3. Aboriginal Societies: The Experience of Contact

Changing Policies Towards Aboriginal People

22. The Initial Impact. Aboriginal people have occupied’ Australia for at least 40 000 years.[2] However, very little is known about the history of human occupation during this enormous length of time, even in outline, and practically nothing of the social, political and cultural changes that must have occurred.[3] Recorded Aboriginal history is a history of contact, with Macassan or Indonesian traders or fishermen,[4] with European, especially British, navigators and with British colonists and settlers. At the time of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, there was, of course, no single Aboriginal nation. Australia (including Tasmania) contained a large number of groups occupying more or less discrete areas and with considerable diversity in terms of language and culture.[5] Conflicts between settlers and Aborigines, and the devastation caused by introduced diseases and alcohol, reduced the Aboriginal population during the first hundred years of settlement from an estimated 300 000 to 60 000.[6] Most of those who survived had their traditional ways of life destroyed or at least suppressed. In the confined area of Tasmania the effects of white settlement were devastating, bringing Tasmanian Aborigines to the verge of extinction.[7] It has been conservatively estimated that at least 10 000 Aborigines died violently in Queensland between 1824 and 1908.[8]

23. Early Years of British Settlement. Governor Phillip’s instructions on first settlement in 1788 had been to maintain peaceful and friendly relations with the native inhabitants. Aborigines were defined to be British subjects and entitled to the protection of British law.[9] The reality was to be very different.[10] As the frontiers of settlement expanded more and more Aboriginal land was taken and violence often erupted. The Aborigines, having no recognised title to the land but being regarded as British subjects for the purposes of the law, were likely to be treated violently if they resisted encroachments upon their land. Reece states that:

Racial conflicts arose primarily from the rapid expropriation of the Aborigines’ land — a process which had been going on steadily since first settlement. In this the white settlers had been assisted by soldiers and police and there was little reason for anyone to think that killing Aborigines was a crime, especially when it was done to protect sheep and cattle, and settlers’ lives.[11]

The economic and political realities were masked by a view of Aborigines as primitive, if not sub-human, a view which revealed fundamental ignorance of Aboriginal cultures. Europeans were, Stanner has said:

... unable to see, let alone credit, the facts that have convinced modern anthropologists that the Aborigines are a deeply religious people. That blindness ... profoundly affected European conduct toward the Aborigines. It reinforced two opposed views — that they were a survival into modern times of a protoid form of humanity incapable of civilization, and that they were decadents from a once-higher life and culture. It fed the psychological disposition to hate and despise those whom the powerful have injured ... It allowed European moral standards to atrophy by tacitly exempting from canons of right, law, and justice acts of dispossession, neglect, and violence at Aboriginal expense.[12]

24. Colonial Attitudes Harden. Thus with the expansion of settlement and continuing clashes on the frontiers, attitudes hardened. Throughout the first half of the century, and beyond 1850, reprisals and punitive expeditions were common, and ‘martial law’ was sometimes declared, for example in Tasmania (1828-32)[13] and in the Bathurst area on the mainland in 1824. ‘A number of massacres occurred, the best documented being the Myall Creek Massacre in 1838 in northern New South Wales (resulting in the conviction and execution of seven of the eleven convicts and assigned servants charged with the murders).[14] Some liberal minded Governors attempted to improve the plight of the Aborigines. For example, Governor Bourke, and to a lesser extent Governor Gipps, sought to inhibit pastoral expansion by refusing the protection of the law to whites either beyond the boundaries of squatter’s licences in the case of Bourke,[15] or in certain interdicted areas in the case of Gipps.[16] But given the difficulties of law enforcement in the interior, there was little chance of controlling depredations; indeed many punitive expeditions throughout the century were officially or unofficially sanctioned. Depredations and punitive expeditions continued well into this century, especially in northern regions.[17] Aboriginal responses varied with time, place and circumstance, and included reprisals which sometimes led to trials and convictions for acts which Aborigines themselves regarded as fully justified.[18] But trials were rare, compared with the large number of incidents on both sides.

25. Protection. The reduction in the Aboriginal population, and a growing consciousness of the general mistreatment of Aboriginal people, combined with the need for more effective regulation of labour in pastoral areas to bring about changes in policy. The House of Commo ns Select Committee on Aborigines, which had reported in 1837, had recommended that there should be missionaries for Aboriginal people, protectors for their defence and special codes of law to protect them. Protectors were appointed, mostly by executive order, in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia at about this time; they were supposed to protect Aborigines from abuses and to provide the remnant populations around towns with some rations, blankets and medicine.[19] With limited formal powers they had even more limited success, and by the mid-nineteenth century the office of protector had for the most part either terminated or been vested ex officio in policemen. It was not until much later in the century that more formal and extensive policies of ‘protection’ were formulated, aimed at isolating and segregating full-blood Aborigines on reserves and at restricting contact (and interbreeding) between them and outsiders, while attempting to assimilate half-castes, and especially their children. The right to marry was limited, as were other civil rights. For full-blood Aborigines there was some de facto tolerance or allowance of a continuing traditional way of life, although the missions which were sometimes entrusted with the running of reserves and the care of their populations were often unsympathetic and sometimes overtly hostile to traditional ways. Legislation applying the policy of protection was adopted in Victoria in 1867, Western Australia in 1886, Queensland in 1897, New South Wales in 1909, South Australia and the Northern Territory in 1910-11.[20] Church missions and Government settlements were set up and Aborigines were moved onto them. Special laws prohibited the consumption of alcohol, restricted the movement of Aborigines and regulated their employment. There were systematic efforts through the establishment of ‘boarding houses’ to take ‘part-Aboriginal’ children away from their parents and to educate them in European ways.[21] The policy of protection was reinforced and the legislative restrictions and controls made more comprehensive during the first half of the century.[22] Its influence carried over into the period of assimilation, as can be seen from the euphemistic provisions of the Welfare Ordinance 1953 (NT) with its paternalistic arrangements for ‘wardship’ of incompetent (Aboriginal) persons.[23]

26. Assimilation. Continuing difficulties, and criticisms of the treatment of Aboriginal people especially in central and northern Australia, led in 1936 to demands by the States and by voluntary bodies for increased Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal affairs. At the 1936 Premiers’ Conference in Adelaide, it was agreed that while Commonwealth control might not be practical there should be regular meetings between the State and Commonwealth officers responsible for Aboriginal affairs.[24] At the first such meeting, held in Canberra in 1937, the Commonwealth and the States agreed that the objective should be the absorption at least of ‘the natives of Aboriginal origin but not of the full blood’.[25] In a sense ‘assimilation’ was that aspect of the policy of protection concerned with the ‘future’ of Aborigines (mostly of ‘mixed blood’) in settled areas. In the 1950s ‘assimilation’ became a widely accepted goal for all Aboriginal people and was adopted as policy by the Commonwealth and by all State Governments. The policy was defined at the 1961 Native Welfare Conference of Federal and State Ministers in these terms:

The policy of assimilation means that all Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs as other Australians.[26]

Steps were taken to achieve this result. Expenditure on health, housing, education and training programs began to be increased in the Northern Territory and in the States. The decline in the Aboriginal population in the north and centre was halted and reversed in the 1950s, and in southern and eastern Australia the Aboriginal population was increasing rapidly. In the 1960s a concerted effort was made to review and repeal restrictive and discriminatory legislation, especially by the Commonwealth Government, and the mechanisms of ‘protection’ were phased out. Access to social security benefits for Aborigines came in 1960, Aborigines became entitled to vote at federal elections in 1962,[27] and the wardship system in the Northern Territory was dismantled in 1964. State legislation prohibiting access to alcohol for Aborigines was repealed and in most jurisdictions Aborigines became entitled to full award wages. In 1967 the Constitution was amended by referendum so that Aborigines would in future be counted in the Census,[28] and to authorise the Commonwealth Parliament to pass laws specifically for the benefit of Aboriginal people.[29] An Office of Aboriginal Affairs was established by the Commonwealth Government to instigate and oversee programs of assistance for Aborigines.

27. Integration. While these developments were taking place, the general notion of assimilation was itself increasingly being questioned. That policy took no account of the value or resilience of Aboriginal culture, nor did it allow that Aborigines might seek to maintain their own languages and traditions. A basic assumption of the policy was that Aborigines would inevitably, and probably willingly, become like white Australians in terms of their ‘manner of living’, ‘customs’ and ‘beliefs’. The paternalism, and arrogance, of such assumptions was discredited. There was also a greater awareness of Aboriginal problems by non-Aboriginal Australians. The language of ‘assimilation’, with the underlying assumption that Aboriginal equality could only be achieved by the loss of Aboriginal identity, was abandoned. The term ‘integration’ was sometimes used by the critics of the assimilation policy to denote a policy that recognised the value of Aboriginal culture and the right of Aboriginals to retain their languages and customs and maintain their own distinctive communities,[30] but there was a deliberate effort on the part of the Commonwealth authorities to avoid one-word descriptions of complex policies, and to focus on developing new approaches to problems rather than on long-term aims. The initial emphasis was on increased funding and improved programs in areas such as health, education and employment, to try to ensure that formal equality was accompanied by real social and economic advances. But measures were also adopted to in crease funding for Aboriginal community development projects, and the first steps were taken towards the granting of land rights. In 1972 a separate federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established, and in 1973 the Woodward Commission was appointed to investigate how land rights for Aborigines could be implemented. The Report led eventually to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth).

28. Self-Management or Self-Determination. In recent years the policy of the Commonwealth has been based on what has been described as ‘the fundamental right of Aboriginals to retain their racial identity and traditional lifestyle or, where desired, to adopt wholly or partially a European lifestyle’,[31] and has encouraged Aboriginal participation or control in local or community government, and in other areas of concern. This approach, variously described as a policy of self-management or self-determination, has been accompanied by government support programs managed by Aboriginal organisations. For example the Aboriginal Development Commission was established in 1980[32] to help further the economic and social development of Aboriginal people, to promote their development and self-management and to provide a base for Aboriginal economic self-sufficiency. The functions of the Aboriginal Development Commission are to assist Aboriginal people to acquire land, to engage in business enterprises and to obtain finance for housing and other personal needs.[33] Other Aboriginal organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, are proving increasingly important: these include land councils, incorporated community support groups, child care agencies, alcohol rehabilitation services, medical services, hostels, legal services and cultural organisations. Attempts have continued to establish a body which can represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander opinion on all matters of policy, through giving advice to the Commonwealth and in other ways.[34] The Commonwealth’s policy has been formulated by the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the following way:

This Government looks to achieve further progress for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through the two principles of consultation and self-determination, that is, with the involvement of the Aboriginal people in the whole process ... All our policies, each of our programs and projects, have been and will continue to be fashioned in discussions with Aboriginal people and their organisations at national and community levels.[35]

There are, clearly enough, differences between the phrases ‘self-management, ‘consultation’, and ‘self-determination’.[36] Full self-determination in a particular field implies more than either management by or consultation with the ‘self’ involved.

[2] DJ Mulvaney, The Prehistory of Australia, rev edn. Penguin, Ringwood, 1975, 52.

[3] For a detailed study of the archaeological evidence see J Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, Collins, Sydney, 1983. cf also G Blarney, Triumph of the Nomads, rev edn, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1983.

[4] See RM Berndt 8c CH Berndt, Arnhem Land. Its History and its People, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1954, 14-25.

[5] For studies of the different languages and cultures see EM Cuff, The Australian Race, John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1887, vols I-IV; RMW Dixon, The Languages of Australia, Cambridge University Press, 1980, and cf P Sutton, ‘How Many Languages are There?’ (1975) 2(1) Aboriginal News.

[6] Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Aboriginals in Australia Today, AGPS, Canberra, 1981, 4. And see NG Butlin, Our Original Aggression. Aboriginal Populations of Southeastern Australia 1788-1850, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983, 119-48.

[7] See L Ryan, The Aboriginal Tasmanians, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1981; VR Ellis, Trucanini, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1981.

[8] R Evans, K Sanders & K Cronin, Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination: Race Relations in Colonial Queensland, ANZ Book Co, Sydney, 1973, 128.

[9] See para 39-40.

[10] See generally D Collins, An Account of the English Colony in NSW, T Cadell Jnr & W Davies, London, 1789, vol 1; and for a graphic summary, WEH Stanner, ‘The History of Indifference thus Begins’ (1963) in White Man Got No Dreaming, ANU Press, Canberra, 1979, 165.

[11] RHW Reece, Aborigines and Colonists: Aborigines and Colonial Society in New South Wales in the 1830s and 1840s, Sydney UP, Sydney, 1974, 3.

[12] WEH Stanner, ‘Religion, Totemism and Symbolism’ (1962), in Stanner (1979) 106, 108. cf CD Rowley, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, repr, Penguin, Ringwood 1978, 7.

[13] See Ryan, ch 5 and 6.

[14] See Reece ch 4; Rowley (1978) 35-9. For an account of early Queensland and South Australian massacres see R Logan Jack, North West Australia, Simpkin Marshall Hamilton, London, 1921; K Hassell, The Relations between the Settlers and Aborigines in South Australia 1836-1860. Libraries Board of South Australia, Adelaide, 1966.

[15] Sydney Gazette (2 January 1834). However, Bourke was willing to extend Government protection to the Aborigines: see NSW Government Gazette (1837) 652, cited by B Bridges, ‘The Aborigines and the Law: New South Wales 1788-1855’ (1970) 4 Teaching History 40, 44.

[16] NSW Government Gazette (1842) 587, cited by Bridges (1970) 44. For a balanced account of Gipps’ policy see Reece, ch 5.

[17] In particular the Coniston massacre of 1928 in the Northern Territory (as to which see J Cribbin, The Killing Times, Fontana, Sydney, 1984).

[18] For the killings of Japanese and Europeans in Arnhem Land in 1932-3 and the subsequent trials see Berndt & Berndt (1954) ch 14-16. For Tuckiar’s case (the best known of these) see para 51. Generally on Aboriginal responses see Reece, ch 1; H Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier. Penguin, Ringwood, 1982; N Loos, Invasion and Resistance: Aboriginal-European Relations on the North Queensland Frontier 1861-1897, ANU Press, Canberra, 1982.

[19] Rowley (1978) 55-63, 66-8, 75-7, 83-4.

[20] Rowley (1978) 172-5, 182-5, 189-98, 218-21.

[21] See para 345.

[22] Rowley (1978) 227-42. See esp JW Bleakley, Report on the Aboriginals and Half-Castes of Central Australia and North Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, Parl Paper 21/1929, for a developed statement of ‘protectionist’ thinking.

[23] Namatjira v Raabe (1959) 100 CLR 664, esp 669, was one case which attracted wide-spread attention to these restrictive provisions; cf Coe v Gordon [1983] 1 NSWR 419, 423 where Lee J commented that ‘The “protection” afforded by the [Aborigines Protection Act 1909-1943 (NSW)] was in its nature paternalistic rather than the granting of enforceable legal rights’.

[24] Hon T Paterson MHR, Minister of the Interior, in Aboriginal Welfare: Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Authorities, Canberra, 1937, 5.

[25] Rowley (1978) 320-1.

[26] Cited in H Reynolds, Aborigines and Settlers: The Australian Experience 1788-1939, Cassell Australia, Sydney, 1972, 175.

[27] Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962. Previously, only Aborigines who were ex-servicemen, or who were entitled to vote for State Lower Houses (cf Constitution s 41), were entitled to vote at Commonwealth elections. Under the 1962 Act, s 3(5), Aborigines were entitled but not required to vote. This special exemption was only removed in 1983: Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983 (Cth) s 28(1).

[28] s 123, which specifically excluded them, was repealed.

[29] The words ‘other than the Aboriginal race in any State’ were deleted from s 51(26). See para 3.

[30] See eg the statement of policy cited in the Report of a Committee of Review (Chairman: Professor CA Gibb) The Situation of Aborigines on Pastoral Properties in the Northern Territory, AGPS, Canberra, 1973, 2-3. See also G Lyons, ‘Official Policy towards Victorian Aborigines 1957-1974’ (1983) 1/2 Aboriginal History 61; JPM Long, Commissioner for Community Relations, Submission 490 (12 September 1985).

[31] Hon RI Viner MHR, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Commonwealth of Australia 112 Parl Debs (H of R) (24 November 1978) 3442.

[32] Aboriginal Development Commission Act 1980 (Cth), replacing the former Aboriginal Land Fund Commission and the Aboriginal Loans Commission.

[33] s 8. See Aboriginal Development Commission, Annual Report 1980-81, AGPS, Canberra, 1982, 3.

[34] See para 3.

[35] Hon C Holding MHR, Commonwealth of Australia ‘134 Parl Debs (H of R) (8 December 1983) 3487.

[36] For comment on ‘self-management’ as a policy see J von Sturmer, ‘Aborigines in the uranium industry: toward self-management in the Alligator Rivers region?’ in RM Berndt (ed) Aboriginal Sites, Rights and Resource Development, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1982, 69.

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