In an Australian first for any government since 1788, the Queensland government intends to legislate a lie. As part of its plan to make treaties with the state’s indigenous residents, the government has accepted in principle the recommendation by both its treaty advisory committees that it should enact legislation that acknowledges that “First Nations cultures and knowledge is [sic] an enormous resource for Queensland”. The government does not think any qualification is necessary: Aboriginal culture has enduring value in its entirety.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines “culture” as “the sum total of ways of living by a group of human beings, which is transmitted from one generation to another”. The Uluru Statement from the Heart says, at over 60,000 years, Australian Aboriginal culture is the world’s oldest continuous culture. The Left, as well as most of the Australian mainstream, are ignorant of or refuse to acknowledge the harmful features of this culture. Many think of pre-contact Aboriginal society as a virtual Eden where all lived in peaceful harmony, destroyed by white colonisation. The truth, which is radically different from the treaty-mandated exercise in propaganda called “truth telling”, is otherwise.
Belief in sorcery as the explanation for deaths due to injury and disease is a feature of the culture that remains widespread in Aboriginal communities. Gary Johns says in his book The Burden of Culture (2022) that “sorcery is alive and well”. Professor Peter Sutton deals with sorcery in chapters 4 and 5 of The Politics of Suffering. He says:
The ancient institution of sorcery continues to maintain a function for many groups … There are still many Aboriginal communities in which virtually all deaths, other than those of infants, and in some cases, the elderly, are either attributed to sorcery committed by members of near or distant groups, or result from personal violence. Sometimes it is both. Many homicides or accidental killings are attributed to a sorcerer using the assailant as an instrument, or using the unwitting driver in the case of a car crash. The one whose act overtly caused death may thus be regarded as personally blameless.
Belief in sorcery impedes the delivery of modern and effective medical treatments in Aboriginal communities. Sutton says that “well-meaning whitefellas who support traditional doctors in their quest to peel back the post-colonial power differential have to face the fact that traditional healers are likely to constitute a danger to the already disastrous health of their communities”. But this current element of traditional culture is going to be, by Queensland parliamentary decree, part of “an enormous resource for Queensland”.
In many indigenous communities in Australia there is an astonishing incidence of violence against women. A 2015 Queensland government task force report said:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland experience disproportionately high levels of violence, including domestic and family violence, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women being 35 times more likely than members of the general population to be hospitalised for spouse/domestic partner assaults … Plainly, the most common pattern of domestic and family violence is that it is committed by men against women.
In the Northern Territory the situation is worse. The rate of hospitalisation is up to eighty-six times higher for Aboriginal women. In central Australia, it is ninety-five times higher. The deaths of Aboriginal women from such violence comprise the most frequent form of homicide in Australia today. The media has shown little interest, preferring to concentrate on the rare police shootings of Aboriginal men. An Aboriginal man’s life is apparently valued much more highly than an Aboriginal woman’s. As Justice Judith Kelly of the Northern Territory Supreme Court said in August 2022:
Between 2000 and 2022, two Aboriginal men were shot by police, both times followed by massive press coverage, calls for enquiries etc. In that same period, 65 Aboriginal women were killed by their partners … and in each case you would have been flat out seeing a small report on page 5 or 7 of a local newspaper—nothing nationally.
The Queensland Task Force touched on cultural factors for the violence suffered by indigenous women but identified “intergenerational trauma” as the major cause:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders have a unique history, very different from that of other sections of the Queensland population and characterised by successive generations of colonisation, dispossession, violence and discrimination. A legacy of trauma arising from this history pervades the lives of individuals, families and communities and is seen as a causal factor for violence in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and a causal factor for a range of other social, economic, psychological and emotional issues that themselves are situational factors contributing to violence.
The Queensland government accepts that “intergenerational trauma” resulting from colonial dispossession of their ancestors is the major explanation for indigenous men bashing and killing their women in such large numbers. The men can’t help themselves. They are innocent victims of white colonialism. It has accepted its treaty committees’ recommendation:
That the Queensland Government resource a comprehensive process of Truth Telling to chronical the history of First Nations Peoples prior to British colonisation of Queensland …
That healing and reconciliation be supported through the Truth Telling process with relevant service providers engaged to provide support to First Nations People to recover from their lived experience and impacts of intergenerational trauma.
But neither the task force nor the government nor its treaty committees have considered whether male violence against women is entrenched in Aboriginal culture. There is much evidence that it is. Given the longevity of cultural behaviours, that may better explain the persistence of such violence and the difficulty in eradicating it than the newly discovered “intergenerational trauma”, which sounds like a medical diagnosis to which no blame can attach to the sufferers.
Though it is unfashionable to admit it, violent misogyny has long been an element of Aboriginal culture. The paleopathologist Stephen Webb in 1995 published his analysis of 4500 individuals’ bones from mainland Australia going back 50,000 years. Across the continent as a general rule, depressed skull fractures were substantially more common in female remains. A depressed skull fracture is a type of fracture usually resulting from blunt force trauma. The evidence of violence to Aboriginal women described by Webb cannot be blamed on intergenerational trauma due to white colonisation.
Dr Webb could not of course identify the sex of the attackers. But the inference that they were very likely males is suggested by the observations of First Fleet officers. They were shocked at the routine violence they witnessed by Aboriginal men against their women. This violence commonly took the form of blows to the head.
The Marines officer Watkin Tench wrote in his journal of his three years at Sydney Cove from 1788 to 1791:
the women are in all respects treated with savage barbarity; condemned not only to carry the children, but all other burthens, they meet in return for submission only with blows, kicks, and every other mark of brutality. When an Indian [that is, Aborigine] is provoked by a woman, he either spears her, or knocks her down on the spot: on this occasion he always strikes on the head, using indiscriminately a hatchet, a club, or any other weapon, which may chance to be in his hand.
Other First Fleet officers including John Hunter and David Collins recorded similar observations. Those male attackers were not in the grip of intergenerational trauma that they were powerless to resist.
A century later, not much had changed. The social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski said in The Family Among the Australian Aborigines (1913), which is based on his examination of the extensive records, including many from the second half of the nineteenth century:
It seems beyond doubt that in the aboriginal society the husband exercised almost complete authority over his wife; she was entirely in his hands and he might ill-treat her, provided he did not kill her—otherwise a blood feud with her relatives might follow.
As the Queensland task force said, a further century later in 2015, not much had changed: “Plainly, the most common pattern of domestic and family violence [among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people] is that it is committed by men against women.” The current level of violence by men against women in indigenous communities is more likely to reflect the entrenched misogyny in indigenous culture than to reflect the men’s trauma resulting from white colonisation.
Difficult subjects such as Aboriginal “family violence” cannot be approached ahistorically. One still hears the modern myth that the violent conflicts of today’s Indigenous communities have no continuity with the ancient or “traditional” past in this country … early contact reports by colonial observers, including some sympathetic ones like Edward John Eyre, and the more recent ethnographies of trained anthropologists, make it clear that earlier versions of what is now called “family violence” or “community violence” were also widespread and frequent in Australia under “traditional” conditions … Today, this kind of assault is found at its worst in communities that have remained closest to their cultural traditions, and where alcohol is available in quantity.
There is other evidence of the misogyny in traditional indigenous culture. In The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes bluntly summed up the position of women:
It [marriage] did not change a woman’s status much. Both before and after, she was merely a root-grubbing, shell-gathering chattel, whose social assets were wiry arms, prehensile toes and a vagina.
The historian Henry Reynolds in The Other Side of the Frontier (1990 edition) mentions male Aborigines’ attitudes to their women. Referring to the last decades of the nineteenth century, Reynolds spoke of indigenous men changing traditional patterns of migration round their country in the far north of the continent to travel down to the sea coasts when the pearling luggers were laid up for the monsoon season because they preferred to live “in ease and idleness” from the earnings of their women whom they prostituted to the pearling fleets rather than seeking the more uncertain returns from vestigial hunting and gathering: “The demand for the young women was such that all other clan members could live off the proceeds of their copulation for the duration of the [monsoon] lay-up season.”
This was not a recent or localised abuse by Aboriginal men of their women. Reynolds also refers to reports in the first three decades of that century by sea captains, officials and settlers of similar behaviour by Aboriginal men in Bass Strait. The anthropologist Bill Stanner reported similar behaviour around the Daly River in the early 1930s of Aboriginal men pushing their women into sexual relationships with European and Chinese farmers, in return for payments of tobacco, sugar and tea. It appears that a feature common to various Aboriginal cultures from first contact was the use by the men of their women as a means of obtaining from Europeans the goods they wanted.
The women were also used by the men in traditional culture as negotiating pawns. Mark Powell in “Reconciliation Starts with Telling the Truth”, quotes from The Australian Aborigines: How to Understand Them, by A.P. Elkin, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney from 1934 to 1956:
When an attacking party is about to attack the home party, the latter, if it does not want to fight, will send a number of its women over to the former. If these are willing to settle the matter in dispute without fighting, they have sexual intercourse with the women; if not, they send them back untouched.
If this is how Aboriginal men, widely separated in place and time, treated their women, how can traditional Aboriginal culture properly be recognised in legislation as “an enormous resource for Queensland”? Will the Minister for Women and for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence have anything to say about any of this when her government’s treaty legislation is before the parliament?
Promised marriage of a female baby to an adult male is still an element of traditional culture in some Aboriginal communities. It often involves the sexual abuse of young girls. The Northern Territory has a large indigenous population with many living in an approximation to traditional ways. There, the conflict between Australian law, which aims at protecting children, and traditional law and culture which permits an often elderly male to have sexual relations with a promised child, has provoked much controversy.
One of a number of such cases is The Queen v GJ (2005). According to the judgment of the Court of Appeal, the defendant was a fifty-five-year-old male with a wife and children living a traditional lifestyle. He was a respected leader in his community and was responsible for teaching young men traditional ways. He had forcible vaginal and anal intercourse with a girl who was then fourteen, with the complicity of his adult wife and the child’s own grandmother. He claimed she had been promised to him as a wife when she was four. He was charged only with unlawful sexual intercourse with a child. The maximum penalty was increased in 2004 from seven to sixteen years’ imprisonment following controversy in several similar cases about lenient sentences given to Aboriginal men who said they were acting in accordance with traditional law and culture. In the words of the child: “I told that old man I’m too young for sex, but he didn’t listen.” The sentencing judge was “satisfied that the respondent was asserting his rights as he believed them to be and that he was doing so forcefully in order to give the child a message that she had to do what the respondent told her to do”. The judge sentenced him to nineteen months’ imprisonment, suspended after one month. The Court of Appeal increased the sentence to three years and six months, suspended after eighteen months. Even this sentence would likely have produced public and media outrage for its leniency if the offender had not been an Aboriginal elder asserting his cultural rights over a female child.
Is the still-enduring practice of child marriage an enormous resource? Will the minister responsible for child protection have anything to say about this when the government’s treaty legislation is before the parliament?
Professor Mick Dodson told the National Press Club in June 2003:
importantly, I want to make the point that violence is not and never was part of Aboriginal tradition … Most of the violence, if not all, that Aboriginal communities are experiencing today are [sic] not part of Aboriginal tradition or culture.
The hold that this myth of a uniquely non-violent culture polluted by the arrival of white settlers has on many Australians was recently shown by the call by the federal politician Zali Steggall for local councils across Australia to include a minute’s silence during their official Australia Day celebrations in recognition of the indigenous Australians’ lives lost since January 26, 1788. While it marks the commencement of European colonisation of this land, she said, “it also represents the commencement of violence”.
The anthropologist David McKnight, who worked on Mornington Island in the 1960s, said of the avoidance of the topic of indigenous violence by some anthropologists and others: “It seems to be quite acceptable to write about violence, providing that one takes the line that the people are basically peace loving and shy but they have become violent because of exploitation by Europeans.” That was the approach of the Queensland task force in 2015.
A more realistic view of the place of violence in Queensland’s Aboriginal culture than Professor Dodson’s was common in earlier times. In 1895 the Queensland government appointed Archibald Meston, who was previously Protector of Aborigines, as a special commissioner to report on their conditions in Queensland. Meston started from Thursday Island and moved southward. He said:
The white man came and shot game and trespassed anywhere without permission. When a white man took up land or a station, he expected the blacks of that locality to move back into other territory, unconscious that this would be an unpardonable violation of tribal laws, and involve immediate deadly warfare with the adjoining tribes …
There is much evidence, widely ignored, of the violence that pervaded Aboriginal culture before 1788. Some is referred to by Tony Thomas in “The Long History of Aboriginal Violence”. William D. Rubinstein also examined aspects of traditional violence in a series of articles in Quadrant in 2021.
Is the brutal and continuing violence in traditional indigenous culture really a part of the “enormous resource for Queensland”?
Demand sharing is a practice that developed among nomadic hunters and gatherers that ensured all members of a kin group got a share of scarce food resources. It still operates in Aboriginal communities.
Demand sharing was considered by the High Court in ASIC v Kobelt in 2019. Kobelt ran a general store in the far north of South Australia. Almost all of his customers were indigenous persons residing in two remote communities. Most were illiterate, and all were dependent on welfare payments. Kobelt got payment for the goods he sold them from their cards that allowed him to access customers’ Centrelink bank receipts. ASIC sued Kobelt for unconscionable conduct in trade. ASIC’s claim failed. Central to the decision was the conclusion that Kobelt’s system helped customers avoid the practice of demand sharing (also known as “humbugging”). This was described by an anthropologist as part of the “foundational principles of reciprocity, exchange and sharing within a hunter gatherer society” and “an embedded social obligation of the Anangu that requires that they share their resources with specific categories of kin”. The practice is a cause of the common overcrowding in housing in Aboriginal communities: “kinfolk can ask for accommodation because of the principle of reciprocal rights and obligations … if the request comes from a relative who is of appropriate status, the householder would find it very difficult to say no, even if the house is already full”.
It can make working for the high wages available in mining and other areas less attractive than staying on welfare, when one’s hard-won earnings are all subject to kin demands.
Treating the practice of demand sharing as part of “an enormous resource for Queensland” requires being blind to the damaging consequences of this culturally engrained practice.
The website Working with Indigenous Australians advises us:
Aboriginal kinship and family structures are still cohesive forces which bind Aboriginal people together in all parts of Australia … Aboriginal family obligations often are seen as nepotism by other Australians … The structure of Aboriginal families reflects cultural values and involving [sic] kinship responsibilities. For Aboriginal people kinship and family are especially import [sic]. Aboriginal people have family and kinship responsibilities that are not typical of non-Aboriginal families. Aboriginal people get things done through working through their family and kinship structures.
At one level, kinship obligations are an admirable feature of indigenous culture. But they have a darker side. Kinship obligations including demand sharing, rather than mere greed, may well be responsible for the problem common in Aboriginal corporations that control millions of dollars in government grants and mining royalties. Often a single powerful family emerges whose members get the benefits to the exclusion of others in the community.
Mark Koolmatrie, an elder and chairman of the Tribal Owners of South Australia, has called for a full judicial inquiry into the governance of Aboriginal corporations and the actions of their lawyers:
Millions are failing to make their way to the very needy … we must take steps to clean our own backyard. Now is the hour when our indigenous community calls on South Australia’s Marshall government—and other governments—to help lead us away from the corporation management system that has led to widespread corruption, incompetence and nepotism …
Indigenous corporations throughout South Australia receive tens of millions of dollars annually through mining company payments under native title agreements or through grants for running health services and “community” organisations for what seems the creation and maintenance of family dynasties …
Under the native title system millions of dollars annually are paid to bodies often controlled by one family group who decide how the money is divided up in their community … It is this simple: you do as the controlling family says or receive nothing … There are many stories of people being threatened and assaulted for daring to stand up to these indigenous corporate bullies …
While this may be a surprise to non-indigenous Australians, it is no surprise to our communities, state governments or the opposition … By having millions of dollars controlled by some families denies other families access to their community money. This denies these families the opportunity to start a business and to secure economic independence, it denies them educational opportunities such as improved literacy and numeracy, it limits the delivery of vital health services.
The same problems currently exist in Aboriginal-controlled corporations in the Pilbara and Kakadu.
Yet the Queensland government is blind to this damaging aspect of indigenous culture and is legislating to pretend that the entire culture, including all kinship practices, is an unqualified good.
Infanticide was widespread. It was the main way of limiting the size of the tribe. That was made necessary by the scarcity of food for each nomadic hunter-gatherer group. Another reason was that the mothers, who were as nomadic as other members of their tribe, could not carry more than a couple of children, especially given that they also acted as beasts of burden, carrying most of their family’s possessions. Some nineteenth-century observations of settlers are gathered in the article by William D. Rubinstein, “Infanticide in Traditional Aboriginal Society”.
Infanticide was suppressed by the white authorities, so it is not a current feature of the world’s oldest continuous culture. But it long was a cultural practice. I doubt that the Queensland government or its treaty committees would say it was part of “an enormous resource for Queensland”.
Many who appeared before the Select Committee of the Queensland Legislative Assembly into the Native Police in 1861 spoke of the evidence they saw of cannibalism among Aborigines in southern Queensland between 1840 and 1860. Instances of this traditional practice are set out in Rubinstein’s article “The Incidence of Cannibalism in Aboriginal Society”.
Cannibalism was sometimes engaged in as a ritual in Aboriginal culture. The horrifying episode witnessed by Charles Sievwright, assistant protector of the Aborigines of the Port Phillip District, in 1841, is one example.
Sometimes, it was engaged in for nutrition. To the examples mentioned by Rubinstein, I add a reference to what the Queensland Police Commissioner Parry-Okeden wrote in his 1897 Report on the North Queensland Aborigines and the Native Police. He referred to the prevalence of cannibalism among North Queensland Aborigines and how the availability of roaming stock to satisfy their desire for meat had considerably reduced cannibalism.
It will be surprising if any members of the Queensland government or its treaty committee claim that long-lasting feature of traditional Aboriginal culture is “an enormous resource for Queensland”.
The Queensland government will not deal honestly with the damaging features of Aboriginal culture. Its intent to enshrine in legislation unqualified praise for that culture is not just another bit of harmless pro-indigenous propaganda. The government has accepted its treaty committees’ recommendation that the planned Truth Telling and Healing Inquiry will “promote public awareness, inform education and develop shared understandings of First Nations cultures, histories, languages and traditions”. It says
It is anticipated that the Queensland Government would support Queensland schools to access and use resources generated through the Truth Telling and Healing Inquiry as source material to support teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.
The spreading of false information to school children about traditional culture under the guise of educating them would not so long ago have evoked public condemnation. Now, it will come with all the authority of an Act of the Queensland Parliament. The unalloyed beauty of indigenous culture will, through the education system, quickly become another entrenched myth about the idyllic life that was destroyed by the coming of the white man.
Douglas Drummond is a former judge of the Federal Court of Australia. His most recent contribution to Quadrant was “The Dubious Concept of the ‘Australian Wars’” in the December issue