In his Sir Robert Menzies Lecture
in November 1996, Prime Minister John Howard, fresh from vanquishing Labor, argued that “the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement”. He added:
The ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.
The expression “black armband view of history” was originally coined by conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey, who Howard was a big fan of. It’s become the ultimate “get out of jail free” card for anyone downplaying the violent dispossession of First Nations people at the hands of British settler-colonialists, the ramifications of which still play out 250 years later.
While many on the right reject the notion that Britain “stole” lands, and others still deny the atrocities and attempted genocide that followed, the “black armband” admonition allows conservatives to concede those points and then turn it back on activists and their allies by accusing them of living in the past.
For conservatives, everything is better now and we should all just move on. As Howard said later in that Menzies address:
“The debate over Australian history, however, risks being distorted if its focus is confined only to the shortcomings of previous generations. It risks being further distorted if highly selective views of Australian history are used as the basis for endless and agonised navel-gazing about who we are.”
Of course, if your standard is massacres and genocide then sure, things are better. And if you believe that things are better, then anyone taking a black armband view becomes “unhelpful” or “counter-productive” to the furthering of the Australian project. Worse than that, they’re being disrespectful to the good white people who have worked so hard to lift Indigenous Australians to their exalted level.
This is how conservatives in the Howard and post-Howard eras have crushed any attempts at justice, reconciliation and treaty: by framing them as an attack against a country that has moved on from its mistakes of the past.
Facing the truth
But we haven’t moved on, as anyone who takes an even cursory interest in First Nations issues would know.
The life expectancy gap
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is 11 years, and it’s widening.
The Indigenous child mortality
rate is 2.4 times higher than the non-Indigenous rate.
Nine in 10 Indigenous people do not have financial security
and half are suffering severe financial stress.
More than 400 Indigenous people have died in police custody
since 1991’s Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody, and the Indigenous incarceration rate has doubled since then. In fact, Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated
people on Earth and Indigenous children are 17 times more likely
than other Australians to be in detention.
Indigenous children are also killing themselves at an alarming rate. Suicide was the leading cause of death
among Indigenous children in 2017.
Yet these stark and shameful truths are continually obfuscated by the right’s race warriors. Whether it’s Mark Latham calling for DNA testing
to prove Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, the Murdoch papers’ unified opposition to the Uluru climbing ban, or Andrew Bolt’s campaign against Bruce Pascoe, they all serve to do one thing: absolve White Australia from responsibility.
This amounts to an outright denial of history. It’s a sick endeavour, orchestrated and carried out by white supremacists who believe in the inferiority of Indigenous Australians and who yearn for the colonial days of yore when a white man didn’t have to feel guilty.
We have to be better than that. Reconciliation and justice demand it.
As former Federal Court judge and founding president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Marcus Einfeld
once wrote, “Rather a black armband than a white blindfold to shut out the truth.”