Words By Stephen McCallum, Photo by Ahmad Hakim
Stephen McCallum is a former President of the University of South Australia Student Association and National Environment Officer of the National Union of Students. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts here at UniSA, majoring in Indigenous Culture and Australia Society.
Australia was founded on the basis of ‘terra nullius’, which essentially means there were no people here before us. The issue with this is that there were people living in Australia before 1788, and this had been the case for well over 60 000 years prior to 1788.
Under British and International law around the time of 1788, there were three ways to claim land. If there were people living on the land, they could declare war and occupy the land or negotiate a treaty with the current custodians in exchange for the land. If there were no people living in the area, they could simply claim the unclaimed land.
The colonies of mainland Australia did not legitimately claim land, as there were people here before they arrived and they did not declare war or negotiate a treaty. Tasmania is somewhat different in that they eventually negotiated a treaty with Aboriginal Nations, but it must be pointed out that it was under the duress and active threats of genocide, and the treaty was not honoured by the Tasmanian government.
Some people claim that the numerous genocides that took place against Aboriginal peoples in every state of Australia are a form of war, somehow legitimising the Australian government’s claim to the land. Declaring a state of war is important because it allows for the negotiation of peace and that’s something that could distinguish war from genocide. It pays to remember that not every physical confrontation between groups is a war.
It is because of this injustice that we today enjoy using land in our comparatively comfortable lives.
It is this injustice that still negatively impacts Aboriginal peoples in Australia today.
Many Australian’s think of colonisation as some kind of favour for Aboriginal Nations because the British introduced Western culture and technology to make their lives easier, but the reality is much different. Australian government laws prevent Aboriginal peoples from living in the way Aboriginal peoples lived prior to colonisation, but also disadvantage Aboriginal peoples participating in Western society.
Aboriginal peoples currently have a shorter life expectancy than a black person during apartheid in South Africa. Aboriginal infant mortality rates are more than double that of other Australians. Community workers who have volunteered in Sudan regularly describe Aboriginal communities as being in worse conditions, with poorer infrastructure and social services.
I was recently moved by an article about Murrumu Walubara Yidindji who was a well-respected journalist in the Canberra Press Gallery. Murrumu has renounced his Australian identity and now lives under the law of the Yidindji Nation of Northern Queensland. I strongly recommend you read his article published in The Guardian titled ‘The man who renounced Australia’ and engage with often ignored Aboriginal and Australian issues from an Aboriginal perspective.