• Actor Shareena Clan says her mother was not considered a human being until the referendum came through from the flora and fauna act in 1967 on ABC's Q&A (ABC)Source: ABC
OPINION: The myth of a Flora and Fauna Act has gained traction due to two factors: high-profile people making the claim and that it's just so easy to believe, writes academic Samuel Byrnand.
By
Samuel Byrnand

22 Mar 2018 - 11:24 AM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2018 - 12:55 PM

When I undertook my investigative research into the mythical Flora and Fauna Act – the notion that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were historically regulated and legislated as plants and/or animals – I was still a believer.

The notion of legislated racism has always fascinated me academically; conceivably a result of learning of the ascribed status (read: slavery) imposed upon my Roma ancestors for hundreds of years in Eastern Europe. As a fresh-faced and eager socially progressive academic, I was keen to shine a spotlight on this dastardly and almost unbelievable facet of Australian history.

However, as with many research projects, once I began digging I found mostly questions and dead ends in lieu of hard corroborating evidence. The Flora and Fauna Act does not exist now, nor has it ever existed. It is a very powerful and successful example of the urban myth which provides no benefits to any Australian. It only acts to compound the suffering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Flora and Fauna Act does not exist now, nor has it ever existed. It is a very powerful and successful example of the urban myth which provides no benefits to any Australian. It only acts to compound the suffering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Since 2007, the myth has gained real traction due to two principle factors: high profile people making the claim in the media, and the general public’s outrage in response on social media. People such as Linda Burney, Stan Grant, Mark Colvin, Charlie Pickering, and Shareena Clanton cannot genuinely be described as “liars” (as some on social media have claimed) because they have simply been misled by a very powerful and persuasive myth. In fact, Ms Clanton is the last in a long list of people to make this claim publically, and she seems to have been the one thrown under the bus, so to speak. This is a regrettable side effect of rooting out misinformation, and Ms Clanton has suddenly been cast in a negative light, immediately and unfairly earning the ire of the social media judiciary. But this was not a myth of her invention. She, like many of us, is a victim of this myth.

My research was not designed to instigate a witch-hunt. Its sole purpose is to stomp out an enduring falsehood – one of many – regarding Aboriginal people in Australia. Aboriginal kids don’t need to hear fake news about their people’s history. There is enough legitimate horror and continuing suffering that needs to be addressed without being distracted by falsehoods. 

Aboriginal kids don’t need to hear fake news about their people’s history. There is enough legitimate horror and continuing suffering that needs to be addressed without being distracted by falsehoods. 

The real power in the myth is that it’s so easy to believe. Juxtaposed against the last 240 years of Australian history, it feels real. No one with any legitimate claim to knowledge of Australian history denies the suffering imposed upon the various Aboriginal cultures since the British arrived, and the continuing treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as “others” and less than human – in their own country – feeds myths of this kind.

One need only look to our coinage to see iconic Australian flora and fauna on each coin until we reach the $2 coin, which bears the representation of an Aboriginal man. One need only look at the mounting statistics of Aboriginal deaths in custody, to read the social media vitriol aimed at Aboriginal children who have been killed or are incarcerated, to watch the phone-camera footage of police and prison guards treating Aboriginal elders and women and minors in ways most of us would not treat rabid animals. These events are influential in the perpetuation of misinformation and perhaps the only way rational and reasonable people can explain this horrific and continuing history is to assume that it has a legislative seal of approval. Surely, this mistreatment is the result of lasting effects of some White Australia Policy influenced legislative decision? We had an Aboriginal Protection Board, so is a Flora and Fauna Act such a stretch of the imagination? No, it clearly is not.

As reported in the ABC this week, The Flora and Fauna Act myth has strong ties to the 1967 Referendum, which in itself has been misrepresented as providing Aboriginal people with citizenship, the vote, equal wages, and human status by overturning the Flora and Fauna Act - all of which are untrue. Further, it is heralded as the point in time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were finally counted in the national census, which itself is not entirely untrue, but is entirely misleading. Aboriginal people have been counted in the national census since 1911, which was the first official national census after federation. The point that has been twisted here is that the numbers of Aboriginal people were kept separate from the final count of the Australian population. That fact alone is dark enough without throwing more fabricated shade onto it.  

The outing of the myth of the Flora and Fauna Act as being clearly untrue may just create a vacuum in the national narrative. Does this vacuum diminish the struggle for human rights fought for so valiantly by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heroes?

So where do we go from here? The outing of the myth of the Flora and Fauna Act as being clearly untrue may just create a vacuum in the national narrative. Does this vacuum diminish the struggle for human rights fought for so valiantly by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heroes such as Pemulwuy, Yagan, Truganini, Isabel Coe, Gary Foley, Koike Mabo, Celeste Liddle … and so on (a list that could go on far longer than this page allows). Absolutely not.

So, what does this sudden vacuum in the narrative provide us? Potentially, it creates a space in which Australia collectively shakes off the dust of the old and imprecise, and provides enough elbow room with which to target the real issues with laser precision. Perhaps more space to approach the issues outlined in the lofty ideals of the Closing the Gap project, undertaken by successive Australian governments. Space to deal with the issues that our activists and martyrs and heroes have struggled for over the centuries, free of the encumbrance of confusing and misleading false facts and memories.

And perhaps best utilised, in my own opinion, as a space for healing.

 

Samuel Byrnand teaches political science at the University of Canberra. His principal line of research is Australian political and legislative history. Follow Samuel @TheILHA