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.