The future for Australia’s Aboriginal people

My trip to the Kimberley has rekindled my interest in looking at what might be the case in 2067 with respect to our Aboriginal people. I’m using the ‘A’ word rather than ‘indigenous’, for two reasons. The first is that in the Kimberley and later in Perth it became clear to me that we in the East use ‘indigenous’ because it embraces both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, and somehow it has become the politically correct term. There are only a few thousand Torres Strait Islanders on the islands themselves, the great majority of the rest living in North Queensland, and seemingly happy to be called Aboriginal as well. The second is that Aboriginal people, at least in the remoter parts of W.A., want to be called ‘Aborigines/als’ or ‘blacks’. ‘Indigenous’,it was put to me. is ‘pissant Canberra talk’.

How many Aboriginal people are there? About 700,000. How many live in urban settings? About three quarters of them. Of the others, 9 per cent live in remote areas, and 15 per cent in very remote areas. In Western Australia, 24 per cent live in regional areas and 41 per cent live in remote areas. It is, on the whole, about the latter group, across Australia (but mostly in W.A., the Northern Territory and Queensland) where we find considerable media and political attention. You can find details of the distribution of the Aboriginal people here.

While we hear much talk about ‘crisis’, it has to be asserted, again and again, that there have been huge improvements in the lives and conditions of Aboriginal people in the last fifty years, and there is no reason to suppose that this trend will come to a stop. Yes, everyone concerned with the issues of Aboriginal health, proportions in custody, domestic violence, education, and so on wants faster progress than we are seeing. But social and cultural changes occur slowly even after revolutions (which are political rather than social). What are the prospects for the future?

What follows are my own thoughts about what might happen to those Aboriginal people in the ‘remote’ areas. A visit to the Kimberley will emphasise to the visitor just what is meant by ‘remote’. My ideas have been germinating over the last half-century, and I have written about these issues before, as here, though that issue was written five years ago.

Let me say at once that I do not accept that the future of Australia’s Aboriginal people is something for them alone to work out. We are all citizens of our country, and its problems are our problems. We don’t accept, for example, that the problems in health are only for doctors, or that the shape and size of the military are only for high-ranking officers to sort out. We all have a stake in our country’s future, and in this area my views are as valid as anyone else’s, especially when they involve law-making and thus politics. Nonetheless, I put them forward modestly. I do not think I must have all the right answers, and am interested in the arguments of other people. This is work in progress, not a definitive statement.

First, in the long run, the outcome will be that Aboriginal Australians are simply Australians. All being well, all those councils and committees and government programs that have the ‘Aboriginal’ adjective in front of them will have gone. Aboriginal people are entitled to health services, education and social welfare because they are Australians, not because they are Aboriginals. Virtually all of them will have other ancestries apart from their Aboriginal heritage, and they will vary in how they respond to these heritages (as the rest of us do). They will work in all the fields that are available (as is the case now, though in smaller proportion now than will be the case in future). That makes me an ‘assimilationist’, but I point out at once that the Australia of today is not at all the Australia of 1950, or even 1967. The Australia of 2067 will be different again. In the progress of assimilation there is always an exchange of attitudes and behaviours.

Second, and it follows a little from the first, I see no great point in ‘treaties’ or special ‘preambles’ to the Constitution. So much energy has been wasted on what the Constitution means that I see possible harm arising through later generations of lawyers and judges wrestling with what ‘we’ might have meant in the early 21st century. There is no Preamble to our Constitution other than these rather formal words:

WHEREAS the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and under the Constitution hereby established:

And whereas it is expedient to provide for the admission into the Commonwealth of other Australasian Colonies and possessions of the Queen:

I would leave it that way. If something must be done, and I can’t think what must be done, then Parliament can pass a law. Former W.A. Supreme Justice Nicolas Hasluck has a good piece in the current Quadrant on aspects of this question.

Third, I do not agree with Keith Windschuttle that there is any real plan for a separate Aboriginal State, or any likelihood of there ever being one. I would certainly oppose such a plan if it ever had any substance. Native title is not ‘freehold’ in our sense. Aboriginal people in their country see themselves as ‘custodians’ rather than as ‘owners’, but certainly as custodians they see themselves as having rights and duties. I felt the same way about my university when I was a vice-chancellor: I was there to look after it, understand it, respect it and improve it — and pass it on to the next custodian. I would imagine that there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who would share that view of their roles in other organisations, too.

Fourth, Aboriginal cultures are to be respected where they deserve respect through understanding. I do not respect some aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture, like the marriage of young girls to old men, or some forms of payback, any more than I respect female genital mutilation in some Islamic cultures. What I have in mind are the ‘dreaming’ stories, which have their parallels in the first Book of Genesis. Much rock art tells of these origin tales. They have their own beauty and resonance. If we were to understand that moving Aboriginal people off what they see as their land is akin to excommunication, and that to place them in someone else’s land is akin to asking Protestants to worship in a Catholic church — to use examples from Australia’s history — then we might mend some of our ways, and improve theirs.

Fifth, successful Aboriginals in 2067 will be bi-cultural, able to use all the assets of Western material culture, but alert to their own ancestries, especially the Aboriginal one. They will be proud of that ancestral mixture. My guess is that in large parts of wider Australian society it will be chic to be able to point to an Aboriginal ancestor.

Sixth, and I repeat that I am referring mostly to those in remote communities, there must be satisfying work. It is not easy to see where that will come from, though tourism is a growth industry, and I saw and talked with Aboriginal young men and women working alongside white Australians and overseas youth on working visas. I bought a piece of art in one gallery, where the boss was a most competent young Aboriginal woman, adept at all the technology of modern commerce and communication. I have emphasised remote communities, but all the above makes sense in the cities as well, though it is likely that ‘country’ will be less important there, if only because those concerned are no longer living in their ancestral domains.

I finish with a vivid memory. In another Aboriginal art gallery, beautifully done, we were invited to watch a video that explained how this mob came to be where they were. It was most moving, and some of my remarks above are a distillation of that video. In it the mob performed one of the traditional dances, which they maintain as an annual event. I have seen others, so the sound and vision were if not familiar than recognisably Aboriginal. A fine crowd was watching, among them other Aboriginal men and women using their smart phones and tablets to make a record of the evening. That is the future.


Join the discussion 130 Comments

  • JimboR says:

    “They will be proud of that ancestral mixture. My guess is that in large parts of wider Australian society it will be chic to be able to point to an Aboriginal ancestor.”

    And just maybe, when they do, they’ll cop less of:

    “He looks about as Aboriginal as I do, and his constant references to his ‘ancestors’ makes me scratch my head.”
    Don Aitkin, August 27, 2012


    ”This self-identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality,”
    Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, 15th April, 2009

    • spangled drongo says:

      You don’t get it, hey, jimb?

      Like, how those same “aboriginals” get very well rewarded at the taxpayer’s expense for making this claim.

      Yet you think it is justified?

      Thanks, Don, for your thoughts on this vexed problem.

      I think there will always remain strong pressure from within the Aboriginal Industry for all the Preambles, Treaties etc. that can possibly be extracted by our ever-increasing PC generations.

      Over 20 years ago we did a 4wd trip to Cape York with the intention of staying at the very popular Cape York Wilderness Lodge. We didn’t book as we didn’t know what delays there would be along the way. When we arrived, the Lodge no longer existed. It had been presented to the local aboriginals as a way for them to get into the [then] 20th century but they closed it down.

      Just like they walked away from prosperous cattle stations and let them go to ruin.

      The only thing they didn’t walk away from was the Jardine River Ferry [which they were also presented with] because they needed it to maintain their new “siddown” lifestyle c/w Landcruisers and Tinnies.

      With the ferry it was so easy to just keep doubling the toll for the visitors.

      And this is one of the more functional aboriginal communities.

      Primary industry was once a great solution and it was working up until 1967.

      It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall in 2067.

  • spangled drongo says:

    It is refreshing to see this sort of industry in a community like Wadeye as long as it is treated realistically:

  • margaret says:

    Change in the fixed views and the both conscious and casual prejudice that so many Australians hold towards first nations will take another generation.
    Welcome to country took me a while to understand (because I was already a person of mature age who had some opinions that needed updating- age often does that to you but some are early learners and remain in that state).
    Now I appreciate both its symbolic significance and its harmony.
    It took time, some conversations, attending events and talks and a lot of reading, for me to understand the nuances in aboriginality and that it wasn’t all about skin colour.
    I’ve had arguments I wish I hadn’t had with younger people – a silly and pointless argument fuelled by wine about The Secret River and two interpretations of it, one for television and a play. I had seen the television version (I’ve also read the book), they had seen the play. The argument was about the colour of the skin of the actors. I’m ashamed to have had that argument – the younger people were correct in respect of it not mattering (for the purpose of telling the story and although for the television series (which they hadn’t seen, and I hadn’t seen the play – fertile ground for misunderstanding), the skin colour of the traditional owners of the land was very dark, which was visually striking and I expect authentic for the time portrayed, I just wish I’d had the grace to stfu.

    In the fifties there was a convict ‘stain’ that Australians hid if they had ancestors who were transported – now that is ‘chic’ for want of a better word.

    • spangled drongo says:

      The problem, marg, is that all those “nuances in aboriginality” have been produced and directed by the fake or small part aboriginals so as to conduct the dance to suit their tune.

      “Welcome to Country” was first performed by Ernie Dingo in 1976 and any genuine aboriginal knows and admits that it is fakery.

      Don’t feel obliged to give up the ship so easily.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Could our aboriginals have been among the first climate refugees:

    “Humans migrated out of Africa as the climate shifted from wet to very dry about 60,000 years ago, according to research led by a University of Arizona geoscientist.”

  • Chris Warren says:

    If Aboriginals are now being told they are Australians, which is a modernist, post 1960’s innovation, – then it seems logical that documents from the Nineteenth Century may need adjustment. It seems pretty clear to me that Aborigines were not the Australians who:

    “…humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God, have agreed to unite … ”

    So the current Preamble fails and it has failed for over 100 years now as it excluded thousands of Australians even before the ink had dried. Its just we have only started to recognise the brutal mistakes of our forefathers.

    Today, presumably, we want all Australians to unite without relying on the “blessing of Almighty God”. God-ism is offensive to some and means nothing to huge slice (over 20%) of the population.

    The current preamble is a dogmatic albatross around the neck of Australia.

    • JimboR says:

      “God-ism is offensive to some and means nothing to huge slice (over 20%) of the population.”

      And the other 80% can’t agree on which Almighty God.

    • spangled drongo says:

      God-ism is just a smart-arse way of saying spirituality. You might be aware that, generally, the more primitive and vulnerable the culture, the more spiritual it is.

      Aboriginals do not deny or lack spirituality.

      It is usually our coddled, smart-arse, taxpayer-fed academics who can use govt largesse as a substitute, who elect to be offended by it.

  • margaret says:

    “Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free” … etc. There’s that and that Australia Day is celebrated on the day the romantically name First Fleet landed, there’s the fact that Captain Cook didn’t actually ‘discover’ Australia as much as confirm it was there and there’s all the many things named after Macquarie, even the Lachlan names.
    I don’t advocate pulling down statues or renaming Macquarie Pass etc. but our concept of Australia has been mythologised – it’s our own Dreamtime. Middle class ‘assimilated’ aboriginals who live in cities with good jobs (and is that what an Australian is? a city person) are now comfortable within our colonial Dreamtime? Too too easy. Don’t forget the Poisoned Waterhole Creeks and Massacre Islands that are also signposted. I can’t be patriotic in jingoistic terms.If I can’t I imagine there are many Australians with aboriginal ancestry who have even more difficulty. I don’t want to celebrate Australia in terms of a continent possessed in the name of a royal monarch – whose military men then expected its flourishing youth to enlist and fight and die or return broken from the First World War – including aboriginals who had no rights.
    But, as I said, it will take another generation at least to sort out the deeply held prejudices, feelings and opinions of people like me, and clearer cooler heads of intelligent young people will prevail.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      margaret, you ignore the fact that Australia is probably the only country in history that has imported a third of its citizens over the space of a few dozen years. The intelligent young people will inherit a very, very, different country.


      Marg, if you don’t want to celebrate Australia (with all its warts), then dont. You are free to sit in front of your telly, and rave and rant as much as you like – even smash the telly and its toxic message (that will teach them !)

      But give some space for those who do want to celebrate Australia. Yes, there were some misdeeds done, but I was not there so dont blame me.

      Perhaps you should migrate to Sweden – sounds more like your country. We will come down to the wharf/ airport and wave you off.

      Bring back the Burka.

  • spangled drongo says:

    “….and clearer cooler heads of intelligent young people will prevail.”

    But only when they have matured and absorbed a little more history, facts and balance.

    FIFY, marg.

  • Art says:

    Bi-cultural? Proud of heritage? We are all descended from one tribe or other aboriginal peoples. If we really want to be bi-cultural in the Aboriginal sense, we should all get DNA profiles and work out from which part of Africa we might have originated including those who were here 50,000 years ago. African humans have a much wider gene spread than all other humans so that could be great fun. We have so much to learn from the Aboriginals? What exactly: how to survive without buildings, textiles, shoes, agriculture, wheels? If the Big One drops, that may be important but there are damned few who have that knowledge. Dreamtime myths? OK, but why not teach the Kalavala, Bible, Koran, string theory and numerous other primitive explanations for how things came to be as they are. Maybe a bit of geological and evolutionary history along with the Greek tragedies and ancient Chinese poetry would be preferable.

    Look, every Aboriginal baby has the potential to be in any number of professional and technical or business occupations. They are imprisoned into stereotype roles due to misguided Romantic Naturalism.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Not sure how to respond to this, Art. My DNA seems to be mostly English, Celtic and Scandinavian, though only my son has seen it. I do agree with your last paragraph, and the Kimberley trip showed me several examples of that potential having been realised, and in the remotest parts of our country.

      • Art says:

        I anthropologists are to be believed, Don, you can rest assured that 90K years ago, all your human ancestors came from Africa. We have all gone under some degree of change since then albeit, soe more than others.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Should I respect the anthropologists more than the geneticists? I think this is another case where the science isn’t settled.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Directed specifically to Don. According to the Bureau of Statistics, some 28% of the present Australian population were born overseas, so the ‘white guilt’ thing is not going to work for much longer, as a large proportion of the population will not be white, or indeed ‘native’ Australians. How do you se this panning out in the longer term?

    • Don Aitkin says:


      My guess is that the process I outlined above will reduce the guilt thing. Yes, it will be a browner Australia in fifty years time. Cultural change just takes time, and is assisted by an expanding and evolving population. The Catholic/Protestant thing in Northern Ireland is still live, more than 300 years later. But the colonial version of it, hot when I was young, has just petered out. The absorption of the urban Aboriginal people is already playing a part, as is the proportion of Aboriginal young people going through higher education. It is the ones in remote areas who need special attention, NOT as Aboriginals, but as remote Australians. That’s my view, anyway.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Don, when you and I grew up, we were taught the history of Australia. It may have been right, or by current standards, wrong, but it has provided the context for most of the ‘social justice’ arguments of the present day.

        When the population demographic changes, as it has, and inevitably will, if the current immigration policy continues to be pursued, Aboriginal issues will become the bleatings of a minority among dozens of competing minorities. I don’t think people who arrived last week are going to pay much regard to the claims of the ‘original inhabitants’.

        Perhaps I am being pessimistic, but I think the Aboriginals should grab what they have, because the change that is coming will produce an Australia that no-one alive would recognise. The current population does not have a common purpose, apart from achieving a comfortable life, and if that cannot easily be achieved, the social fabric will disintegrate very quickly.

        Signs of strain are already evident, and when welfare is reduced, as it eventually must be, before we go the way of Venezuela, we will see the Balkanisation of Australian society. Fortunately, I won’t.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          You are pessimistic! I agree that a sense of national purpose, which you and i grew up with, seems to have passed, and it seems to have been replaced by a sort of identity politics. But for the most part I don’t like long projections of current social trends, and think the future is a good deal rosier. Next week’s post will be about that.

      • margaret says:

        “The guilt “Thing”…
        “when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings.

        All colonial empires are in really founded upon that fact.

        The people have brown faces – besides there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices they are gone.”
        George Orwell

        • margaret says:

          Coincidentally the essay Marrakech is one I’m reading for this week’s discussion. Bryan will fail to see its relevance but JMO likes comparing Australia to other countries with colonial pasts so … it’s how they handle ‘the guilt thing’ and whether the population of a country so much luckier than Morocco, can unite and accept and move forward.
          It certainly won’t resolve if Australia Day is January 26 and celebrates the arrival of the First Fleet (of transported convicts).

          Marrakech is a short essay – you can probably read it online.

          • margaret says:

            Marrakech is not about the guilt thing literally, I’ve made it sound boring by writing what I took from it rather than what I read.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            margaret, Douglas Murray points out that the Ottoman Empire was the greatest colonial power the world has ever seen, but Turkey is never asked to apologise or atone for its past misdeeds. Indeed, it even denies the existence of the Armenian genocide.

  • Ross says:

    Any black fullas on this thread? No? Oh well…I’ll leave you to it, then.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Ross, believe it or not, you re also allowed to have your say on an issue like this. Go for it. I’ll alert one or two of my Aboriginal friends (who may have seen this thread anyway).

    • spangled drongo says:

      “Any black fullas on this thread?”

      You talking about black, black fullas, rossie, or those white black fullas that have just increased by an extra 30,000 in the last census?

      You know, the ones that are demanding we make a treaty with them so they can run the show?

      The ones that are already getting it from both ends awa the middle?

      If only they would stand for parliament and make a case for themselves. If they were fair dinkum like Neville Bonner they would get plenty of support awa respect.

      And we would all be treated equally in a more united, assimilated country.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    “we would all be treated equally in a more united, assimilated country”

    But this is not happening, is it? Australia is increasingly an agglomeration of noisy minorities, in which, as I said, the Aboriginal voice will become fainter. They can’t pressure people who have no idea who Captain Cook is.

    • spangled drongo says:

      People will become and remain a noisy minority only if we make it an advantage to become an unassimilated, noisy minority. But if we treat everyone equally and spare the silly govt largesse then people will do what they always have done and get on with making themselves, and therefore the country generally, functional.

      Restricting those with a culture that is intolerant of our Australian culture, however, is always a first requirement.

  • margaret says:

    Surely noisy minorities are bearable in a democracy or … is this better?

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      I’m sure you think this is relevant margaret. What I can’t work out is why.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Marg, if the whole society is simply a set of noisy minorities, then no. I think there has to be a shared consciousness of who ‘we’ are and why what ‘we’ do is important, and where ‘we’ hope we are going. It doesn’t have to be shared 100 per cent, but 60-70 per cent would be a great start. I don’t see much of it today.

    • JMO says:

      It is high time to mention certain facts on this issue, Margaret

      Aborigines did not, never had and never considered themselves as a “nation” before the arrival of Europeans. So calling them as “first nation” is historically inaccurate. I would consider calling them, more accurately, as “first inhabitants” or “first people”. A nation is born out of unification, has some sort central government, permanent settled areas together with a central authority (ie a capital)l. a defence force, institutions and some sort of a trading fiscal instrument such as common currency.

      Secondly, they are so lucky that the British claimed this continent. If the Europeans came 150- 200 years previously it would have been the (probably) the Spaniards or worse the Portuguese. The Spaniards would have wiped them out, Don’r believe me? Go to the Canary Islands and ask where the original inhabitants, go to Peru and asked where are the original inhabitants. And don”t get me on about the Portuguese, but think of East Timor and you may get an inkling. Ah, what about the French? You may ask. Well think of North Africa, French Indochina, French Polynesia and New Caledonia and French Guinea – they don’t tolerate any dissent from native population. Just aside, La Perouse arrived in Sydney Cove about 3 days after Captain Philip in January 1788. It was close run thing – we could have been a French speaking continent and I very much doubt the Aborigines would have had a better deal.

      Thirdly, not one of the colonies on the Australian continent ever made a declaration of war against the Aborigines. Yes, there were skirmishes between Aborigines and farmers and there were brutal episodes we cannot be proud off. But it was nothing like the massacres, eradication or slavery experienced by other natives in other colonies. A treaty is a document declaring peace signed by opposing parties formerly at war. Advocating a treaty in Australia displays historical ignorance.

      Fourthly, the British did not invade Australia and 26th January is the correct date for Australia Day. Aborigines, by and large, are far better now than on January 25th 1788.

      • margaret says:

        “… they are so lucky that the British claimed this continent. If the Europeans came 150- 200 years previously it would have been the (probably) the Spaniards or worse the Portuguese. The Spaniards would have wiped them out, Don’r believe me? Go to the Canary Islands and ask where the original inhabitants, go to Peru and asked where are the original inhabitants. And don”t get me on about the Portuguese, but think of East Timor and you may get an inkling…” etc. etc.

        JMO I’m hearing something like Trump saying to the Puerto Ricans “your disaster wasn’t really anything – look at Katrina and thank your lucky stars” as he nonchalantly flips paper towels to the relief workers.

        Australia is our country, you know? … As in Australians all? Not all the others you’ve shown your historical knowledge of.

        As to the word nation, your description is VERY literal. I’m finding it difficult to choose a word that is acceptable to Aboriginal people themselves, since Don says indigenous evokes scorn from some, first peoples is too tame, first nation no, I didn’t call Aboriginal people that – but first nations plural. I can hardly say blacks or blackfellas when I have no personal interractions with the people Don met on his sojourn into ‘deep bush’. Also that is disrespectful in the discussion of how to unite Australians. I don’t mind being called a whitefella though (although maybe on the grounds of sexist language I could mind 🙂 )

        • margaret says:

          “The word nation stems from the Latin natio, meaning “people, tribe, kin, genus, class, flock.” … A nation is distinct from a “people”, and is more abstract, and overtly political than an ethnic group. It is a cultural-political community that has become conscious of its autonomy, unity, and particular interests.”
          – Wikipedia

          • dlb says:

            All things come to an end. It amazes me that the aboriginals were the sole occupants for possibly 200,000 generations. Really blows your mind that length of time. Had this continent been better watered and more fertile, I’m sure the aboriginals would have been wiped out or assimilated long ago by some agricultural society. It wasn’t till the dawning of the industrial revolution did foreign powers see some use for this dry scrubby land.

          • margaret says:

            “It wasn’t till the dawning of the industrial revolution did foreign powers see some use for this dry scrubby land.”
            The thing is dlb, guess what, the First Australians (using an inclusive term, even though there was no Australia then), they lived through climate change after the Ice Age.
            “In most areas sea levels rose so gradually that people were not suddenly displaced. However, for the many clans whose homelands were along the coastline there was significant loss of country, including familiar campsites, hunting grounds and sacred sites.
            Inland people also experienced the change, as traditional food sources were affected by the rising temperatures and increasing rainfall.”
            Australia wasn’t always “dry scrubby land” that you describe, even Governor Phillip found that Cook seventeen years beforehand had visited in a different season to when the First Fleet arrived.
            So all these canards that you guys/whitefullas are coming up with are really just clutching at straws.
            Well good on the Industrial Revolution for improving our lives in the west (lucky us that we Down Under are also the beneficiaries, but it’s only luck as in the lucky country) and by default everywhere else eventually by so called “trickle down” – but you defenders of western “civilisation” – please please don’t expect Aboriginal people to be grateful … it’s cockamamie.

          • Don Aitkin says:


            I do love the vision of a canard clutching at straws!

            Can’t agree about ‘nation’ as a term to be used about the Aboriginal people. They weren’t at all, rather, a heterogeneous collection of clans and family groups with over 600 different languages and different accounts of how they came to be where they were. There were trading routes and established values for things like salt, flint and ochre. But you could say much the same thing (trading routes) for the Silk Road, and that passed through tribal groups, proto-nations and bits of imperial China. I’m not much on Wikipedia’s definitions, but even that one above does not describe the Aboriginal peoples of 1788. Many of them are much more conscious of ‘nation’ today, but that is because they have become educated in Western language, culture and reasoning.

            As far as I know there is no single word that accurately describes the Aboriginal peoples, partly because of the importance of ‘country’. The most widely used one, in my experience, is ‘mob’, an English word with an Australian nuance that has been adopted by a lot of Aboriginal groups. I heard it in W.A. too.

          • dlb says:

            So if we are clutching at straws, what is the great rock of truth that should underpin our understanding of aboriginal history and culture?

          • margaret says:

            “What is the great rock of truth?”

            What IS a great rock of truth? The Ten Commandments?

          • margaret says:

            Things like this should help, dlb …

            … “a story about how the Gunditjmara have successfully fought to overturn European misunderstandings of the complexity and sophistication of their culture and history.”


          • dlb says:

            Eel traps? If this is the most sophisticated thing the aboriginals could come with, it just shows how technologically bereft they were. Having said that I do admire them for their hunter gathering skills.

      • David says:

        First nation(s)

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    My point exactly. Then where is your optimism?

  • Chris Warren says:


    You have the distinction of getting practically everything wrong.

    It is quite possible to consider modern Aborigines as constituting a nation if this is what they are seeking. There is no need for

    ” some sort central government, permanent settled areas together with a central authority (ie a capital)l. a defence force, institutions and some sort of a trading fiscal instrument such as common currency.” It is not necessary to have had a nation in 1788 in order to develop a nation today.

    The British all through Africa and India were just as bloody and enslaving as other European nations. The British wiped out an entire race in Tasmania and decimated tribes right across Australia.

    La Perouse never arrived in Sydney Cove.

    Every colony waged some form of war against Aborigines and, in instances, created special forces to wage war and/or declared Martial Law.

    As Australia was not “terra nullius” invasion is the correct description of what happened except for Norfolk Island which truly was uninhabited.

    The 26 January is the date of foundation of an European occupation of Australia. It has no celebratory relevance for Aborigines.

    The fact that Aborigines are better off than before 1788 is no compensation for the long history of suffering at many levels. As much as the average conditions for Aborigines have improved, the betterment of average conditions of Anglos has been many times greater.

    • spanged drongo says:

      How blindly blighted are blith’s blitherings?

      Let me count the ways:

      “It is quite possible to consider modern Aborigines as constituting a nation if this is what they are seeking.”

      How can a claim today change the facts of over 2 centuries ago?

      ‘” some sort central government, permanent settled areas together with a central authority (ie a capital)l. a defence force, institutions and some sort of a trading fiscal instrument such as common currency.” It is not necessary to have had a nation in 1788 in order to develop a nation today.”

      If you didn’t have a governing body then, to make, support and stand by a treaty or agreement to the point where no agreement could or would ever work, then what ever took place as a result was unavoidable.

      This is why there was conflict.

      This is why the country was “Terra Nullius”. No one in charge.

      “The 26 January is the date of foundation of an European occupation of Australia. It has no celebratory relevance for Aborigines.”

      Have you taken a poll on that?

      “The fact that Aborigines are better off than before 1788 is no compensation for the long history of suffering at many levels.”

      What? Better conditions and more survivors due to less suffering is not a positive?

      As usual, blith, your blind and blighted blitherings are simply blatant, blustering blunders.

    • spanged drongo says:

      “La Perouse never arrived in Sydney Cove.”

      Splitting straws here, blith.

      French navigator Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse landed in Botany Bay on the 26th January 1788.

  • David says:

    Don you love to bang on about your Scotish heritage, making redicilious claims about it being responsible for your skinniness etc, so when are you going to assimilate?

  • David says:

    “Had this continent been better watered and more fertile, I’m sure the aboriginals would have been wiped out or assimilated long ago by some agricultural society. ”

    FFS DLB! what about the possibility that they might have taken advantage of the addition water and developed their own agricultural civilisation. Who knows they might have sailed their ships around the world and colonised the U.K.

  • Chris Warren says:

    Only drongos don’t know the difference between Botany Bay and Sydney Cove.

    Only drongo’s spread fascist lies that:

    “This is why the country was “Terra Nullius”. No one in charge.”

    • spangled drongo says:

      Only blatantly blind blitherers don’t get that “the difference between Botany Bay and Sydney Cove” is a puerile point.

      Even though Puerile Point may be in Tasmania.

      Or that “Terra Nullius” is amazingly like them; no one in charge!

      • margaret says:

        You’ve obviously never been to Sydney Spangled Drongo.

        • spangled drongo says:

          You and blith just don’t get it, hey, marg?

          La Perouse arrived at Botany Bay to try and save some of his men who had been seriously wounded by islanders. It was during a storm and Arthur Phillip was in the process of moving up to Port Jackson but they eventually conferred, discussed what was best and went about their necessary tasks.

          La Perouse even gave Phillip some of his journals to take back to England.

          It’s much more a matter of history than geography as to what and why those things happened when they did.

          • Chris Warren says:

            Not even a French drongo would sail to Botany Bay in 1788 to try to save his men.

            La Perouse sailed to Botany Bay for entirely different reasons. He received instructions to head to Botany Bay much earlier when he was moored at Kamchatka .

            La Perouse never gave any journals to Arthur Phillip. The French only gave some letters to Lieutenant Shortland who was returning to England on the ship Alexander.

            Did Phillip ever meet Perouse? Most interactions seem to be between other members of each fleet. Perouse never went to Sydney Cove and Phillip had not been to Botany Bay as at March 1788.

          • spangled drongo says:

            “La Perouse never gave any journals to Arthur Phillip. The French only gave some letters to Lieutenant Shortland who was returning to England on the ship Alexander.”

            Well, that’s a blitherer’s version anyway, hey, blith?

            “Lapérouse took the opportunity to send his journals, some charts and also some letters back to Europe with a British naval ship from the First Fleet”

            And two centuries before iphones in the furthest flung outposts of the world, communications were conducted somewhat differently than today.

          • margaret says:

            Just a bit of amusement from Bill Bryson.

            “On the eastern horizon two ships appeared and joined them in the bay. They were in command of an amiable Frenchman, Count Jean-Francois de La Perouse, who was leading a two-year journey of exploration around the Pacific. Had La Perouse been just a little faster, he could have claimed Australia for France and saved the country 200 years of English cooking. Instead, he accepted his unlucky timing with the grace that marked the age. La Perouse’s expression when it was explained to him that Phillip and his crew had just sailed 15,000 miles to make a prison for people who had stolen lace and ribbons, some cucumber plants and a book on Tobago, must have been one of the great looks in history, but alas there is no record of it. In any case, after an uneventful rest at Botany Bay, he departed, never to be seen again. Soon afterwards his two ships and all aboard were lost in a storm off the New Hebrides.”

  • Boambee John says:


    A question on Native Title.

    From this distance, the current collective form of Native Title seems to give great power to the “Big Men” (and they do seem to mostly be men) of the Land Councils and other “representative” bodies, while leaving most aborigines living on Native Title land as little more than serfs (I was going to say slaves, but that might be a bit harsh).

    What is your impression after your visit? Would you accept some system under which aboriginals living under Native Title could obtain long term leases on some land in order to establish businesses, be they commercial, agricultural or tourism based? If only collective title is acceptable, will this not hold back individual opportunity?

    • Boambee John says:

      Acually, several questions!

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I can’t answer this question well. Native title is not freehold. The communities who possess it can make decisions about what to do, but, as far as I am aware, must do so for the benefit of all. I saw such communities in W.A. and was impressed. One of the ‘resorts’ we stayed in was owned and run by the local people, and was run very well. The boss seemed to be a woman. I saw no sign of serfdom. There is probably a good answer, but I don’t have it.

  • margaret says:

    An excellent book. Please white fullas who are old enough, give it to your grandkids, better still, read the stories to them.

    • margaret says:

      “In Australian histories there is a particular group whose tales and presence and concerns are rarely narrated. These are the children and adolescents … Their stories are our stories too, and their stories are our history, and Nadia Wheatley, that great writer, tells that wide-ranging story in a way so imaginative and colourful that it would attract any young person, and make young readers feel that many of their personal struggles have been faced before, by children of the past and present. Nadia has performed an essential service to history and the young.”
      — Thomas Keneally
      I have a copy – it’s not “childish” interpretation of history. It’s history that is meaningful for children/young teens and grown ups).

  • spangled drongo says:

    “A History of Growing up from the Ice Age to the Apology”

    Gee, sounds factual, marg. Which “ice age” would that be?

    And what was the apology for?

    Do remind me.

    • margaret says:

      Read the book … take yourself out of your comfort zone and rigid mindset.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Sounds good, marg. I love it when they make the real world “imaginative and colourful”.

        So scientific.

        Starting from the “ice age” did she happen to mention how much we have warmed since then?

        Or how many aboriginals were “stolen”?

        I bet she really gets the kids involved in the “facts”.

        Are you selling it by any chance, marg?

  • David says:

    My bet is that in 20 years time more Australians will identify as having aboriginal ancestory than admit to the fact that their ancestors were climate skeptics.

    • JimboR says:

      No doubt the inter-webby will permanently preserve Don’s musings on the topic allowing his great great grandchildren to judge for themselves whether he was visionary or delusional.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Jimbo, I hope that they will say that he kept thinking about things.

        And you seem to have no interest in the topic, or to have nothing to say about any of it, other than to throw what you see as barbs. Pity.

      • JimboR says:

        I truly do think visionary and delusional are the only two conclusions they’ll be able to draw and I make no comment (at least here) as to which is more likely:

        . visionary – he could see things the experts of the day couldn’t
        .delusional – he thought he could see things the experts of the day couldn’t

    • spangled drongo says:

      “…than admit to the fact that their ancestors were climate skeptics.”

      Davie, no one’s a “climate skeptic” [climate exists, durrr]

      They’re not even “climate change skeptics”[ climate changes, durrrrr]

      What they are is “climate catastrophe skeptics”.

      We are still waiting for you to get smart enough to explain why we shouldn’t be.

  • Chris Warren says:

    More errors from drongo. It just copies stuff from the internet to cover its ignorance.

    drongo’s false statement was:

    “La Perouse even gave Phillip some of his journals to take back to England.”

    It now copies other internet stuff:

    “Lapérouse took the opportunity to send his journals, some charts and also some letters back to Europe with a British naval ship from the First Fleet”

    Only fools throw up junk like this.

    La Perouse sent letters but only the latest instalment of his Journal. There were no “journals”. The French documents were not sent with a British naval ship, as there were only two naval ships HMS Supply, HMS Sirius. The remainder were not naval ships but private ships on contract secured after the British Navy Board advertised for vessels for hire.

    The drongo also pretended that:

    “La Perouse arrived at Botany Bay to try and save some of his men who had been seriously wounded”

    As this is a drongo claim, sensible people should believe the opposite. In fact, La Perouse wrote that the 18 to 20 who had been wounded had completely recovered and he had no anxiety over the health of two others.

    We must not let drongos rewrite history.

    • margaret says:

      No, please! No more fake history Spangled. Read some books – maybe Watkin Tench, The Fatal Impact by Moorhead, Convincing Ground by Bruce Pascoe, and Australians All by Nadia Wheatley. And for some good laughs, Bill Bryson Down Under.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Marg, you mean Watkin Tench on Nadia Wheatley’s “ice age” back in 1791 at Parramatta when all those “Rosehillers” were falling dead out of the sky as a result of the cold weather?

    • spangled drongo says:

      Blith splits hairs but doesn’t supply evidence.

      What’s new?

      Have you any idea what a journal is when you are captaining a ship, blith?

      Are you suggesting that these additional ships were not under naval command?

      What a desperate blitherer you are.

      • Chris Warren says:

        drongo needs to learn how to do its homework itself.

      • Chris Warren says:

        drongo stuffs-up yet again.

        It confuses Perouse’s Journal with a ship’s Captain’s log.

        Many explorers wrote Journals which they intended to be published commercially. Perouse’s papers were published but were not a commercial success. Over 100 journals from different explorers have been published by the Hakluyt Society.

        The logs covering Perouse’s voyage to Botany Bay have not been found. This is entirely different to his Journal. Confusing the two is like confusing Botany Bay for Sydney Cove.

        La Perouse, or the last survivors, may have died after being wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef or possibly killed by Queensland Aborigines on Murray Island. While some artefacts may have survived, there is no suggestion of paper documents.

        • spangled drongo says:

          That’s the way, blith. Keep blithering. You are beginning to get it.

          Facts are like that. They come out whether you like it or not.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    One theme in all this is why the Aboriginal peoples remained in what has been called a ‘stone age’ culture until they were jolted out of it by the arrival of the British in 1788. Again, there are no straightforward answers. But a few perhaps obvious responses include the lack of a decent grain to plant and harvest, the lack of domesticatible animals, the lack of easily worked metalliferous ores close to the surface, and the poor quality of most soils. It puzzles me that none ever got into pottery, which is a very early technology in prehistory. Eucalyptus wood can make intense heat, but no kilns, as far as I am aware. I gave my copy to a Canadian friend, but John Mulvaney’s great book on Aboriginal prehistory does deal with it, I think. It remains a puzzle.

    That said, the stone-age culture had its high points, in fire control, and a light footprint on the land. Others have argued that most clan groups had a relatively easy life, with more time for play than was characteristic of farmers. I don’t know that there is much evidence either way. So much is speculation.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Since I was trained as a cook, and have cooked for my family since 1959, I was always struck by the absence of the capacity to boil water, to stew meat (which softens it) and to make porridge-likenesses from grains. Aboriginal people found alternatives, but none of them is a patch on the capacity to enclose water in a vessel and boil it. I guess that there just wasn’t the curious chap or woman around where there were lodes of copper, for example, who discovered what happened when some of that stone was left in a fire…

    • spangled drongo says:

      “That said, the stone-age culture had its high points, in fire control, and a light footprint on the land.”

      Don, I’m not so sure about that. Cook’s and other explorers’ journals talk about the enormous fires burning all along the coastal lands and the reason for that was because aboriginals, being naked, could simply not live in the magnificent rainforests that Australia possessed when aboriginals came here, without enormous discomfort, because of ticks and all the other parasites.

      There are more than enough parasites in open country when you are naked but rainforests are very much worse.

      And the country had a lot more rainforest in those days. Tropical, subtropical and temperate and apart from the difficulties of living in, it was also not possible to hunt in rainforests with stone age weapons. You cannot throw a spear or boomerang at prey in thick jungle with any expectancy of success.

      So they had to eradicate these rainforests and the only way they could do that was to hit them with as hot a fire front as possible as often as possible because rainforest is very fire resistant.

      Being naked as well as shoeless, they could not control a fire once lit, especially if there was the necessary wind and fuel so it burnt out of control most of the time.

      We will never know what damage was caused or what the “weight” of their footprint ever was.

      But they sure changed the flora and fauna balance.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        SD, it is quite hard to set alight a rain forest. Do you any references for your claim. I haven’t got Gammage with me but I don’t think he says that the Aboriginal people set alight the rain forests.

        • spangled drongo says:

          Quite right, Don. They didn’t set the rainforests alight. They won’t burn. But they set the highly combustible eucalypt forest alight wherever they adjoined rainforest and by using suitable wind direction and strength, these dry forest fires continually eat into the rainforest.

          We live between two National Parks with about one third rainforest, one third wet sclerophyll and one third dry sclerophyll and for the last nearly 30 years by careful management we have prevented fires from the dry forest from entering rainforest and as a result the rainforest is increasing and the area generally is becoming more fire resistant.

          But it takes many lifetimes to undo the damage that has been done by aboriginals over 200,000 lifetimes.

          In those 200,000 lifetimes they never lived here [they visited daily at certain times of the year because of the great bush tucker like Macadamias etc but never stayed overnight] because the rainforest was always too resistant to burning but white dairy farmers and orchardists carried on the work that the aboriginals started and if you look in the rainforest here you will see huge burnt trees where the hot fire fronts got to at times but a long time ago.

          I point these out to the “experts” to get them to understand that was what happened in the times before serious prevention and preservation.

          That this is just a start and a lot more has to happen for a long, long time to seriously reverse those “footprints”.

        • dlb says:

          From what I have read, the rainforests in Australia had retreated to small areas of wet refugia during the last ice age. So climate and regular aboriginal burning worked hand in hand in dramatically altering the Australian landscape. I think most ecologists would agree the coming of man to Australia caused a major assault on the flora and fauna. By the the time the Europeans arrived a lot of species had been lost, but the natural landscape had settled down to an equilibrium mediated by regular burning.

      • margaret says:

        Oh puhleassse … !
        Strangled Bongo, even if that were true, and it’s hard to see your take on history as accurate, but even so, it was THEIR bloody country!!

        • spangled drongo says:

          Who’s complaining, marg? As usual you don’t get it.

          I am simply telling Don the facts of “Aboriginal Fire Management” that is so praised and admired by the “experts”.

          But don’t be so deluded as to think that stone age aboriginals performed some never-ending “duty” to prevent bushfires using some specially crafted environmental fire management technique.

          As a naked stone ager I would have done exactly the same thing.

          It increased kangaroo populations enormously and made it much easier for aboriginals to hunt and feed themselves.

          But it made the country much more fire-prone as well as changing the fauna and flora irreversibly.

          It may even have been the reason the megafauna was extinguished.

          There was nothing environmentally positive at all about their process.

          It was simply a natural stone age procedure to improve their living standard.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          ” it was THEIR bloody country!!”

          margaret, now it’s OUR bloody country. Get used to it.

    • dlb says:

      Why did the aboriginals remain in a stone age culture? As I said earlier I think a harsh environment would preclude the development of settled agriculture. The other thing I often wonder about is how their lifestyle may have been governed by ritual related to their spiritual beliefs. Perhaps innovation was just not a big part of their culture? As an example, all the cave art I have seen appears highly ritualistic, there does not seem to be much in the way of freestyle expression?

      • David says:

        dlb, Art critic, are you serious?

        This is an interesting account of first contact. One of the interesting things to note is that the Tasmanian aboriginals pick up the French language quicker than the French learnt the local Tasmanian language. That was because they were smarter, dlb.

        • spangled drongo says:

          Interesting article, davie.

          It shows that while they were primitive and stone age, they may well have had a more advanced philosophy than the modern world.

        • dlb says:

          Yes, I am serious David. European development was held back by the constraints of the Catholic church during the middle ages, and you probably think the likes of Tony Abbott still are. The adherents of Islam are now having to come to grips with the modern world and I can’t see why any other deeply religious or spiritual culture such as the Australian aboriginals would be any different.

          The Aboriginals smarter than Europeans? do you have a reference for this other than some linguistic observations by French explorers. Sounds like a racist remark to me David. The aboriginals may have a primitive stone age culture, but it would be naïve to say that they are smarter or dumber than any other people.

          Interesting essay you link to, I had to smile about the aboriginal’s distaste for the violin, I would hate to see their reaction if the French got out the bagpipes*. There is an exhibition currently in the Sydney Maritime Museum on a similar French- Aboriginal theme: “The Art of Science – Baudin’s Voyagers 1800-1804”. I saw it featured in “The Australian” a few weeks back, except they didn’t say which maritime museum. They must think only Sydney people read the Oz!

          * heading off the inevitable -Sigh! – the French did have bagpipes and I have no idea whether they were taken on the d’Entrecasteaux expedition.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          A most interesting article. Thank you for providing it.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Dlb, would it really have been due to a harsh environment?

        Every human race in the world had a harsh environment in one form or another and arguably the best environment in Australia is as good, if not better, than anywhere else in the world.

        But what most of the other races that progressed and evolved to the max had in common was incredible competition for the limited habitat that they all sought.

        That is why they built bigger and better armies with bigger and better weapons to defend those habitats, bigger and better ships to go forth and conquer, bigger and better housing, bigger and better machines to produce more and better food and increase their SOL etc.

        It was a winner-take-all world and once the serious competitors got a taste of the fantastic prizes to be won, they embraced it with ever-increasing desire.

        As much as we might hate it, war has been possibly our greatest evolutionary force.

        Aboriginals were not only not involved, they were not even aware what was happening for those 200,000 lifetimes.

        I think it was simply due to the fact that they were living in paradise in very small numbers and they didn’t have to compete for it or defend it.

        • dlb says:

          SD when I say harsh, I am referring to the lack of water and poor soils which would have inhibited settled agricultural. If you are talking about harsh weather then the harsh winters of Europe certainly would qualify. Another one of my musings is that the great intellectual developments of Europe may in part be due to people being cooped up indoors in winter, turning their minds to books and creative ideas. Growing up in Queensland I must admit the good weather would turn my mind to outdoor pursuits rather than study.

          On a similar vein I often think Brisbane would be a bit of backwater if it wasn’t for air-conditioning.

          I certainly agree that competition and wars have played a large part in the development and advancement of civilizations. As you say the aboriginals had no competition, so there was little impetus to change. Even when the Dutch and Portuguese bumped into our western and northern coasts they were not interested by what they saw. The English explorer Dampier was unimpressed by our west coast and the inhabitants calling them (trigger warning for David) the miserablest people in the world.

  • David says:

    Thats the spirt Bryan

  • spangled drongo says:

    The lack of ferocious animals was also an unusual feature of unpopulated Australia and the first migrants must have had to pinch themselves to believe their good luck when they arrived.

    To be top of the food chain would have a very pleasant change for them after all the places they had lived in and passed through to get here.

    That alone would have set them back eons in evolutionary terms.

    Worrying about how you are going to survive tomorrow is what makes human evolution progress and since 1967 we have removed this problem for them.

    So they are right back where they started 200,000 lifetimes ago.

  • spangled drongo says:

    When we support their ever-increasing entitlement mentality we only remove them further from the real world. I feel sorry for Noel Pearson:

  • “in remote communities, there must be satisfying work” and that will be the great challenge

    • spangled drongo says:

      AD, it’s not hard to provide it. Just hard to get anyone to do it after 50 years of “siddown” money.

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