I’ve recently finished reading Raymond Evans' very thorough account of “A History of Queensland”. One thing above all else comes out from the book. It is that Queensland’s white history is one of almost continual dispossession and discrimination against the Indigenous inhabitants. Since the 1820s blacks have been massacred, dispossessed, forcibly removed, interned, had families split and had wages confiscated. In the 19th century they were treated like vermin to be hunted down and in the 20th century they were the victims of hypocritical paternalism, with shades of the earlier attitude still evident. As late as 1970, a North Queensland grazier told ABC television an Aboriginal person was “a sort of link between the upper and lower forms of the animal kingdom” which made them “dangerous to put…into society”.
Whites made every effort to put Aboriginals out of a society they had lived in for 60,000 years. Just prior to occupation in 1820 there were around 262,000 natives in Queensland. By a hundred years later, extermination and disease had reduced that number to just 15,700. In 1884 the “Queenslander” newspaper told its readers that “if a blackfellow is seen, he is brutally shot down the same as a dingo and with about the same feeling of remorse”. Keeping “racial purity” was a higher priority of colonial society than preserving Aboriginal lives. Officials lived in terror of sexual “contamination” that might lead to a “half-caste menace”.
Those that survived those terrible times became government property. A massive system of reserve, mission and police bureaucracy controlled every aspect of Aboriginal lives. The system ran cheaply on the intercepted wages of black workers. The workers themselves were quarantined on semi-penitential reserves with no health facilities. Older Aboriginals still recall with horror sadistic institutions such as Palm Island, Barambah (Cherbourg) and Woorabinda which were no better than concentration camps.
Governments of every stripe blatantly stole from Aboriginals. Evans noted how the 1930s William Forgan Smith Labor Government “perfected the art of robbery with a fountain pen” and stole £72,000 ($3.5m in today’s money) from Aboriginal trust accounts claiming it to be a depression-era emergency measure. Such theft continued through the years and administrations that followed.
The attitude of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen government of 1968-1987 veered between neglect and outright hostility to Aboriginals. Bjelke-Petersen insisted Queensland Aboriginal people lived “on clover”. They were "as wealthy as Arab oil sheiks", he said. But the statistics proved the lie to this absurd claim. In 1980 Indigenous people were 89 times more likely to die of an infectious disease than other Queenslanders. Half of all Aboriginals were unemployed. Half of all Aboriginal homes had no sewers, a quarter had no electricity and a fifth had no water. In 1987, Aboriginal men died on average 27 years younger than other men and for Aboriginal women it was even worse. They died 34 years earlier than other women. Aboriginals were four times more likely to be involved in violence or accidents and seven times more likely to be imprisoned.
By 1974 trachoma of the eye was a disease eradicated across the western world. But it was still rampant in Queensland’s Aboriginal children with 80 percent infection rates. When Fred Hollows and his team attempted to travel around the communities to address the problem, Bjelke-Petersen expelled them on the spurious grounds the team contained two “well-known radicals” who had “contrived an upsurge in voter registrations.”
Around the same time a federal health team described the high rates of childhood malnutrition, gastro-enteritis and threadworm as resembling conditions in Biafra. Queensland Health officials played the report down preferring to lay the blame on parental neglect. Similar criticisms from the World Council of Churches and Amnesty International were dismissed by Bjelke-Petersen as a sinister, subversive “arm of Communist propaganda”.
After the Nationals were finally turfed out in disgrace in 1989, the Labor Goss Government came to power on a wave of new promises. But their Lands Rights Act of 1991 attracted the ire of the Land Councils who said it deprived 95 percent of Queensland blacks from any claims on the land. Black protests on the issue were met with a vigorous police reaction and matters did not improve after talented dancer and activist Daniel Yock died suspiciously in custody in 1993.
Well meaning efforts by the subsequent Beattie-Bligh Governments have done little to arrest the long slide in Aboriginal Health. The adult black death rate remains 10 to 12 times greater than non-Indigenous rates, incarceration rates are 15 times higher and life expectancy is 20 years below the national average. In 2004, the Fred Hollows Foundation compared Queensland Aboriginal health unfavourably with experiences in Sudan, Sierra Leone and Nepal.
Police issues remain a thorn. The Government-sanctioned police response to the 2004 Palm Island riot following the Mulrunji death was particularly brutal. 80 Tactical Response Group commandos conducted dawn raids armed with riot shields, balaclavas, helmets with face masks and automatic weapons. They declared war on local residents while Beattie disgracefully described the entire community of Palm Islanders as “lazy, disruptive and dysfunctional.”
As Evans' book methodically shows, it is Governments from William Bligh's day to Anna Bligh's that are responsible for the real laziness, disruption and dysfunction of Aboriginal lives.