Recently, I was watching a film called Salute. The film tells the story of the famous Black Panther salute made by two of the US track and field athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the podium during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The image has been used as a symbol of defiance all around the world. This extends to not just the Black oppressed minorities of the planet but any group that felt they were being treated as second-class citizens. It is truly an iconic symbol of international solidarity.
This solidarity also includes the white man in the picture, Peter Norman. Norman of Australia finished second in the race and was also on the podium with Smith and Carlos. Rather than just accept his medal, he was quick to show his support for his fellow athletes. This is something not initially obvious from the picture. He decided to wear the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. He was basically saying that he backed the call for equal rights in America.
The film does a brilliant job of telling the stories of those involved leading up to the Olympics and the consequences of their actions thereafter. It is directed by Matt Norman, Peter’s nephew. Please take the time to watch it. I’m not going to elaborate on a story already wonderfully told. What I am going to do is write about the topic that was behind Peter Norman’s motivation, the treatment of Aboriginal Australians.
In the western world, we look at the pyramids and the Ancient Egyptians as a staggeringly old civilisation. The Aboriginals have been in Australia 50,000 years. Neanderthals were still roaming Europe at that stage. Theirs is truly an ancient culture. In this time, they seemed to have reached a balanced lifestyle. There was an understanding of nature. They weren’t excessive hunters and had a diet full of roots and other vegetation. The cycle of nature was always respected. This went as far lighting small bush fires so that they didn’t have to endure the large, destructive fires, like the fires of today, further down the road.
I am referring to these people as Aboriginals, a term the British brought in, like they are one, homogeneous people. They are far from it. They were many nations, like the Native Americans before the arrival of the white man. There were over 300 recorded native languages when Captain Cook arrived in Australia. To this day, anthropologists are fascinated by the complex marriage and family customs that had built up in some Aboriginal cultures during this time. Even the structures that governed their society were complex. Some of the cultural differences confused the first Europeans that went to Australia. One of them being that the Native Australians rarely, if ever, thanked each other. That’s because the Aboriginals saw themselves as related to every member of their group, or clan, and felt obligated to give anything that was asked of them. No thanks were needed. The fact that they were nomadic meant they had no desire nor use for material objects. As is so often the case, white European colonists put an end to this way of life.
The Dutch had visited Australian shores in 1606. The British were the first Europeans to settle on the continent after Captain Cook’s visit there in 1770. In the decades that followed, mining became a big industry in Australia and convicts were shipped off there too. This is when the Aboriginals’ plight truly began.
Up until the 20th century, the Aboriginals were viewed as a nuisance and were simply moved on from the lands that the British found of interest. After this point, there was a systematic effort to eradicate their culture and all Aboriginals if needs must. The first laws were introduced in 1901. The laws continued and by the 1930s many parts of Australia had laws segregating whites and non-whites. This was applied to public areas like swimming pools, cinemas, bars and hotels. The Australians were years ahead of South Africa’s segregation policy which was passed as law in 1948. There are some that suggest that South African politicians and policymakers may have modeled their Apartheid on the Australian model of segregation. As Janine Gertz of James Cook University once stated; “South Africa’s Apartheid system was modeled closely on Queensland’s Aboriginal Protection Act (1897)”.
Then there was the Stolen Generation. The British had tried to dilute the indigenous population from they time they arrived on Australian shores. It was common for members of the British elite to have an Aboriginal woman as a concubine. From in 1910 to the 1970s, the Australian state took, or kidnapped, children of Aboriginal or mixed race away from their parents on the grounds on the basis that their parents were unfit to raise them. These children were usually placed with a white family. The numbers vary, but the European Network for Indigenous Australian Rights say it was as many as 100,000. Consider the Aboriginal population in Australia is at 700,000 and you can really get the scale of what the Aboriginal people endured in this period. This policy is officially over and in 2013, the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard publically apologised to the victims of the Stolen Generation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it took Australia’s first and so far only female Prime Minister to apologise for this gross miscarriage of justice.*
Is that the issue settled then? When you look Australia’s performance on Human Development Index and the OECD’s list of best places to live one would assume that the continent has put these dark pages of its history in the past, but it hasn’t. Something that points to this is there are no public holidays honouring traditional Aboriginal society or the struggle they endured since the arrival of Cook. The modern issues go far past this of course. As the great Australian journalist John Pilger stated in The Guardian; “Assimilation remains Australian government policy in all but name. Euphemisms such as “reconciliation” and “Stronger Futures” cover similar social engineering and an enduring, insidious racism in the political elite, the bureaucracy and wider Australian society.” There is more evidence besides that racism, institutional and otherwise, is, unfortunately, alive and well in Australia.
So why is this slow motion genocide allow to continue? Well, these issues are never straight forward. For one, there is the public attitude. Aboriginal crime and health statics compare poorly with the rest of Australian society. There is a fair amount of victim blaming going on. An if that’s their lifestyle then they deserve it attitude. As we have seen in countless examples around the world, if the infrastructure is not put in place to help repressed peoples, the same old problems will persist. The Australian government cannot sit back and say well we apologised and think these issues that had their genesis centuries ago will just disappear into the mist. The world’s richest countries generally are the old colonial powers. The former colonies have found it difficult to catch up because, in a sense, they were starting from scratch. The health and crime issues will persist until they are addressed.
Another issue is the privatisation of Australia’s prisons. Serco, for example, runs two Australian prisons and all of its detention centres while there are running for more prison tenders. They also run some rehabilitation centres, but it is in their best interests that Australia continues to produce more criminals. More criminals mean more money. That’s just business sense. In this case, Serco has a ready-made criminalised minority to fill its prisons. They certainly wouldn’t want this to change.
International pressure will have to play a bigger role if things are to change. If we look back at South Africa it provides an interesting insight. There were inspirational leaders trying to abolish Apartheid for sure. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu amongst others. The international pressure did play a big part too. Boycotts were widespread amongst citizens and this spread to governments. In Britain, there was widespread anger and many wanted the regime out of the Commonwealth. South Africa did Westminister a favour by removing themselves from the equation.
Britain may be a big part in why the International community is not acting on this serious issue. The British media were quick to criticise South African and American policies towards race discrimination. Two former colonies. It is easier to point out the problems in somebody else’s country than it is to sort out the mess in your own backyard. Or Outback in this case. Instead of the likes of the BBC blindly supporting British foreign policy and the unjust oil wars in the Middle East they could cover the story and plight of the Aboriginal peoples. Just a thought.
Anybody watching the Rugby World Cup could not help being impressed by Australia’s performances for most of the tournament. Wallaby fans can take great pride from the team they have become, especially when you compare it to the mess that coach Michael Cheika inherited just over a year ago. They have shown a lot of the great Australian attributes like resilience, courage and practical application. Before facing the Haka in the final, “Advance Australia Fair” rang out around Twickenham Stadium. Perhaps one day these words will mean as much to the Aboriginal Australians as they do to the whites.
*Kevin Rudd made a piecemeal apology back in 2008 when he was PM