Victoria's Aboriginal history is full of tragedy and inspiration

"... What racists can never accept is that after some 222 years of the use and abuse of our Aboriginal women it is a real wonder that there is any colour left among our peoples." - Ray Jackson - President, Indigenous Social Justice Association

Andrew Bock SMH Opinion 3rd October 2011

Debate about who is and isn't Aboriginal has been part of Victorian politics since an 1886 Amending Act enshrined the term "half-caste" in state legislation.

The court case and debate surrounding Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt's criticisms of "white Aborigines" have overlooked this defining aspect of Victoria's history.

After killings and disease dramatically reduced the Aboriginal population during the first decades after colonisation, an 1869 parliamentary act empowered the Aboriginal Protection Board to manage reserves for Aboriginal people and to remove "neglected" or "unprotected" children to reserves or institutions for their better care. In 1886 and 1890, amending acts, known as the "half-caste acts", explicitly prohibited half-caste Aboriginal people who were over 14 or unmarried from living on reserves, visiting "full-blood" family members and gaining access to Aboriginal welfare.

The acts allowed the board to adopt a more active policy of removing half-caste children and placing them with institutions or white families. But half-caste adults were also prohibited from visiting family on the major reserves, at Framlingham, Lake Condah, Coranderrk, Lake Tyers, Ramahyuck and Ebenezer, where community was strong.

Many chose to live away from reserves and work in colonial Victorian society. But the repercussions of this are still felt by the children of Aboriginal people who don't know their grandparents.

Historian Richard Broome, in Aboriginal Victorians - A history since the 1800s, wrote that for two generations, the acts "limited the freedoms of Aboriginal people; they forced people from their homes and families on the reserve; they broke up families by the removal of children from their parents; and they undermined the reserves". Professor Broome estimated between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of Aboriginal children were removed from parents each year from 1900 to the 1960s in Victoria.

"The state nurses wanted to take us and put us in homes because we were half-caste kids," Lettie Nicholls recorded in the Museum of Victoria's Living Aboriginal History of Victoria. "We got word they were coming for us . . . So, in the early hours of the morning, my grandfather and grandmother sneaked us away in a horse and cart."

Aboriginal people who left reserves and tried to integrate during and after the 1890s depression and throughout the first decades of the 20th century often faced more severe racism, lower wages and battles with poverty.

Ian Anderson, Tasmanian Aboriginal director of Murrup Barak, Melbourne University's Institute for Indigenous Development, says for many decades, mixed-blood Aboriginal people were declared "not black enough to receive Aboriginal welfare support and not white enough for mainstream welfare or support".

For much of Victoria's history, the act of claiming to be Aboriginal, particularly if you were not full-blood Aboriginal, often led to sanctions, racism, and disadvantages.

After more than 100 years of disadvantaging Aboriginal people with "mixed blood", conservative commentators like Andrew Bolt now claim there is too much support for mixed-blood Aboriginal people, and only "real draw-in-the-dirt Aboriginal" people should be eligible for support. It is an old debate, and should be expressed with compassion for the past rather than vitriol.

Every system attracts rorts, and Aboriginal people dislike those who rort the system by falsely claiming to be Aboriginal. But Bolt's arguments echo early colonial attitudes that presumed the end of the Aboriginal race in Victoria and complete assimilation to be the only solution for half-castes. After the judgment, Bolt wrote about the right to "pressure people to give up some racial identity".

Historian Chris Healy, author of Forgetting Aborigines, argues that if people want to forget Victoria was colonised and indigenous people were dispossessed, then a good way to do that is to deny Aboriginality and argue that we are all the same. Another way is to perpetuate a history that allows white people to define who is Aboriginal.

The history of Aboriginal Victorians since colonisation is a tragic, dynamic and inspiring story and one that Victorians might study before deciding who is and isn't Aboriginal, based on the colour of their skin.

Andrew Bock is a journalist with an interest in Aboriginal art and culture.


Dr Joseph Toscano Anarchist Age Weekly October 2011

Justice Bromberg's decision that found Andrew Bolt and News Limited had breached provisions of the Federal Racial Discrimination Act has been met by a predictable response from both Andrew Bolt and Tony Abbott. Andrew Bolt has labelled the decision as "a terrible day for free speech", while Tony Abbott has denounced the decision as an attack on "the sacred principle of free speech".

I'd expect Tony Abbott as a former Rhodes Scholar and a consummate politician and Andrew Bolt as a seasoned political commentator to know the right to free speech, unlike in the United States where free speech is protected by the first amendment, does not exist in Australia.

The Australian Constitution is essentially a document that regulates the relationship between the Federal government and the States, it has little to say about individual rights and nothing to say about protecting the individual from the arbitrary exercise of state power.

The High Court, struggling with the idea of free speech, found over a decade ago Australians had an implied constitutional right to free speech during election campaigns so they could make an informed decision about who they vote for.

If Andrew Bolt and Tony Abbott had any real interest in free speech they would be at the forefront of campaigns to enshrine individual rights within the Australian constitution by supporting moves to hold a referendum to give Australian people the ability to decide whether individual rights, including the right to free speech, should be enshrined in the Australian constitution instead of leading the campaign against incorporating the right to free speech in the Australian constitution every time the call is made for individual rights to be enshrined in the Australian constitution.