This question arose as I was reading about the theme of this
year’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC week, held this year from 4-11 July, celebrates the
history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Heal Country”. The
role of traditional management practices in protecting land from bushfires and
droughts is mentioned specifically as part of the theme, but “country”
encompasses all aspects of Indigenous culture.
The NAIDOC committee explains that “Healing Country means
embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as
part of Australia's national heritage”. Australians, from all walks of life, have
shown increasing concern to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. For
example, when a
mining company blew up an aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia last
year, I found myself among the many people who felt that something significant
to Australia’s national heritage had been destroyed.
The NAIDOC committee mention redressing historical injustice
“To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing
However, that follows a statement implying that fundamental
grievances would not vanish following “fair and equitable resolution” of
“In the European settlement of Australia, there were no
treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people therefore did not cede sovereignty to our land. It was taken
from us. That will remain a continuing source of dispute.”
Working toward redressing historical injustice will not
extinguish fundamental grievances. It would be naïve to expect that it would.
Few humans find it easy to let go of their grievances, even when they accept
that their personal interests would be better served by viewing historical events
as “water under the bridge”.
Some readers may be thinking at this point that it is futile
to attempt to redress historical injustices if such attempts cannot prevent those
injustices from being viewed as an ongoing source of “grievances”. I don’t
concur with that view. As I see it, the central issues of concern in redressing
historical injustices are about justice, or fairness, rather than about
attempting to assuage ongoing feelings of grievance felt by descendants of victims.
Historical injustice to Indigenous Australians stems from
the failure of governments to recognize and protect their natural rights
following colonization. It is arguable that current governments have an
obligation to remedy adverse consequences flowing from the failures of their
However, it is no easy matter to assess the extent to which opportunities
currently available to Indigenous Australians have been adversely affected by
historical injustices. A better understanding of history is a necessary step in
the direction of any such assessment. It is pleasing to see the NAIDOC
committee express the view:
“While we can’t change history, through telling the truth
about our nation’s past we certainly can change the way history is viewed.”
The truth includes dispossession of land over much of the
country, but it is difficult to generalize about what followed. Jim Belshaw,
who knows more about history than I do, describes it recently
as involving “uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now,
hopefully, recovery”. Even those broad stages might not be equally relevant in
all parts of the country.
The truth also includes the existence of the “grave social
and economic disadvantage”, referred to by the NAIDOC committee, but that
cannot be wholly attributed to historical injustices.
As discussed in my recent book, Freedom,
Progress, and Human Flourishing, there has been massive growth of
opportunities for human flourishing over the last 200 years in Western liberal
democracies, including Australia. I suggest in the Preface:
“Those of us who have the good fortune to live in Western
liberal democracies have opportunities that we might crave if we lived
elsewhere in the world”.
I think that applies to the Indigenous people of Australia
as well as to other Australians. The opportunities we all currently enjoy
should be sufficient to offset any ongoing social and economic consequences of injustices
suffered by our ancestors.
So, how can I explain the relatively poor social and
economic outcomes of many Indigenous people in Australia? It seems to me that
anyone seeking the truth about this should consider the adverse consequences over
the last 50 years of extending unemployment benefits and other welfare support
to Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Ongoing social and economic
disadvantage may be strongly linked to well-meaning efforts during the 1970s to
remove discrimination against Indigenous people in access to government welfare
That is not a novel idea, but governments have found it
difficult to implement welfare policies with more appropriate incentives. There
has been little progress toward “closing the gap” in
social and economic outcomes. Hopefully, greater involvement of local communities
will result in better outcomes in future.
In my view, as discussed in Freedom,
Progress, and Human Flourishing, the flourishing of humans is intrinsically
a matter for individual self-direction, rather than something to fostered by human
development experts, or social planners. Social and economic context influence opportunities
available, but the capacity of individuals for wise and well-informed self-direction
is of central importance to their own flourishing. It is inspiring to see
increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians achieving outstanding success in
their chosen fields, despite injustices suffered by their ancestors and the
limited opportunities currently available in their local communities.