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The More Things Change... The Origins and Impact of Australian Indigenous Economic Exclusion

The More Things Change... The Origins and Impact of Australian Indigenous Economic Exclusion
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This book aims to identify reasons for intractable Indigenous economic disadvantage in Australia. It does so by re-examining the history of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians from 1788 through to recent times. Through this re-examination a set of beliefs about Aborigines, particularly in relation to work, which were commonly held in the period up to 1850 is identified. These beliefs relate to 1) Aborigines’ inferiority, 2) their laziness, incapacity and irresponsibility, 3) the need for white intervention, and 4) the disregard for Aborigines’ understandings, values and choices. Further examination of history from 1850 shows that these beliefs existed continuously through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and into the twenty-first, and continually influenced law, policy and treatment of Aborigines in the economy.

The new approach taken here sees Indigenous economic disadvantage as a result of the clash between two cultures. On the one hand was the British culture as it had developed by the time of colonisation of Australia and as it adapted in the colonies over the following decades. On the other hand was the Aboriginal culture which was ignored, despised and decimated by the introduced economy during the colonial period. The clash between these two cultures resulted in the wresting of the Aboriginal people from their land so that this land could be used for the colonists’ economic ends. In doing so, however, no acceptable place was found for the Aborigines in the introduced economy. Instead, on the basis of ingrained beliefs about Aboriginal inferiority, incapacity and need for ‘improvement’, Aborigines were dispossessed, incarcerated, subjected to constant surveillance and excluded from white society.

Most particularly, Aborigines were not treated the same as other free workers in the Australian economy, whether during the convict era, in the era of major expansion of the colonial economies during the nineteenth century, or during industrialisation in the twentieth century. The book examines the nature of this different treatment in law and in practice and shows how such treatment was justified by the persistent belief in Aboriginal inferiority and incapacity, irrespective of all proof to the contrary. Such beliefs were able to maintain their power and were reinforced by continuous disregard for Aboriginal values, understandings and choices. Even when Aborigines found solutions to their situation which accommodated to both their own culture and the introduced society, the same thinking blinkered the vision of the white authorities and prevented the success of such ventures or justified unequal treatment of Aboriginal workers, notwithstanding an abiding belief in a ‘fair go for all’.

The book raises the question of the reasons for the economic exclusion of Indigenous Australians, reasons which can be found in the importation of British beliefs and economic structures. The application of the identified sets of beliefs to law and policy pertaining to Aborigines in the period from 1850 to 1967 is explored by examining laws relating to employment of Aborigines in the ‘protection’ era from 1850 to the mid-1930s, and in the ‘assimilation’ era from 1937 to 1967. In addition two case studies of the treatment of Aborigines particularly in relation to employment are examined to show how the identified sets of beliefs operated in practice in the ‘protection’ era in Victoria and the ‘assimilation’ era in the Northern Territory.

The same beliefs also appear to underpin more recent definitions of, understandings about and policy initiatives designed to address this disadvantage. This is established through analysis of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response which was motivated, and continues to be supported by both Government and Opposition, at least in part because of adherence to similar ways of thinking about Indigenous Australians in the economy.

The lasting legacy of the historical exclusion of Aboriginal Australians is shown through an examination of existing research which identifies the extent of Australian Indigenous economic disadvantage and through reviewing the findings of the research. In the light of the foregoing material, this recent research is found to be inadequate in its attempts to explain ongoing Indigenous disadvantage. The beliefs identified in the earlier chapters appear to underpin these attempts at explanation which do not stand up to scrutiny. The final chapter of the book proposes that, because the beliefs identified up to 1850 have existed continuously up to recent times and continually influenced law, policy and treatment of Aborigines in the economy, there is a need to redefine the problem of Indigenous economic disadvantage and seek new approaches to it, in full and respectful partnership with Aboriginal people. Some signposts to such changed definitions and new approaches are provided for readers’ consideration.

eContent Management Pty Ltd; December 2010
206 pages; ISBN 9781921214806
Read online, or download in secure PDF format

Chapter 1: If the Truth Be Known

Since 1788, Aboriginal people have ceased to be fully employed, self-sufficient individuals with high-self esteem. Today they are the poorest identifiable sector of the Australian community. Various government programs have been in place for many years, but progress is difficult to achieve. (Bourke 1994, p i 9 2) I believe in the primarily negative influence of colonialism. I believe in the need to unmask the colonial ideology, for its influence is still very strong. (Alatas 1977, p9)


It is common knowledge that Indigenous Australians are disadvantaged in terms of the major social and economic indicators applied to measure the health and welfare of Australians. It is this books contention that the reasons for this disadvantage cannot be understood and it cannot be redressed until the reasons for its development are understood and acknowledged. This is not simply a matter of recording the law and policy which for many decades treated Indigenous Australians differently and less favourably than other Australians. It is not enough to acknowledge that these laws and policies were repressive and have had a lasting effect on Indigenous Australians. We must also recognise that they came out of a way of thinking about Indigenous Australians which justified the development and continuing application of these repressive and limiting measures.

This is the purpose of this book: to uncover the thinking that lies behind the decades-long regime that limited Indigenous Australians social and particularly economic participation in the colonial society established by the British from 1788. The focus of this book is on economic participation; it is based on the twin contentions that economic disadvantage lies at the heart of all other aspects of Indigenous Australian disadvantage, and that the origins of this disadvantage can be found in imported ways of thinking that go back to even before colonisation commenced in 1788.

To perform the analysis necessary to comprehensively establish this requires an acknowledgement that at the base of the problem which has resulted in the long term disadvantage of Indigenous Australians is the clash of two social and economic systems. Without understanding this context there is the danger that the same embedded assumptions about the superiority of the colonial social and economic arrangements over those of traditional Australian Aboriginal societies will inform the analysis. For this reason the book commences with an examination of these arrangements so that it is clearly established from the outset that Australia was not terra nullius in 1788. This serves to highlight the contrasts between Aboriginal and colonial arrangements, and allows the development of an understanding of the impact of the colonisers on the Aborigines not just at the time of colonisation. It was felt right through to the late 1960s when the weight of repressive legislation was removed from Aboriginal people and beyond to the Northern Territory Emergency Response imposed on designated Indigenous communities in 2007 and still current at the time of writing.

The book covers the period from 1788 when Australia was colonised by Britain. With the colonisers came their own laws and legal principles, an economy based on capitalist principles and other aspects of British civilisation, all of which were imposed on the pre-existing Aboriginal civilisation with little regard for its economic, social and legal arrangements. The detailed study ends in 2010 when the NTER had been in existence for three years and showed no real sign of ending soon. Between these two dates, law and policy greatly influencing Aboriginal economic participation was gradually developed and implemented. Although much of the repressive legal regime was dismantled in the late 1960s, the recent period discussed in the final substantive chapter illustrates the apparent continuing influence on policy relating to Indigenous economic participation of ideas identified in the earlier parts of the book.

Structure of the Book

The book has nine chapters. To understand the impact of colonisation on the original inhabitants of Australia requires an understanding of the social, legal and economic arrangements of the Aborigines prior to and immediately after colonisation. This is the subject of Chapter 2. The Aborigines had a complex society based on land and kinship and a complex and viable economy which had developed over millennia in ways which were compatible with the environment of Australia and which ensured a relatively affluent lifestyle. Land was at the foundation of Aboriginal culture, and the relationship to the land was profoundly spiritual. Law was based on relationships with land and kin and on the reciprocity of these relationships. All aspects of Aboriginal society were interconnected, enabling for example food gathering to be practiced at the same time as ritual and education. There was little accumulation, most production being for immediate consumption. Because much of Aboriginal culture was invisible to the colonists, the scene was set for misunderstandings, transgressions and conflict.

Chapter 3 examines the British and colonial economies from 1788-1850. This shows that, when the two economies confronted each other, the Aboriginal had to give way in the face of greater power. The colonisation of Australia happened at a time of rapid economic expansion and industrialisation in Britain, a time when the capitalist economy both disrupted the earlier feudal social and economic arrangements and drastically increased the demand for raw materials. The settlement of Australia provided an opportunity to resolve both problems. Because the Aborigines did not produce a surplus of valuable products which could be directly commandeered by the British, to extract raw materials the colonisers had to take over the land and apply labour to it. In this the colonists were aided by the importation of convict labour, at the same time resolving the issue of what to do with the ever increasing number of paupers crowding English jails. When this source of cheap labour dried up, other sources were sought but this did not include any concerted attempt to incorporate the Aboriginal people in the introduced economy on terms equal to those of other free labour. In fact, little room was found for the Aborigines in the new economy despite severe labour shortages.

An explanation for the exclusion of the Aborigines from the introduced economy can be found in pre-existing beliefs brought to Australia by the British colonists. Chapter 4 examines British beliefs about blacks and work to l850 to provide background to the culture of the British at the time of colonisation of Australia and the initial impact of the ways of thinking brought to Australia on the original inhabitants. Although the concept of 'race' was relatively recent at the time of colonisation, by the eighteenth century, blacks were seen as dirty, lazy and immoral in contrast with the British who were clean, productive and Christian. Science and theology confirmed' black inferiority, and religion decreed that hard work was a sign of God's grace. The British saw themselves as doing the colonised a favour by bringing the benefits of civilisation to the primitives' who were seen to be at an earlier stage of human development. Blacks were in need of 'improvement', through teaching of Christianity and 'industrious habits'; but because of their innate inferiority they would only be able to take places at the bottom of the British colonial economy. The chapter concludes by summarising the thinking of the time into a set of four basic beliefs about Aboriginal inferiority, Aborigines' laziness, incapacity and irresponsibility, and their need for 'improvement' all underpinned by colonists' denial of the rationality of Aboriginal choice.

The examination conducted in Chapter 5 confirms that the British who came to Australia saw Aborigines as the most primitive of mankind, and as lazy, stupid and uncivilised. This led to attempts to 'civilise' and Christianise them and, when this failed, to a growing belief in the theory that the Australian Aborigines were a doomed race. The Aborigines, though, did not accept British superiority and were devastated by loss of land, and by breaches of their law and the ignorance of the invaders. They would not accept the lowly position which was the only one offered and thereby inadvertently reinforced colonial attitudes by not becoming 'civilised'. The attitudes of the colonists identified in this chapter bare a strong similarity to those identified in chapter 4, even after decades of application and adaptation to the colonial situation. Aboriginal culture was still seen as inferior, Aborigines were still believed to be lazy, irresponsible and incapable and in need of white guidance and intervention in their lives, and the colonists continued to disregard Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal understandings and values, and the choices to which these led.

Chapters 6 and 7 show that the same beliefs continued to dominate official attitudes for more than a century and are reflected in law, policy and practice. Chapter 6 canvasses the ways in which these beliefs were codified in laws in Victoria, the first colony to formalise legally its interaction with the Aborigines. To show in detail how these laws were formulated and put into practice, the establishment and demise of Coranderrk Aboriginal Station in Victoria from the 1860s is examined within the context of Victorian economy, law and policy. This example shows that Aborigines were not passive recipients of treatment from colonial authorities but that they actively pursued their own interests against a system which increasingly worked to disempower them.

This is further illustrated in Chapter 7 which examines the development of laws in three other jurisdictions, NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory, between 1897 and 1967. The aspects of law canvassed include definitions of Aboriginality, the creation of reserves for the incarceration of Aborigines, and the control of employment and payment to the mid-1930s, and in the 'assimilation era from 1937 to 1967. This examination shows that the same beliefs are reflected in laws and regulations in a range of jurisdictions during both periods. The chapter concludes with the examination of a second illustrative case, the Northern Territory pastoral industry equal pay case of 1965, its antecedents and its aftermath. Analysis of this case shows that the same beliefs underpinned the decision to grant equal pay, heralding a new era in the history of Aboriginal employment in Australia, not of equality with whites but of increased disadvantage and welfare dependence.

Chapter 8 is the final substantive chapter. The analysis conducted in this chapter focuses on the question of whether the same set of beliefs about Aborigines underpinned the introduction and continuing existence of the Northern Territory Emergency Response announced by then Prime Minister John Howard on 21 June 2007, and retained to date even after a change of Government in November 2007. It shows a disappointing lack of reconsideration of the notions of Indigenous inferiority, irresponsibility and the need for white intervention, even though there are signs that there is recognition of Indigenous people s right to be consulted on matters affecting them indicating at least some increase in respect for Indigenous people, their culture, understandings, values and choices.

Chapter 9 shows the lasting legacy of the historical exclusion of Aboriginal Australians. Indigenous people are disadvantaged in relation to employment in terms of unemployment levels, participation rates, occupation and income. As far as can be ascertained from the statistics available, this has been true since at least the 1960s and has changed little thereafter, despite the existence of programs ostensibly designed to address Indigenous employment disadvantage from the 1970s. This chapter critiques explanations for this disadvantage and shows that these explanations imply that the problem lies with the Indigenous people themselves in terms of for example their low levels of educational attainment, remote location and skills deficit. However closer examination shows that these are not sufficient explanations for the continuity of Indigenous employment disadvantage. These explanations are, however, compatible with a continuing belief in Aboriginal inferiority and incapacity. The value of this book is that it offers an alternative explanation of why Indigenous economic disadvantage has been so intractable even after policies and programs aiming to alleviate this disadvantage have been in operation for over three decades. The proposed explanation can be found in the continuity of beliefs first identified up to 1850 and found to exist continuously up to the mid-1960s, influencing law, policy and treatment of Aborigines in the economy. They also appear to underpin more recent definitions of, understandings about and policy initiatives designed to address this disadvantage, and have led to the failure of government programs to date. Thus there is a clear need to rethink the problem of Indigenous economic disadvantage and to seek new approaches to it, in full and respectful partnership with Aboriginal people. The way forward suggested here is to use the new understandings developed in this book to refocus our thinking and to develop new approaches to redressing Indigenous disadvantage. This book provides some signposts for that journey.