Challenging Ingrained Prejudice

Australians need to deepen their understanding of Indigenous issues this Sorry Day, May 26, writes Revd James Houston OAM

By James Houston

May 26 2018 

For some years All Saints Greensborough has been seeking to deepen parishioners’ understanding of Indigenous issues. The focus was initially projected in 2011 with the unveiling of a bronze plaque at the church entrance by an Aboriginal elder and the Archbishop:      

Under God we acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the traditional custodians of this land and are committed to work for reconciliation and justice.

Recently the programs of the video/discussion series ‘Australians Together’ have been screened at all three Sunday services. They address the ‘unhealed wound at the heart of our nation’ arising from the taking of land without any form of negotiation, treaty or meaningful restitution. With its millennia-old culture and deep spirituality, Indigenous society was devastated by this factor alone. Understandably, their connection to the land was beyond the settlers’ comprehension.

When they resisted the loss of their livelihood, they were met with disproportionate force, resulting in massacres and thousands of deaths. In addition to the seizure of lands, the killings reflected a virulent racism: a belief that the natives were essentially primeval (if not sub-human) and therefore destined to be superseded, as had been the case thousands of years earlier, by higher forms of humanity. For the new settlers, nothing that the Indigenous peoples possessed, understood or practised was perceived as having any value – except for their land, taken by force and immediately turned over to European settlement for agriculture or mining, acting on an inherent right to take it.

Moreover, from 1919 till 1970 thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families without any kind of court order. The majority of these children were forever separated from their mothers and their community, forbidden to use their language, taught that Indigenous culture was without value. They endured harsh living conditions, often experiencing multiple foster placements, and frequently suffering sexual abuse. Many were told they were unwanted by their parents or that their parents were dead. Training in the institutions was directed solely at preparing them for menial work. The 1996 inquiry into the stolen generations, Bringing Them Home, concluded that the forcible removal of Indigenous children was an act of genocide, contrary to the UN Convention on Genocide, which Australia had ratified in 1949.

While today few Indigenous people live in the Greensborough area, the suburb’s residents are living on land never formally ceded to the European settlers. In the 1850s, and without reference to the traditional owners, Edward Green had bought Crown land around the Plenty River. Later he designated a section of his land for Anglican worship, on which All Saints church stands.

Making restitution to descendants of the traditional owners of the land is no longer meaningful – a situation doubtless replicated across the Melbourne area, despite John Batman’s unique attempt in 1835 at concluding a treaty with the Wurundjeri people of the Melbourne area.

In 1837 the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke, a humane and progressive man (who bestowed the name Melbourne and is commemorated by its principal shopping mall), had sought to prevent squatters claiming ownership of Crown land by ‘purchase’ from Indigenous peoples, as John Batman had done at Merri Creek – or was it at the Plenty River at Greensborough, as claimed by some? This approach was overruled by the British Colonial Office, requiring its purchase from the Crown, and in the process formalising the doctrine of terra nullius (‘land of no one’). The land was uninhabited, with the natives legally covered under the flora and fauna laws.

Only in 1992 would the High Court of Australia recognise the prior title of the indigenous people to land, resulting from the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

Racial discrimination is treatment that is grossly unfair – and racist. In God’s eyes a sin. Few of us could ever have experienced it. But the reality is that for the past 230 years, all over the continent, racial discrimination has stunted the lives of Indigenous people.  

In October 1975 it was my privilege to be present at the small ceremony in Canberra when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam proclaimed the Racial Discrimination Act as the law of the land. It brought the potential for ushering in a new day in relationships between black and white Australians. Until then discrimination had been normative, unchallenged, even among many Christians – perhaps unwittingly. Today it is illegal.

For the next seven years I was part of a tiny team struggling to apply the new Act to protect Indigenous peoples from discrimination. But we were given almost no staff or funding for the task. Under our leader, a former politician, I was responsible with another senior officer of the Canberra Public Service for maximising its impact on the population – Australia-wide! While my colleague worked hard resolving the cases of individual discrimination lodged across the nation – largely by Indigenous people – my role was to explain the significance of the new Act to community organisations, including the Churches. I travelled widely around the country seeking to generate understanding and support for it. But whereas in the capital cities my message mostly met with a positive response, in up-country areas I would frequently encounter outright hostility.    

For instance at Moree, in response to my question to a pastry cook why no Indigenous people were serving in the shops, I was told “You can’t expect anybody to buy anything touched by an Abo’s hand!” Blacks were excluded from the mineral-spring baths for which the town was known, and their basketball team was banned from playing on the town courts. But could this have now become illegal? Few would take such a claim seriously.

While I was at a small town on the west coast of SA, an Indigenous identity notorious for his drunkenness lay where he was run over, his brains splattered for hours on a main street before being cleaned away like a dead dog. Nearby, a cliff towering over the Great Australian Bight was said to be the place where in the early days of settlement an entire clan had been pushed over to their fate. As late as my visit in 1982, on summer nights gangs of drunken shearers were still having their way with Indigenous women on the sand dunes – without restraint by authorities or public opinion.

In Queensland during the early days of settlement, real frontier wars had been fought between some clans and the new landholders, before the survivors were rounded up and transported to three ‘government stations’ – Palm Island off Cairns in the north (safely offshore), and two others in isolated areas in the centre and the south: Woorabinda and Cherbourg. Brought together from widely scattered areas, the people had no common language – and no freedom: they became virtual prisoners. Aptly, a contemporary Indigenous writer has dubbed these places ‘concentration camps’.

When explaining the Racial Discrimination Act in Queensland I was to encounter outright opposition from the Bjelke-Petersen Government’s refusal to acknowledge it. “Our policies are not going to be dictated from Canberra!” Indeed by some lawyers the Act was derided as a ‘puny champion’.

But in 1982 Eddie Mabo from the Torres Strait Islands appealed to the High Court of Australia to uphold the power of the Act. It was found to be legally binding on all State Governments, and later this opened the way to the Land Rights Act which has since restored Indigenous ownership to many lands occupied from time immemorial. These now amount to some 40% of the Australian landmass –but admittedly, are mostly inhospitable lands that no one else wants.

So the Racial Discrimination Act has proven to be one of the most powerful acts ever legislated. Indeed some recent conservative national governments have sought to tamper with it. Today it still offers a tool for reshaping our future as a harmonious, multiracial and multicultural society living under the rule of law.    

But as far back as a century and a half earlier, legally binding Treaties had been made with the indigenous populations in other British Empire countries like New Zealand and Canada, and these have profoundly shaped inter-community relations across those nations.

By contrast, our current Federal Government has rejected out of hand the claims for inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution put forward by the most representative national Indigenous congress ever held, at Uluru. We’ve still far to go.

The fundamental political issues are profound – yet, for Christians, straightforward enough. Doubtless some may face a taxing challenge in analysing their unwitting prejudices in order to make way for the new truths.

But thank God, we have his Holy Spirit as our guide and mentor.

Rev James Houston OAM