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Issue #1905      March 2, 2020


Between 1899 and 1902 around fifty skilled Australian Indigenous trackers were sent to South Africa to aid the British and Australian troops fighting the Second Boer War to protect the British Empire’s interests in the region. Once the war was over, rather than being rewarded in any way for their service, they were abandoned there, and what became of them remains unknown.

It is during this war that the federation and foundation of Australia as a nominally independent state was declared. At the time of this foundation, Indigenous people were not recognised as citizens, and would not be until sixty-six years later.

How far have we come?

On the 21st February this year, a decision of the WA branch of the Returned and Services League (RSLWA) to ban Indigenous flags, languages, and ceremonies from all ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day events made a stir in the media. Within a few days, the great public backlash forced them to renounce this policy. However, no proper apology was made.

RSLWA “apologised” for “any misunderstandings” that resulted from their failed policy. But what is the misunderstanding, and what is the correct understanding?

What forces led to this attempted change in policy? Clearly not public opinion, as public opinion is what has, with uncommon swiftness, blocked it. Instead it is the right-wing leadership of the organisation, pushing a particular narrative of Australian history.

Let us make our own analysis of history. The First World War, the typical focal point of the right-wing narrative, was an inter-imperialist conflict between mainly European powers. There were no principles at stake, only territory and power. There was no compelling native reason for any Australian involvement. But despite the fact that Australia had been theoretically independent from the British Empire for thirteen years, pro-British sympathy was amplified by the remaining strong British control over, and interference in, Australian politics, and our country was pushed into this brutal conflict.

The lack of respect and callous disregard of the British military commanders towards Australian troops in the war is well documented. The British treated our troops as disposable cannon fodder, and thousands of our people were killed to further their military aspirations. None can deny that it is important to commemorate these sacrifices made by our people.

However, from the facts, it is difficult to arrive at a positive appraisal of these events, one that constructs a coherent narrative of “the birth of the Australian nation” – the so-called ANZAC legend. Instead the facts depict a great tragedy, and a proof of the importance of the struggle for independence that continues to this day.

The ANZAC myth has been a longstanding trope of the Australian right. It constructs a view of Australian nationhood which is fundamentally tied to British heritage, and erases Indigenous people. This is despite the fact that in the two World Wars approximately 6,000 Indigenous people served in the Australian military. It is of note, although shamefully unsurprising, that the RSL at that time barred the returned Indigenous soldiers from membership.

The RSLWA’s attempted policy is a clear attempt to further this erroneous notion of Australian nationhood. The lesson of WWI should be to avoid such tragedies by pursuing an independent national policy, proceeding from a concept of Australian nationhood that is a reflection of facts and thus upholds Indigenous heritage, rights, and sovereignty at the core. Instead the RSLWA attempted to invert the facts and exclude Indigenous people and culture from their portrayal of the Australian spirit. This is a continuation of the colonialist outlook that still lies at the heart of the dominant culture and politics in our country and must be overcome.

We demand that RSLWA issue a decent apology that acknowledges the wrong that they have committed. There is no misunderstanding; we understand perfectly what they tried to do. The people have spoken and will no longer stand for it.

While it must be observed that in practice the average non-Indigenous Australian’s respect for and understanding of Indigenous people has a long way to go, the facts in theory have become all too clear, and so, increasingly acknowledged by the majority of the people.

How far have we come? The people have come much further than our mainstream political leaders. We need leaders who will take us forward, not hold us back, and overcome old injustices that had no right to ever exist and still less today!

Next article – Queen won’t get involved in Julian Assange case

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