There are two reasons why I am writing this blog:
Firstly, October 16th is Blog Action Day, a great opportunity for the written word to try and do some global good.
Secondly, during my trip to Australia earlier this year I read Bill Bryson’s ‘Down Under’, or in the US ‘In A Sunburned Country’. It was a fantastic companion; serving as a second pair of eyes and peeling back their weary yet amazed lids to more than one thing that may have otherwise passed unnoticed.
Bryson highlights, for example, the country’s subtle obsession with constructions of oversized sealife – one being a massive, bright-orange lobster, which appeared unexpectedly on our winding adventure along the Great Ocean Road. I am grateful for Bryson’s mention of this – so very few times do we read about the existence of mammoth crustacean structures in books and Lo! have them actually appear before your eyes! A mild thrill indeed…
Another example would be the indigenous Aborigines. One thing he continually struggles to come to terms with throughout his trip, even with the hindsight of publishing it into book form, is the plight of the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Their ancestors arrived in Australia approximately 50,000 years ago, making them ”the oldest continually maintained culture on earth”. White Europeans, whom James Cook first led to Terra Australis and claimed it for Britain in 1770, settled there as a penal colony a mere 226 years ago in 1788. Bryson asks us to take cave paintings as an example; no European apart from perhaps the most learned in the subject would be able to give you an accurate insight into what these faded, stone-scribbled images purpose. Any Aborigine living today would be able to tell you exactly why his ancestors had drawn these paintings, as if he had drawn them himself.
He toils over snatches of post-settlement history, such as
the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre, when for the first time white Australians were convicted for killing Aboriginies. The slaughter, which concludes with 11 hung in justice for 28 men, women and children innocently murdered, should have marked an shift in attitudes and policy towards the indigenous population.
So why then, in 1901, did the Constitution of Australia declare “aboriginal natives shall not be counted in reckoning the size of the population of the Commonwealth or any part of it”?
Let us combine this with a backpacker’s observations today: why are the people of the oldest culture on earth to be found drunk on the streets of Cairns – foil bags of goon in-hand – some unable to stand, some prostituting themselves, while others simply roll about the streets, void of purpose and use to society? Why are the ‘Abbos’ (pronounced ab-bows), such a waste of space?
It is far too easy to push them toward the periphery of the streets, and but for Bryson I may well have ”read my newspaper, drunk my coffee, and didn’t see them any more.”
1909 -1969: ‘The Stolen Generations’.
In short – legislation was passed in various forms in this period, such as the ‘Aborigines Act 1905’ that allowed the forcible separation of Aboriginal children from their parents, transferring their legal guardianship over to the government, as they were re-homed into missions and institutions.
The total is estimated at 25,000 – 100,000 children removed with the design of improving their social and economic prospects. Statistics would suggest the programme failed: children were less likely to have completed secondary education; they were three times as likely to have a police record, and twice as likely to abuse drugs.
These children will be the older ‘Abbos’ you see on the streets of Cairns today. Their drunken, vegetative state seems more plausible now we understand the majority have no idea who their biological parents were – dislocated from an ancestry that goes back to the primitive roots of human society.
2007: The Northern Territory National Emergency Response (NTERA) & 2011: The Stronger Futures Policy.
These two policies were enforced in response to allegations of abuse and neglect towards children in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, where 29.8% of the Aboriginal population lives.
There are many facets to these policies, but as this blog is aimed at backpackers, let’s examine something highly relateable: alcohol. For starters, Australia is highly stringent about alcohol acquisition: (it can only be brought from designated ‘bottle-shops’) yet within ‘prescribed areas’ the ‘Stronger Futures Policy’ dictates that being in possession of a single can of beer would earn you 6 months in prison. Being caught with over 1.35 litres – i.e. a bag of goon – would win you a solid 18 months.
These ‘Prescribed Areas’ were 60 indigenous communities and the land on which they were founded, which were seized with the help of the Australian Defence Force. As part of NTERA, this helped the government gain control of disputed land. The policy was also exempted from abiding by the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, depriving communities of the little power they already had.
Despite all else, these policies demonstrate how mismanaged the Aboriginal communities are by the Australian Government, and leaves a breadth of inequality between White and indigenous Australians as vast as the county itself. Without a single conviction, NTERA’s disproportionate financial cost of $587m raises severe question marks about whether the policy was actually put in place to protect children, formed in the build-up to a general election.
The Government’s backlog of neglect has manifested ineffective policy that fails to engage the problems that lie in the heart of indigenous communities. These failing policies are the latest in a long line of dominoes that were set up to fall 226 years ago.
The root of the problem lies in British Imperialism; the problems Empire generated were seen the world over. But many of these peoples have recovered and are self-governing. In Australia the first Aboriginal was voted into the House of Representatives in 2010 – America elected a black president before then.
So with this in mind, I am suggesting that backpackers – who mark themselves as a community seeking to connect with other humans and experience new cultures, who venture out into the Great Barrier Reef, the Rainforest, or even the debauched madhouse that is Gilligan’s Hostel – with common sense and empathy simply re-think ”Abbos”.