VIEW: Australia is a country that will constantly struggle to decolonise

The below is a guest post from Dr Kirstie Close, an academic historian who has worked in universities in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

At the government level – because decolonisation requires Indigenous self-governance – the form of colonialism that took place in this country is one that is near impossible to dismantle. Settler colonialism, in the form of direct rule, has set in train acts of genocide – physical and cultural – in a multitude of ways. These acts have undermined the strength of the Indigenous communities throughout the country over hundreds of years. It is a testament to the resilience of Indigenous men and women to have survived all of that, and to push on with hope for the future.

Efforts have been made at restorative justice. However, while in some ways power has shifted over time – for example with the implementation of Native Title legislation – there is no cohesive, overarching Indigenous governance body currently operating in Australia and certainly not one that is expected to take the power from the current federal leadership.

This is not to say there is no Indigenous leadership present. There have always been stand out Indigenous leaders who have spoken to the most powerful men and women who came to colonise. These encounters and interactions are well documented. The first Governor, Arthur Phillip, returned time and again to converse with Eora man, Bungaree. Despite acknowledging Bungaree’s leadership in the swiftly changing society, no formal effort was made to create and embed consultation process with communities into our legal system, as was done in other British colonies.

One which comes to mind is Fiji, where the Council of Chiefs was established at the time of British annexation. In Australia, Indigenous representation at government level has been attempted with bodies like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), but these were short-lived.

While we may be frustrated with the limitations that stymie decolonisation at government level, there are many Australian institutions that are adopting smaller-scale processes that attempt something similar. Reconciliation plans have helped companies to articulate their plans and track progress towards more accommodating and inclusive governance practices.

It would not be quite accurate to suggest that decolonising would be the answer to the antagonism we continue to see around perceptions of race in our community.  The National Gallery of Australia invited First Nations women to critique its spaces in public panel discussions. Indigenous leaders who were involved in this forum stepped into the tradition of speaking out as an act of resistance against colonial power. Dr Crystal McKinnon said ‘decolonisation, and the repatriation of Indigenous land and Indigenous life – is not a medium for social justice… one of the first steps of decolonising is to peel back the colonial concrete veneer and to feel the footprints on Country.’ There is, perhaps, more that needs to be done, but the simplicity of some of the steps that can be taken towards justice should not be forgotten either.

Larger scale efforts draw people to the streets. Protests held in Australia throughout 2020 reminded people of the need to address Indigenous Deaths in Custody. Rallies were held in tandem with the American Black Lives Matter protests. Thalian Anthony, Annette Gainsford and Juanita Sherwood have argued that Indigenous deaths in custody may be prevented if the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services were not so readily stripped of government funds. Change is needed at a structural level, within institutions and in government. It is this multi-layered approach that will hopefully see the end of tokenistic efforts towards Indigenous representation in governance, and a more decisive effort at progressive reconciliation.

Many wait with baited breath to see if the government will establish a permanent, formal Indigenous voice to Parliament. In the meantime, the informal, community- and institutionally-based work will continue, and hopefully gain momentum. We can keep trying to promote racial literacy and cultural awareness in our own networks, be they personal or professional. And in those small ways, maybe we can promote change.

About the expert

Dr Kirstie Close is a mum of two beautiful boys, based in the west of Melbourne. She is an academic historian, having worked in universities in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji where she has also conducted extensive historical research. She continues to work as an academic through teaching and research. 

Kirstie’s books and articles focus on race relations. She has a strong focus on labour and leadership, particularly on the ways in which Christian missions encouraged Indigenous peoples to become a sort of agricultural class in regional and remote tropical areas, or part of an educated elite depending on the circumstances.  

A career highlight has been working on the Voices of War project, which saw Kirstie take part in a team project to uncover memories of WW2 in PNG, particularly around the Kokoda Track and New Ireland province. Aisoli’s Diary, which results from that project, is due for publication in 2021 and will be Kirstie’s third book. 

Image description: Dr Kirstie is smiling and standing next to a colourfully painted wall. She wears a colourful scarf, has long wavy hair, and is wearing a long-sleeved blacktop.