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  • Australia: Abiding Injustice
  • Ann Mcgrath (bio)


In 1992, a young Aboriginal officer of the National Parks authority was entrusted with a casket containing the 40,000-year-old remains of an early Aboriginal woman who lived at Lake Mungo in southeastern Australia. But before the repatriation ceremony could proceed, indigenous elders ordered him to take off his uniform. It reminded them of the police and "welfare" officials who, in the past, had taken away their children and forced communities from their lands. It was also reminiscent of the scientists who removed their ancestors' bones from burial sites well into the 1970s, when heritage protection legislation was gradually introduced.

Colonialism leaves an array of complex legacies, but one of the most pernicious is an abiding sense of injustice. When British settler-colonizers began to arrive in 1788, they violently usurped the existing order—the sovereignty, law, and ethics that had long governed the continent's lands and peoples. British authorities did not negotiate treaties with Aboriginal people, and, to the Australian federal government today, the idea of formalizing Aboriginal rights in a treaty remains controversial.

The earliest colonial police forces were established to restrict Aboriginal movement on their own lands, freeing up space for the pastoral enterprises of British settlers. When Aboriginal people killed invasive sheep and cattle or attacked colonizers who violated indigenous laws, the police forces retaliated with devastating violence. Later on, police broke up Aboriginal families and arrested couples who transgressed race barriers. Aboriginal people were forcibly relocated to segregated state-owned reserves. Today, Aboriginal people vividly recall "hiding from the welfare" as children and feeling terrified that they would be taken from their families. Scars from the trans-generational trauma of child removal, sexual exploitation, and massacre do not heal easily.

The crimes of the colonizers and their successor, the Australian state, continue to affect the present, not only in the great disparities of wealth between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, but also in the skewed application of justice. Indigenous people make up approximately 26 percent of Australia's jail population but only 2.5 percent of the national population. Their overall imprisonment rate is 15 times higher than that of non-indigenous Australians. In 1987, a Royal Commission opened an investigation into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Four years later, its report emphasized the need to lower imprisonment levels, yet fast-forward 25 years and the proportion of indigenous prisoners has almost doubled.

Although constitutional reforms are slowly progressing, including the insertion of a new preamble that will recognize Aboriginal occupation and custodianship of Australia prior to European arrival, the federal government has repeatedly shut down treaty negotiations. In 1988, Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty in response to the Barunga statement, [End Page 5] which was presented to him in the Northern Territory. Written on bark, it called for Aboriginal self-management, national land rights, compensation for loss of lands, full cultural recognition, and civil rights. Apparently under pressure from powerful mining companies, Hawke failed to fulfill his promise. Then in 1992, the High Court's ruling in Mabo v. Queensland finally recognized indigenous native title across Australia. In May 2017, Aboriginal leaders issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which demanded a constitutionally enshrined voice in Parliament and a commission to oversee a truth-telling process.

But even if the law does not yet evince the Aboriginal people's claim to sovereignty, the facts of history invalidate the moral authority of the settler-colonizer state. After all, if the laws of property are a fundamental tenet of British justice, how can one account for a modern nation built upon the uncompensated theft of indigenous ancestral lands? When the Australian state was established in 1901, new history books taught school children that the British navigator Captain Cook discovered Australia and began a process of peaceful settlement. Australia's War Memorial still overlooks the protracted warfare and violence that decimated Aboriginal populations. Such historical injustice—both in law and in national narratives—suggests that the fundamental question of sovereignty remains unresolved.

Ann Mcgrath

ANN MCGRATH is a professor of history at Australian National University.



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