This December, I will have lived in Melbourne for 17 years. The anniversary prompts reflection, and there would be reasons to say that Australia has been good to me. But it is also a country that breaks you.
It started with learning that Aboriginal children were taken from their families well into the last century. Everything unravelled after that, and the more I read and heard, the more threadbare Australia seemed. It left me cold. This is a rite of passage for those not born here.
Successive governments do not let us forget the past. More than 300 Indigenous people died in prison and police custody since the final Royal Commission report in 1991. This week (yet another) Royal Commission highlighted the particular ways in which Indigenous Australians are crushed within the mechanics of law, even as children.
There are casual cruelties, too, like dismissing a carefully crafted proposal that Indigenous people have a formal voice in parliament. The pattern of recent years has been constant deferment on the things that matter to Aboriginal peoples.
Sooner or later, they get caught in the crossfire of internecine political conflict or — given that our politicians are versatile in their indecency — get derailed in the immediacy of other concerns like the safe resettlement of refugees, the postal survey on marriage, and the defence of Muslim Australians from ethno-nationalists.
It is not that Indigenous peoples compete for space, though this benefits those who make them do so, but that so much flows from original sin.
The supremacist bent that first laid low nations on this continent is manifest in the reinforcement of borders, hegemonic framing around Christian values, and lingering overreaction to people who criticise such things. Until section 44 of the Constitution tripped up so many in parliament, citizenship was something to bludgeon minorities with. Many oppressive policies, especially in welfare, start out in Aboriginal communities.
"As long as Australia's original sin remains unexpiated, our sense of what justice looks like will remain incomplete, even distorted."
It seems entirely possible that reconfiguring our relationship with First Nations peoples, perhaps even centralising it, would give us the language and impetus to reconfigure everything else, including the way we resolve conflict, think about the environment, and make decisions about vulnerable members of society. Perhaps this is precisely why governments continue to defer doing anything substantive when it comes to Indigenous peoples. It upsets the order.
But as long as Australia's original sin remains unexpiated, our sense of what justice looks like will remain incomplete, even distorted. Anything that we make right for disadvantaged groups like LGBTI, disabled, refugees and Muslims (and we should) will seem to rest on the continuing dislocation of Indigenous peoples from national life. I cannot begin to imagine the hurt that engenders.
For a while I made the mistake of thinking that the terrible things done to Indigenous peoples was something that white people did. I found a 'we' that I had struggled to find in the way that powerful people speak about and enact laws against minorities. It can be a useful sense of solidarity, that shared experience of being up against whiteness, which is shorthand for the systems and structures that protect the status quo.
The truth is that my being here is part of an ongoing history of colonisation. It is not an easy thing to live with, the idea that I ultimately benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples no matter how much I believe myself to be on their side.
The very least I can do perhaps is to say it is time to make them the priority.
Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.