Why are there so many Aboriginal Australians in prison? Why are so many Aboriginal Australians living in poverty? Why is rape, child abuse, murder, drugs and alcohol addiction so prevalent in current Aboriginal culture? Are Aboriginal Australians receiving equity or unnecessary special treatment from Centerlink, Aboriginal Youth Payments and Ration Cards? Are the colonisers to blame? Are modern Australians, both society and politicians, to blame? Are Aboriginals just playing victim? These types of questions divide the modern Australian multi-cultural society due to their controversy, political incorrectness, and some may call, insensitivity. But are these labels to the questions listed the reason these issues are not being solved, attended to or acknowledged at all? What is the Australian government actually doing behind the scenes for the Aboriginal society? And does Jack Davis’s “No Sugar” help or harm the case of the Aboriginal society and their claims of racial prejudice, resentment and entitlement? How does the text represent these social issues of crime, unemployment and poverty? And is there a solution to it all? I will be entering the big debate free from the fear of insensitivity for the good intention of solving this gap of resentment between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.
Aboriginal people are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system of Australia. They represent only 3% of the total population, yet more than 28% of Australia’s prison population are Aboriginal. 86% of inmates in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal. It is a 15 times higher chance for an Aboriginal person to be locked up compared to a non-Aboriginal. These figures can be understood greater when one grasps the differences between Commonwealth and Aboriginal laws, customs and values, and also our infliction and involvement in the troubling issue of Aboriginal crime. Crimes such as rape are accepted in Aboriginal culture as an Aboriginal woman alleging rape in her community will either be scorned or “punished with a customary beating because her female relatives would not accept the allegation of rape”. Pedophilia is encouraged in Aboriginal culture as it often means girls are leaving homes and marrying their abusers, broadening the group/tribe. The Aboriginal law is intricate and well-crafted, but contrasts Western law, even where murder is solved by the victim’s family member getting the ability to kill the murderer or their family member as punishment and “justice” . These laws and customs are drudged into modern day by the Aboriginal society which, for western law enforcement, ignites issues, both in the justice system, western society and on the modern Aboriginal reserves. Under the law of the Commonwealth, these crimes committed by an Aboriginal are illegal and are punishable within our prisons, which creates this over proportion of Aboriginal Australians in our prisons. Although, what is causing this staggering level of rape and child abuse within Aboriginal communities, even reserves? In 2011-2012, Indigenous children aged 0-17 were nearly 8 times as likely as non-Indigenous children to be subject of substantiated child abuse or neglect . The Aboriginal men on several reserves across Australia are mercilessly raping and abusing the wives and children of the communities when they routinely get drunk each evening, unfortunately a result of colonisation and the western introduction of alcohol which is not biologically tolerated within bodies of Aboriginals, causing the abuse of the substance. The issue has gotten so astoundingly bad that the Federal Government has erected shelters near Indigenous reserves where the women and children can seek protection in the evenings. Why is Aboriginal crime in youth so prevalent also? It seems gangs of Indigenous youth getting up to no good and disrupting communities is so common it is becoming the depiction western people envision when conjuring Aboriginals as a whole. In 2012-2013, Indigenous juvenile detention rates were 24 times higher than the rate of non-Indigenous youth . Obviously, this drinking, violence and crime is rubbing off on the youth and this behaviour is, unfortunately, being continued down every generation, becoming close to impossible to break the chain reaction.
The saddest concept of this cycle is the destruction of Aboriginal culture, customs and lifestyle in the process, with the majority of today’s Aboriginal population holding no correlation to their ancestors’ way of life, values or behaviour, shown through the fact that only 12% of Indigenous Australians claim to speak an Indigenous language in their home , igniting the question that maybe this devastating cycle of crime is entirely as a result of colonisation and has in turn permanently damaged Aboriginal culture. The behaviour of the children is not only a reflection of the unvarying crime in their community, but also as a result of what is now being known as the second stolen generation. It is beginning to be claimed that, due to the institutionalisation of Aboriginal children in assimilation programs such as foster homing and reserves during the first stolen generation, a whole generation of children have been raised by parents lacking even the most basic knowledge of parenting, even Aboriginal customs of raising children never being instilled or demonstrated. This lack of parenting and encouragement of pride in their culture has not only resulted in the destruction of Aboriginal Australian culture, but this consequentially caused Aboriginal Australians as a whole to resent western society for the destruction, turning to crime due to ignorance and a form of vengeance and retaliation. This delinquency and resentment is displayed in Jack Davis’ renowned play ‘No Sugar’ which explores the effects of colonisation on an Indigenous family during the 1930’s in Perth. The characters Joe Millimurra and James Munday are often found drunk in the town courtyard and Joe is even jailed for breaking the law and running away from the reserve. Their resentment is also seen within Chapter 1 of Act 1 where the character Jimmy describes the colonisers as bastards, exclaiming, “‘Cause them bastards took our country”. The results of these values and mindsets explicitly shown within “No Sugar” are evident in today’s society through the malice non-Indigenous Australians receive from Indigenous Australians, showing how some Aboriginals have not been able to separate Australians from the colonisers that interfered with their ancestors decades previously. A prime example of this actually comes from my own terrifying memory of being on a bus in Fremantle with a friend at the age of 15, sitting quietly next to each other when we were verbally and racially abused by an Indigenous mother and her daughter whom sat 2 rows in front. They accused myself and my friend, both non-Indigenous, of “slaughtering my sisters and brothers like lambs” and called us “dirty sluts”, “cunts”, “skanks”, “whores,” and “white trash”, as we sat shaking, keeping our eyes down, praying they don’t follow us off the bus, and horrified that no one on the bus defended us, not even the bus driver, as they were all in fear of being attacked themselves. Unfortunately, this mindset is being fuelled within “No Sugar” as the characters refuse to acknowledge most of the white Australians had no involvement in the colonisation, and many didn’t even have a choice of going to Australia, yet they blamed them for the bloodshed. This irrational, generalised hatred is poisonous in the positive progression of Indigenous Australians, and also prevents many non-Indigenous Australians from moving on from the violent, spiteful, resenting stereotype we depict when referring to Aboriginals.
What is also evident in “No Sugar” is the destruction of culture as a result of colonisation. Their choice of speech in the English language instead of their Indigenous language of Nyoongar as well as their food choices and forced Christian religion instead of the traditional Indigenous spirituality of Dreamtime which is linked to the land all exhibit the deterioration of Indigenous culture. This is also seen when Gran Millimurra is debating with Sergeant Carroll over resources being excluded from rations, and when she finds out bicarbonate is no longer in her rations, Sergeant Carroll rebuts with “That shouldn’t worry you Granny, you should remember when you used to grind up jam and wattle seeds [sic], You can still collect ‘em, there’s nothin’ stoppin’ you”, to which Gran replies with “Where? Wetjala (white folk) cut all the trees down”. This exhibits how, through the destruction of land, we have deteriorated Aboriginal culture and lifestyle, and have not focussed on how this meant this culture had to start again, as their previous way of life has now been destroyed. They were left to either adopt the coloniser’s way of life or let their family starve. Although, do they face these same challenges in today’s society? Hasn’t it become easier for Indigenous Australians to support themselves? Or does feeding your family mean assimilating into white culture and leaving your heritage and identity behind?
This cycle of crime due to loss of culture, lack of parenting skills and perpetual delinquency within Aboriginal Australian communities resembles and coincides with the cycle of poverty trapping a large portion of Australian Aboriginals in low socio-economic areas, opportunities and impoverishment. But is this an unbreakable cycle? What are the real detriments Aboriginals face when attempting to achieve greater than what is placed in front of them, and is it really the government’s responsibility to continue to provide equity, or are we overcompensating? To be clear, what the colonisers did to the Native Australians will never be okay or underestimated, but are Aboriginal Australians in today’s society doing anything to help themselves, or are they simply riding the wave of entitlement and cultural guilt upon generations whom have no affiliation with what occurred to their ancestors? Obviously this sense of laziness and entitlement is subjective, and not the entire Aboriginal population’s morale, but it is an unmistakable substantial portion’s choice of lifestyle to choose Centerlink, Ration Cards and Aboriginal Youth Allowances over personal reliance and ethical hard work, which sculpts the negative depiction of a modern Aboriginal Australian within society. Although, some financial systems set up to achieve this allusive ‘equity’ are highly credible and exhibit strong positive outcomes such as ABSTUDY, which is a program that helps Aboriginals seeking higher education, such as Tafe, to receive financial assistance, often partial or full scholarships. Not only does this encourage ambition and intuition in Aboriginal Australians to break from their community behaviour and seek to achieve more, but it also supports these people in the process, disputing the regard that Aboriginal Australians are hard done by in their ability to seek education. Governments also set quotas with corporations and businesses of Indigenous Australians that are to set aside jobs specifically for Indigenous Australians to encourage them to seek work and to enable them less racial prejudice in employment, disputing the regard that Aboriginal Australians are hard done by in their ability to seek jobs. Although, whether or not these companies actually follow through on quotas is questionable, and there is still undoubtably racial prejudice when it comes to hiring an Indigenous employee.
To be less generalising, I have 2 different examples of how Indigenous Australians almost get special treatment through government benefits. My father, whom works in a low-socioeconomic school containing a substantial portion of Indigenous students and families, has been personally affiliated with an Indigenous mother whom, due to the financial support, free dental, free health care (no waiting list), ABSTUDY, and child bonuses per year for each Indigenous child, lives comfortably without working by having a child every 15 years of her life, and basically living off the monetary payments that come with it. Another example is a friend of a friend, although this is a highly common scenario, where her great great grandfather was Aboriginal, making her 1/16th Aboriginal, although she is blond-haired, blue-eyed, living comfortably in suburbia, and due to this very weak link to an Aboriginal heritage, she receives yearly Aboriginal Youth Allowances and was granted a high-paying job in a Dentist clinic with no experience whatsoever in order for the Dentist to fulfil their Indigenous employee quota. Are these benefits ethical? Should these lazy members of society be able to comfortably live of tax-payer’s money due to their heritage, and should members of society be able to be favoured for jobs due to their heritage and not their qualifications?
Ration Cards or ‘Cashless Welfare Cards’ are causing an out roar in the Northern Territory and South Australia as Indigenous folk claim to feel like dogs on leashes for having restrictions on their weekly allowances that exclude 80% of it being used on cigarettes, alcohol and gambling in an attempt to reduce alcohol abuse and crime as well as the wasting of money within these areas . But how else are you meant to solve the insane levels of monetary irresponsibility that occurs? This question of equity arrises again, because poverty is a cycle, a cycle very hard to break out of, and an Indigenous teenage boy wanting to get through high school and into Tafe or University living in a low-socioeconomic area and home with family members exuding an indolent lifestyle and morale deserves these benefits to encourage him and support him, like giving a child a stool to reach the sink with the taller kids because he still deserves to reach the sink, no matter his height. Although, many Australians are living under the poverty line and are not receiving even close to the amount of benefits provided for Indigenous Australians, simply based on their lack of Indigenous heritage. Is this not a form of institutionalised reverse racism? Or am I not allowed to say that? Also, when do we draw the line? For example, at what point do we say you are no longer “Aboriginal”? I think even 1/16th is too far, but how do you call someone out for identifying with a culture to indulge in monetary benefits? It’s a very touchy subject, which is costing the government billions.
Indigenous people are disadvantaged due to their starting point in society, yes I agree, but should they receive this much support, especially when so much of it is abused? I can’t help but compare their situation with my Grandfather’s when he arrived in Perth from Italy during the 1950’s and the hardship, societal alienation, racism and financial disadvantage he endured was immense. Although, there was something different about him, and most other immigrants that chose to come and live in Australia, he worked hard to improve his situation. He did this all on his own, with not a single government payout and despite substantial racial prejudice, working 15-18 hour work days on the train tracks across Australia, often being violently assaulted and deprived of food and drink by his colleagues. From this, he saved enough to buy himself and his wife a small house, and eventually opened his own continental deli which was a community success and lead to a family-run Italian restaurant. He essentially created a hub of Italian culture within the suburb of Swan View which has now increased even more, not allowing his culture to be lost in the process of building a better life, but instead working hard to achieve personal success. This drive to improve one’s state of living is essentially lacking within Davis’ “No Sugar”. The Millimurra family continues to live in poverty on the reserve, and when faced with racial barriers preventing their instant access to jobs, they have an “I give up” mentality, choosing to complain about racial prejudice preventing them from making a better life for themselves instead of proving themselves valuable employees and persevering. It was a Great Depression yet these strong, capable Indigenous characters were expecting jobs to be handed to them? I don’t appreciate this mindset, because no one deserves anything, no matter their heritage or lineage, you get what you earn and entitlement and laziness are not qualities that deserve to be rewarded with government funds.
This opinion of believing Indigenous Australians have it in their own responsibility to “make something of themselves” can be interpreted as small-minded, especially when, to make something of yourself in western society, you must, obviously, immerse yourself in western society. This leaves many Aboriginals with the choice of either living on Aboriginal reserves that have been essentially stripped bare from any natural resources Indigenous Australians natively live off making mortality rates and disease extremely high, or “assimilating” into western or colonised society by getting a house, getting a job, and buying groceries. Although, due to the destruction of native land and the cycles of poverty and crime previously discussed, Indigenous Australians are in fact left in limbo, of either living on reserves but still relying on government rations for basic survival like the characters in “No Sugar”, or living in western society, but often in low socioeconomic circumstances and, often, relying on government funding to feed themselves also. Unfortunately, this has created a reliance of Aboriginals on the government for basic level survival which, is essentially entirely our fault as colonisers of their natural home which they culturally became accustomed to living off and with. But isn’t colonisation inevitable? How long should we compensate for the violent, high and mighty mindsets of our ancestors?
Research and records indicate that the treatment of indigenous people was cultivated in a divine belief in a God-given right to civilise “savages.” This belief gave the conquering colonists the right to do what they needed to further the nation’s promise. Although some may have acted with pure intentions, for others this belief gave them license to act unfairly and with malice. The definition of “civilise” is to bring a place or people to a stage of social development considered to be more advanced, but how does one determine they are more ‘advanced’ than another? On what scale is advancement measured on? Technology? Architecture? Intellect? Its both interesting and rattling to comprehend this notion of “civilisation” and how we are all just humans, who has the authority to dictate whom they dominate and therefore know what the best is for another? The presumption of superior living strategies from the colonisers over the Indigenous Australians is exhibited in “No Sugar” after Mary gives birth. Matron offers western baby products for her baby saying “Here’s plenty of clean cotton wool and baby powder and Lysol soap”, to which Gran snaps back “Don’t need powder, use me own”. This is just one example the text provides to convey the “civilisation” condescension that occurred and still occurs in modern day to a small extent. Overall, society has improved drastically since the early decades of colonised Australia where Aboriginals were classified under Flora and Fauna, and weren’t allowed to vote, go into the cities or have an interracial marriage to name a few demeaning, racist laws. Today, Australia exudes acceptance and multiculturalism, and Aboriginal Australians can vote, marry whoever they want, and go wherever they want, like they and any other human being deserve. Hopefully, this respect and racial equality perseveres and Australia can be the home to every Australian equally, but equality requires no special treatment or overcompensation, and requires all Australians to cooperate also.
So, we have come to the conclusion of this debate. But what resolution have we reached? Is there a solution to the poverty and crime cycles Aboriginals experience? Will less government interference cause a crash of Indigenous Australians, or coerce them to rely less on government funding and support? The only solution I can reach is that the hatred and bitterness they hold towards non-Indigenous Australians is poisonous, preventing many from moving forward, and preventing their following generations from doing so also, keeping them trapped in self-deprecating cycles of poverty and crime. I can also conclude that excessive government support must stop, it is benefitting nobody to have a social group so reliant on government funds for their livelihoods, especially such a strong, independent, culturally rich group like Aboriginals whom have supported themselves for centuries before we even set foot on their land. The third conclusion I can draw, is a sense of pride and encouragement towards Aboriginal culture must return, and I believe it is, to allow wounds to heal and restore pride, peace and strength within the Indigenous Australians whom have had their identity and sense of belonging and honour drained from them by colonisers. They must know they can move forward in life but it doesn’t mean they must separate from their culture, they can rejoice in both, and nothing and no one should prevent them from this. Jack Davis’ “No Sugar” is a prime exhibition of Aboriginal culture being stripped by colonisers, and the struggle they faced in hanging in limbo between assimilation and staying true to their culture. The text is one of many that expose the true racism and hardship forced upon Indigenous Australians during the first decades of colonised Australia, and is a key reminder of how far we have come as a nation in our treatment of diverse cultures. So, who is to blame? The colonisers caused the issues Aboriginals face, but we can work together as a nation to reverse the detriments and heal the wounds, but it requires the Indigenous Australian’s ability to forgive us and help themselves as well. After all, we are all Australians.
- Civics and Citizenship by John Willmott