The recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests would surely seem to represent a watershed moment in history. Isn’t it unfathomable, though, that societal equity remains in any way elusive half a century after the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s and a further century beyond the Civil War’s Emancipation Proclamation? The egregious injustice of George Floyd’s death scarcely diminishes the long shadow still cast by our racist past. And this past is Australia’s, too.
More than a decade after Kevin Rudd apologised on behalf of the nation for the sins of the Stolen Generation, significant concerns remain. The continued deaths of Indigenous people in custody has been a topic of recent conversation, with more than 430 since the 1991 Royal Commission into this very issue, representing 20% of all deaths and at an average age fourteen years younger than that of non-Indigenous people, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology.
Then there is the ongoing insensitivity surrounding the annual celebration of Australia Day and the continued minimisation of the past pillaging and brutalisation of Aboriginal people representing perhaps the darkest chapter in our short history.
A posture of deep listening will bring little healing unless evincing empathy for injustice and an equalisation of opportunities. Public policy is gaining impetus and there seems to be new will to advance recent gains, but Christians across Australia can also play a key part in continued advocacy by helping to broker further helpful conversations and outcomes.
Generations of collaboration with Indigenous leaders has helped Christianise, educate and resource Aboriginal communities, though sometimes insensitively, and yet much good still emerges from valuable missional momentum. Such work might continue to enable opportunities for advancement. It might also allow the funding of local reconciliation projects through church partnerships, including those acknowledging and apologising for past brutality.
What is actually achieved has always rightly needed us to hear the voices of Indigenous leaders, but this listening needs further consideration of some key ways in which communication might be enhanced.
1. Remove barriers such as the celebration of the current Australia Day holiday.
Listening is compromised by the deafening insensitivities of continued celebration of our national holiday on a date marking an illegitimate invasion. Suggestions that some Indigenous communities are not offended by marking the landing of the British in 1788 disregards the position of those who are. It also denies that a lack of opposition is hardly tantamount to overwhleming support.
Those seeking the ongoing celebration of a certain cultural heritage on January 26th might just note, too, its growing irrelevance with each passing year that the racist White Australia Policy of old recedes into the past where it belongs.
Arthur Phillip could hardly be thanked for his intent to prosecute mistreatment of Indigenous Australians while simultaneously enacting a royal decree to take possession of their land for the Crown. Similarly, John Batman’s subsequent opportunistic purchase of the entire greater Melbourne region in 1835 hardly constituted a fair recompense, if it was even understood to be anything more than negotiated form of coexistence.
Many have called for an alternative and more suitable date, with one favourite being eminently sensible. Federation Day could be celebrated in January to recognise the formation of the nation in 1901 by selecting a date such as the third Friday of the month so as never to coincide with 26th. This would allow some lead-up time for the purpose of organising relevant ceremonies while remaining within the summer holiday period.
2. Repent for the brutal mistreatment of Indigenous people on a specific basis.
The sheer number of massacres of Indigenous people across Australia, particularly in the nineteenth century, beggars belief. The dehumanisation of those slaughtered perhaps rationalised their murders at the time, despite existing penalties that were in place. These were often inadequate for the crimes. The minimal likelihood of reporting was exacerbated by the collusion of those who often remained unwilling to interfere in any meaningful way.
Many examples exist, but one has received recent coverage. The Victorian electoral division of McMillan became known as Monash last year when the explorer and settler for which it was named was finally deemed an unworthy namesake. Angus McMillan, the ‘Butcher of Gippsland’, was acknowledged as the mass murderer of hundreds of Aboriginal people in the 1840s.
Nineteenth-century Christian minister, James Bickford, wrote of the Christian Work in Australasia from London in 1878 after his extensive travels down under. He suggested that the death of the native population of Tasmania was not due to the incidental effects of establishing a white population as much as having come from intentional mistreatment. The University of Tasmania issued a 2019 apology in acknowledgment of it having been built on “the proceeds of war and dispossession.”
The capacity for local Christian leaders to take a stand and help their local communities apologise for criminal mistreatment of Indigenous people would also make a bold statement. Perpetrators were hardly acting in the name of faith, but nevertheless progressed the establishment of a culture associated with Christianity and also with this wrongdoing. As community leaders, Christians could easily assist councils by brokering key conversations to facilitate local ‘sorry days.’
Should current Indigenous elders see fit to enumerate the ways in which specific acts of reconciliation might proceed, would not many hundreds and thousands of Christian congregations across this nation participate quite willingly? Funding and enacting memorials or works of partial restitution would not of themselves right our past wrongs but might just advance the very hope and practice of justice that the Gospels also seek to address.
3. Resolve the inequities the still exist in practice, even when legislation has changed.
The census inclusion of Aboriginal Australians after the 1967 referendum was a significant outcome that nevertheless fell short of their full integration. More recent efforts have removed structural impediments to equalisation. The Indigenous Opportunities Policy of 2015, for example, sought the advancement of more favourable employment outcomes, given the unemployment rate sits at 16% when compared with the 5% figure for the general population.
It is, however, in practised daily life that experiences do not always match intent. Recent peer-reviewed research by Alison Markwick showed that Indigenous Victorian adults were four times more likely than non-Indigenous counterparts to have experience racism over a twelve month period. Furthermore, Indigenous adults of low socioeconomic status, whether due to household income or educational attainment, were actually less likely to experience racism than those of a higher socioeconomic status.
The Australian Human Rights Commission further reports that the life expectancy of Indigenous people is 17 years lower than that of the Australian population in general, that homelessness sits at three times the national average, and that family violence against women is more than twice that experienced by non-Indigenous women.
If prejudicial treatment of Indigenous people is perhaps inadvertent for any of us, it will be aligned to erroneous beliefs, if not relative ignorance. Marwick advocates “challenging and changing beliefs and behaviours” in schools and workplaces. Churches and mission agencies can not only play a role in this form of education, but broker key conversations through extensive networks and involvement in specific projects.
If we, as a nation, are to improve our human rights record in this key distinctive, it will not be through what we consider to be intentional elimination of racism alone, but through intentional engagement and advocacy.
When, as a minister leading a large church for ten years, I can recall featuring only one Indigenous guest and personally addressing Indigenous needs a mere handful of other times in any meaningfully explicit way, I recognise having contributed to the problem. Relegation of a national issue to the category of being someone else’s ensures an out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach. Sensitivity in acting collaboratively and helpfully will be needed, but momentum need not develop slowly.
Though we cannot forcibly tailor our desire to act to fit every context, there is perhaps something we can all choose to do. Whether adopting projects and fundraising for them, engaging in specific prayer for explicit needs, listening to stories of disadvantage and bias experienced by specific groups, or establishing links to key agencies, we can also engage in meaningful conversations to ensure awareness and action in relation to the past.
Most Indigenous people show considerable maturity and resilience amidst the oppression they or their families have faced. Perhaps in demonstrating a desire to own our response to history, in spite of the self-effacing humility from some very forgiving Indigenous communities, we might finally demonstrate the will to overcome the collective indifference shown to First Peoples of our nation for far too long.