The familiar echo of Aboriginal condemnation

Date: May 22 2006

By Jane Lydon

In the debate about the abuse of Aboriginal children, we are seeing the re-animation of much older, historical images of Aboriginal neglect and ill-treatment.

After the colonisation of Australia in 1788, Europeans represented Aboriginal gender relations and, especially, the care of children, as disorderly and brutal. Such accounts served to justify invasion, intervention, and ultimately the removal of children from their families.

The horrors courageously made public by Alice Springs Crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers are real, and the pain and death inflicted on these small victims must not be denied, yet the way that this terrible situation has been taken up by some commentators, notably Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough, reveals an insidious colonial legacy that does nothing to tackle the problem's underlying causes.

Rather than acknowledge the longstanding structural disadvantage experienced by remote Aboriginal communities, the complicity of the Australian Government in their creation and neglect, and a national responsibility to make real changes, Brough's immediate response to Rogers' revelations was to announce the existence of a pedophile ring of senior Aboriginal men. No evidence has been produced, and it seems clear that none exists.

Where did Brough's allegation come from? Such a "ring" would, of course, give the minister a convenient solution to his need to be seen to be doing something: an evil group of Aboriginal men, a target small enough to rapidly identify and punish, would serve as a scapegoat and provide a quick fix for his problem. But if we look further back into the long history of Aboriginal-white relations, it becomes clear that such claims have often helped governments to justify interventionist indigenous policies.

Early white observers were quick to condemn Aboriginal society as wild and lawless, underwriting the process of colonialism. Although missionaries emphasised indigenous people's shared humanity, often opposing contemporary scientific racial theorists who argued for their biological inferiority, all agreed in condemning Aboriginal men as oppressors of their women, ignoring evidence for women's status within their own society.

Such views were the basis for confining them on reserves where women, in particular, were the focus of intense scrutiny and discipline. Such perceptions also served to justify taking indigenous babies and children from their mothers: as we now know, a long-term and systematic official practice with devastating consequences. More recently, historians of the "stolen generations" such as Anna Haebich have shown how similar images of neglect and disorder were used as the basis for child removal as recently as the 1970s.

The causes of these entrenched problems in many Aboriginal communities are complex, and the solutions will not be easy or certain.

The search for answers is not helped by political claims, from those who should know better, that reiterate the same old ideas about Aboriginal culture as inherently abusive - a notion explicitly rejected by several Aboriginal leaders over the past two days.

This is a terrible episode in Australian history, and the central fact is that every Aboriginal child is precious. What is needed are more perceptive analyses of these troubled communities - best of all, from listening to Aboriginal people, who have been trying to address these problems for a considerable time.

Jane Lydon is a research fellow at Monash University's Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies.