Over 2 weeks have passed since I left Australia, and my thoughts are still with the immense country. During my travels I started wondering about why I couldn’t see Aboriginals in the coastal areas and started researching. I discovered a “world behind the postcard” and this article is an attempt to describe to my observations and explore some historical facts. I’m aware that this might be a controversial post and I can’t consider it complete, given the amount of information available on this matter. This article is a personal opinion and an attempt to express my thoughts after visiting Australia for the first time.

I travelled over 10000 Km, visited Sydney, drove from Melbourne to Adelaide, passed Woomera and travelled up to the mining town Coober Pedy. I drove back down to the east coast, passing Broken Hill and Cobar. I arrived back to the coast close to Nelson Bay, followed up the coast a bit more, then back down to Sydney. It was great, although I had hardly seen all of “Australia”, I now had a rough idea. Meeting friendly and welcoming Australians and many fellow travellers, I traded my work with great people, felt safe and welcome, surrounded by stunning nature. Even so, when I first arrived in Sydney I questioned myself about how and where the Aborigines lived, perhaps because I couldn’t see many traces of the traditional owners of the land anywhere. What I could see was that Australia’s tourism is driven by promoting the richness of the Aboriginal heritage, the native craftsmanship and art, traditions and rituals. Many places across the country are defined by this heritage and it is mentioned everywhere in tourist information. But where were they? In the Outback? Surely the natives wouldn’t still live like the hunter gatherers shown on tourist boards.

The coastlines are inhabited by a multicultural mix of many countries from all over the world, while many are descendants of Europeans, a big majority are British (I read that “in 2001 nearly 1 in 4 Australians was born overseas”). A lot of people live in considerable wealth, and as I drove down I was often impressed by the rich lifestyle. Expensive cars, beautiful houses located in even more beautiful bays and many that apparently have most of the (material) things humans thrive for. Australians seem blessed by a rich nature with a strong economy, apparently hardly hit by the global financial crisis.


As I drove north, towards south Australia and by visiting the Outback I started seeing Aboriginal communities, sometimes living in poor conditions, sometimes homeless and often with hopeless and unhappy expressions in their eyes and faces. I felt intimidated and didn’t quite dare to interview the ones I met about how life was going. It looked like the “white man” occupied the beautiful coastline and lived in considerable wealth and the Aborigines were left out living mostly poorly in the deserted empty spaces. I needed to know more as it didn’t quite feel right.

During my time in Melbourne, I took some time to visit the Immigration museum and did some more research to connect the dots. A short (incomplete) trip back in time: Australia was discovered by the Dutch around 1606 but claimed by Great Britain in 1770. British colonisation began only in 1788, as did the transportation of convicts (which stopped in 1868). It’s assumed that Aboriginals arrived as far as 40000 to 50000 years back, and might “have occupied the same territory continuously longer than any other human population”. Before European Settlement, there once existed 500 to 600 tribes of 100 to 1000 people and there where about 300 distinct Australian languages and many of these had several dialects.


The continent was explored, six colonies established and the population grew steadily, while aboriginal population declined dramatically, mainly due to infectious diseases brought in by the whites. The new government started with a policy of “assimilation” beginning with the “Aboriginal Protection Act” in 1869, removing Aboriginal children of mixed race from their families and communities, also known as “The Stolen Generations”. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a public apology in 2008.

Australia was declared a Commonwealth in 1901, when the six colonies were federated, a time where the “White Australia policy” was in place, giving priority to all white mostly british immigrants. In the 1967 referendum the government gained power to make laws to respect the natives and in 1975 the “Racial Discrimination act” forbid all racial discrimination. The traditional ownership of land – Aboriginal Title – was only recognised in 1992, removing from common law the fiction that Australia was uninhabited before James Cook claimed the Land, formerly named Terra Nulius. Unlike Australia’s sheep, the Aborigines were not counted until the late sixties. Unfortunately, some land claims are still being undermined from what i read in John Pilger’s chapter about Australia in his bookThe New Rulers of the World”.


And there was more… I read about the Maralinga nuclear tests between 1956 and 1963, where the british did many nuclear trials near Woomera in South Australia. Apparently the trials performed without taking all possible measures to protect the natives, cleaning the areas where the bombs exploded twice afterwards and allowing inhabitants to repopulate. Some Aborigines that couldn’t be contacted about were in the area while those tests proceeded, from what some reports suggest and the debate over long-term health effects continues.

Many of the housing projects for Aboriginals failed, a good example being the story of The Block” in Sydney. The recent documentary “Utopia”, also by John Pilger, is a must watch regarding the topic and it reveals more truly shocking events in the past, varying from racist acts to the defamation of whole communities for political reasons. It shows that not much has changed for the last 20 or 30 years for some of the communities living in very poor conditions with health and housing problems that could easily be solved. A curious fact is the a lot of Australians celebrate “Australia Day”, celebrated annually on the 26th of January, the day of arrival of the British fleet. Aborigines made it a day of national mourning, sometimes mentioned as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day”.

I could go on, citing from the numerous examples I’ve found. It’s history repeating itself all over the world regarding colonisation and occupation of land by other nations, but what I see is one of the wealthiest countries of the world having a pretty disastrous way of handling the situation with its native inhabitants.

Several housing projects have failed, racist acts have been committed, integration has often failed, drug and health problems grew… and this continues to the present day. Some Australians seem to think that Aborigines should adapt to their lifestyle (to the western one), rather than trying to find solutions for Aborigines to continue to live like they did for thousands of years. But I’m not even sure if this is possible, since I feel like the natives in Australia are now stuck between the worlds. Going back to the way it was seems impossible because the white man brought many new things and systems, and living by those could mean losing their cultural identity, way of life and connection to the land.

The whole situation looks like a huge challenge to overcome, deeply enrooted in current social and political systems. I have some obvious questions. – How is possible that one of the wealthiest countries of the world – the 12th-largest economy with some of the highest per capita income, maintaining shiny free BBQ areas along the whole coast with park officials cleaning those almost every day – can’t provide infrastructure, healthcare and benefits for its native inhabitants? Given the size of the Aboriginal population the financial effort would be minimal compared to many of the national expenses and investments. Why does it feel like some sort of modern colonialism with an ongoing Apartheid-like system where the native population is kept poor and with less possibilities? Why haven’t I heard this from other travellers visiting Australia, it seems so obvious to me?

These a tough questions and it’s a strong opinion, I’m aware of that. I need to emphasize that I’ve just seen parts of Australia and read and seen very little of the existing information on this topic. My opinion can only be limited and I’m not trying to offer a full picture, but rather a few of my thoughts on my observations and research. There surely is the other side of the medal, the dozens of initiatives fighting for Aboriginal rights and integration, their success, their trials and programs in many areas of Australia. I’m currently in New Zealand and I see Maori culture very integrated in the schooling system and part of general life, while many white Australians wouldn’t know much about the Aboriginal heritage, unless they searched by themselves. Like my Australian friend wrote to me “The key to change is education, not just for Aboriginal people who now exist with such ingrained disadvantage that has led to cycles of violence, abuse and lack of education, that affects individuals and whole communities, but also education and integration of native values into contemporary Australian life”.

I’m looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.

  • geordielittlemusic

    Well written Lukas.
    As a white Australian male, I am ashamed that I don’t know more about this topic, and I don’t claim to have any more insight than you seem to have. But I will try to make sense here anyway!
    What I can say is that there is still a lot of racism present in Australia. As you have said, as a nation we are incredibly well off, with very low unemployment, high wages, and a good standard of living (at least for white people). However, white Australians in general tend to distance themselves from these problems, which are still very much ingrained in our society. Out of sight, out of mind. I am from Adelaide, and there are still a lot of problems and a lot of hurdles to pass before real recognition and real reconciliation can take place. It seems that just because people start events by ‘acknowledging the traditional owners of this land’ they think everything is ok. Most people, myself included, know nothing about the Kuarna People, except that they are the traditional owners. I met a guy from Berlin at the Fringe Festival a couple of weeks ago who had translated one side of his flyer into the Kuarna language because it is normal for him to want to speak the native language. I was incredibly touched buy this. I don’t know any Australian that has ever tried to learn it. In Adelaide people are still surprised if they see an Aboriginal that isn’t a homeless alcoholic that lives in the parklands. It’s sad. As a street performer I see all types of people and I try not to judge anyone before I speak with them. Yes there are homeless alcoholic aboriginals, but there are just as many homeless alcoholic white men. Unfortunately people only see the aboriginals because they look different and they easily fit a stereotype.
    I agree, there needs to be a widespread shift in the education of all Australians, but there also needs to be a widespread recognition that there is a massive problem. People need to realise how much racism there really is in Australia, and how ingrained and ‘natural’ it is to stereotype people. I don’t know if there ever can be complete reconciliation, but I really do hope that Australia can move forwards in some way. At the moment there is very much a White and a Black Australia.
    At the very least, your article has made me want to educate myself a little more. So thank you! I hope it does the same for others.

    • lukesmmr

      Good to hear from you Geordie! I didn’t think that I’d actually end up writing so much about this but I kept me busy so I thought I should give it a try. When everyone’s living a comfortable life it’s hard to recognise a problem, so it needs to start a political level and by the media (preferably not in election year). And I agree, a widespread shift in education could make things change over time. I’m going to continue to educate myself too… it’s such a complex problem. All the best to you!

  • Muriel Turner

    Thanks Lukas, a good summary of Australia and it’s peoples. I have heard of programs that are teaching the younger generations of Aboriginals of their traditional ways, and also retreats where ‘Westerners’ can be taught by traditional teachers about living in the bush. But generally I agree, when I travel to South America, the traditional people’s ways of living exist side by side with all other cultures. Vastly different here. Had a conversation recently with some friends about government systems and services [eg health, education, jail, etc] and we queried whether they are set up for people’s lives to improve? Or simply to keep themselves in a job?

  • MIchael Scarlett

    Good read brother. I particularly liked the suggestion that the indigenous
    culture are stuck between two worlds. Traveling overseas people seem to see
    Australia as some kind of perfect Utopia and without realising, or maybe not
    wanting to realise, the horrible history we were built on and the current
    political issues still holding us back as a mature society. Just a few things,
    I did learn about Australian History in high school, but think it could have been
    made a more important part of the curriculum, this was at a private school not
    a state school. But this seems to be a human trait of education and politics,
    instead of truly learning from the past we feel the need to create a sense of
    security in the now.

    Also in terms of Indigenous Culture being used in tourism, I understand the
    problem with this if we are not truly listening to, assisting and working with
    indigenous communities, but at the same time I like seeing any reference and
    acknowledgment of indigenous culture, and it being celebrated, as it is a step
    forward from ignorance, racism and xenophobia.

    It seems like such a tricky topic though, so much damage has been done, and how
    do you now create channels to integrate or spaces for their own communities to
    thrive. It seems we need to help, but then we are also the ones that created a
    need for help being required. Alcohol and drugs in communities, and bad use of
    welfare also make the issue more tricky, but it begs the question, why do these
    problems exist. Good on you foraddressing the issue.

    Here is a great video on the topic by a friend of mine 🙂


    • lukesmmr

      Mick! Great video indeed and thanks for your comment. I know, its a really tricky issue and it took me some time to feel confident to address it. But the more it gets out there, the better… Big up to Melbourne!

    • Marie

      Marie Langley Very interesting article. I am an Australian who has been living in the states for the past 14 years. For some reason this topic popped in my head just last night and forced me to do research on the matter. You have helped me to articulate my thoughts better about this astounding problem. In the twenty years I lived in Australia, I only once came in contact with an aboriginal. Surprisingly, he attended the private school I went to. I think there needs to be a government push to get these people into the work place and help integrate them into society. There needs to be aboriginal work programs and internships for these people. However, the government can’t do all the work. These people have to want to help themselves and not be content drowning themselves in alcohol from the crappy stipend that the government provides them with each week. Great article. Looking forward to watching the documentary.

  • Very insightful post – I had no idea of the extent to which the Aussi government underprovided for it’s native inhabitants. I fully agree that Education is the key… I think the first step would be increasing awareness & sharing stories about the aboriginal heritage, bridging the empathy gap that seems to exist here (and in many other parts of the world).

    • lukesmmr

      After some more insights and debates with friends on other platforms, Its unfair to say that the government underprovides everywhere, it surely does in some parts. There’s a bigger knot, the wrong allocation of resources combined with the gap between the worlds. Increasing awareness surely is the key. A friend pointed me to this interesting comment by Adam Goodes. He writes about the silence in Australia’s mainstream media about John Pilger’s documentary “Utopia” and the strange hostility towards it: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/hostility-to-john-pilgers-film-a-denial-of-nations-brutal-past-20140302-33ttx.html

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  • Soulglo

    Have to disagree wholeheartedly with the focal point of the whole story, I am an Australian of Polynesian heritage, I had plenty of friends at school who were aboriginal and continue to meet and see the aboriginal culture everywhere, I do agree the tourism industry may overplay the prevalence of cultural integration, but 2 weeks to see all the places you did with the amount of KM’s covered you would have been driving the whole time to see the places you did? Majority of the places you would have seen Aboriginals are no where close to any of the places visited.
    I traveled the U.S for 3 weeks, did I meet, see or even get recommended to visit, explore and learn anything about native Americans? The travel guides barely covered this topic. It’s a matter of perspective and I challenge any of you wanting, willing or interested in travelling this beautiful country to speak to your travel agent or at least ask for some Australian perspective in online forums on best places to visit.
    This is my personal opinion, I plan on spending a lot more time in the U.S to hopefully see, meet and interact with the indigenous peoples in the future so here is to keeping open mind!

    • Hey Soulglo.. thanks for commenting. Yes, I do have to emphasise again how limited my personal knowledge on this topic his and I was aware that I am moving on “thin ice” by writing this opinion article. I just visited a small part of Australia and was just confused since there was little trace of native Australians where I was… as always it is hard to generalise and this probably could be written from a different angle, focussing on all the good things happening. I still felt the urge to write this piece and simply hoped to get a little discussion going, which I’m happy to have achieved, ultimately to instigate what you’re saying.. so everyone will be seeing, meeting and interactive more with indigenous people in the future. All the best

  • Geri

    Thank you for bringing this important topic up for discussion. Most people that visit Australia, never even question the livelihood of the original people or the racism, which they suffer in this “lucky country”.
    As an Australian, I am deeply ashamed of it.

  • StudentofAustralia

    I agree with most of your points Aboriginals in Australia live in poor conditions their prison rates are high, they have poor housing, education and health. Although learning these facts through schooling as an Australian secondary student, I know that in the curricula where possible we must learn about Aboriginals. Saying this growing up I have noticed that although essential to add in the teachers curricula, you are also able to see their attitude towards the issue. There are teachers who don’t like teaching about Aboriginals, this says to me that racism and discrimination against the indigenous is still alive and possibly the foundation of the issue and it’s disgraceful from our people. Also the government is to blame for many years John Howard refused to say sorry to the Aboriginals for the torture they put them through in the lost generation, as you stated only in 2008, 6 years ago was it publicly apologized for. Over the years there have been many alterations to the laws that don’t necessarily help the Aboriginals and some that do but not enough to help them out of the current situation they are in. While the underlying problem is with the white people of Australia, there is a lot of violence and alcoholism in the Aboriginal community that does not help the issue. In my opinion this is derived by the negative image and stereotypes placed upon them. Yes I believe Aboriginals are more accepted into our communities, but yet again I wouldn’t know what people think when they pass an Aboriginal. Overall I believe that the Australian government has not placed enough time and effort into helping the Aboriginal community, they have given them little help to work off. Instead of trying to sent the bouts away they should be focusing on establishing more learning facilities for the Aboriginals. So that the future generations are better educated and may have a possible future outside the current cycle they exist in. Housing where they have clean sewage and don’t need to share with other families a school that’s not miles away from where they live, all these contribute to the poor health of the community and I totally believe that the government can help.

  • Leigh

    Hi, I lived in Australia from 1973 though 1979. Queensland, Brisbane. I went to the public schools. My father started the conglomeration between Peabody Coal and Mitsui Coal. When we arrived in Australia, we were instructed to “leave the natives alone”. Were they hostile? No one would answer. When we were in Australia, their economy was so far behind what my parents were used to, they didn’t even have a one hundred dollar note. When we would venture around, we might see a few Aborigines, yet, NO ONE would interact. We had al kinds of neighbors, that my parents were very social with, Polish, Japanese, British…what was the difference?
    The image is of my sisters and myself, with one of our “pet” kangaroos

  • anon

    If as you your personal knowledge was and is so limited then why write this article? This does not make sense. All you will be able to do is make generalised and possibly inaccurate statements. I lived in Australia up until very recently for 13 years observing Australia and it’s culture closely – and I still don’t know it all here nor have all the answers.

    • Normandie Kent

      A person does not have to be in a place more than 2 weeks before you start to get the notion that the Aboriginal population has been Ethnically cleansed from their ancestral coastal homelands….geez… It only takes a person with eyeballs ! It’s the Same thing in the Coastal areas and on the off shore islands of California, all the Coastal Tribes have been conveniently removed to make room for all the white millionaires and movie stars. Disgusting!

  • anon

    As an immigrant, to Australia I worked closely with first nation peoples in Australia in the media sector.
    Having travlled widely and worked in a number if different cultures I don’t have the blinkered way of thinking that many Australians still exhibit regarding skin less pale than their own. The sad side effect of this is that some (not all) indigenous people now seem to practice their own form of reverse racism against non indigenous people; very sad sometimes to hold the hand of friendship out, only to br treated with indifference and disdain and on occasion agression (I am nether an agressive or rascist person – I just see human beings who are just as able, clever, talented and on amny occasions kind as anyone else).
    This indifference was one of the reasons why my hopes of intigrating with people in that country kind of wasted away. So it’s hard to see how a person with scant real experience of a huge issue such as this can give a definitve opinion on this. You have to be there and live it for a long time (the ups and downs included).

    • Hey. Really appreciate your comment. You are right, however, as mentioned in the article I’m not trying to “give a definitive opinion” or trying to offer a full picture. This essay is only to express my thoughts based on my observations and if it instigates a little discussion its purpose is served. So far it did and I’m happy to hear all kind of opinions. All the best

  • Tish

    Your observations are fair and correct. Things can be quite grim in the some aboriginal communities. And each day there seems to be more restrictive laws imposed or wanting to be imposed on them. Things never change I guess