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Australia's original sin

  • 23 November 2017


This December, I will have lived in Melbourne for 17 years. The anniversary prompts reflection, and there would be reasons to say that Australia has been good to me. But it is also a country that breaks you.

It started with learning that Aboriginal children were taken from their families well into the last century. Everything unravelled after that, and the more I read and heard, the more threadbare Australia seemed. It left me cold. This is a rite of passage for those not born here.

Successive governments do not let us forget the past. More than 300 Indigenous people died in prison and police custody since the final Royal Commission report in 1991. This week (yet another) Royal Commission highlighted the particular ways in which Indigenous Australians are crushed within the mechanics of law, even as children.

There are casual cruelties, too, like dismissing a carefully crafted proposal that Indigenous people have a formal voice in parliament. The pattern of recent years has been constant deferment on the things that matter to Aboriginal peoples.

Sooner or later, they get caught in the crossfire of internecine political conflict or — given that our politicians are versatile in their indecency — get derailed in the immediacy of other concerns like the safe resettlement of refugees, the postal survey on marriage, and the defence of Muslim Australians from ethno-nationalists.

It is not that Indigenous peoples compete for space, though this benefits those who make them do so, but that so much flows from original sin.

The supremacist bent that first laid low nations on this continent is manifest in the reinforcement of borders, hegemonic framing around Christian values, and lingering overreaction to people who criticise such things. Until section 44 of the Constitution tripped up so many in parliament, citizenship was something to bludgeon minorities with. Many oppressive policies, especially in welfare, start out in Aboriginal communities.


"As long as Australia's original sin remains unexpiated, our sense of what justice looks like will remain incomplete, even distorted."


It seems entirely possible that reconfiguring our relationship with First Nations peoples, perhaps even centralising it, would give us the language and impetus to reconfigure everything else, including the way we resolve conflict, think about the environment, and make decisions about vulnerable members of society. Perhaps this is precisely why governments continue to defer doing anything substantive when it comes to Indigenous peoples. It upsets the order.

But as long as Australia's original sin remains unexpiated, our