macquarie University in Sydney, wrote recently that there was still a long way to go to ensure that all Australian students know about indigenous history.

One step comes with a new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, in Canberra, which adds an Aboriginal perspective to Cook's account of charting the east coast of the Australian continent and taking possession of the land on behalf of the British crown.

Cook's report of his voyage and the subsequent arrival of the First Fleet set off events that wrought devastation on the estimated 500,000 Aboriginal people then living in Australia, sweeping aside their culture and custody of the land.

Aboriginal historian and writer Harold Ludwick told me recently: "Our people were watching Cook intently from the shore. Without our stories being told and accepted, (Australia's) history is incomplete."

Cooktown indigenous artist Wanda Gibson’s painting 'No Blood Shall Be Shed Here,' depicts a reconciliation meeting between Cook and an elder of the local Guugu Yimidhirr people after a dispute over sea turtles. (Image courtesy National Museum of Australia) 

Many thousands of Aborigines were killed in clashes with white settlers in the first 150 years of colonization. Even in the 1960s, segregation was rife, particularly in regional Australia. Some hotels, clubs and swimming pools were off-limits to Aborigines. The discrimination I associated with South Africa was on display in the country town where I worked as a reporter. There was an "Abo" pub at one end of town, and never a civic role for anyone with Aboriginal heritage.

Today, about 800,000 people, or 3% of the Australian population, identify as indigenous. For decades, Australian political leaders have been promising them a better deal, dating back to a landmark 1967 referendum that raised expectations of improved Aboriginal rights.

In 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke vowed there would be no need for any Australian child to live in poverty by 1990. The following year, he committed the Australian Labor Party to support a treaty between the government and indigenous peoples. His successor, Paul Keating, pointed to a High Court decision in 1992 which recognized native land title and overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius (empty land) --the legal basis of British settlement.

In the 1990s, official inquiries shone some light on the high rate of Aboriginal deaths in police custody and the fate of the "Stolen Generations"-- Aboriginal children removed from their families by past governments. In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized in parliament for injustices suffered by the Stolen Generations.

In 2017, 250 indigenous leaders met in central Australia to write the "Uluru Statement from the Heart," which called for a formal voice in Australian life for Aboriginal people. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed their proposal, arguing it would undermine parliamentary government. Turnbull's successor Scott Morrison and the minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt continue to face calls to act on the "voice" proposals.

Aboriginal commentator Luke Pearson believes positive change will come only from continued protesting. Pearson, founder of the IndigenousX communications platform, wrote recently: "If they don't give us justice, we don't give them peace." His words remind us that more than drought, bushfires and COVID-19, fixing the black-white divide remains Australia's greatest challenge.

Geoff Hiscock is an Australia-based writer

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