There’s a wound in our nation. It’s an injustice towards First Nations people that began with colonisation and is ongoing today. Despite this injustice, many First Nations people around the nation are thriving and proudly reviving, protecting and celebrating their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identities.
And yet, the wound is evident in the devastating statistics relating to First Nations people across a range of life indicators. Discrimination and prejudice towards First Nations people seems hardwired into our society’s very DNA. So how did it start? And what can we do about it?
Something’s not right
Australia enjoys a high quality of life ranking – ranked eighth out of 189 countries, in 2020. Yet when we compare First Nations people and non-Indigenous people in Australia on a range of life indicators, there’s a devastating disparity. These statistics reveal something deeply wrong in our nation. But why?
Why is there a such a gap between the wellbeing and outcomes enjoyed by non-Indigenous people compared to First Nations people? The answer goes back to the beginning of colonisation and its effects on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people ever since.
Lack of understanding and respect
The disparity we see today is a result of the lingering injustices of colonisation – dispossession, exploitation and violence that started at first contact. This unjust behaviour towards First Nations people was rationalised by a colonial system that didn’t understand, respect or value First Nations Peoples. In the worst cases, people of influence refused to acknowledge First Nations people as human in order to justify extraordinary acts of oppression and cruelty towards Aboriginal people.[Note 1]
This history is an uncomfortable truth for many Australians. Others remain ignorant of these facts, which has resulted in a fractured relationship between First Nations people and non-Indigenous people – a relationship that remains unresolved today.[Note 2]
Colonial attitudes and actions set in motion a series of events that continue to impact First Nations people today, despite First Nations people’s efforts to resist and overcome the effects of colonisation.
Colonial attitudes and actions set in motion a series of events that continue to impact First Nations people today, despite efforts to resist and overcome the effects of colonisation. The social and economic impact of invasion, dispossession, marginalisation and control of First Nations people has accumulated across generations, and has been amplified by policies and practices that have systematically disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In many instances, this has resulted in the transmission of poverty, poor health and other forms of disadvantage from generation to generation.
Australia still doesn’t have a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The absence of a treaty is at the very heart of the historical injustice in Australia. The continued lack of treaty with First Nations Peoples shows an ongoing denial of the prior occupation and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and a general disregard for dispossessed Peoples. It’s a reminder that disrespectful colonial attitudes are yet to be addressed.
What’s institutional injustice?
Institutional injustice is when government policies marginalise some people. This clearly occurred at the beginning of colonisation when First Nations people were ‘legally’ dispossessed and exploited. However, the formal structures and institutions of the time set up a legacy of discrimination against First Nations people.
This is now played out in the current social statistics such as incarceration rates, NAPLAN results and employment rates. Some improvements have been made with the granting of certain rights in the 1960s and recognition of Native Title in 1993. However, these changes haven’t been enough to reverse the negative impact past policies continue to have on First Nations people.
Culture, identity and belonging
To understand the full extent of the challenges First Nations people face today, it’s vital to understand the impact of colonisation on First Nations people and cultures. This is because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s identities are inextricably linked to Country and family. When First Nations Peoples were dispossessed of their land, so was a major part of their identities. The enormous impact of this was heightened when people were also separated from their families. This is a major underlying cause of challenges many First Nations people face.
First Nations people experience some of the worst discrimination in the country. The levels of discrimination are high, according to a 2021 survey, which found that 52.1% of First Nations people surveyed reported "experiencing at least one form of major discrimination, such as unfairly being denied a job or unfairly discouraged from continuing education". Often this discrimination stems from unfair and negative stereotypes such as that First Nations people are lazy, violent or alcoholic. Many non-Indigenous people also presume that ‘real’ First Nations people only live in the desert, when in fact one-third of all First Nations people live in major cities.
Instead of simply accepting what society and the media say, it’s important to listen to what First Nations people say about their identities as First Nations people and what this means, personally. Being a First Nations person means different things to different people, and for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it’s about being connected to Country, community and culture. It has nothing to do with many of the myths and stereotypes about First Nations people which perpetuate discrimination.
A shared wound, a shared solution
The colonial system not only affected First Nations people, but also brutalised many of the early British convicts, who were removed from their land and families and subject to control, severe punishment, forced labour, abuse and harsh living conditions. However, since that time, many non-Indigenous people have accumulated significant socio-economic advantages as a result of colonisation, benefits that have come at enormous cost to First Nations people.
The injustice experienced by many First Nations people is at odds with this country’s national values – the things that make us proud to be Australian. It affects everyone living on this land. Because of intolerance, mainstream Australian culture has missed many opportunities to inherit aspects of rich First Nations cultures and deep knowledge of the land we all live on.
Despite our disturbing history, there’s significant goodwill in Australia. While considerable effort has been made to set things right, many attempts to address injustice and disadvantage simply aren’t working. That’s why Australians Together focuses on respectful relationships and connections between First Nations people and non-Indigenous people.
We’re passionate about addressing the wound in our nation by changing the way we understand one another. We know that coming together respectfully has the power to change everything, to address the wound in our nation and create a better shared future for all people who call Australia home.
- In his book, One blood, John Harris cites historical examples of colonists’ attitudes toward First Nations people, including one of the jurors in the trial of seven ‘settlers’ for the massacre of Aboriginal men, women and children at Myall Creek in 1838, who commented, “I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one. I knew well (the settlers) were guilty of the murder, but I for one would never see a white man suffer for shooting a black.” Harris J (2013) One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity [e-book], 2nd edn, p. 27, Concilia Ltd, Victoria.
- Reconciliation Australia’s 2020 Australian Reconciliation Barometer shows that, while there have been improvements in the relationship between First Nations people and non-Indigenous people over the past years, significant issues remain. The report reveals low levels of shared trust between First Nations people and non-Indigenous people, as well as high levels of racial prejudice experienced by First Nations people in Australia. Reconciliation Australia (25 November 2020) 2020 Australian Reconciliation Barometer, Reconciliation Australia, accessed 9 February 2022.
- 1. United Nations Development Programme (2020) Human development report 2020: the next frontier – human development and the Anthropocene, United Nations Development Programme, accessed 9 February 2022.
- 2. Cousins S (19 May 2020) ‘Indigenous Australians avert an outbreak – for now’, Foreign Policy website, accessed 9 February 2022.
- 3.Faulkner N, Borg K, Zhao K and Smith L (May 2021) The Inclusive Australia social inclusion index: 2021 report, Inclusive Australia website, accessed 9 February 2022.
- 4. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (31 August 2018) Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, ABS website, accessed 9 February 2022.