Beds still burning: why a proud future means waking up to the past

By Chris Lamb, DCA Director.

This year for my own growth I took on some further postgrad education in Aboriginal Studies. It’s given me a window into Aboriginal life and culture that most Australians don’t get – and are surely poorer for it. I’ve ridden the rollercoaster of emotions from inspiration to despair but it’s made me more determined than ever to take action. I feel compelled to communicate a perspective on our history that most white Australians have never had and may not even believe. Until we begin to accept this past we can’t sincerely move forward. In the immortal words of Australia’s musical conscience, how do we sleep while our beds are burning?

I am a white Australian – a descendant of settlers and dispossessors. I want to be proud of my country, but a proud future must begin with honesty. Here’s what we need say to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

230 years ago Europeans arrived to make a penal colony in New South Wales. We hadn’t been invited, we just came. We knew the land was already inhabited but that didn’t matter. We ignored evidence that you were actively using the land by germinating seeds, planting crops, storing your harvests and building houses. We deluded ourselves that you were simply hunter-gatherers. We ignored evidence of your languages, spirituality, customs and laws and created a myth that you were ‘uncivilized natives’. Little by little we began to take your land. Even by the standards of 1788 that was an invasion.

Despite specific instructions from the King to protect the lives and livelihoods of the natives, we started to kill you. We continued to push you off your land, sometimes poisoned your food and drinking water, raped your women and committed murder on a grand scale. This behaviour continued into the 20th century. It was barbaric and often criminal.

We excluded you from all conversations about the formation of the Australian nation and we refused for many more decades to allow you to vote or to count you as citizens. We ignored repeated attempts by the United Nations and others to encourage us to recognise your rights. This was just wrong.

From at least 1910 to the 1970’s we forcibly removed your children. We claimed this was for their own protection but often the evidence of this was exaggerated or fabricated. Many institutions that were meant to care for your children failed and instead they were harmed. Even those who weren’t physically hurt suffered the psychological scars of growing up without parents and siblings. As a nation we said sorry for this in 2008. This seemed like a good start, yet we are still removing children from your care at a disproportionately high rate.

We introduced you to substances like tobacco, sugar and alcohol and you became addicted to them. This wasn’t an accident. It was a deliberate, though misguided strategy by people like mission managers to ensure you returned to missions and reserves. Now you have a life expectancy 20 years lower than non-Indigenous Australians. This was negligent and we must find a solution.

We embedded racism into our institutions, though perhaps not always intentionally. You are now the most incarcerated people on the planet and are still treated more harshly by law enforcement agencies and the judiciary for comparable offences. This is unacceptable and we must find a solution.

None of these terrible things I’ve described are matters of conjecture. They’re all extensively documented. They all happened.

Notwithstanding these, and other wrongs we committed, many of us still blame you for the current state of play. I hope this is due to ignorance or lack of education about the truth. I hope it’s because we don’t understand the effects of intergenerational trauma. I fear it’s worse.

Despite all this, with generosity, you still share your wisdom and retrace these difficult stories in order for us to learn and to move forward. There is no simple answer to the issues we’ve created and indeed you’ve often disagreed among yourselves on how to progress, but since May 2017 there’s been a unified view. We must grasp this opportunity, beginning with an honest, bipartisan political response to the Uluru Statement From the Heart and grant you the two things you’ve requested, not just for you, but because it benefits Australia and all Australians.

  1. A First Nations voice to parliament. You haven’t asked to take over the country, you haven’t asked for a 3rd chamber of parliament and you haven’t asked for a right of veto. You’ve simply asked for a constitutionally guaranteed right to have a non-binding voice to parliament. We must give it to you.
  2. The establishment of a Makarrata Commission to oversee a process of truth telling and agreement making. We know that Makarrata is a Yolngu word describing a coming together after a struggle, facing the facts of wrongs and living again in peace. I cannot think of a more appropriate term to move us forward.

We can’t fool ourselves that doing this is an ending, but it can represent a fresh start. The beginning of the next chapter in Australia’s history. Our sunburnt country is home to the longest continuous culture on the planet yet most Australians don’t consider it ‘ours’. With time, truth telling, listening and some empathy on both sides, we could have a shared history and a shared culture that we can all celebrate and can all be proud of. Our shared future depends on it.

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