Acts of Dispossession and the Legitimacy of the State: Australian Regrets

Having seen Rabbit-Proof Fence, it is worth recognizing that there is a semblance of a crisis of legitimacy for the Australian state even in the eyes of some non-Aboriginal Australians, those descended from settlers and immigrant arrivals. There are at least three different ways that Australians have acknowledged that legitimacy is a problem, in light of the history of Aboriginal dispossession.

One, the more radical response, is in favour of ultimate Aboriginal repossession, that is, the idea that non-Aboriginals have no rights to the land, land that should be returned to the traditional owners. Here is the popular Australian rock band advocating, “it’s time to pay the rent,” and “let’s give it [the land] back.”

Even at the highest levels of the Australian political class, for some time there have been members of the elite who recognized that Australian history was grounded in dispossession and conquest. Here is a video from the Australian Labour Party (which has formed a number of governments) from 1992, when then Prime Minister Paul Keating read a speech at Redfern Park in Sydney, to a largely Aboriginal audience (one the occasion of the UN’s International Day for the World’s Indigenous Peoples), recognizing this dispossession in strong, memorable terms:

Another response has been the movement to officially apologize to Aboriginals for their long history of mistreatment, with some forms (such as abducting “half-caste” children continuing up until recent times, the 1970s). Thus on February 13, 2008, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, also of the Labour Party, finally issued an official apology. See:

But should there still be doubts as to why we must now act, let the parliament reflect for a moment on the following facts: that, between 1910 and 1970, between 10 and 30 per cent of Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their mothers and fathers; that, as a result, up to 50,000 children were forcibly taken from their families; that this was the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute; that this policy was taken to such extremes by some in administrative authority that the forced extractions of children of so-called ‘mixed lineage’ were seen as part of a broader policy of dealing with ‘the problem of the Aboriginal population’.

One of the most notorious examples of this approach was from the Northern Territory Protector of Natives, who stated:

Generally by the fifth and invariably by the sixth generation, all native characteristics of the Australian aborigine are eradicated. The problem of our half-castes—

to quote the Protector—

will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white …

The Western Australian Protector of Natives expressed not dissimilar views, expounding them at length in Canberra in 1937 at the first national conference on Indigenous affairs that brought together the Commonwealth and state protectors of natives.

These are uncomfortable things to be brought out into the light.

They are not pleasant.

They are profoundly disturbing.

See also:

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