Australia is not a racist country. Compared with much of the world, Australia is a paragon of virtue when it comes to race relations. No political party in Australia has a racist platform, unless you drain all meaning from the word racist. Australia’s political culture rejects racism as unacceptably vile. And, at least since 1967, there has been consensus about righting the wrongs of the past and raising Indigenous Australia to the level of material, social and political conditions enjoyed by other Australians. This attempt to face the past and look to the future is noble and good.
But the conventional wisdom presents a different picture: that Australians are irredeemably racist with a horrendous history of colonisation, exploitation and murder. This narrative needs to be addressed because it is easy to decontextualise history. And because the mythology of genocidal Australia is having adverse effects on public policy.
We can’t judge the morality of the past by the culture of the present. The Europeans who founded modern Australia did not treat Indigenous Australians any worse than they treated other Europeans. It was the culture of the time. If we compare eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europeans, with the culture of Indigenous Australia, there’s no comparison. Pre-modern Australia had a culture that was barbaric if viewed from the principles of modern human rights, which are themselves a product of European civilisation.
The idea that colonisation is a European invention is also untrue. Indigenous Australians colonised other Aborigines for millennia before 1788. The notion that pre-modern Australia was a prelapsarian Eden, populated by friendly people innocent of human vice is wishful thinking raised to the level of myth. This ideal of the Aborigine as Noble Savage is dangerous and needs to be rejected by contemporary Australia. What happened is that an intellectually and technologically superior culture came into contact with a less sophisticated culture. The result was inevitable. Before 1788, strong Aborigines defeated weak Aborigines. The paradox is that the defeated always accuse their victors of what was once their own behaviour.
Another mythology that bedevils contemporary Australia is the idea that without European settlement Indigenous Australia would not have experienced the injustice of the past two centuries. This is untrue. Modernity was coming to Australia whether the continent was colonised by Europeans or not. If modernity had been introduced to Australia solely through the auspices of Indigenous Australians, the idea that the change would have been peaceful is nonsense. The process may have been more violent than European colonisation. The Europeans had a history of philosophical thought about human rights. No such narrative existed in pre-European Australia. The paradox is that European colonisation may have quickened the pace of modernisation and left fewer victims in its wake.
The notion that bad experiences in the past negatively affect Indigenous Australians today needs to be challenged. Germany, South Korea and Vietnam, to give three just examples, experienced far worse and their people are thriving. In fact, the treatment of Indigenous Australians in the recent past has been relatively benign compared to many other cultures around the world. Two attitudes have created dysfunction in Indigenous Australia – welfare and the Noble Savage myth.
Australia’s attempt to make amends for the wrongs of the past is unique. Billions of dollars have been spent on Indigenous Australia. Non-Indigenous Australians have suffered tangible economic losses to improve the lives of Indigenous Australians. Few people begrudge this wealth transfer because they have goodwill towards their Indigenous neighbours. Australia has returned as much land as possible to its original owners. What can’t be returned has been paid for in compensation. Australia has introduced self determination, land rights through the Mabo decision of the Australian High Court, apologised for the wrongs of the past, and stressed the notion of Reconciliation. The results of these programs are mixed. Successive governments of all political persuasions have done everything possible to improve the welfare of Indigenous Australia.
The solutions of government, no matter how well-meaning, often create more problems than they solve. Government largesse and the Noble Savage myth have paralysed generations of Aborigines. Accepting charity from the state, without any attempt to understand your problems and change your behaviour, while always blaming the people who are feeding your children, is the definition of dysfunction. Money and an easy life are no compensation for the virtues of fortitude and resilience. This is the terrible compact that Indigenous Australia and successive Australian governments have forged. The Noble Savage myth underpins much of this false narrative. The fact that the Europeans brought technology, science, reason and human rights is seldom mentioned.
The Noble Savage myth is a lie. Pre-modern life was rife with violence, sexual abuse, tragic levels of superstition and irrationalism, desperate poverty and pain. It is not a functional ideal in the 21st century. The irony is that Indigenous Australians both reject and embrace the notion of the Noble Savage. They reject it because they enjoy modernity. They drive cars, surf the Internet, take painkillers, eat spaghetti, wear the latest fashions, watch Star Wars and listen to Ed Sheeran. But they see no connection between the civilisation they enjoy and the Noble Savage myth. They believe that you can have a pre-modern mentality and a modern standard of living – and they are bewildered that their lives are blighted by poverty. Ultimately the solution to Aboriginal dysfunction lies with the people themselves. Government can only do so much.
What is unfortunate, though, is that no matter what Australia does, there is no sign of gratitude on the part of Indigenous Australia. There’s no acknowledgement of the goodwill of the majority of Australians, or the transfer of wealth to Indigenous Australia. The narrative is one of near-constant invective from Aborigines towards their multicultural neighbours. No matter how much is given, more is expected. The last 50 years is the story of one of the most decent events in history – how a generous people addressed the wrongs of the past. Mature people and countries have something in common. They forgive, and even if they don’t forget, they let injustice fade into the past to improve the present. Reconciliation is not a one-way street.
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