Australian Aboriginal dancers perform during the Homeground festival. Homeground is Australia's biggest celebration of indigenous culture. Photo: iStock
Australian Aboriginal dancers perform during the Homeground festival. Homeground is Australia's biggest celebration of indigenous culture. Photo: iStock

I used to have an image of Australia as a model country, populated by a richly diverse people, a shining exemplar of a liberal democracy based on the rule of law. How could I have been so wrong?

My early and gross ignorance about Australian Aboriginal inhabitants was formed from childhood visits to the Commonwealth Museum in London, history books necessarily biased from the colonial adventurer’s perspective and, surprisingly, an affectionate portrait of them in Crocodile Dundee.

This picture was rudely fractured when I read law reports of cases involving Aboriginal defendants in criminal cases where convictions were overturned in the light of blatantly discriminatory behavior by both prosecuting authorities and the various state police forces.

A cursory glance at Australia’s criminal records discloses a disproportionately large number of convictions of Aboriginals for the usual calendar of criminal offenses. Authority appears content to paint them as lazy, dishonest drunks, too ready to resort to violence.

In all this, one fact remains a constant: These are the original inhabitants of Australia and the land was theirs until British colonizers took it away by force.

The appalling history of official campaigns to integrate them forcibly  into the white immigrant community, removing children from their families, stealing their lands, turning blind eyes to rape and murder are only the most obvious incidences of systemic government policies.

Australian indigenous people

In my ignorance, I was under the impression that an enlightened Australian government had put an end to such practices and that Australian indigenous people were finally embarked on resurgence and recognition.

Imagine, then, my horror to learn that gangs of white youths go out in four-wheel-drive vehicles to hunt down lone Aboriginals. That they feel free to do so can only be attributed to a government that permits such an obscene mindset to exist, let alone flourish.

Australian Aboriginals are one of the world’s oldest cultures. Theirs is an oral tradition, a fact that prioritizes the primacy of their language, which is never reduced into written form.

Whether or not one agrees with this rejection of history recorded in written form, one has to respect it, and against this background the marginalization of the Aboriginal languages – of which there are many – is leading to their disappearance. If the language dies, so does their history. This is such a dystopian vision that it is difficult to grasp its significance.

If, as was my privilege last week at the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators conference in Bali, you had the opportunity to meet some of the Aboriginal peoples’ writers and artists, you would be thrilled to listen to their inspired and inspiring work. If Australia’s politicians were half as articulate and had the gravitas of these creative artists, the country would be in a far more advanced condition than it is, and certainly more mature.

Canberra’s rejection of an Aboriginal people’s parliament to act as their voice about the laws and policies that affect them is a retrograde step. At present, the official attitude toward them serves only to heighten the sense of adverse discrimination, widening the gulf between the two elements of Australia’s population and fomenting the Aboriginals’ sense of being not only second-class citizens but outcasts.

The Malcolm Turnbull government protested that as citizens Aboriginals already had a say in the country’s affairs. At approximately 2% of the population, they are a small and vulnerable minority. A hallmark of a liberal democracy is to ensure that minority interests are adequately represented. Where that minority happens to be the original inhabitants of a country, it is all the more important that their voice is heard, especially where successive regimes have pursued policies designed to marginalize if not eradicate them.

The effect of the rejection is to reinforce the Aboriginals’ sense of being a distinct and separate nation and a desire for allegiance to a historical entity divorced from a country 98% of whose population are or are descended from immigrants. Yet the proposal for the Uluru “Voice to Parliament” was an invitation to “walk with us in a movement of Australian people for a better future.”

There is an unhealthy parallel with the fate of the North American aboriginals.

The biggest hurdle facing Australia’s indigenous population is changing the mindset of the white immigrant majority. Legislating against discrimination in any shape or form tends to be a cosmetic exercise. Ultimately generations of children have to be educated out of ignorance and blind rejection.

Biased approach to people

Almost everyone in the world bears a biased approach to other people, whether based on ethnicity, language, sexual orientation or any of the other factors that distinguish us from one another.

But if one distills this xenophobic phenomenon down to its origins, in essence it is a fear of anyone alien to our model of ourselves. This particular fear can be conquered by familiarity, dissolving the “foreignness” of others.

The psychopaths who hunt humans as though they were wild animals are the true feral beasts who need to be caught and caged. It is a sobering realization that whether they realize it or not, Australia’s incumbent administration is telegraphing toleration of such inhuman behavior toward an economically frail sector of its community.

Set against the historical repression, genocidal conduct and attempts at genetic pooling, Australia’s Aboriginal population is entitled to demand that government recognize the necessity to institute and maintain programs designed to accord them their rightful status, to rectify, so far as practicably possible, the wrongs of the past and to restore them to the dignified respect to which they are entitled as the nation’s founding citizens.

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.

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