New Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced the establishment of an Indigenous Advisory Council to try and alleviate the hardships suffered by the majority of the country’s aboriginal communities. Making good on a key election pledge, Abbott says that the Council will seek to provide more economic opportunities for Aborigines, hopefully enabling them to escape a spiral of deprivation, alcoholism and domestic violence.
To say that the indigenous issue is a sensitive one in Australia is a massive understatement. As with the Native Americans, the Aborigines have suffered great upheaval over a relatively short period of history, involving the dismantling of their traditional lifestyles by the arrival of white settlers.
Having arrived on the Australian continent from Southeast Asia some 50,000 years ago, the Aborigines lived unchallenged for millenia. The arrival of British colonists in the late 18th century brought not only the typical shock of ‘encounter’ but a swift and brutal end to aboriginal life as was known.
Aborigines were persecuted on political and racial grounds from the outset, many driven from their natural homelands by greedy land prospectors who were unafraid to use violence in a colony yet to be tamed.
In 2008, during his premiership, Labor leader Kevin Rudd offered the most sincere apology to Aborigines yet, reflecting on the “profound grief, suffering and loss” inflicted upon indigenous Australians by decades of white settlers.
In addition to the calculated acts of violence and population displacement perpetuated by the whites, there were also the inadvertent detriments. In particular, European disease and the import of alcohol onto a ‘dry’ continent ravaged the Aborigines.
With their land eaten up by white settlement, many Aborigines were forced into an unnatural sedentary life in the growing urban centres on the Australian coast where a dependency on alcohol offered an escape from their dismantled lives. This persisting problem within the aboriginal community has contributed to other woes such as unemployment and child and spousal abuse.
Rudd was undoubtedly sincere when he apologised, confronting a much-known yet highly guarded dirty secret for which many white Australians feel guilty. But what does an apology mean? Although well-intentioned it makes no tangible difference. One need only look at the attempts made by some Japanese politicians to apologise for their country’s culpability in initiating the Pacific Front during WWII. The Chinese and Koreans will have none of it.
Apologies also hamstring contemporary leaders who are forced to try and atone for actions not committed by their generation; it is hard, therefore, to feel a genuineness in any spoken statement of redemption.
Abbott seems to be aware of this and is conscious of the severity of the aboriginal plight (he spends a week living in aboriginal communities every year). His idea for reform is far more bold and, probably, easier to enact than an apology. How his Council will function and whether it will be successful remains to be seen.
There is an embedded shame in Australia, as there is in much of the USA, over the treatment of their countries’ indigenous people. It is unfortunate that this shame has only started to take form in recent decades, for had the delusion of racial superiority been quashed in its infancy the recovery of these peoples may have stood a far greater chance.