Arrivals and inequality bookend the modern history of Australia

Cartoon of Australia's modern history bookends with the arrival of white settlers on one end and the arrival of refugees on the other

Image by Chris Johnston

 According to Hamilton, “These two bookends need fixing because both involve a policy designed to advantage one group by treating another group brutally. This has corrupted Australian society and has had fatal consequences.”

On 27th July Andrew Hamilton SJ published an article in Eureka Street titled ‘Bookending Australia’s history’.  The article outlined the metaphoric ‘bookends’ of modern history in Australia, both of which include the arrival of people seeking protection and the expulsion of specific groups to the margins of society.

The bookends are as follows according to Hamilton:

  • At one end there is the arrival of white settlers, an event that was disastrous for Aboriginal people. Resistance was met with force and no access to justice for Aboriginal people. This was exacerbated by high mortality rates as the Indigenous population had no immunity to the diseases brought by Europeans. By 1840 the tribal life of Sydney’s Aboriginal population had been effectively destroyed and the Aboriginal people who survived had to exist within a dominant white culture which forced them to live on the margins of society. This trend would only continue as new settlements were established all over the country.
  • At the other end, is the arrival of people seeking protection from persecution. These people are simply exercising their legal rights, however are expelled to the margins, not only by being placed in detention on Manus Island, Nauru and on the Australian mainland, but in our communities. Due to harsh regulations people seeking asylum often find themselves living in destitution and poverty and live a life in limbo, facing long delays to have their claims heard.

Everything in between

‘Between these bookends lie the events, the people, the relationships, the enterprises and the experiences that compose the story of Australia. They include acts of courage and cowardice, wisdom and stupidity, selfishness and generosity, nobility and barbarism. There are incidents that evoke shame and others that arouse pride,’ Hamilton says.

As usual history is messy. Anything that involves people always is and the modern history of Australia is no different. There is an intermingling of both light and darkness in the story of what has mattered to Australians over more than two centuries. When we look at the issues facing Indigenous Australians and those seeking protection in this country, as well as the cruel injustices they have been forced to endure, we can see darkness often dominating policy, ideology and political rhetoric.

The bookends are broken

According to Hamilton, “These two bookends need fixing because both involve a policy designed to advantage one group by treating another group brutally. This has corrupted Australian society and has had fatal consequences.”

While the arrival of the first fleet also involved great acts of generosity on both the side of Aboriginal people and Europeans at the beginning, it is impossible to disregard the fact that our country’s foundations were built by convict labour (which would qualify as slave labour today) and the dispossession of the original inhabitants of the land. As time progressed and more settlers arrived, there was not only huge disruption caused to lives and cultures of Indigenous people, but, often times, attempted obliteration of them. Colonisers’ interests were always put first and the violence and abuses they forced upon our first peoples was carried out without impunity.

The second bookend

The second bookend, Hamilton outlines is the cruel and inhumane way Australia has treated people seeking protection from persecution.

Hamilton says: “It displays the same readiness to do what it takes to secure perceived interests, and to inflict suffering on some in order to deter others. No excess of cruelty, it has seemed, could sate the cry to be tough on asylum seekers. Manus Island is the emblem of this policy. Australians respond to it with the same ambivalence they feel before Indigenous people, alternating between satisfaction that governments are doing what it takes and occasional shame when the whips and scars of the policy are seen close up.”

Why should we fix the bookends?

Both bookends of modern Australian history involve policy designed to advantage one group while treating the other with brutality. This has corrupted the country’s society and has had catastrophic consequences not only for those who find themselves pushed to the margins, but for all who call Australia home.

‘Hamilton’s article showcases the main human rights issues facing Australia in current times,’ Director of JRS Australia, Carolina Gottardo said. ‘These two issues mirror the metaphorical ‘bookends’ on modern Australian history with the treatment of Aboriginal people and Australia’s punitive asylum policy focused on deterrence and criminalisation dominating the main abuses continued in this country.’

JRS involved in making a difference

Australia’s inhumane asylum seeker policies continue to affect thousands of women, men and children who are punished for exercising their legal and human rights to seek protection in Australia.

As the Social Ministry from the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus leading on refugee and asylum issues, JRS is delighted to announce we will be working more closely with the Province to continue our work advocating and attempting to enact change on this second bookend, addressing current and future needs in the area of refugee and asylum seeking rights and access to services.

“We are committed to our work with the Jesuit Province to map the work on refugees and people seeking asylum and explore potential collaborative projects and best practice.” Ms Gottardo said. “We have begun the recruitment process to find a suitable project officer who will coordinate this initiative. JRS will continue advocating for the rights of people seeking asylum in Australia particularly those who are most excluded.”

To read Andrew Hamilton’s original article which outlines the issues being addressed in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Refugee and Asylum Seeker Project, please visit the Eureka Street website

You can view the Project Officer job and other available positions at JRS Australia here.

Share Button