OPINION: The German government has a $90 billion compensation fund for Jewish survivors of the genocide by its former-government. How much does the Australian government owe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples?
Natalie Cromb

30 May 2017 - 2:56 PM  UPDATED 9 Jul 2018 - 4:45 PM

Having previously discussed the import of the assertion of sovereignty, the structure in which we can self-determine and of Treaty as the mechanism for self-determination and land rights; it follows then that we need to address the topic of reparation. Of course I know this topic is terribly unpopular with a mainstream audience, given the racially-charged cries from government and mainstream media that the Indigenous population will send Australia broke because we are greedy, needy and incapable of financial management.

The public relations campaign waged against Indigenous people since invasion has been a successful one for the Crown and subsequently, for the Australian government. It has been justification for the atrocities in the decades following invasion, and in more recent history, has been used to vindicate government's policy-making for, and on behalf of, Indigenous people. This is generally with little to no community consultation, and notwithstanding the lack of choice communities have and the way the failures within Indigenous policy end up laying at the feet of the Indigenous community.

Despite the constant disparagement from the Indigenous community, the one unavoidable fact that can be quantified is that on 26 January 1788 the Crown not only contravened its own law, but that of prevailing international law by laying claim and taking 7.692 million km² of land. Land that was already inhabited and cared for by the Indigenous people, and Indigenous people who belonged to over 200 nations with a sophisticated and ecologically focussed system of governance. The trespass continues.

The effects of this trespass (effectively, theft) of Indigenous land has been hugely profitable for the Australian government, but utterly devastating for the Indigenous people of Australia. Indigenous peoples have suffered a devastating 80 per cent population loss since this event, and 229 years later – in the absence of any real measures to address the past and present injustices – the devastation remains and is freely seen by anyone who looks.

We are the most incarcerated group in the country, and since the South African apartheid, Australia has the highest rates of Indigenous incarceration. We have rates of Indigenous deaths in custody at the same level which predicated the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Our children being removed from their families are currently at a rate not seen since the Stolen Generations. Indigenous children are being tortured in custody and committing suicide at epidemic rates. And 'community empowerment' has given way to a policy of individual wealth accumulation under the Coalition’s Indigenous Affairs policy.

We represent 3 per cent of the population but receive 0.002% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) for programs that are not affected with any Indigenous community input or apparent benefit. Indigenous policy is paternalistic and further disempowers communities and individuals within communities and, if we are to believe unification rhetoric, this needs to change. Now.


Australia's stock on Indigenous dispossession is up and on the rise

The Australian economy has enjoyed a steady increase in value over the last 229 years. The initial penal colony, quickly burgeoned a livestock and pastoral empire at the immediate detriment to the Indigenous people. The economy then expanded to include mineral mining and manufacturing, where ecological sustainability was not a concept considered by the white ‘settlers’, and detrimental effects were not only felt by the Indigenous people, but the environment. The ensuing technological era saw increases in mining activity and the service sector with the economy quickly burgeoning to in excess of a trillion $US dollars, and has continued to grow despite world economic troubles in recent years.

The success of the Australian economy is not down to economic management, as the constant political posturing would have us believe, it is because a benefit has been derived from the Indigenous people and cultural lands without any payment. 

The success of the Australian economy is not down to economic management, as the constant political posturing would have us believe, it is because a benefit has been derived from the Indigenous people and cultural lands without any payment. Only a small portion of the cultural lands have been returned to traditional owners and almost all of that land ‘returned’ is vulnerable to native title extinguishment for mining if they are not already subject to the 99 year lease provisions. Communities remain vulnerable to governmental whim where water can be turned off, along with electricity and removal of essential services due to the notion that living a cultural life on country is a ‘lifestyle choice’ that the mainstream population shouldn’t have to pay for.

The rhetoric of taxpayer dollars funding welfare and Aboriginal communities is deliberately divisive and paints a picture so far from the truth given that we know that this country – land and people – was taken without recompense, Treaty or even the consideration of negotiation. The wealth derived not only from the value of the land, but the use of the land for industry, the mining and export of minerals and the use of slave labour has all been without recompense.


What are we getting today?

The last Indigenous Affairs budget was $60.7 million to be distributed over 4 years for targeted programs and an additional $10.5 million for Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder treatment and support programs which are largely be directed at Indigenous women and children. This represents 0.002 percent of GDP. The oldest living culture in the world that has sustained 229 years of oppression is relegated to an offensively miniscule amount of funding for programs that are meant to redress the very oppression caused by colonisation.

There have been disjointed and clumsy attempts at reparations over the last few decades with the ‘stolen wages’ claim and the recent announcement in NSW for compensation to the stolen generations, however, the effect of the money dedicated to these claims does little to redress the trauma occasioned to the Indigenous people within these claim categories.


Australia cannot afford what it owes 

By comparison, the German government have gone as far as entering into an agreement with Israel and set up a compensation fund which is reviewed frequently and topped up with over $90 billion in compensation and continual commitment to victims and families after the genocidal holocaust upon the Jewish community by then-Nazi German government.

In Australia, the genocidal policies and ramifications were spread over a longer period and included loss of land and culture and the accurate assessment of reparation can only come from a thorough and forensic quantification of the damages occasioned upon Indigenous people for the last 229 years, an exercise perhaps far too costly and burdensome for the government to consider given that – ultimately – the economy simply cannot afford to pay the damages owed to the Indigenous people of this country.

The forensic analysis would need to consider the land value which is currently estimated in the trillions, the wealth derived from the land – multiplied by the amount of years and stead growth – which is also well into the trillions and then, the damages claims for massacres, overall genocide, rapes, child removal, slave labour, trans-generational trauma and environmental damage, would point to a number that forms the basis of the government's agenda of denial and rhetoric to denigrate Indigenous people.

We can see why the government wants to deny Sovereignty and instead, push symbolic acts like the Apology and Constitutional Recognition - because the cost of reparation paints a picture of a country that is broke. But we do not want this. Not by a long shot.


Realistic reparation

Meaningful reparation can only now be achieved by looking to the future. Indigenous Australians represent 3 per cent of the population and if we were to have access to the equivalent percentage of GDP instead of the 0.002 per cent that is currently budgeted, this would make a significant impact upon our Indigenous people - but only if that funding were assigned to policies and programs determined by Indigenous people.

The blueprints for a better Australia have been circulating with the growing grassroots Treaty movement which enunciates the principles of self-determination, culture, land and language. The pursuit of a Treaty and wide support of it and the principles within it is what will be the defining cultural shift in this country to finally overcome an abhorrent history and have a legacy to be proud of. Hopes that the mainstream community of Australia start to listen to the Indigenous community, ensures that we can work towards a future we can be proud of.

Natalie Cromb is a Gamilaroi writer, Indigenous affairs editor of Independent Australia, social justice activist, legal professional and mother. Follow Natalie @NatalieCromb

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