At 235 years old (and only 122 years constitutionally), Australia is a young nation. We have many lessons to learn and one of them is patience.
We’ve all been there before. Trapped mid-conversation with somebody telling us about what needs to happen with the “Aborigine”. For two centuries Australia has grappled with what to do about the “Aboriginal problem”. Of course, the language has changed over the decades to “Aboriginal issue” or the “welfare” of First Nations people. Whichever way you look at it, everybody has an opinion and their own solution. Most of the time, all of this happens without anybody asking First Nations people what we think. There also appears to be a toxic impatience amongst the general population when it comes to First Nations affairs.
We’ve just come off the back of a national referendum specifically involving the future of Aboriginal Australia, during which the First Nations population became surrounded by many telling us, not asking us, what should happen or what would be best for our people. Most of the time, that advice was completely unsolicited. Granted, some were more respectful than others. Some laid out fair solutions to closing the gap with only a little bit of ignorance. Others were the walking epitome of The Bolt Report; misguided through impatience and ignorance and sometimes just flat-out racism. For me, very few members of the public asked me about how all of this was impacting me or what its effects would be. More importantly, very few people really asked what I actually thought.
Australia grapples hard with impatience. Here we have a society that has built itself up over the course of 235 years. A comparatively small amount of time to many other civilisations. So-called Australia has used systems already established by a thousand year old empire as its foundations, which is also a small amount of time in comparison to other nations established through colonisation. That being said, if a generation is, let’s say, twenty five years; there have been almost ten generations of Australians who have built what we see today. While this was happening, the complete theft of land and resources paired with the degradation of language and culture took place. Yet we see so much impatience. Often we are told that we have been given welfare, that we have free healthcare, that we received an apology, that our flag is allowed to be flown, and that we hear an Acknowledgement of Country before every meeting or start of a school day. We should just stop living in poverty. Everything is fine. First Nations people just continue to be a whining stain on Australian society.
Australia’s worst-kept secret is its historical treatment of First Nations people. Known but rarely openly talked about. Instead, it is almost immediately hushed or played down at its very mention. The fact is that it was actual government policy to remove First Nations children from their parents from the 1800s to the 1970s in the name of ‘protection’ and place them within the care of the state. And still, there are those who outright deny the Stolen Generations. I’m not going to enter a debate about its existence. It happened. Children were removed, language was banned and cultural practice was forbidden. Not to mention the massacres and blatant murders of many Indigenous people across the continent earlier. An almost 200 year attempt to erase Aboriginality from the continent. What I'm saying is that if the forced removal of children only stopped being a policy from the 1970s, we are looking at only two full generations that have passed.
First Nations people have been told they should have rebuilt by now. That they should already have economic independence, have their mental health in order, forget about their trauma and just get on with it. They should have already gained access to the top educational institutions and stop being a sponge on the welfare and health systems. Let’s not forget that it was First Nations people themselves who took action and set up their own medical centres, legal services and schools as these places were often segregated no more than three generations ago. It’s like expecting two people to finish a one hundred metre sprint at the same time, while having one of them to start 250 metres behind the other. It’s unrealistic.
In the space of two generations, we have only just begun to breach the surface of equality. People who were directly affected by previous government policy and actions are not long gone historical figures. They are still living and active within society. They carry with them huge gaps in their past, trauma of physical and psychological violence, and justified anger to the people who behaved so inhumanely towards them. They have needed to build their families through the years of segregation, bringing with it economic and educational disadvantage. This, no doubt, has a huge flow on effect to their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I’m not saying there aren’t those who need to get off their arse and be proactive to change their lives and actions – this happens in every civilisation, and I am just as annoyed by it as the average person.
I’m saying that the expectation that an entire people directly affected by colonisation should be doing just fine by now is ridiculous. There are still so many who lack the knowledge of navigating a system that denied them for so long. The idea that there are no ongoing negative impacts of colonisation is an outrageous and ignorant conclusion. I don’t care who said it. Poverty is rife amongst First Nations communities throughout the land. Incarceration rates are shamefully disproportionate. Indigenous literacy levels are incredibly low in comparison to their non-Indigenous counterparts.
A nation can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, and right now Australia is failing that test. The impatience and contempt some in Australia seem to have towards the First Nations population is unwarranted. As a young 235-year-old nation (only 122 years constitutionally), it has many lessons to learn and one of those is patience.
Things will change for the better. More First Nations people are gaining access to education and better health systems. Every day, many are doing the impossible in the face of these challenges. It is only a matter of time before we really see substantial improvements. It will, however, take time and patience to see its full potential and the best thing Australia can do is listen and support.