“I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um, scaredly settled, Great South Land.”
These words were spoken by the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, as he delivered a keynote address at the Australian-Melbourne Institute conference earlier this month. His slip of the tongue reveals the embarrassing fact: the noble savage who conquered Terra Nullius is still very much alive in the Australian popular imagination. The “sacred settler” is a fetishisation of Indigenous culture, delegitimating their rational claim to the land and marginalising their interests.
Abbott’s statement gives us two interesting insights into the conservative ethos that marks current Australian politics and popular culture. First, the pig- headedness of the everyday Aussie to revel in the ‘land of milk and honey’ that we are supposed to live in and a directly ensuing obsession with economic stability. Growing up in a primarily white upper middle class suburb of Sydney, I can hardly deny the plenty that has been my childhood. Perhaps best summed up in our national anthem – “We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil; Our home is girt by sea; Our land abounds in nature’s gifts; Of beauty rich and rare”. Followed by a shout out to our Commonwealth founders to whom we ‘owe our existence’.
But the second insight perhaps shows the amnesia that this ethos necessitates. ‘Unsettled’ – by whom? The colonial British male? His wife and three sons? The farmer? The miner? The merchant? Abbot’s apologetic use of the term “sacred” also demonstrates how the Indigenous first settlers are implicitly viewed by both the colonial, and a large proportion of the current Australian population implicitly see him to be. As part of a long gone chapter in our mystic past that has been thankfully closed by the incessant and inevitable march of economic progress. Certainly, they are not the party with sovereign right over Australia.
In this context, it becomes easy for Abbott to cut half a billion dollars over five years in the 2014 Budget allocated by the previous Gillard government to the development and sustenance of services for the severely impoverished Indigenous population: to consolidate the previously 150 Indigenous welfare service areas into a neat five; and to detract the promised $13.4 million from Aboriginal legal aid services. Abbott ran for office on the platform of being the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’, which seems to have been rapidly and unceremoniously sacrificed for the economic stability of the middle class, white male who voted him into office. In parallel with his escalation of the exclusive refugee policy, it leaves one wondering if we are seeing the resurrection of the infamous White Australia policy, a policy of assimilation established in 1901 and not dismantled until 1973 that sanctioned both exclusive immigration and the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents before their placement in foster homes.
But why has it become so easy for Abbott’s conservatism to again capture the Australian public mood? The shortest answer is also dismally obvious: that the Aussie voter doesn’t feel bad about what he can’t really see.
Coming back to ‘The Great Southern Land’ after six months in Europe, I landed in the middle of NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) week. NAIDOC is the week of sausage sizzles and school assemblies to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. My nine-year-old sister came running home to tell me of the Indigenous dance they were taught by ‘real aborigines(!!)’.
I enjoyed the art exhibition, ‘Hereby we make Protest’, put on at a local gallery to commemorate the conception of a National Day of Mourning by an all-Aboriginal conference in 1938. The gallery had commissioned artists Karla Dickens, Nicole Foreshew and Jacob Nash to create “new works evoking the fighting spirit of these Aboriginal political activists.” The important period for Indigenous activism is celebrated through the works and archival documents on display. One can read the resolutions of the 1938-conference, personal testimonies of police brutality and the statements of mission communities who sought self-determined governance.
The works are surely outstanding and I can see them foster respect for the indigenous community. But I hardly felt engaged with Indigenous contemporaries who today still protest at the ‘Tent Embassy’ on the lawns of parliament house for a government address of the welfare gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian populations.
Let me give you just a snapshot of this gap across indicators (more on the Australian Human Rights Commission website. The gap exists in welfare – Indigenous males’ life expectancy was estimated to be 59.4 years over 1996-2001 – in comparison to approximately 77 years for other male Australians. In prisons – Indigenous youth make up 5 per cent of the total youth population and yet 50 per cent of the juvenile prison population compared to the general Australian population for the same five year period. In health – an Indigenous person is 11.7 times more likely to contract Hepatitis A. In welfare – approximately 25% of the Indigenous population of the Northern Territory is homeless. In mental health – in 2005–06, Indigenous Australians were three times more likely to be hospitalised for intentional self-harm than other Australians.
Instead of actively engaging with these facts, instead of reflecting on potential solution, an art exhibition, such as ‘Hereby we make Protest’ turns the political activists into mere figures of history. It somehow implies that such need for protest is located in a time past. The approach of celebration seems to become dangerously tokenistic. The apparently rosy picture of honouring the ‘sacred’ settlers doesn’t quite compensate for or acknowledge the on-going struggle of the Indigenous population. When we swap protest for celebration, we support the political ignorance of the everyday Australian. We also perpetuate the fallacy of equality that sustains ‘true blue mateship’, so dear to the every day Aussie. The politics of ‘Terra Nullius’ are the politics of invisibility.
The fight is still there, even if sidelined by the government. On July 11th, residents and activists set up a protest in the Sydney suburb of Redfern (to mirror that in Canberra) to contest the proposed redevelopment of ‘The Block’, with banners sporting slogans such as ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Black Land, Black Law’. The ‘Block‘ is an urban site home to 63 Indigenous residents and was the first and largest Indigenous land rights claim in Australia. The site was purchased over a 30-year period by the Aboriginal Housing Commission with money attained in 1972 after the lobbying of the Whitlam administration. It was also the epicentre of the 2004 Redfern riots, sparked by the police chase of 17-year-old T.J. Hickey, which ended in his impalement on a fence. Now, this historic space of Indigenous visibility is at threat of being turned into a 70 million dollar development that includes a commercial precinct and student housing but excludes affordable housing for the Indigenous population.
The sanctity of this land is not part of time past, nor even time immemorial but a current and legitimate need to be seen, heard and accepted as the first Australian people. In tokenistic celebrations of the ‘sacred settlers’, Australian public culture does not make room for Indigenous interests. Instead, it provides us with a facade that allows Indigenous issues to be further marginalised as a mysterious chapter of Australia’s history that does not contradict but is complimentary to ‘Terra Nullius‘.
Nikita Simpson is an undergraduate student in Social Anthropology at Kings College. She is beginning her research on Women’s Rights and the Law in contemporary India.
The column: Terra Nullis
Terra nullius is a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning “land belonging to no one”, which is used in international law to describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state. This column explores the ‘no ones’ and why they are subject to voicelessness and invisibility. It looks at who creates and profits from the ‘no one’ and how the state, how places – the indigenous sign for this is used in the logo – can be reclaimed.