When this continent was invaded over 250 years ago, colonisers stole so much more than land. They stole First Nations livelihoods and economies.
Even though we have continued to survive, our people have been locked out and exploited by the Australian economy for centuries, leading to systemic wealth inequality. Radical wealth redistribution is required to truly address economic disparity in Australia, which is the transfer of wealth to bridge gaps in equity. While some attempts exist, most efforts are not First Nations-led or determined by our communities.
First Nations Futures offers an alternative, however we must engage in truth-telling to fully understand why this is needed.
First Nations people across the Australian continent have engaged in dynamic economies, trade and financial governance for millenia. Prior to invasion, these economic relationships were based on ancient trade routes which created the basis for our first economies.
As Wiradyuri, Ngemba and Paakantji storyteller Gemma Pol explains;
When Europe and Asia had the Silk Road and Spice Trade, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had sacred pathways and songlines.
While First Peoples definitely traded amongst our continental Nations, there is also a history of trade with Asia in the Northern Territory and Western Australia prior to British arrival. All these were largely peaceful and mutually beneficial trade relationships based on reciprocity. Beyond this, our resource-based economies were environmentally sustainable and systemically regulated, as dictated by our Dreaming and our legal systems, to ensure wealth for future generations. This vision of economic success valued the prosperity of Country, people and our relationships as sovereign Nations.
After the British invasion in 1788, at varying points across the continent there was broadly a process of alienation, imposition and exclusion. Meaning the alienation (isolation/removal) of First Nations people from Country and our systems of governance, the imposing of colonial foreign systems and then the exclusion of First Nations people to participate in them.
The Frontier Wars is a series of conflicts that began in 1788 and lasted until the 1930s. During these first 140 years of invasion hundreds of massacres were carried out to expand the colony. Colonisation is not a steady erosion. It is an alarmingly violent project that was even protested against by other white people in the colony as murder.
From the 1880s in New South Wales, another system was established of Aboriginal missions and reserves. Different states had established their own Aborigines Protection/Welfare Boards, created through race-based government legislation, which oversaw policies of segregation such as the forced relocation of Aboriginal people onto land separate from the non-Indigenous population and the forced removal of Aboriginal children, which became the Stolen Generations.
Often, First Nations people who were forced onto these missions and reserves were estranged from their own homelands. People living on missions were also under constant surveillance by mission managers, missionaries or members of the protection/welfare board. This was to ensure the non-practice of language, culture and restrict individual freedoms such as choice on who to marry or even to collect your wage.
From the late 1800s until the 1970s, many First Nations people had their wages controlled and held by the government in multiple states and territories. Governments held this money in trust accounts under the belief that we could not be ‘trusted’ to have access to our own money. However, when people tried to collect their earnings later on the government refused to give it. This is known today as Stolen Wages. This financial abuse is essentially government approved slave labour and it is estimated that the state of Queensland alone owes First Nations people $500 million.
There is also the exclusion of First Nations people after being instrumental in establishing key primary industries such as fisheries. Despite coastal Aboriginal peoples playing a crucial role in the establishment of fishing industries in New South Wales, we are almost entirely excluded from them. Many families are fighting to regain and maintain access to these coastal resources.
For example, in the 1840s an equal number of Black whalers were employed as white whalers at a station on the South Coast which utilised knowledge of Country and traditional skills such as spotting and harpooning. These Black whalers were fundamental to the establishment of early colonial industry but in the present day, South Coast Aboriginal people are not only excluded from the industry but actively prosecuted for engaging in traditional fishing practices. Since 2010, 85% of people jailed for fishing offences in New South Wales have been Aboriginal.
In World War I, around 800 Aboriginal men served in the Australian Imperial Force. They fought for a country that would not even recognise them as citizens and, despite experiencing equality at war, were largely denied the privileges afforded to other returning servicemen such as land allocations as part of soldier settlement schemes. Victoria only had two successful Aboriginal veteran applications for land. New South Wales only had one.
The men who were successful in accessing land had one thing in common – they were deemed ‘half-caste’ and ‘substantially European’ due to their multiracial heritage. This is one example of the rampant racism in Australian ‘economic opportunities’, where a proximity (closeness) to whiteness is required to access support. Today, this can look like colourism when preference is given to lighter-skinned First Nations people, an accent bias where someone might believe that accents closer to British-English sound ‘more educated’ than others, or whether someone has worked in white systems long enough to present in a way that is appealing to the white gaze.
This article has attempted to provide a broad overview of historic trends in policy that has led to the centuries-long economic deprivation of First Nations people. We are murdered to make way for the expansion of the colony. We are segregated onto missions to be alienated from our Country and culture. We have our children stolen, we are denied our wages and made slaves in our own land. We are used and then disposed by the industries we made successful, and then denied our entitlements unless we were ‘white enough’ to appeal to our colonisers.
This might seem like an intense amount of history to be digesting in an article about economic justice but it is fundamental that we know how we got here to see where we must go.
First Nations people and our affairs have been dictated under a “mission-manager” model where non-Indigenous people in government, the not-for-profit sector or philanthropy have set out to ‘solve’ the ‘Aboriginal problem’ and control the flow of resources to First Nations communities.
It’s a type of paternalism – an attitude that it is non-Indigenous people who know best and must be the ones to dictate how to spend our money, who to distribute it to, and how best to measure ‘economic success’. However, First Nations people must be the designers of our destinies and the wealth must be redistributed back to us.
Community-created funding models such as First Nations Futures are creating alternatives to address the limitations and harm of mainstream funding relationships. It is a money in-money out platform where everyday people across the country can give money and it is distributed equally amongst participating First Nations groups. This provides support without the usual ‘strings-attached’ or demanding control over community decision-making. In this way, power is decentralised and culturally framed to respect the freedom First Nations should have over resources.
These initiatives are also complementary to other grassroots calls to action, like reparations through treaty-making.
Economic justice is integral to First Nations justice in Australia but it is a concept that requires a lot of unpacking. Effective allyship in addressing economic inequality affecting First Nations people and communities requires three broad actions from allies – unlearning myths, realigning economic goals and supporting First Nations solutions.