In June 2020, in response to protests sparked at the time by the Black Lives Matter movement, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “there was no slavery” in Australia’s past.
A public backlash ensued, seeing an apology a few days later. But the leader of our country’s failure to acknowledge a fundamental aspect of our history reflects a common belief and a symptom of a broader lack of understanding of Australia’s colonial history.
Indigenous scholars and other experts believe the historical treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people explains the continuing inequality we see today — and accounts for why we must do more to tell the truth about Australia’s colonial past.
In 1905, the Roth Royal Commission on the Condition of the Natives was published. Commissioner Dr Walter E. Roth characterised the practices and processes surrounding the policing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in WA as “a most brutal and outrageous condition of affairs.” Often Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be tracked and arrested without a warrant, usually under the pretence of ‘cattle killing’. Many of the practices uncovered were of dubious legality, with disregard for the wellbeing of prisoners and little in the way of regulation.
Flaws in the judicial and policing processes often served monetary gain rather than justice; police officers were paid on a “per knob” system, in which they would earn more money the more prisoners and witnesses arrested. The Commission saw police admitting to ‘rorting’ such systems to arrest as many people as possible to benefit themselves. These prisoners were often sentenced with little concern for their side of the story to unpaid hard labour. Businesses and sectors such as the pastoral industry in the Kimberley would profit considerably from such labour and were a key factor in its prosperity at the time.
The relationship between the state and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was one of coercion and oppression — yet in addition to the mistreatment detailed in WA, records of frontier conflict and wars between the state and Indigenous peoples across Australia have only recently begun to be spoken about again.
Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History at the University of Western Australia Jane Lydon explains the historical conflict between the state and Indigenous people is often under-represented in the truth-telling conversation.
“I think truth-telling for many people means acknowledging things like the Stolen Generations, but also frontier conflict was definitely part of our national history, and we need to understand those before we can really move forward,” she says.
Professor Lydon’s work examines how the legacies of colonisation and slavery in Australia continue today. Her research explains the disadvantage and experience of Indigenous people seen today didn’t happen overnight.
“When we see continuing problems in the present with dysfunctional families or problems in lower socioeconomic status, with the law, health, education, unemployment, life expectancy — they didn’t just start in the present or in people’s lifetime who are alive now. They’re a result of generation after generation of disadvantage, they’re structural,” she says.
Psychology Professor at the University of Western Australia and Bardi woman from the Kimberley Patricia Dudgeon is convinced this experience is explained by Australia’s colonial history, which also informs a sense of racism which persists today.
“What happened to Aboriginal people, which explains where they are now in terms of great disadvantage, high levels of incarceration, high levels of suicide, all the rest of it — these are explained by that history, but also by a very profound racism that permeates our systems,” she says.
The prosperity of non-Aboriginal Australians, especially in WA, was partly built from the exploitation of unpaid labour and historical injustice directed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — something Professor Lydon says we need to take responsibility for.
“Non-Aboriginal Australians tend to lead pretty good, comfortable lives, but it’s because of that historical injustice. We should all fess up to that and take responsibility — it’s uncomfortable, but it’s the right thing to do, and it will help us to acknowledge that and move on,” she says.
Professor Dudgeon explained why teaching about the historical treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is likewise important in understanding the lived experience of Indigenous people today and validating that experience.
“They’ve been swimming upstream knowing they are different, that society’s not going to be kind to them, then when they get that history — it’s very enlightening. It validates their feelings as well,” she says.
Reflecting on her experience growing up as a Bardi woman from the Kimberley, Professor Dudgeon recalled the common myths and narratives which pervaded Australian society. She recounts how the processes of colonisation not only took away the land and rights of Aboriginal people, but also their knowledges as well.
“I think that’s important to accept that this history of colonisation was brutal. It not only committed genocide, it removed people from their countries, and then when they were recovering and adapting to colonisation, most states introduced legislation that basically meant Aboriginal people were put into reserves and missions.”
Jesse J. Fleay is a Research Associate with the School of Education at Curtin University who has worked on several social change initiatives, including drafting the Uluru Statement from the Heart. One key element of the statement is a commission to ‘supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.
Mr Fleay says the Commission and process of truth-telling “is about coming to terms with the past, making sure that history is reported fairly, and that we don’t make the same mistakes.”
“It needs to start by looking at the institution and where we got it wrong — we need to talk about how the Stolen Generations played out. It can’t just be forgiven and walked away from.”
“Those things happened, we can work together to heal, but we mustn’t ever forget the past because forgetting the past and history is what puts the future at risk.”
Given how our colonial history continues to affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today leads many observers to ask again why it’s not directly taught more broadly in our education system.
The School, Curriculum and Standards Authority (SCSA) determines the curriculum for primary and secondary schools in WA. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures are considered “cross-curriculum priorities”, which the body describes as “addressed through learning areas and are identified wherever they are developed or applied in content descriptions. They are also identified where they offer opportunities to add depth and richness to student learning in content elaborations. They will have a strong but varying presence depending on their relevance to the learning area.”
Notably, these priorities are not strictly compulsory or directly assessed; they’re open to teachers’ identification and interpretation of relevance to the subject on a case-by-case basis. Students may have the opportunity to learn about scientific methods or Indigenous histories — if the teacher deems it appropriate.
Dr Sarah Booth is a lecturer at the Kurongkurl Katitjin Centre for Indigenous Australian Education and Research at Edith Cowan University. She began her PhD examining why there were gaps in the intended curriculum and the reality of what students were learning. She found some teachers — especially white teachers — may feel they need ‘permission’ to teach about such sensitive topics.
“Teachers are perfectly capable of doing it right now— the main thing is teachers need to feel like it’s okay because all the information is out there, and there’s plenty of places where they can learn to do it respectfully. But I think a lot of them need that permission. Even though they don’t really need it, they feel like they need it,” she says.
“I don’t think there’s much point in focusing on what the curriculum should and shouldn’t be. The focus should be on high expectations of teachers to teach this content and not just content, but the way that they teach needs to be much more inclusive.”
Dr Booth says to bridge the gaps between the curriculum and student learning, teachers need to be confident in teaching such topics and move towards indigenising the curriculum.
Antonia Hendrick is a current UWA and former Curtin University social work academic who was integral to beginning the process of decolonising the social work curriculum at Curtin. The process was sparked by concerns among students of unpreparedness and a lack of understanding of Indigenous matters.
“Working with social work students, often they’d say, ’we need more information around Indigenous matters in the course.’ We knew as a staff group that we had the odd case study, the odd lecture, we would often have the odd Aboriginal person come in and give a guest lecture or the odd vignette, but it wasn’t enough,’ she says.
Dr Hendrick detailed the process of decolonising a discipline begins with individuals self-reflecting and engaging with Indigenous voices, challenging the knowledges that inform the system and beliefs they work in, and being open to different ways of thinking and being.
“The process at the very beginning for any discipline or school undertaking this is to look at their own cultural responsiveness and how well they’re faring in particular areas,” she says.
“Thinking about, ‘what’s my place in this country, what’s my culture, how would I describe my culture, what’s informed me in my thinking about other cultures,’ particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
Professor Dudgeon was likewise instrumental in decolonising the psychology curriculum in Australia and echoed this sentiment, noting that accepting our history is the first step in this process.
“When we’re teaching and talking about decolonising, we have to come from an anti-colonial perspective — you can’t pretend that colonisation didn’t happen, and it hasn’t had big impacts on Aboriginal people,” she says.
In her research, Professor Booth has found while self-reflection and challenging pre-existing assumptions is a vital step, there also needs to be a movement towards indigenising curriculums — a process by which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and perspectives are embedded.
“Often decolonising feels like you’re trying to fix the problem, whereas indigenising, it’s like we’re creating something new. I think the way people talk about decolonisation is like, ‘colonisation is an issue, and now we need to get rid of the colonisation aspect,’ which we’re never going to do. It’s more like adding and infusing a layer rather than trying to take out the bad bits,” she says.
Reflecting on the process of decolonising and subsequently incorporating Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum, Dr Hendrick distinguished between the two processes and how they interact.
“Indigenising focuses on Aboriginal people coming in and changing the system for us. Decolonising is going to the question of how you would work as a staff group and where your starting point would be. The starting point as someone who wants to decolonise a system is to look within first at the self, the collective, and the organisations,” she says.
“What are the knowledges that inform a system or inform the way that I am working — it’s opening ourselves to different ways of working. And the way to do that is to hear from the experts themselves.”
Professor Dudgeon says progress on these processes is hindered by the Western structures we live and work in, and being open to hearing Indigenous voices and knowledges is essential.
“It’s about reaffirming culture, supporting Indigenous knowledges and ensuring that the way we approach knowledge and research is different, that we take into consideration the human rights of Indigenous people, that there is an Indigenous knowledges,” she says.
Dr Hendrick also pointed out this was a barrier to progress. However, she noted the role non-Aboriginal people can play in bridging these gaps and being an ally.
She explained how as someone with access to resources and connections, she can “be the catalyst, the link for people who want to make a change, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, develop those relationships with people and bring them in to say, ‘how would you like this to work how would you like to see it happen,’ and I can facilitate those processes.”
“Not control them — wherever they go, they go — I can just aid and work in the necessary ways. That’s quite a fantastic journey, but also very challenging.”
Integral to truth-telling about Australia’s colonial history would be teaching about such issues in our education system and following these processes to ensure a holistic understanding and approach. Jesse J. Fleay cautions the truth-telling processes comprise listening and respecting the relevant communities.
“The first place to start is remembering whose country you’re on and asking Elders or cultural ambassadors in that country. There are several Aboriginal language groups, and everyone has their own approach,” he says.
“In the spirit of reconciliation, it starts with ‘I am here to help you — what do you need of me.’ Not — for whatever intent — saying, ‘I know what’s right for you people, you need to come along and grab my hand, this is what we’ve planned, we just want you to tick the box.’ That’s what we’ve done for hundreds of years now, and it doesn’t work — it’s just not genuine either.”
Fleay pointed to how other countries with trauma in their past have addressed the darker parts of their history, such as in Germany.
“The way they’ve addressed it is very suitable because their government acknowledges the past, they continue to upkeep memorials, upkeep education programs and they take full responsibility as a government for what happened in the past,” he says.
Since 1992, education about the Holocaust has been compulsory in German secondary schools. Fleay contrasted this to the attitudes of denial and dismissal often seen in Australia, and attributes them to a lack of national identity.
”The reason we’re still arguing and debating about the past and who we are and where we’re going is because we haven’t had a moment that created us as Australia,” he says.
Dr Booth explained the responsibility teachers have in teaching about such issues and the importance of listening to the relevant voices and taking it upon themselves to learn how to deliver the content best.
“Teachers want to do it well. They want to make sure they’re looking after their Aboriginal students and teaching the right thing, and if they don’t have the knowledge or know-how, then I think many teachers feel its safest to leave it for Aboriginal people to do, and so tend not to do it,” she says.
“The problem is that there are so few Aboriginal teachers, that if you don’t know it, who else is going to do it?”
Dr Lydon recognised teachers’ role in sharing Aboriginal experiences and perspectives. Using the example of Rottnest Island, she suggested, “it’s not a matter of going out and getting new Aboriginal teachers to tell us about the history of Wadjemup (Rottnest Island).”
“But rather, saying, “this is the name Aboriginal people give this place, this is the experience that Aboriginal people had, this is what they’ve had to say about it. Bringing in more of that Aboriginal side of the story that was missing until recently.”
While it’s vital to understand our colonial history to acknowledge the context of the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we see today, Dr Lydon also points out these processes don’t have to serve as sources of guilt exclusively. She identifies that Indigenous cultures offer rich knowledges tailored to the country we live in, such as methods to control fire conditions or the seasons of the Noongar calendar.
“It’s so meaningful for people in Perth to understand the six seasons of the Noongar calendar — it makes a lot more sense than the four seasons we’ve inherited from the Northern Hemisphere that don’t really match up to what’s going on around us,” she says.
Professor Dudgeon says whether we’re coming to grips with our colonial history or embedding Indigenous knowledges into our education system, the most important part of truth-telling is to provide a genuine space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices to feel comfortable to share their experiences and insights.
The John Curtin Gallery features artwork from the Carrolup Centre for truth telling: it seeks to tell the truths and stories of WA’s past through artwork. Photos: Nathan Johnston.
“We can’t move forward and heal as a nation unless there’s truth. The truth of the past has to be accepted because we can’t build a different nation unless that happens,’ she says.
“‘Nothing about us, without us’ being at the table is the principle you have to adopt.”