Uluru Statement from the Heart

The ignorance of our shared history is shocking. Morrison’s denial shows us time for truth-telling is NOW

Never has the cultural gap been so evident.  What I am talking about is the outright denial and whitewashing of the shared Australian history.  The leader of colonial Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison proclaimed on commercial radio station 2GB that Australia was founded on the basis that there be no slavery.  His failure to recall such histories as blackbirding or the forced indentured labour of Aboriginal peoples as domestic help or station hands after removal from family up until the 1960s has been rightly called out by historians and Aboriginal politicians

As an Aboriginal academic and first and foremost, educationalist, it is shocking to hear the apologetic voices of others excusing the Prime Minister’s dismissal of our shared history.  Such debates only further perpetuate the denial and divide within colonial Australia.  In reaction to the outcry Scott Morrison backed away from his original assertion by saying “there have been all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place, and so I’m not denying any of that” and that his comments on 2GB “were not intended to give offence, and if they did I deeply regret that and apologise for that”.

But it has not only been this latest act of denial by the prime minister.  The violence on Blak bodies in recent months has been an assault of endless proportions.  Politicians enacting blow after blow through their mindless rhetoric and inept claims incite further violence against Blak people.  But we should not be surprised with the contempt and disdain currently being hurled within politics and more pointedly, by the Prime Minister.  The denial and ignorance has been evident since the now Prime Minister, Scott Morrison’s maiden speech to parliament on the 14th of February, 2008.  The day after the momentous Apology to the Stolen Generations proffered by then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, Morrison said:

“…we cannot allow a national obsession with our past failures to overwhelm our national appetite for celebrating our modern stories of nationhood”.

He was speaking at the time about his view of the Australian nation, “the product of more than 200 years of sacrifice”.  One must ask just who or what was the sacrifice Morrison was referring to in this statement. 

The erasure of Blak histories and peoples was littered throughout his speech where he suggested that Australia was “at peace with its past”.  He continued stating that “this situation is not the result of any one act but of more than 200 years of shared ignorance, failed policies and failed communities”.  A shared ignorance!?  The outright dismissal of the Blak experience; the assimilatory properties of education where the sole purpose was to indoctrinate the Indigenous child into the ways of the coloniser – surely, the ignorance is not shared. 

Indigenous peoples know the western world.  We have been subjugated to learning the ways of the coloniser since 1788.  It was the intent to ‘discipline the savage’, if I was to paraphrase the words of Professor Martin Nakata.  The ignorance is not ours to bear.

Fast forward to 2018 when the debate about Australia Day was again being raised and Morrison was now the Prime Minister of Australia.  He had maintained that the need for Australia Day to remain as it is as “you don’t pretend your birthday was on a different day”.  He acknowledged that Australia’s national story had “a few scars” and that it was “not perfect”.  He further tweeted that “being honest about the past does [make Australia stronger] – our achievements and our failings.  We should not rewrite our history”.

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

How ironic that in 2020 Morrison is doing exactly that!?  Rewriting history to placate the fragility of the Australian public.  Indentured labour is a euphemism for slavery in Australia.  There was no choice.  Aboriginal peoples and Pasifika peoples were not in a position to leave or change their conditions.

And yet, truth-telling is what the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for.  Truth-telling is exactly that.  The truth must be told.  Not a white-washed history of a nation built on the stolen lands of Indigenous peoples but the truth.  And where better for that truth-telling to occur but in politics and in education.  For if the plight of the Indigenous child in the shared Australian historical context proves anything, education has the power to effect change and to privilege or deny the truth.

The responsibilities of schools and universities

And so while the current leader continues to use his power, privilege and position to deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the respect and dignity that they deserve, I turn my lens to schools and Initial Teacher Education programs in all Australian universities and their power, privilege and position to ensure that such blatant ignorance does not continue. 

Universities and schools have a responsibility to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures are embedded as well as privileged within their teaching and learning.  Shifts in teacher education policy has made it explicit to teachers and systems the importance of addressing the cultural gap. 

Classroom teachers and principals are required to demonstrate how they know students and how they learn as well as how they know the content and how to teach it.  Embedded within these focus areas are explicit reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and content.  The onus in ensuring that graduating teachers are meeting the standards is placed on Initial Teacher Education programs and universities.

Some universities have met this challenge by ensuring that there is a mandatory Indigenous knowledges course within their programs university wide.  There is recognition that doing so is beneficial not just for students but for society.  Universities are further required to have an Indigenous Graduate attribute for all courses and programs. 

In Initial Teacher Education, while it is not mandatory for a standalone course, the lack of cultural awareness on display of late surely illustrates the need for such a course.  That is, if the leader of the country does not know the shared histories, how can we expect peoples who have received the same western education to know any different?

We can change it

Education is where we can effect change.  Initial Teacher Education is where we can effect change within the education provided for all.  We can work towards addressing the cultural gap. Surely, it is time. 

It is time now to look to effect change, to work towards creating a world we want to live in.  It is time to privilege and centre Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, histories, cultures and peoples. 

For far too long, the western education system has worked to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to ‘fit in’ to their systems.  It is time that the system looked at itself and hanged its head in shame with the power, privilege and position it has maintained and look towards creating a culturally inclusive and responsive society.  The time is now.

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Assistant Dean (Indigenous) in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne.  Prior to entering academia Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  Her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy” was awarded the Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education. Melitta is on Twitter @melitta_hogarth