Time to acknowledge the first people's rights

FOR years now, some commentators have berated us for not making a greater celebration of the day that marked the beginning of our nation, and others have berated us for celebrating the day that also marked the beginning of a tragedy for Aboriginal peoples.

Both sides are right about the historical significance of January 26, 1788. It does mark the beginning of Australia's shame and of its triumph. This partly explains the muted way in which we tend to celebrate the day.

When Captain Arthur Phillip and his officers splashed ashore at Botany Bay, they believed they were bringing civilisation to what one of the officers described as "a remote and barbarous land". But it was not an act of selfless charity. They had come to conquer. They had not come to live in an Aboriginal world but to dispossess the Aborigines of their land and compel them to live in a British world. Phillip had been sent by the British government to take possession of the eastern half of Australia. The bold move was designed to give Britain a strategic presence in the Pacific. Little thought was given to the incidental consequences for the Aborigines.

With the peremptory act of raising a flag at Sydney Cove and reading a proclamation, Phillip blithely made one of the greatest land grabs in history without even a token attempt to negotiate with or compensate the owners. Had they been invited to Phillip's ceremony, and realised its significance, the Aborigines might have resisted more. In that first year, they had the numbers to bring the half-starved colony to a premature end. But there was little sustained resistance, and even less after smallpox wiped out much of Sydney's Aboriginal population.

Laid waste by disease and alcohol and the disruption of their traditional living patterns over the succeeding decades, or killed outright by punitive expeditions, the Aboriginal population seemed set by 1900 to be headed for extinction. A population of a million or more had been reduced to about 60,000. In the minds of the colonists, there was a sense of sad inevitability about it all, along with a quiet sense of satisfaction that the eventual Aboriginal demise would remove any lingering uneasiness about the legitimacy of the British occupation. But the nature of our national origins clearly concerns us still.

 Still unconfident in our relatively short-lived occupation of the continent, we shrink from undertaking those symbolic acts that would acknowledge the historic wrongs visited upon Aboriginal people and adequately recognise their status as first peoples. Just as in the past we took many of their children in an unsuccessful attempt to make Aborigines disappear, so we continue to press for them to blend into white Australia, thereby ceasing to pose a moral challenge to our occupation of their continent. We watch passively as Aborigines die from preventable diseases and as their societies are ravaged by the physical and psychological consequences of their historic dispossession, while comforting our consciences with the mistaken belief that they are the authors of their own misfortune.

Rather than providing adequate medical, educational and housing facilities, we compel outback Aborigines to wash their faces in return for providing a petrol bowser, thereby implicitly reinforcing the 18th-century view of the Aborigines as child-like savages who have to be civilised.

There is nothing to be gained by simply reproaching ourselves about the shameful acts in our past. Instead, we need to understand and acknowledge our history in its complexity, from the grandeur to the genocide. We need to situate our history within a wider context and understand we are far from alone in dispossessing indigenous people of their land. Just because many other societies share our situation does not absolve us of our shameful neglect. On this Australia Day, then, it is fitting we acknowledge the importance of Phillip's enterprise. Despite ignorance and ill-luck, the colonists overcame considerable obstacles to establish one of the world's great cities and one of the most diverse and tolerant societies.

It is equally important to acknowledge the tragic outcome for Aborigines. The tragedy will persist for so long as we push ahead with Phillip's original project of dispossession and refuse to recognise we have reached an important point in the prolonged process, initiated by Cook and Phillip, of making this continent our own. After more than 200 years, and with a population of 20 million people, the fear of ourselves being dispossessed has been largely allayed. We should be confident enough to recognise Aborigines as the first peoples of this land and to accord them the rights implicit in such status. It has proved to be a bounteous land. Its riches deserve to be shared more generously with those from whom it was taken.

Sydney Morning Herald/ The Age, 26 January 2005