Blame Colonisation? Only if You Favour Empty Excuses

Shortly before the Voice Referendum, Jacinta Price stated there are “no ongoing negative impacts of colonisation” for indigenous Australians. I believe her sentiments were right, but she was criticised for expressing them. She is not the only Indigenous Australian holding this view. And while I saw plenty of criticism directed at her, I have not seen much in the way of support for her claim. In this article, I explain again why I believe suffering among those Aboriginal Australians who do suffer today is not the result of colonisation. Or stated another way, I am arguing for why, in our quest to help close the gap, focusing on the past, specifically, the British arrival (or “invasion” if you insist) is not helpful. I have written about these previously in these pages.

Back in 2015, Noel Pearson stated, “I have to believe that people can rise above historic trauma – otherwise we lose agency and we’re defeated by history.” Love him or loathe him, you cannot deny that Noel is a great example of someone who has risen above historic trauma and made a success of his life. Before 2015, I was declaring that people are never victims of the past, but only ever victims of their view of the past, as an influential mentor (a white psychologist) taught me.

Responding to Jacinta, the ABC (no surprises there), wrote, “But experts disagree, and numerous scientific studies and articles contradict her comments.” Sadly, ‘scientific’ doesn’t always equate with ‘accurate’ or ‘truth.’ In his book ‘The cult of the fact’, psychologist, Liam Hudson, concludes: “Even what appears to be irrefutably ‘scientific’ and ‘objective’ is always based upon the presuppositions of the observer: and that these presuppositions are usually ideological.”

Let me be perfectly clear, while some indigenous Australians may be suffering today, the cause isn’t colonisation. If that were the case all indigenous Australians could claim to be suffering and unable to move on. Is colonisation real? Yes. Is the suffering of some indigenous Australians today real? Yes. Is colonisation the cause of this suffering? It’s unlikely, given that so many indigenous Australians are doing very well today, and have done so for many decades.

I’m not saying that colonisation is irrelevant, but only that assigning it as the primary cause of indigenous Australians’ suffering today is misleading and extremely disempowering. Colonisation, or a person’s past more generally, is but one factor in the mix that determines their behaviour and wellbeing today. Psychology professor, Gerard Egan, puts it this way: “That past experiences may well influence current behavior does not mean that they necessarily determine present behavior.” To help Australians who are suffering today, whether they be indigenous or non-indigenous, we must focus on the determinants of present behaviour and living conditions.

An analogy might help explain what role colonisation plays in the wellbeing of indigenous Australians today. Suppose a car knocks me off my bike and leaves me stranded on the roadside with a broken leg. Certainly, the car is the direct cause of my injury; I’m in no way to blame. A passerby is sure to stop and get me to a hospital. If I do not receive medical attention, that’s the problem, not the car that hit me. And by the way, my children’s children will not have to carry any psychological trauma as a result of my bike accident, as some in the victim industry would have you believe.

My point is, that while bad things happened to indigenous Australians, there are always actions that can be taken now to help them live well and reach their potential. This is why high-achieving indigenous woman Catherine Liddle, wrote in The Weekend Australian in September: “We can break the cycles of trauma.” There is no shortage of indigenous Australians who have broken the cycles; they are using their voices to tell their stories. The ABC may not be giving them platforms to tell their stories of success, but their stories are real nonetheless.

In Australia it doesn’t matter how unfortunate your past or current circumstances are, there are always fellow Aussies, both indigenous and non-indigenous, ready to lend a helping hand. That’s what we do.

If someone from the ABC or elsewhere believes they know any indigenous Australians suffering from colonisation, please introduce them to me. I am 100 per cent certain I can offer a solution difficult to refute. My solution doesn’t involve going back in time to undo colonisation; it involves ensuring fundamental needs are met in the present. We close the gap by focusing on the present, not dwelling on the past. The past is not irrelevant: one can either make it a stumbling block in the present, or a stepping stone to a better future.

To suggest to indigenous Australians that any suffering they may have today has its ultimate cause in colonisation is to send a poisonous message: “Your suffering is ongoing because we cannot change history.” We must do better than this. Failure to do so will result in another ‘stolen generation,’ signifying a generation whose potential has been stolen by ingraining the misconception they are the perpetual victims of history.

I’d like to close with the words of that high-achieving Australian, a man who himself is no stranger to controversy, Professor Stan Grant. In his 2016 Quarterly essay, he wrote:

But history—the history of dispossession and ensuing suffering—can be an all-too convenient explanation for what ails us.

Yes, it is an all-too convenient explanation seized on by those who have a vested interest in promoting victimhood among indigenous Australians. Professor Grant later writes:

But history is passed on as memory: selective and infused with imagination.

History is accessed through our minds in the present. Perhaps it’s time we started to explore how to better use our minds to help indigenous Australians in ways that are truly helpful.

12 thoughts on “Blame Colonisation? Only if You Favour Empty Excuses

  • March says:

    If Noel Pearson had a time machine how would he use it?
    Go back and sink Cook’s boat and put off colonisation by European powers for a few years? Or perhaps leap back a little further in time and provide Aboriginal society with the seeds of Western enlightenment so that when Cook arrived he was faced with a culture much more advanced than his own?
    Or if those seeds were planted far enough in the past perhaps history would read of Bennelong’s discovery of England?

    As you say Anthony we can’t change history and it’s more productive to focus on the now and tomorrow.

  • Andrew Campbell says:

    In ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ Jared Diamond quotes a New Guinea friend, Yali, asking that very question, ‘why is it that you white people developed so much cargo (sic) and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?’ Diamond’s book attempts to answer that question. Rightly he refuses the answer that Australia’s indigenous people were not intelligent. Instead, Diamond points to such things as the paucity of suitable domesticable grains (small, tightly enclosed, differential ripening) and domesticable animals (try rounding up and controlling a mob of kangaroos). Our continent has only become so completely habitable with enlightenment science and technology and the introduction of Middle Eastern grains (wheat, oats, barley) and North Asian domesticable animals (sheep, cattle, goats, horses). If that’s colonialism then our indigenous people should be grateful, and us more recent immigrants.

    • David Isaac says:

      Jared Diamond makes some excellent points about the advantages ( or disadvantages) that people on the supercontinent of Eurasia faced in terms of acquiring and developing domesticates and other technologies. What he doesn’t discuss is the extent to which the variable climate of Northern latitudes and the incessant and increasingly complicated conflicts between groups, not to mention civilization itself, may have affected the characteristics of these people’s bodies and brains.

    • cbattle1 says:

      Diamond also stated that the expansive east to west landmass, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and all the variety of people, climate and topography within, facilitated exchange of ideas and technology, whereas the continent of Australia was cut off from that exchange.

  • Jack Brown says:

    “And by the way, my children’s children will not have to carry any psychological trauma as a result of my bike accident, as some in the victim industry would have you believe.”

    This is a strawman isrepresentation of intergenerational trauma.

    The bike accident scenario is not traumatic, a being bashed scenario can be as can being Jewish in a pogrom in late Czarist times leading to traumatised Jewish grandchildren today still harboring hatred towards Russia today.

    Or being a Jewish baby in Hungary in 1944, whch baby, Gabor Mate, has plenty of material on YT about the issue.

  • John Daniels says:

    The colonisers brought some wonderful gifts for Aboriginal peoples .
    Those gifts were not only the obvious ones of firearms to hunt game and clothing to stay warm or steel axes to cut wood .
    Other gifts much more valuable than the modern technology produced by European industry at the time .

    They brought gifts that could transform thinking and expand the mind .
    Aboriginal culture was passed from generation to generation orally with all the problems of the changes of Chinese whispers that inevitably occurs and the experience and memory of the teller .
    Explanations of the natural world were explained by the way of mythical creatures and spirits and would not have been unified over the hundreds of different mobs that groups of Aboriginals lived in .

    Reading and writing are transformational gifts for a culture that does not have them .
    Reading opens the door into the most minds of the most astute and gifted people that have ever lived .
    It opens the door to science and technology painstakingly documented and fact checked and safe from being altered in being handed down from one generation to another .
    It is at the heart of the explosive expansion of knowledge in modern society that we have seen in such a short space of time .

    It is a gift that has been accepted completely by the radicals of the Aboriginal Industry without any gratitude it seems .
    With a continual wail of the terrible outcomes for Aboriginal people that colonisation has produced .
    A mindset of victimhood and entitlement and how the invaders need to bow to the Wisdom of Aboriginal Culture .

    English is an International language and is the door into the largest library of wisdom and technology on the planet .
    Teaching in schools in Aboriginal dialects and having children proceeding into adults unable to read in English and barely able to speak in a broken form of English is so disempowering that I could cry .
    The Cult of Respect for Aboriginal Culture has terrible outcomes and is a huge impediment in Closing the Gaps .

    Aboriginal Culture evolved to help hunter gatherers survive in a harsh land .
    Some of the laws and practices of that culture that were necessary for the survival of the mob , horrified the white invaders and are illegal today .
    There are no hunter gathers in Australia today and no one practices the Aboriginal Culture that existed at the time of colonisation .
    Echoes of that culture are at the basis of many of the problems in the isolated communities today .

    Myths are stories to explain the natural world but are mostly completely untrue .
    They are lies in fact .
    However the Cult of Respect for Aboriginal Culture has courts of law giving rulings as if they were true .

    We need truancy officers to enforce laws in place and schools made responsible to ensure their students reach standards of literacy in English , ( maths would be a bonus too ).
    I know that is much easier said than done , but it must be done .
    Without that the gaps will not close and generation after generation will exist on sitdown money in all the mental misery that entails and the Aboriginal Industry will wax fat as the tax payers will throw more money because of the the Guilt Meme that so many have swallowed .

  • Michael says:

    “My solution doesn’t involve going back in time to undo colonisation; it involves ensuring fundamental needs are met in the present. We close the gap by focusing on the present, not dwelling on the past.”

    Hear, hear!

  • robert3 says:

    Having just returned from Sicily I was pleased to see that the Greeks didn’t historically have a sorry day for the Carthaginians, the Romans didn’t have a sorry day for the Greeks, the Normans for the Greeks, the Moors for the Normans, the Spanish for the Moors and the list goes on. When all of this started the peoples of the Mediterranean were thriving culturally while the Germans in the north were still living in the stone age. This part of the way of the world and to think otherwise is just to navel gaze.

  • pmprociv says:

    Thanks, Anthony, for this exposition of plain common sense. What is also overlooked by the proponents of professional victimhood, those leaders of the “Aboriginal Industry”, is that none of them would be here today without the colonial past: just look at their names, for starters. Surely, their success in life must be partly attributed to their mixed cultural and genetic heritage? Are they pleased to be alive, or would they rather have never existed? Speaking on my own behalf, I agree that Messrs. Hitler and Stalin were highly disagreeable people, without whom the world might have been a better place. But also, without them, I’d have never come into existence, so I’m not really in a position to wish them away. Meanwhile, the British invaders brought so much technology into this country, culminating in easy food, housing, transport etc., to which today’s Aborigines are addicted — do they really wish to return to walking the country, and living on the ground?

  • cbattle1 says:

    From Uluru to the sea, Aboriginal Australians will be free! How’s that for an anti-colonial slogan? I haven’t heard that being chanted in the streets yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did.

  • padraic says:

    Thanks Anthony for what pmprociv calls “an exposition of plain common sense. I fully agree with your comment that “…. people are never victims of the past, but only ever victims of their view of the past …”. My view is that the best thing about the past is that it has passed, and is not worth living in, only learning from.

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