There’s lots to remember today: armistice day, a bushranger was slaughtered, and Gough was betrayed. Those three events are pretty well cemented in our collective memory. Something which doesn’t hold quite the same place is the fact that it was on this day in 1869 that the Victorian colonial government passed the an act entitled ”To Provide for the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria”, otherwise known as the ‘Aborigines Protection Act’. As Richard Frankland and Peter Lewis explain in The Age today, this was the Act which “gave government control of where Aboriginal people could live, of how they would relate to Europeans, of their labour and earnings and of the ”care, custody and education” of all Aboriginal children. It was this act that created the conditions for Aboriginal containment and assimilation, and its legal platform enabled policies that led to the stolen generations and stolen wages.” Frankland and Lewis in this article discuss why we don’t remember this Act:
Even today the imprint of this act remains as a stain on our national character. Our ready forgetting of this anniversary is symptomatic of our failure as a nation to come to terms with our shared history.
This failure to remember is why the business of reconciliation remains unresolved, the ”close the gap promise” remains dormant and the national apology is just another unfulfilled promise, as Government intentions to close the gap between the first and second peoples of Australia in child mortality, longevity, health and other wellbeing measures are swallowed up in bureaucracy.
Have we forgotten that ”sorry” is the first step towards reconciliation, not the last?
Remembering the Aborigines Protection Act 1869 is important because it recalls a time when Aboriginal people were cut off from the rest of the community and from their land and culture.
Could such an act be passed again in modern Australia? Could governments today restrict and control the earnings of indigenous peoples, remove them from their homelands and take their children away?
Of course they could. They have. Without legislative safeguards against similar human rights abuses they will continue to do so.
The Northern Territory emergency intervention is based on the power of our legislators to disregard Aboriginal people’s human rights. Without a repeal of the ”race powers” of the constitution in section 25, the federal and state governments can enact laws such as these, which discriminate against the first peoples.
A federal charter for human rights would be a welcome start. A treaty acknowledging and paying respect to Australia’s first peoples would help to ensure such an affront to the humanity and dignity of indigenous Australians would not happen again.
Remembering the Aborigines Protection Act 1869 means that there will always be resistance when Aboriginal people’s land or rights are threatened.
Fortunately, Aboriginal communities do remember and the retelling of resistance stories reminds us that Australia’s first peoples are not victims but warriors. That is why so many are resisting the Northern Territory intervention and its sad echoing of the 1869 Aborigines Protection Act.
How can we be honourable and responsible caretakers of the past if we live with only one element or aspect of its truth? As historian Inga Clendinnen suggests, ”we live with a nursery version of history” and subsequently we cannot grapple with contemporary happenings.
We all have an obligation to recognise the past, to plant the seeds of truth in the present so that we have a stronger future together.
Our hope is that the nation will be one day cured of its amnesia and through remembering our shared history we can jointly create an Australia that restores the rights of its first peoples and respects all its cultures.
The Jewish connection? There are so many that it seems almost unnecessary to discuss it explicitly. But I want to. It comes in the importance of memory: that we need to remember genocides that have happened, and which continue to happen, and which we continue and we benefit in material ways from. We need to remember events and Acts which make us all impoverished. We need to connect ourselves with others who suffer, and work – seriously work – alongside them to create a world in which this suffering doesn’t take place. We need to remember resistance to oppression, and take strength and courage from other peoples’ actions which show us a different way. As Jews we constantly remember our pasts, and we need to link our pasts with those of the people alongside whom we walk. Because, of course, I write this blog post while sitting on my brown comfy couch, in my overheated sharehouse on Wurundjeri land.
On another memorial note – it is also the anniversary of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. I’ve just started working as a research assistant on a biography of Gough, and had ‘Gough’ by the Whitlams running through my head all day when I was at work on Monday. So I share it with you in a memorial moment – it’s a great film clip (and thanks to my housemate Cait for showing it to me last week)