The impact of the early British settlers on Indigenous Australians was all bad’ says Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in some of his toughest rhetoric on the issue.
The comments about the unjust treatment of Aborigines, dating back to the early British settlers in Australia, were made by the PM when he spoke to The Telegraph in East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory during his visit there last week.
Mr Abbott said, “There is a discomfort in our national character. To this day we have not entirely come to terms with this side of the Australian reality.
About the arrival of British settlers beginning with the First Fleet, Mr Abbott said they had a devastating effect on the country’s indigenous population. “Initially the impact [of British settlement] was all bad – disease, dispossession, discrimination, at times wanton murder, he said.
“While justice was colour-blind, there was still the enormous discrimination. There was not a lot of official respect in the early days. There was even less popular respect.
Of his visit to Arnhem Land and visits to other indigenous communities prior to his election, Mr Abbott said, “This is, I think, an appropriate way of saying to Aboriginal people, you should be and are first class citizens of your own country.
“Indigenous people’s concerns every so often should be front and centre in the minds of our national leaders because they are, after all, the first Australians. They were, to our discredit, ignored and at times mistreated for much of the first couple of centuries of our national existence.
Aboriginal communities in remote areas of regional Australia face various health, social and economic problems. These include high rates of infant mortality, disease, unemployment and crime and drug problems.
Research has shown that Australia’s 700,000 Aborigines are expected to have their lifespan cut short by at least 10 years sooner than other Australians. The Telegraph also noted that Indigenous Australians are 15 times more likely, than other Australians, to be imprisoned during their life.
Mr Abbott has publicly proposed that the Australian constitution be re-drafted to formally to recognise and include Aborigines as the nation’s first people. This, Abbott believes, would help to complete the national journey towards reconciliation, 226 years after the first settlers arrived.
The PM discussed this plan with local village leaders and it is suggested that a national referendum to this effect would be likely in 2017, marking the 50th anniversary of a referendum where Australians voted to recognise Aborigines as Australians.
Local elder, Djawa Yunupingu, said to The Telegraph, “We have seen prime ministers come and go. In the past, they let us down. This one is the first one to come and stay with us. In the past, prime ministers did not really stick up for the indigenous people.
“The reality is that long before the First Fleet arrived, Aboriginal people were here, said Mr Abbott.
“It was a very different society to enlightened Britain. Nevertheless, it had its own strengths, it had its own patterns, it had its own relationship with the environment. It was worthy of respect and recognition…
“Now there’s enormous pride in [local] Yolngu culture, and a fierce determination to preserve it, as there should be. There’s a deep commitment to acknowledgment of the place of Aboriginal people in modern Australia – and that’s right too.
“Aboriginal people are not a problem to be solved. Aboriginal people are a reality, indeed an asset to be cherished, to be made the most of. This will be an important part of making that happen.
IMAGE: Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott visiting Yirrkala School inNorth East Arnhem Land, last week