The Impact Of Inaction – Why Aren’t We Listened To?

Aboriginal Flag

In the 200+ years since the ‘white settlement’ of Australia, various government has accomplished a fair bit. They’ve built a country from the ground up, conquering what they perceived as a harsh land and providing the citizens with the luxuries of Western civilisation. To achieve this, they’ve attempted to decimated an entire thread of humanity, wiping out tribes and language groups in the never-ending march of progress. They’re removed children from their mothers, abused power and left Aboriginal people, the First Australians, so much the worse for their coming.

Now, the government likes to think they can make amends, by apologising for the past and consigning it to the filing cabinet of history. They’ve muttered their apologies, as though a single sorry might act as a panacea, a Band-Aid on the pulsing artery of Aboriginal trauma. Unfortunately, the two hundred years of government policy have left a terrible legacy. PM Rudd acknowledged that the 50 years of policy preceding his 2008 Apology statement had been a failure. He promised a new beginning. What Aboriginal people got instead was an intensification of the intervention, rebadged as ‘Closing The Gap’. Rather than that new beginning, Aboriginal people have come to realise not only is it ‘business as usual’, but the pressure on them to assimilate is greater than ever.

Quality And Quantity

Let us give you an example of one of the many places governments have failed to properly engage with Aboriginal people towards their aim of improving them. In the march towards closing the gap, past and present Governments have been data focused. Unfortunately for Aboriginal people and service providers, their point of focus has been overwhelmingly the longevity, or life expectancy, of Aboriginal people. Don’t get us wrong, we feel that it is shocking that Aboriginal Australians do not live as long as their non-Aboriginal counterparts. However, we have to wonder whether, instead of quantity, we should be focusing on quality of life.

Improving the quality of life for Aboriginal people is almost guaranteed to have the knock-n effect of increasing its quantity. The key thing to remember when we’re thinking about quality though is the cultural space through which is it measured. The simple fact is that quality of life must be considered from an Aboriginal cultural space, even if that means something different to policymakers. Quality of life is, after all, a lived experience, and not something that can just be transplanted onto an Aboriginal setting.

Inaction In Action

To those looking in at our governmen, it’s quite clear what is going on. They are quite frankly paralysed by their own misunderstandings, and their inability to enact positive change through meaningful and engaged approaches. What we are seeing now is inaction in action. That is, a government operating in a risk-adverse environment where policymakers and advisors are unable to do anything that doesn’t fit into their comfort zone. As a result, everything they put forward is entirely cemented into their own cultural framework, and is unlikely to allow Aboriginal Australians operating within different cultural parameters a chance to be positively impacted by that policy.

In fact, even when Aboriginal people do talk to the government about what they want to do and what they hope to achieve, through community engagement, they are often ignored. Usually this comes down to an inability within the government to make an Aboriginal perspective on life fit into our current system. They are culturally strangled by their own rules, and what they believe to be appropriate. As they say, you can only know what you know.

That means that if you’re working in a different cultural mindset, and you aren’t making the switch when dealing with other cultures, you’re only going to get poor results. This is why our governments have wasted excessive funds, and caused serious damage, to people trying to achieve a quality of life that it outside of the parameters of a white Australian cultural setting. This isn’t just about health either. We’re seeing the same story in housing and education as well, all because community engagement is being done as a side-thought, a box to be ticked instead of an opportunity to get the voice of the community into its own future.

So, What Next?

We believe that the way forward will come from engaging in a more meaningful way with Aboriginal people in their first language, to get a true understanding of what communities want and need to succeed. This means that most of the community engagement undertaken needs to be done by Aboriginal people themselves. Yes, we do need to be prepared that this won’t be a smooth process with a guaranteed win every time. The history of government interaction with Aboriginal Australians is littered with failed projects and funding black holes, and we have little to show for it. Now it’s time to pass the torch of ‘improvement’ where it belongs: in the hands of Aboriginal people.

We feel that the only positive solutions for Aboriginal people will be for them to approach their own problems from within their own cultural framework. Not only must they be heard, but they have to be able to articulate and proceed in to an action that they feel will result in positive outcomes for their community. Only through this kind of community engagement are results even on the horizon, but the process will be a long one. After all, successive governments have progressively worsened the state of Aboriginal people, under the guise of improving them. Perhaps now we should allow the people to improve themselves, as only they can know how.

PTSD And Its Impacts In Aboriginal Australia


We often associate PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, with soldiers returning from combat, but in fact it can develop and be experienced by anybody who has been through a traumatic event. It’s just now that the general public is starting to realise that PTSD isn’t just a ‘war condition’, but a life condition. Over the years those living with PTSD have struggled for recognition, helped partly by the fact that they knew what they faced, and how they may begin to combat it. Imagine then, an entire group of people suffering PTSD across generations who do not have a good understanding of their condition, and who are unsure of how to tackle it.

Such is the reality of Aboriginal Australia.

A survey from 2008 indicated that almost one-in-three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have “experienced high levels of psychological distress” [1]. This is more than twice the rate that was reported for non-Indigenous Australians at the same time.

In more than two centuries Indigenous Australians have suffered at the hands of colonists, missionaries and politicians, all sure they were doing ‘the right thing’. They have been subjected to “unprecedented levels of political, social, economic, environmental and physical violence” [2].

As Paul Keating said in the Redfern Address:

“It was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice.
And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.” [3]

Massacres, exclusion, colonial law and white privilege have left Aboriginal people broken, and dealing with the effects of PTSD not just as individuals, but in an intergenerational way. We’re talking about more than the psychological trauma of an individual, which is a challenge of itself, but the trauma that runs across generations, referred to by Atkinson as trauma lines:

“These trauma lines show the increase of so-called mental illness, alcohol and drug misuse, sexual and physical abuses and suicide attempts that reflect the pain of people’s lived experiences today.” [4]

Now we have two options in looking forward to a future Australia, where equality is a foundational right, not just a political catchword. Either go the way policymakers currently lean, seeing Aboriginal people as a failed group, or we see deeper than that, and recognise the long-term effects that PTSD can have on physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Currently, Australian politicians and those charged with protecting Aboriginal welfare have failed to apply what we know about PTSD to Aboriginal Australia. Our denial is hubris, but it’s not us that we’re failing: it’s Aboriginal people. This denial is one of the primary reasons that many programs specifically targeting First Australians aren’t getting results. It’s why schooling programs, mental health programs, wellbeing programs, and many other ‘closing the gap’ initiatives are doomed from the get-go. Essentially, it’s the real life version of forcing square pegs in round holes.

It’s Only Getting Worse

Unfortunately for Aboriginal people, intergenerational PTSD isn’t something that goes away with time. In fact, with each generation of people the issues faced are worse and worse, the trauma lines run deeper, and it’s hard to see a way forward. As older generations work to fight their demons, they are often caught up in substance abuse [5], leading to newer generations suffering with conditions like foetal alcohol which further adds to the trauma. We’re in a cycle that has to be broken, and now is the time.

What Can Be Done

The intergenerational trauma suffered by Aboriginal people isn’t something that white Australia can fix, and that’s probably the biggest hurdle for us to accept. Like so many other times in the past, we feel that we were the answer, but the truth is that the answer has lain with Aboriginal people from the beginning.

It is only Aboriginal people who can heal the wounds of the past, because we simply can’t understand the trauma that has been suffered by them, individually and as a group, for the last two centuries. We cannot understand the blatant murder and massacre of their ancestors, the denial of their cultural identity, the removal of their children, the separation of families, and the crushing of their spirit. It is a trauma that white Australia wants to wipe from the history books, because we are that guilty. But as Keating said, “guilt is not a very constructive emotion”, only opening our hearts and embracing practical solutions will net the future we hope to have for our great nation.

It’s time to stand up and accept that white Australia has done a number on Aboriginal Australia, but it’s not too late. It will take years for us to overcome the past, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t able to reach for the future.

[1] Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet, 2013,
[2] Havemann, P. Denial of Modernity and Exclusion: Indigenous Placelessness in Australia, Macquarie Law Journal, 2005; 5:57-79
[3] Keating, P. 1992. Redfern Address – Year for the World’s Indigenous People.
[4] Atkinson, J. Making sense of the senseless: feeling bad, being mad, getting charged up. Problematic Drug and Alcohol Use and Mental Illness. Conference Proceeding, 1999; 37-49.
[5] Nadew, G. T., 2010. Exposure to Traumatic Events, Prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Alcohol Abuse in Aboriginal Communities, Primary Health Care Research and Information Studies.

So, Noel Pearson Swore?

Picture from Nick Cubbin

Picture from Nick Cubbin

In the matter of the recently reported ‘tirade’ between Noel Pearson and our honourable Prime Minister by the ABC News on Monday, here are a few of our thoughts.

First off, we certainly don’t condone the actions of Noel Pearson. Whether you agree with someone’s view or not, it is important to remain respectful. That said, we are sympathetic to the feelings of an Indigenous man driven to improve the current and future circumstances of his people who comes up against the brick wall of politics. The First Australians have not only been traumatised and driven into the ground by myriad governments and their failed policies, but also shelved and ignored at every possibly opportunity. The actions of governments, past and present, have shown quite clearly how little they care for community-driven action that may yield actual results. Instead our policy-makers trade laws between elections like playing cards and any positive outcomes get lost in the quagmire of administration and opposition.

It’s enough to drive anyone quite mad.

So, we certainly understand what might have driven the, as yet unsubstantiated, claims that Noel Pearson dropped a few choice insults at the PM and some others present. The mission to which Pearson has dedicated himself involves seeking inclusion in the Australian Constitution of an Aboriginal representative body. It is proposed this body will actively scrutinise legislation to ensure its full impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is well considered. As we understand it, the Prime Minister said in few uncertain terms that, while he meant no insult, the pragmatist within suggested that Noel’s model was “highly unlikely to be supported”.

There is obviously a marked divide between what Aboriginal people want to achieve in terms of constitutional recognition, and what the Australian government is willing to give ground over. As it stands, Aboriginal people want more control over their future, and the future of their children, and the Australian government wants to stick with old ideas and white gatekeepers (because god-forbid we let Aboriginal self-determination come into the equation).

Are We Being Distracted?

It is also worth noting that the alleged tirade reported by the ABC on Monday the 5th of June actually took place quite some time earlier. And by some time, we mean late November of last year. In this case we feel there may be something sinister at play in the ABC’s report. Can it really be coincidence that they seek to pull the carpet out from under Noel Pearson’s feet as he, one of the well-recognised faces and public orators of the recently ground-breaking convention in Uluru, speaks for his people? We don’t believe it is, and it’s frustrating that the media seeks to confuse the public, drag down the reputation of Indigenous leaders, particularly with claims that barely stand on their own two feet.

Allow us to explain. For one, the ABC report offers no direct quote from anyone actually present at the meeting to substantiate the claims of Noel Pearson’s tirade. Instead they print a few groundless statements from Liberal MP, and known Pearson critic, Warren Entsch who claims to have heard what happened from “witnesses who were there”. Labor MP Linda Burney, herself a well-respected Aboriginal leader, admits two men present told her that an exchange of words took place. She herself wasn’t present”. This game of whispers is underhanded, and frankly quite disturbing.

The End Game

At the end of the day, we can’t say for sure what happened in a private meeting between the PM, Noel Pearson, and other Indigenous leaders. Perhaps a tirade really did take place all the way back in November, but there’s no saying now what is truth and what is a media beat-up. With dignity, and perhaps understanding, the other participants have chosen to act honourably.

What’s important to us, and to all the people in our communities near and far, is that the ultimate message and mission of Noel Pearson and other Aboriginal leaders doesn’t get lost in the media distraction. Tirade aside, this is an exciting time for Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal leadership. There is a thought revolution happening all across Australia, and we welcome it. Now is the time to stand together in realising that the only way for Aboriginal people to move forward is with strong self-determination and governance, not junk policy and overarching control. Instead of choosing to tear down a great Australian, with a true passion for his First Australian heritage, let us practice some forgiveness and honour also.

Unleashing The Creative Potential Of Aboriginal People

At the time Captain Cook first arrived in Australia he described Aboriginal people thusly:

“From what I have said of the Natives of New Holland they may appear to be the most wretched People upon Earth; but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the Superfluous, but with the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe…”[1]

Cook’s opinion was not unusual at the time, and it was generally believed that Aboriginal people had little to offer intellectually to a Western marketplace despite the millennia of culture and knowledge that preceded settler arrival. This belief has unfortunately tended to hold over the two century history that mainstream Australia shares with Aboriginal people, and it is only in the last few decades we have begun to see change. Mainstream Australia is finally understanding that there is a range of expression that is distinctly Aboriginal, uniquely creative, and valuable in its own right.

From art, to dance and theatre and even comedy, Aboriginal people are now stretching out into their creative potential, and many Australians are embracing the trend. It’s why we’re seeing musicians like Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu reach the world stage, and television programs like Black Comedy and Cleverman being celebrated at home and abroad. However, while white Australia is happy to accept Aboriginal potential in the realm of arts and sports, there needs to be a greater acceptance of Aboriginal intellect as well. Embracing Aboriginal thought leaders is a necessity in shutting down many long-held views that Aboriginal people aren’t ‘quite as good’ as those of European heritage. So, how can white Australia support and encourage Aboriginal Australia to unleash their creative potential, and what kind of possibilities are out there?

Economic Systems In Different Culture

Aboriginal economy functions in a very different way to white Australia’s economy. Relationships go beyond the basics of business, and obligation and trust run deep. It is challenging for someone coming from outside an Aboriginal mindset to properly understand the economic structures of Aboriginal Australia simply because it is a totally different world perspective. Aboriginal people view the world in a different way, and that has caused issues throughout the timeline of interaction.

A major issue when two economic systems come together is that the dominant one tends to assume that the other culture will assimilate to prevailing cultural norms, which clearly hasn’t happened in Australia. Unemployment among Aboriginal people is much higher than non-Aboriginal rates, around 3 times in fact [2]. When surveyed, some 63% of Aboriginal Australians say that it is inadequate training limiting them from getting a job, while some 47% say they just don’t have an understanding of the rules inherent in a workplace [3]. It is those rules that we need to target to achieve long-term and sustainable Aboriginal employment.

There are many assumptions that cause issues when Aboriginal people attempt to join a western workforce. The first is that they’ll just ‘figure it out’ without any kind of induction or support. This mistaken assumption could be because many Australian employers simply cannot see how Aboriginal culture is that different from white culture. Instead they often view Aboriginal people as ‘lazy’ and happy to take money for nothing[1]. The second, and one that probably isn’t talked about enough, is the fact that even when Aboriginal people work they often encounter failed systems. There is a definite, and unfortunate, trend of workplaces flooding their employee pool with unsustainable short-term Aboriginal jobs simply to fill Indigenous employment targets [2]. There’s also the issue of Aboriginal-specific positions, which can be a fantastic way to enter into the job market, but must also include more defined pathways so that Aboriginal workers aren’t finding themselves stuck in roles that cannot advance [3].

Recognising The Past For The Future

It is our contention that recognising the contributions of the past is the best way to pave the way for Aboriginal creative potential in the future. While early settlers to Australia may have believed that Aboriginal people had nothing to offer, the reality is that the country would not have advanced so quickly if not for the help of local Aboriginal experts. They assisted European explorers in the crossing of mountains, the navigation of rivers, the transport of goods, services and people, the navigation of a harsh land, and the survival of it. However, as Dr Cahir notes: “they contributed in many ways and that contribution hasn’t really been recognised” [4].

With more recognition about their impact on the past, we feel that Australia as a whole would be more receptive to the potential involvement of Aboriginal people in the future. Take, for example, our relationship with our Asian neighbours. Well before European settlers even thought of exploring the area, the Yolngu people had a thriving trade with the Makassan people that could have lasted some 400 years [5]. This venture was no doubt assisted by the cultural similarities in the two people, something that we have failed to consider up to this point in our relationships with Asia.

Aboriginal Australia and the Asia Pacific region have more in common than we may ever have with either. Perhaps partnerships with Aboriginal people are what we need to succeed in the Asian environment. History has shown us that strong partnerships, built on cultural similarities, personal relationships and trust can create prosperous communities at both ends. We say that success is worth embracing!

[1] Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards, NSW. Plunder and Protection: attitudes to Aboriginal Art.

[2] Korff, J. 2017. Aboriginal Employment, Jobs & Careers.

[3] ‘Insights provided in report’, Koori Mail 459 p.39

[4] Cahir, D.F.’Documentary film explores significance of Aboriginal entrepreneurship in Victoria during colonial times’, ABC News              19/11/2015

[5] Makassan Contact With Australia.


Can People In The Dominant Culture Truly Understand Racism?

It’s the battle cry of white Australians, arguing against an uncomfortable reality: Australia’s not a racist country… we’re so multicultural.

Yes, Australia is certainly a multicultural country, but to suggest that would preclude racism is naïve to an extreme. Particularly when 97% of Aboriginal people report they experience racism ‘often’(1), and almost 50% of white Australians still believe that Aboriginal people are given some kind of unfair advantage. When one-in-five Australians would move seats if an Aboriginal person sat next to them. When 10% of non-Aboriginals say “they would not hire an Aboriginal job seeker”. When a third of Australians still think that Aboriginal Australians are ‘lazy’(2).

These are not signs of a country free of racism. The underbelly of Australia is a racist one, make no mistake, and we all suffer for it, even if we do not understand it. While Aboriginal people talk about the racism they experience, others shake their heads in disbelief, in denial.
So, can the dominant culture really understand racism?

White Privilege

“White privilege is an institutional set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate powerful positions in our institutions.”

~ Francis E. Kendall, 2002 (3)

Privilege is hard to see when you’re born into a situation with easy access to everything you need, and much easier to see when you aren’t. The two most common kinds of privilege in our society are white privilege and male privilege. When it comes to racism, those with white privilege find it hard to talk about those on the other side of their experience because they might not feel privileged, or feel that they have more power. Quite simply, they just don’t notice it because they take it for granted.
Most cultural experts agree that an understanding of the often unconscious ways that white privilege works is the first step to tackling racism. A lack of understanding about white privilege is what many believe stops white Australians from failing to understand the impacts that racism has on people in this country.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism, sometimes called systemic racism, is a term used to describe a situation where companies, organisations, or government bodies act in a racist way. Sometimes these actions are deliberate, sometimes they are indirect, but they all have an impact. Institutional racism often slips past the general public undetected, tending to get so caught up in being worried about individual actions of racism, often failing to see the structures of our systems are inherently racism.

Institutional racism is often found in the structure of government programs. These programs might be intended to work for the majority of the population, but minority groups are often excluded because of circumstances or a lack of in-depth understanding of their situations. As a result, they aren’t able to access these programs, which the government might blame them for, instead of seeing how the system has actually let them down.

The Effects Of Racism

We often fail to see the long-term effects of racism, recorded in any instance where an individual is exposed to racism continuously, at any age. Studies with Aboriginal people have shown that experiencing regular racism can lead to poor emotional and physical health, can push people into unhealthy activities, and can limit equal access of necessary services (4).
Basically, if Aboriginal people feel that they aren’t being treated well, they’re less likely to put themselves in those situations again. Where this racism occurs among health care provides or health workers, trauma over racist actions could stop Aboriginal people from seeking treatment, even when they really need it.
The ripple effect of racist behaviour is often much more than we all consider, and when three out of four Indigenous Australians experience racism every day, it’s worth paying attention to.

Here’s The Thing

Australia is a long way from being a country free of racism, but it seems to us that the first step is an obvious one. For those born into cultural privilege, who make up the domain culture in this country, it’s not you who decides if the experiences of the minority are true or false. You cannot speak about them being sensitive, or about political correctness gone crazy, when you have not stood in their shoes. You may not be able to comprehend the level of racism in this country, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

1 ‘How racist are you? Take the test’, Daily Life 11/9/2014
2 ‘BeyondBlue to launch a new campaign highlighting the link between racism and depression’, 29/7/2014
3 ‘Understanding White Privilege’, Kendall, F.E., 2002, CPT 6/09
4 ‘Poor health, racism go hand in hand – research’, Koori Mail 448 p.32