Indigenous Australians: What Does White Australia Owe Them?

When invasive and socially detrimental actions are perpetuated, en masse, upon founding members of a country and this causes ongoing disadvantage to these people, reparations must be made. This essay, will argue, that historic injustices do require some reparation in the present, despite the difficulties involved in this process.[1] Living in Australia, as I do, the current plight of indigenous Australians provides a salient example, and opportunity, to recognise this and act upon it. Reparations are about making amends for moral and material wrong doing, and are an opportunity to repair a damage done. In the instance of our indigenous Australian population the general statistical state of their health, living standards and life prognosis is manifestly poorer than that of the non-indigenous Australian population.[2] The fact that their lands were forcibly removed from the stewardship of their ancestors, by our forefathers, is inextricably linked to their current situation; and compensatory justice must be enacted to redress social and economic inequalities.

Compensatory justice, in this instance, is connected to distributive justice, through observing how the material and social disadvantages for indigenous Australians today are a result of the historic injustices perpetuated against them through British colonial settlement of their lands. As Ross Poole states: “White settlement is the history of dispossession” and of “genocide”.[3] A population of around three hundred and fifty thousand had been reduced by two thirds within a hundred years of white settlement, and an expectation of complete eradication was held by governments and professionals. Unlike, indigenous peoples in New Zealand and North America, Australian Aboriginal groups were never recognised, or compensated, by the British colonial governments for the loss of their lands.[4] The concept of terra nullis was created to void any legal ownership of the lands by the indigenous Australians; white settlers considered them unpropertied savages. [5]

Growing up in Western Australia in the nineteen seventies, I remember being told by adult members of my community, that Aboriginals were ‘dirty, lazy and no good drunks’. When I watched the television news, it was to see Aboriginals in trouble with the police or drinking flagons of booze on the fringes of dusty towns; there were no positive stories shown. I recognise that my anecdotal evidence contains, merely, personal impressions, but I would hazard a guess that many non-indigenous Australians, of my vintage, would have similar memories to recount. I include this information to flesh out statistical data with some cultural memories of ‘white Australia’. These were the prejudicial attitudes of white Australians toward their Aboriginal co-inhabitors of this country. R. M. Hare, intimates, that early impressions like mine, can affect the intuitive thinking of non-indigenous Australians, producing racism, and that critical thinking must be employed in our moral understanding of the plight of indigenous Australians.[6] Poole includes the fact that Aboriginal people were denied citizenship in this country until 1967, despite some of them fighting for Australia in the Second World War.[7] In Utilitarian terms, were Australian governments promoting the maximum utility, or happiness, of indigenous Australians?[8] No, the evidence suggests not, Aboriginals, in Aristotelian terms, were treated more like slaves or animals.[9] This raises questions of social inclusion and whether indigenous Australians were, and are, considered to have “equal considerations of interest” as Australians, according to Peter Singer’s moral principle?[10] In Hobbesian thinking, Aboriginals were not included in the ‘social contract’ between Australians, and even today they seem to have a lesser contract than non-indigenous nationals.[11]

Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologise to the ‘stolen generations’ of indigenous Australians, thus perpetuating the modern belief that we, as twenty first century Australians, bore no responsibility for the actions of previous generations. Jeremy Waldron would argue that the violation entitlement of indigenous Australians has faded over time and many Australians would agree with him.[12] They would say that the original victims of dispossession are long dead and that generations of settler families have invested in and improved the land; and why should they be punished for the actions of their long dead ancestors? Waldron’s conclusion is that historic injustice can be superseded by circumstance. He does, however, favour token symbolic gestures by governments toward the descendants of the dispossessed.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made that ‘apology’ in 2008 on behalf of all the governments that had come before him, for inflicting “profound grief, suffering and loss” on the affected indigenous Australians.[13] Although, largely symbolic, this apology was very important in the attitudinal shift it indicated for both non-indigenous and indigenous Australians. Robert Sparrow emphasises the role of “historical judgement in determining the nature of current events”, meaning that we cannot perceive the true state of contemporaneous reality until we undergo a process of retrospective evaluation.[14] Communicating our current evaluation of the appalling past behaviour by Australian governments toward indigenous Australians, through this apology, reaffirms our reformed values in relation to our responsibilities to indigenous Australians. Duncan Ivison sees ‘shame’ as the appropriate response in our collective circumstance as post-colonial inheritors of a racist society, slowly on the mend.[15] Acknowledging past injustices is, in my view, only the first step in distributing compensatory justice and making reparation.

How then are we to make practical reparations to indigenous Australians, if we are not going to strip assets from the descendants of white settlers? The Mabo and Wik decisions by the High Court of Australia in 1992 and 1996 respectively, overturned terra nullis, returning partial land rights to the concerned indigenous Australian parties; but did not confer sovereignty.[16] This failure to accord sovereign status over their lands, and the fact that a caveat requiring an exhibitable continuous relationship with the land must be shown, means that eighty percent of indigenous Australians will not benefit from the legal precedent offered by the Mabo decision.[17] Property ownership offers both monetary wealth and, more importantly, for Aboriginal people it confers an empowering status as original inhabitors of this land. Will Kymlicka argues against direct compensation for historical property rights and sees massive unfairness to the much larger populations that have since exploited these lands.[18] Poole mentions the huge amounts of more recent migration to Australia and the fact that these Australians, do not relate to any idea of responsibility for the dispossession of Aboriginal lands.[19] Australia is, however, a large and extremely wealthy nation relative to the rest of the world; it is important to remember this when considering the question of reparations.[20]

Reparations are a complex matter because there is a wide diversity of indigenous Australians to consider. There are those who embody a traditional lifestyle and there are many more who live an urban existence in cities and towns; and this is only the most general of demarcations. Traditional Aboriginal groups, in my view, need sovereignty over their territories and also continuing government support financially. Their status as the original inhabitants of parts of this land must be legally acknowledged and recognised. For those indigenous Australians, who have embraced urban living, and desire a modern Australian lifestyle, opportunities for education and employment must be ‘fast-tracked’ by governments, and business, through ‘affirmative action’.[21] These programs must grow out of a real dialogue between parties; creating an inclusive and strong social contract.

In conclusion, this essay has endeavoured to show that moral and material wrongs have been committed upon indigenous Australians historically and that these wrongs have caused damages over generations, up to and including the present. Arguments for and against reparations, both symbolic and material, have been presented, focusing ultimately on the importance of a socially inclusive Australia. Compensatory justice must deliver distributive justice to indigenous Australians; replacing disadvantages with advantages. The passing of much time and the massive levels of modern migration of European and Asian peoples to this country makes reparation a complex issue, but Australia is a wealthy and large continent. Non-indigenous Australians need to embrace the bigger historical picture, and, with empathy, initiate ‘affirmative action’ for their indigenous Australian brothers and sisters. This is not charity, however, this process of rectification and reparation is owed and must be enacted with dignity on both sides of the equation.

©Robert Hamilton

[1] Jeremy Waldron, “Superseding Historic Injustice”, Ethics, Vol 103, No 1, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992. p. 11-14.

 

 

[2] Mortality & Life Expectancy of Indigenous Australians 2008 to 2012, 2014 report, www.aihw.gov.au/indigenous-observatory/reports/mortality.

[3] Ross Poole, Nation and Identity, London, Routledge, 1999. p. 129.

 

[4] Ross Poole, Nation and Identity, London, Routledge, 1999. p. 130.

 

[5] Aristotle, Politics 1; 1254b.

Aristotle quoted in Tom Regan, Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1976. p. 109-110.

 

[6] R. M. Hare, “The Structure of Ethics and Morals”, in Peter Singer, Ethics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 330-331.

 

[7] Ross Poole, Nation and Identity, London, Routledge, 1999. p. 129.

 

[8] Jeremy Bentham, “The Principle of Utility”, in Peter Singer, Ethics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 306-307.

[9] Aristotle, Politics 1; 1254b.

Aristotle quoted in Tom Regan, Animal Rights and Human Obligations, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1976. p. 109-110.

 

[10] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993. p. 21-23.

[11] James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, Boston, McGraw-Hill College, 1999. p. 143-148.

[12] Jeremy Waldron, “Superseding Historic Injustice”, Ethics, Vol 103, No 1, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992. p. 15.

 

[13] Catriona Mackenzie, Lecture 21 on Historic Injustice and Indigenous Rights, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 11.

 

[14] Robert Sparrow, “History and Collective Responsibility”, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol 78, No 3, Sydney, 2000. p. 346.

[15] Catriona Mackenzie, Lecture 22 on Historic Injustice and Indigenous Rights, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 11.

[16] Ross Poole, Nation and Identity, London, Routledge, 1999. p. 130.

 

[17] Ross Poole, Nation and Identity, London, Routledge, 1999. p. 130-132.

 

[18] Catriona Mackenzie, Lecture 22 on Historic Injustice and Indigenous Rights, Macquarie University, PHI110, Week 11.

 

[19] Ross Poole, Nation and Identity, London, Routledge, 1999. p. 138.

[20] http://www.austrade.gov.au/digital-benchmark/growth.html#anchor1

[21] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993. p. 17.