Why Indigenous People Are Demanding Reparations From The Australian Government

While a financial contribution will do nothing to stop the intergenerational trauma felt by many First Nations people -- it might go a long way to make up for the lack of opportunities that Indigenous people have had to build wealth and assets.

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Invasion Day has passed for another year, as have the numerous protests that are held around the country by Indigenous people, and the many non-Indigenous people that enjoy showing their support by walking with us in solidarity.

On Kaurna Land in Adelaide, the survival day march was at least 4000 strong and Australia wide, it’s estimated upwards of 50,000 people joined in the marches.

As with every year, passionate speakers gave their perspectives on the day, on society and on race relations around Australia. In Adelaide, first time speaker and proud Mirning-Kokatha woman, Stella Burgoyne, used the opportunity to deliver an impassioned speech to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, saying “Never ever forget the land you reside and stand on, if you want to celebrate on a day that’s inclusive, find another day.”

In Sydney however, the message to Morrison, from Gomeroi woman, Gwenda Stanley was decisively different than that of young sister Stella Burgoyne’s.

In what has been labelled as a “wild demand” by news.com.au, Gwenda Stanley demanded that all Indigenous people be given a one million dollar reparations payment.

It certainly sounds wild, but is it really?

While a financial contribution of any kind will do nothing to stop the intergenerational trauma and pain felt by many First Nations people — especially on January 26 — and would probably give racists more ammunition when it comes to talking about so-called handouts, it might go a long way to make up for the lack of opportunities that Indigenous people have had to build wealth and/or assets.

While some may read that with a level of disbelief, it is actually a historical fact that the ability to build wealth and assets to leave to future generations is a societal benefit that has not been afforded to Indigenous people in the past.

For example, and the most obvious point — up until the late 1920’s, Indigenous people simply weren’t wanted in this society. Genocide, massacres, land theft, and much more was prevalent.

But seriously, when you read about fifth-generation farmers complaining about Chinese tariffs, and empathise with their plight, maybe spare a thought for Indigenous people who may have suffered so that a farmer had the opportunity to create a business that survived five generations.

There are many businesses, such as Coles Supermarkets, around Australia also that have been around for over a hundred years. The last recorded massacre of Aboriginal people was in 1928, only 92 years ago. These businesses were set up in a time when Aboriginal people were being slaughtered, and have survived to this day, providing wealth and assets from generation to generation.

If Black people were a part of society, is wasn’t as an active member, it was as a slave. Black birding was a form of slavery which had been around from at least the mid-1800s. This practice ended in 1901 with the introduction of the The Pacific Island Labourers Act. This saw the deportation of some 10,000 indentured labourers, and later became part of the White Australia Policy. While black birding generally applies to those brought from the Pacific Islands, it’s proof that slavery did exist here. There are also cases to be made that many Indigenous people and children were domesticated and used for slave labour also, especially Indigenous women. I know this because I have sat with Stolen Generations survivors and heard the stories.

There was also the wage control legislation. This meant that the state government was allowed to withhold wages. While legislation varied from state to state, this happened from the late 1800s to 1970. Today, this is known as Stolen Wages and states have begun to be held accountable for their actions. In late 2020, Queensland had to fork out $190 million to atone for their deeds, however, while this may seem like a lot, it equates to just over $17,000 when divided between the number of recipients. One recipient was only granted $12,000 for forty years of stolen wages.

Can you imagine being paid $12,000 for forty years of work. Sure, inflation may be a factor. But look at it this way, the stolen wages saga went from the late 1800s to the 1970s. In 1967 the average wage was $57 — that’s $2,964 a year. Over the course of forty years, that’s just under $120,000. Now take away the minimum 30% less that women made, that’s $84,000.

No matter how you look at it, getting paid twelve grand for forty years of work is fucking bullshit.

So, all this (and I’ve probably missed plenty of examples) brings us to the 1970s. Now I have a word limit here, so I’ll just say that from the 70s until 2010, there were several racist policies enacted, royal commissions ignored, and stereotypes pushed.

The Stolen Generations,  the deaths in custody report, the bringing them home report, the failed basics card, the NT intervention, the failing Indue card, constant pushing of race based stereotypes by politicians and the media as well as the continuance of placing funds meant to help close the gap in the hands of people who are only trying to widen it — it just never ends.

After all of this, in 2020, it’s been reported that 75% of non-Indigenous people in Australia have unconscious bias toward Indigenous people, and given that we are only 3% of the population, my guess is at least 20% of what’s left are just flat out racist. Another study revealed that jobseekers who have normal (by normal I mean white sounding) names have at a minimum, 35% more chance of getting a job interview, than anyone with names that don’t sound… white. Considering those facts, it turns out it’s a fucking miracle that nearly 50% of Indigenous people have jobs.

So, when a call for a million dollars per Indigenous person like Gwenda Stanley’s comes out, for someone like me, who understands the realities, and causes of issues that face Indigenous people today, it really doesn’t actually sound that unfair.

Surely, those that have issues with government spending on Indigenous communities and closing the gap etc would appreciate a move that would likely alleviate further payments for decades to come, offer a spike to the economy, and leave Indigenous communities with the means to become healthy and productive.

Well, in a capitalist society, not really.

According to American author Walter Johnson, a leading historian on slavery, racial capitalism is a “technique for exploiting black people and for fomenting the hostility of working-class whites toward blacks, so as to enable white capitalists to extract value from everyone else.”

This sounds like a very familiar story and is such a simple concept that it can be used across all classes, as demonstrated in Australia by the like of Senator Pauline Hansen, who at every turn, berates and trivialise every minority at every opportunity, only to play the victim with slogans like “It’s OK to be white”.

Senators like Andrew Laming, whose recent comments about petrol sniffing, clearly aimed at Indigenous communities, also add fuel to the fire, while Australia own Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, continually throws shade at Indigenous issues, in 2020 saying that slavery did not exist in Australia.

Most recently though, on the 21st on January 2021, telling the media, and all Australians, in relation to the Indigenous protests about holding Australia Day on January 26 that “You know, when those 12 ships turned up in Sydney, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either” demonstrates only further the lack of understanding about Australia’s dark history and the issues amongst Indigenous communities.

Or, as Walter Johnson noted, perhaps the opposite is true, and what seems like ignorance, is pure intent.

Travis Akbar is a Wongatha man living on Peramangk country, Adelaide. He is a film critic and freelance writer. Follow Travis @TravAkbar