Australia’s ‘history wars’ heat up again

A historical counter-narrative is emerging in Australia.

Aboriginal dancers perform in Brisbane, Australia [Getty]
Aboriginal Embassy, lawns of Old Parliament House, Parkes, Canberra [Getty]

For over two centuries, Australia has celebrated the landing of the First Fleet of British Ships at Port Jackson on January 26, 1788. The holiday used to be called “Invasion Day” and “Survival Day” – now it’s known as “Australia Day”.

Earlier this year, as a parade rolled down Swanson Street in central Melbourne, celebrating the national holiday, hundreds of protestors for Aboriginal rights disrupted the activities, waving Aboriginal flags and chanting “always was, always will be Aboriginal land”. The protests were organised by two groups who call themselves Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance and First Nations Liberation.

Living the Language – Australia: The Aboriginal People

“Australia Day is the day our land was physically occupied by invaders,” explained one of the activists, reminding, those present and watching on television, that a historical counter-narrative is emerging in Australia.

Historic suffering

Disputes over how to commemorate the historic suffering of “Indigenous Australians”, and how to address their continued marginalisation have been in the news of late. “Indigenous Australians”, as Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islanders are called, are estimated to make up 2.5 percent of the country’s population of 24 million.

Some weeks after the Australia Day protests – on February 18 – two buses carrying activists, students and journalists left from the University of Sydney, and headed north in a re-enactment of the Freedom Ride of 1965. The original ride was organised by Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, who was inspired by the freedom rides in the American South.

Perkins, who would become the first Aboriginal Australian to graduate from the University of Sydney, led a group of 30 students on a two-week journey through northern New South Wales (NSW), to “expose segregation and the shameful treatment of Aboriginal people“. The Freedom Ride did raise awareness of the second-class status of Aboriginal peoples and led to the “Yes” vote at the 1967 referendum to finally include indigenous people in Australia’s official population count. 

Last month’s reenactment traced the route of the original ride. Over four days, the riders held meetings with local communities in the NSW and organised festivals showcasing indigenous culture.

One piece of good news is that the prime minister has promised to push for a constitutional recognition of the aboriginal people. Again unlike Canada and New Zealand, Australia's constitution does not mention the indigenous population.


The anniversary of the Freedom Ride came at a restive moment, with Australia’s Aboriginal population pushing for constitutional recognition, and studies showing that the population lives in dire social conditions. On February 11, the annual Closing the Gap report, gauging the socio-economic status of the Aboriginal population was released – and the results were sobering. Austrialian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, speaking at the launching of the report, lamented the “entrenched disadvantage” that Aborigines still faced, and the lack of progress in efforts to improve their lot.

“We are not on track to meet most of the targets,” he said, “We must strive and strive again to ensure that the first Australians never again feel like outcasts in their own country.”

Houses demolished

For almost a year, there has also been a continuous a sit-in, a “tent embassy”, as the media is calling it, in Redfern, a district in the heart of Sydney. The protestors are opposing the Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) plans to sell-off low-income houses, that were once home to more than 100 Aboriginal families. Rows of houses have been demolished over the last decade, and activists are now trying to protect the remaining buildings from developers.

The first protest tent was set up in May 2014 by Aboriginal activist Jenny Munro who is demanding that the AHC not sell the land, but use it to provide affordable housing for Aboriginal families. Now there are more than 20 tents in the area. On February 20, the protesters were served an eviction notice, but Munroe has promised to put up a fight, “We’re prepared to fight the sheriff, the police, the bulldozers.”

Another ongoing controversy has to do with the Australian War Memorial’s plans to remove “indigenous gargoyles” that represent Aborigines in a demeaning manner. The statues sit in the Memorial’s courtyard, part of a series of carvings of animals that go back to 1941. Some historians have criticised plans to get rid of the gargoyles, saying that would be “hiding what Australia was”.

As historian Peter Stanley noted, “New Zealand recognises the land wars fought between Maori and settlers in their museum. If the New Zealanders and Canadians can do it we can do it too.” Officials are saying the statues need to be removed because of “asbestos fears“.

Aboriginal Embassy, lawns of Old Parliament House, Canberra [Getty]
Aboriginal Embassy, lawns of Old Parliament House, Canberra [Getty]

One piece of good news is that the prime minister has promised to push for a constitutional recognition of the aboriginal people. Again unlike Canada and New Zealand, Australia’s constitution does not mention the indigenous population.

In December 2014, Abbott announced that he would “sweat blood” to have the constitution recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The proposed bill states, “The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.


The prime minister is hoping to build bipartisan support for this bill, so that the referendum for constitutional recognition takes place in 2017 – on the 50 year anniversary of the 1967 referendum. But politicians are already calling the bill “divisive” and introducing a “perverse sort of racism”. One politician, Senator David Leyonhjelm, claimed that this bill might restart the “history wars”, and that archaeologists may show that another population lived in Australia before the Aborigines.

Tom Colma, an activist at Reconciliation Australia, a Canberra-based foundation, rightfully called Leyonhjelm’s comments were “pathetic“.  

“This is about ending the historical exclusion of the first tens of thousands of years of Australia’s history and removing the existing race discrimination from the constitution.”

Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.