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Aboriginal voices in 'the good country'

  • 21 November 2017


Prime Minister Turnbull has been widely criticised for refusing a recommendation by the Referendum Council to enshrine in the Constitution a national Indigenous representative council. He argued it was 'contrary to the principles of equality and citizenship'. A recent book provides a rich perspective for reflecting on his decision.

In The Good Country Monash University Professor Bain Attwood demonstrates how important are local histories that detail the variety of relationships involved in the initial contact between Indigenous Australians and white settlers. Such histories test and qualify the larger characterisations of these contacts as settlement, occupation, invasion, frontier war, and so on.

Attwood studies carefully the contacts in the Djadja Wurrung territory north west of Melbourne, and the various incidents in which some 30 Indigenous and ten settlers are known to have been killed between 1838 and 1842.

He sketches their complexity, including the earlier effects of small pox on Indigenous peoples, the hostile relationships between the Djadja Wurrung and the neighbouring and more aggressive Daung Wurrung, the fear of the settlers, the implacable hostility to Indigenous Australians evinced by some pastoralists and police who came from Tasmania contrasted with the curiosity and tolerance shown by others, and the character of convicts employed by the pastoralists.

Bain also discusses the appointment of Indigenous Protectors in the colony and the local resistance to it, focusing on the role of Edward Parker appointed to this region. He took evidence in cases where Indigenous people were killed. No one was convicted — evidence given by Indigenous people was dismissed on principle as unreliable. Parker also endeavoured to reserve land for the Djadja Wurrung where they could live in the settler economy.

In particular he sees the potential for conflict in the different understandings of gift. For the Djadja Wirrung the welcome to land, enjoyment of its fruits or the offer of a woman for sex established a mutual obligation. The failure of the settlers to reciprocate, particularly when their actions destroyed the food supply, led to the theft of food and the spearing of sheep. The settlers believed that government title discharged all responsibilities to the Indigenous people.

Bain makes it clear that the Djadja Wurrung were more than victims of settlement. They tried to adjust to it, working on stations, trading with the gold prospectors and seeking survival for their families on reservations.


"The equality and citizenship to which Turnbull appealed are admirable but formal qualities. The human reality is that in