Ingeborg van Teeseling

Australia, we need to look to the past to look to our future

Unlike other countries who possess a similarly brutal past, Australia seldom addresses it. However, if we want to grow as a nation, it’s something we’re going to have to face.



Over the last two weeks, I have written stories about how the past influences the present and the future. I had a look at mental and physical stress in our mothers and grandmothers, and how we as children pay for that with negative changes in our brain and bodies. Today, I would like to broaden that a little and investigate the body politic, the nation-state, and how history and the now are connected there. A few weeks ago, the august magazine Foreign Affairs published an issue that was called ‘The Undead Past: How Nations Confront the Evils of History’.

In it, a number of journalists wrote nuanced and insightful articles investigating how countries like America, Germany, Rwanda, South Africa, Russia and China deal with their nasty legacies. Unfortunately, Australia was not one of the countries featured, which tells you something about our place in the world. But it should have been, because we’ve got some issues to sort out for ourselves. Of course, Indigenous people have not been the only ones dealt a bad hand in Australia. We have discriminated against Catholics, Chinese, women, migrants and almost everybody else.

Until the 1970s, discrimination was enshrined in our laws and at the core of our country’s identity. But Indigenous people are the only ones who were at the receiving end of actual wars with white Australia. These wars would have been a great topic for Foreign Affairs because they decided how white and black Australia are still dealing with each other.

The past determining the present and the future in a big way.

They were called the Frontier Wars, and started a few months after the First Fleet landed in 1788. At first, governor Arthur Phillip was very much motivated to ‘live in amity and kindness’ with the Eora people, but as Watkin Tench, one of the British marine officers, wrote, this was a qualified aim: ‘Our first object was to win their affections, and our next was to convince them of the superiority we possessed: for without the latter, the former we knew would be of little importance’.

Soon, the gun became more important than the friendship, and after some people had been hurt and killed, full-scale conflict broke out that lasted until roughly the 1930s. An estimated 28,000 people died, mostly Indigenous. That is about the same number as died during WWII, but despite that, WWII has many, many memorials and a large place in our country’s narrative and the nation’s War Memorial in Canberra. That same Memorial refuses to acknowledge the Frontier Wars or give them a place in its rooms or the story of Australia. Despite the fact that, as Aboriginal lawyer Jidah Clark recently wrote, the Indigenous fighters were ‘the first Australian patriots, willing to die for our country’.


Soon, the gun became more important than the friendship, and after some people had been hurt and killed, full-scale conflict broke out that lasted until roughly the 1930s.


One of the reasons why we don’t want to recognize the Frontier Wars is because they tell us something about Aboriginal people that is not part of the story of Australia. Namely, that they had ownership of their lands and fought for it. No terra nullius, no peaceful settlement, no noble savages who were grateful to be ruled. That, of course, also tells us about ourselves as non-Aboriginals. And who wants to hear that their ancestors were responsible for rape, slavery, brutality, economic repression, racism and killing? Another reason is that even war has rules attached to it. Because there has always been conflict, the first attempts to regulate it can be found in the Old Testament, and those were officially written down and ticked off at the First Geneva Convention in 1864. They enshrined acceptable wartime conduct, also called jus in bello, and acceptable justification to engage in war in the first place, jus ad bellum. You can imagine what was in the rules: proportionality, treatment of prisoners, the distinction between combatants and civilians and punishment for violations. During the Frontier Wars, white Australia and its government broke most of those rules, and we have never acknowledged that.

What is even more depressing, is that we have also never recognized the non-warrior strength of Aboriginal people. The things we should be proud of as a nation, but instead choose to ignore. Australian archaeology is packed with finds that should make our souls sing. Grindstones that are more than 30,000 years old and make this country to a site of the world’s oldest bakers, by almost 15,000 years. 18,000-year-old irrigation systems, stone concourses to catch eel, complete with viaducts and channels, probably the first human construction ever, anywhere. The reason why we ignore these sources of pride, is because including them would, again, change our national narrative. We would have to start seriously debating our past, our responsibility and what we want the future, our common future, to look like.

There are many ways countries deal with their past. Foreign Affairs gives a few examples. Two stand out. First of all, there is Germany. Just after WWII, an opinion poll revealed that half the population considered Nazism ‘a good idea badly carried out’. Then a new generation, born after the war and brought up with democracy, started asking some serious questions of their parents and teachers, and honest, objective historical research was suddenly possible. There were prosecutions for war crimes, although mostly initiated by victims, ex-prisoners of concentration camps mainly. The old guard died and after some serious soul-searching, the responsibility and shame of the country became part of the school syllabus and the national story. Anti-monuments were added, old ones taken away. Angela Merkel’s government allowed almost a million refugees into the country a few years ago. Germany became a guiding light, instead of a symbol of murder and oppression.


Dealing with your past, whether you are an individual or a country, starts with admitting that you have done something wrong. In Australian history, that only happened once.


Then there is the US. Foreign Affairs describes slavery as America’s ‘original sin’, and that sounds right if you consider that even its famed Constitution counted slaves as only 3/5 of free people and prohibited the abolition of the slave trade. Slavery, the article says, was needed for white unity: ‘without a large group of people who would always rank below the level of even the poorest, most disaffected white person, white unity could not have persisted’. Not confronting slavery and its consequences has led to a Black Lives Matter campaign, that is still fighting with white supremacists, a deeply racist nation, a president like Donald Trump, and a society where being black is still a reason for disenfranchisement.

So what do we want to be? Who do we want to emulate? Going on evidence, it doesn’t look good. Apart from an unwillingness to acknowledge the

Frontier Wars and Aboriginal accomplishments, there seems to be a refusal to get to grips with the practical consequences of the past. A recent review of Closing the Gap shows that indigenous people are still almost twice as likely to be unemployed as white Australians. There are problems with life expectancy, education, child mortality, family violence, incarceration, poverty, addiction and racial abuse. In 2010, fifty percent of all suicides in Australia were Aboriginal people. And yet, Closing the Gap’s funding was severely cut several times, ‘effectively abandoning’ the campaign, as the review said. Other measures don’t look good either. Despite decades of promises from governments, there is still no Treaty. The Referendum to enshrine an Indigenous voice in the Constitution has been abandoned by Turnbull, who also doesn’t want to accept the Uluru Statement. And five minutes after Kevin Rudd said ‘sorry’, he also told Aboriginal people that there would be no compensation.

Dealing with your past, whether you are an individual or a country, starts with admitting that you have done something wrong. In Australian history, that only happened once, when Paul Keating gave his famous Redfern Speech in 1992. He said that ‘it was we who did the dispossessing, we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine that these things could be done to us’.

That emphasis is mine. Any human behaviour, I find, starts with the realization that we are all the same. And if I can hit you, that means you can hit me too. That makes us cautious, or it should do. To right past wrongs, we have to realise that they were done to people just like us. And ask some questions. If I had been treated this way, would I want somebody to say sorry and mean it? Would I want compensation, justice, a sign of culpability? And how would I feel if people kept saying that I should ‘get over it’? That what happened in the past should stay in the past, that it is a long time ago and somebody else’s fault?

‘Sorry’, my friends, is not to let white people feel better about themselves. It is not about moving on while leaving others to deal with your mess on their own. That, in fact, is another insult, another act of violence. Sorry needs to be an action, not just a word. The Bible says that to be forgiven, you need to ask for it. It is the wronged party who has the power to forgive, not the party who did the damage. Atonement also needs regret, repentance, repair, redress and proving that you realise what you have done and will do better in the future. None of those things we have done so far. And most of those things are for governments to decide on. But we are citizens and can vote in the right people. We can also start with ourselves.

Start telling a more complete story about who we are as a nation. Look at the past and vow to learn from it.

Be Germany.







4 Bruce Pascoe Dark Emu Broome, Magabala Books, 2014

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.