Conferences, 4Rs 2008

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Bonafides Ignorance: Post-colonial resistance to relinquishing power and extending rights in Australia
Ingrid Matthews

Last modified: 2008-08-31


If the forced separation of children from their Aboriginal families was well-intentioned, what might ill intentions look like?

The modern Australian political era has several highlights for Aboriginal rights, such as the 1967 referendum, when goodwill led to meaningful change. Faludi (1992) wrote that women as a group are forced to fight the same battles over and over again (for example, reproductive rights) even when the right has ostensibly been won. Aboriginal human rights gains are similarly undermined. This is explained as a result of post-colonial reluctance to relinquish power, including among people of goodwill. Bona fides ignorance is wheeled out to excuse centuries of policy failures. The evident intention to exploit land, labour and capital - Economics 101, as endorsed by all Australian governments - is carried out without reasonable negotiation with traditional owners; and without articulating the assumption that all profit is a national good. Undue influence and unconscionable conduct, as contract law breaches, are not regularly tested in the context of Aboriginal rights. Yet Aboriginal leaders of the first-contact era did not cede the rights and interests associated with their custodial responsibilities; and poverty and ill-health stem directly from Aboriginal peoples' dispossession from the land, its resources, and each other.

The danger of insisting that damaging practices were founded on good intentions is that we will fail to recognise current and future policies that will further damage Aboriginal communities. Here I conflate two typical questions asked by non-Aboriginal Australians. "What can I do?" (bona fides) and "What's it got to do with me?" (mal fides) are employed to identify the purpose of intentional ignorance: to resist pressures to relinquish power and extend rights.

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