A forgotten past: is Australia trying to ignore the country’s colonial and racist history?
Illustration credit: Vladislav Brusarski 

The Western World often sees Australia as England with more sun and sand. However, this idealised vision paints over the still very relevant issue of Australia’s past. In today’s political and social climate, it is evident that knowledge is a hugely powerful tool, and knowledge of one’s personal and country’s history is vital in creating positive and impactful change. Yet it seems that the history of ‘modern Australia’ is one that many do not know.

Across the world past atrocities are being ignored by governments and societies. Atrocities that were the foundations of the establishment of countries and nations. In Australia, more needs to be done in terms of acknowledgement and repercussions of the country’s colonial and racist past. Britain officially began to colonise Australia in 1788, a process which both killed Aboriginals and eradicated much of their culture and way of life. The effects of this colonisation are still very much prevalent today in modern Australia.

Firstly, why is it so important to acknowledge the past? Simply put, Australia has not progressed past enough from the wrongs of their European ancestors. The racist beginnings of the country have been perpetrated through time, and can still be seen in the country today. Public health research has found that indigenous Victorian adults are four times more likely than their non-indigenous counterparts to have experienced racism. When the non-indigenous comparison group consisted of adults of mainly white origin, indigenous adults were seven times more likely to have experienced racism.

Contrary to many current conversations in Australia that deny racism’s prevalence, racism is clearly still a significant problem. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. This behaviour needs to be challenged at not only a government level, but also a social level, to create change in schools, workplaces, the media, the public sector, government and society at large.

Learning about and acknowledging the past is vital in allowing change for the future.  My father, who went through the education system in Australia in the 60s/70s, has told me how there was very little focus on the effect of colonisation on the indigenous Aboriginal population. The negative impact of colonisation was not discussed or acknowledged in general and not taught in the education system.

My father is part of a generation, like those before him, who were brought up in a country that encouraged ignorance to the cruel beginnings of ‘Australia’. An article by the Guardian revealed that Australian history teachers want to cover the history of massacres against Indigenous people during the colonial era, but are squeezed for time in an already overcrowded curriculum. The article spoke of how a Macquarie University senior research fellow, Kevin Lowe, had said “It’s an issue that goes directly to the heart of the inability of the nation to come to terms with a history which they aren’t willing to own”.

It seems that many people that hold positions of power in Australia are not educated in their country’s past, and seek to deny many of the atrocities committed against its Aboriginal people. Scott Morrison made a statement claiming there wasn’t slavery in Australia. He rejected the idea, saying: “It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia”. The Prime Minister’s comments on Australia’s past illustrates how the atrocities committed are not acknowledged, consequently erasing so much of the Aboriginal history and struggle.

John Howard, former Prime Minister, also claimed that there was no genocide against indigenous Australians. He railed against students being taught a “black armband view of history”. His tactic was to encourage people to ‘move on’ from past brutalities and instead remember the “heroic achievements” To add to this stream of ignorant denial, Tony Abbott also claimed that there is “no evidence” that indigenous Australians face justice system discrimination, a statement contrary to research conducted by many such as the University of Technology, Sydney.

In addition, many Aboriginals still haven’t had proper compensation for the government’s actions in the 20th century. The Stolen Generation were the children of Australian Aboriginal people, who were removed from their families by the government and church missions under parliamentary acts. One of the first of these was the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1869, which gave the Central Board for the Protection of Aboriginals extensive powers over the lives of Aboriginal Victorians, including regulation of residence, employment and marriage.

This forced removal of children was still happening in the 1970s. The legacy of loss and emotional trauma is still prevalent today, and continues to effect indigenous families and communities. The inquest that looked into this in 1997 found that up to 33% of indigenous children were separated from their families from 1910-1970. Meanwhile, Howard’s government were sceptical and ignored the report’s findings. To this day, proper compensation has not been given to those effected.

However, there has been positive change and action in the country, such as the practice of National Sorry Day. This is a day to commemorate and remember the mistreatment of the indigenous Australians and is observed on the 26th of May each year since 1998. Although Aboriginal people have had to wait many years for the first official apology – which was given by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008, 220 years after the official process of colonisation began.

In a time when race, discrimination and social injustices are in the forefront of public consciousness, it is important to educate oneself of the injustices committed by the United Kingdom and other countries. Unfortunately, these issues are by no means gone, but with increased awareness and social action positive changes can be made. Through education, policies, and reform, the Australian government (as with others) has the power to create change and move its country away from its racist and brutal past.