Sarah Gall is a political data scientist and membership secretary for the UK’s Conservative Friends of Australia. She previously headed up political and policy research for the Prime Minister of Australia.
On the 26th of January, 1788, 11 British ships known as the First Fleet landed on Australian shores. To commemorate this day, Australia Day became the country’s official national holiday which seeks to unite and celebrate all Australians living in a free, democratic, and multicultural society.
It is often celebrated with barbeques and beers, citizenship ceremonies, and the presentation of honours and awards.
In addition to this, the day has also become a day for all Australians to reflect on the nation’s history – the good and the bad – and to respect, understand, and include the culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples whose own history on the land spans more than 60,000 years.
Australia Day, however, is not celebrated by all Australians. To others it is known as “Invasion Day” or “National Day of Mourning”, and has become increasingly controversial. Some companies have announced to their employees this year that they can work on the public holiday if they feel uncomfortable celebrating Australia Day.
This reflects the fact that while initial contact between the European settlers and Aboriginal people were generally friendly, conflicts eventuated between the two groups as colonisation progressed. This led to a significant number of deaths of their people, the dispossession of their land, and the removal of their rights and freedoms.
But it is the product of an an approach which focuses heavily on one-side of history instead of reflecting on both sides. As a result, those who push forward and ignore the other side only divide the nation rather than unite it.
A report published in 1837 by the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes made reference to these atrocities, stating that:
“the land had been taken from them without the assertion of any other title than that of superior force…conflicts between the Europeans and the Aborigines, in which the former acted avowedly upon the principle of enforcing belligerent rights against a public enemy”.
The committee made recommendations for British colonies and their parliaments to adopt. This included the Protection of Natives which advised that the Indigenous people be withdrawn from local legislative control and stated that they “must be considered as within the allegiance of the Queen, and as entitled to her protection”.
Using the colony of South Australia as an example, the committee also recognised that while the lands had been sold in London,”the ancient occupiers of the soil” had not received anything. The committee therefore recommended that a debt was owed to the Aboriginal people and that they should be paid by “whatever expenditure is necessary for the instruction of the adults, the education of their youth, and the protection of them all”.
In response to this report, the South Australian Governor promised to protect the Aboriginal people within the colony. Land was reserved for Indigenous people, separating them from the settlers in an attempt to reduce the chance of violence and the spread of European diseases.
Schools were also established on these lands for the education of children and a Protector was appointed as the legal guardian of “every half-caste [(mixed-race)] and other unprotected Aboriginal child whose parents are dead or unknown”.
Other colonies across the continent followed this protectionist model, reserving land for Indigenous people to live and work on with a goal of becoming self-sustaining. Some oversight was provided by government-appointed settlers who were tasked to manage the reserves and provide food and clothing. For these managed reserves, the government also provided education, shelter, and healthcare.
The conditions of these reserves, the treatment of the Indigenous people, and the resources provided by governments varied greatly, however. This perhaps reflected mixed views from most settlers who believed that the Aboriginal people would become extinct.
As an example, one official in Victoria reported to the government that “before the advance of civilization, the race may doubtless become extinct. It is gratifying, however, to see the last days of the Aboriginal inhabitants of this colony are made as happy as possible”. Whereas in New South Wales another wrote, “the race is nearly extinct. It is useless supplying them with boats or rations as they thereby can get rum”.
When Australia became a nation in 1901, the power for legislating for Indigenous people remained with the states, as set out in the Australian Constitution. Thus the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – who were explicitly excluded from the Constitution and its drafting – continued to vary greatly from state to state.
The part of the Constitution that permitted states to do this was section 51 (xxvi), colloquially known as the ‘race power’. This section stated that the Federal Parliament has the power to make laws with respect to ‘the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws’.
The states used this power to pass legislation authorising the forcible removal of children – primarily those of mixed-race – from their Aboriginal mothers to be raised in institutions or adopted by non-Indigenous families. Reasons for this included:
“that it is a most undesirable thing for Half-castes to be allowed to grow up uneducated, and in all the wandering habits of their black mothers, which can only end in their becoming not only a disgrace but a menace to our civilisation”.
When the Northern Territory separated from South Australia, the Federal parliament also passed legislation authorising for the Chief Protector to “be entitled at any time to undertake the care, custody, or control of any aboriginal or half-caste if in his opinion it is necessary or desirable in the interests of the aboriginal or half-caste for him to do so”.
They did this in the form of an Ordinance instead of a Bill and while the Northern Territory did not have representation in parliament. This meant the Act relating to the ‘protection’ of the Indigenous people was not debated.
Only some parliamentarians opposed this type of legislation in other states. For example P McGarry, a New South Wales parliamentarian, strongly opposed the 1915 amendment to the Aborigines Protection Amending Bill, exclaiming that it permitted the Protector “to steal the child away from its parents”.
This interjection was refuted by the Secretary introducing the Bill who stated that:
“It is not a question of stealing the children, but of saving them. I have certain information…that there are at the present time in our various settlements a number of half-caste children, of ages up to 12 years, actually housed with parents who are leading immoral lives…under [the proposed powers] these half-caste children will be given a chance to better themselves”.
From the 1920s, Indigenous campaigners petitioned against laws of this nature and pushed for their equal rights and freedoms. During this time, Australia also saw a gradual shift in what was once viewed as ‘protection’ to the recognition and realisation that these laws and policies were racist and discriminatory.
By the 1960s, the Menzies Government had established that “all persons of aboriginal blood or mixed blood in Australia will live as do white Australians”, began the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, and amended the electoral act to give Indigenous Australians the right to vote.
Campaigners also pushed for a referendum to change section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution which would place the powers to make laws relating to Indigenous people in the hands of the Federal Parliament instead of the States. This was successful in 1967 with an overwhelming majority of 90.77 percent who voted in favour.
This referendum was arguably one of the most important turning points towards equal rights as it completely dismantled state segregation policies and permitted the Federal Government to pass legislation that positively impacted Indigenous people.
For example, following the landmark 1992 Mabo case, the Keating Government formalised the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights to their pre-colonial lands by enacting the Native Title Act 1993.
Over the past half-century, Australia has made significant progress towards equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This equality is not just in the legal sense, but also on measures such as health and education.
While there is undoubtedly more to do, Australia Day is an opportunity for all Australians to celebrate what unites us, rather than focus on what divides us. It is important to reflect on all parts of Australia’s history and how it has progressed into the nation it is today.
As former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “a free country debates its history – it does not deny it. It builds new monuments as it preserves old ones, writes new books, not burn old ones.”