Historians say Indigenous rights still far off

Indigenous historians Gary Foley and Tony Birch challenged the hollow gestures of Australian governments in dealing with Aboriginal rights at Victoria University’s Game Changers’ public discussion yesterday.

As well-known activists, academics, authors and educators, each man has had personal experiences in the fight for self-determination and improved living conditions for Australia’s Indigenous people.

In a wide-ranging discussion before a sell-out crowd of VU students, staff and members of the public, the long-time friends focused on the false narratives that continue about Aboriginal rights.    

“No government since Whitlam has any reason to be proud of their history with the Aboriginal community. We’ve had constructed narratives and a series of mythologies meant to ease the consciousness of white Australians,” said Associate Professor Foley.

Dr Foley scorned a recent campaign to officially recognise Indigenous people in the Australian constitution as the “latest myth under construction” that was being supported by the “emergence of a black middle class fighting for safe little things for us to argue about.”

“This is a completely meaningless issue that would not make any difference to the appalling incarceration rates, deaths in custody, and problems of poverty.”

He said the May 1967 referendum that saw 90% of Australians voting for equal rights for Aboriginal people was the “most honourable moment in Australian history.”

“That is the moment our argument stopped being with the Australian people. Yet despite the massive vote, not only did things not change, they got worse.”

Dr Foley said the 200 years that Aboriginal people have lived as landless refugees in their own land reflected another myth that native title is the same as land rights.

“Native title is a fraud and a lie and Mabo wasn’t the great victory the government wants the public to believe. Land rights are proper ownership of land. Native title gives us permission to offer a Welcome to Country.”

Dr Birch, who recently joined VU as a recipient of a research fellowship honouring fellow Aboriginal activist, Bruce McGuinness, pointed to the lack of academic attention given to primary sources of Aboriginal history, and the hostility and disrespect that can come from being an Indigenous academic when facing ‘denialists’.  

Both men said they were encouraged by the confidence, energy and passion of the next generation of young activists, as well as the racial tolerance that exists in culturally diverse places such as Victoria University.

Games Changers Conversation series are free public events that present pivotal ideas, personalities and moments in Australia’s evolving story for public debate. Held at VU at MetroWest in the heart of Footscray, this series is jointly presented by Maribyrnong City Council and VU as part of the Footscray University Town project. 

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