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Recognising Australian South Sea Islanders

March 15, 2015

by Zachary Wone
Originally published on March 14 2015 at
The next Labor government should recognise the Forgotten people, Australian South Sea Islanders.
2013 saw a significant anniversary in the history of this country, one that was unfortunately all but unmarked in mainstream Australian society. 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on the shores of Queensland and the beginning of the notorious Blackbirding trade.
The Blackbirding trade: A hidden history
Beginning nationwide in 1847 in Eden, NSW and continuing until Federation, around 55,000 Melanesians were brought from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands as well 80 other Pacific Islands to Australia by a combination of deceit and coercion, as indentured laborers to work in a range of industries.
Most famously they worked on the sugar cane plantations of Queensland but also the timber, cotton, pearling and cattle industries as well across Queensland and Northern New South Wales.
They were paid a fraction of the wages of a white worker, often suffering from malnutrition as a result of insufficient rations and at the mercy of employers who often regarded them as their property, many died in the fields and suffered one final indignity of being buried in unmarked graves which are only now beginning to be given the proper respect they deserve.
In 1901, as one of the first acts of parliament in a newly Federated nation, the Pacific Island Laborers Act, laid the legal foundations for one of the largest and most comprehensive mass deportations in history.
Despite having become an integral part of the economy and social fabric of the communities in which they lived, many were forced to return to the islands from which they had been culturally kidnapped so long ago, forced to leave friends and loved ones behind once again and in some cases returned to foreign islands to face more atrocities.
This is undoubtedly a shameful history. However we, as Labor supporters can be rightly proud of the fact that the few exceptions to the overwhelming silence on this history however, have more often than not been a initiated by Labor governments.
The road to recognition
It was in 1994, under Keating, that their descendants, the Australian South Sea Islanders were finally recognised by the Commonwealth following a 1992 HREOC Report titled ‘The call for recognition’ which saw Australian South Sea Islanders recognised as a ‘disadvantaged ethnic group’ suffering many of the same disadvantages as Indigenous Australians.
In 1995, Premier Carr recognised Australian South Sea Islanders as a community on behalf of the state of New South Wales, with Peter Beattie in 2000 soon following his lead in Queensland.
Unfortunately, it must be noted that a subsequent memorandum which he sent to his departments asking that they support inclusion of ASSI as a special needs group in all programs and services, has to date not been acted upon.
Despite these important milestones, in the little over 20 years since Australian South Sea Islanders gained Commonwealth recognition, it is the general consensus amongst the community that there has been very little to celebrate since but to commemorate.
The next step – Inclusion in the census
Currently the Australian South Sea Islander community is estimated by reputable historians and demographers as 40,000 strong, however this is a moderate guestimate as there has not been a reliable method of collecting the data.
This obviously limits the ability of any government agency or NGO to identify the ASSI community’s existence and their ability to provide appropriate services and programs aimed at addressing the generational marginalisation of this demographic.
If any future Labor government is to seriously aim to confront this challenge, the Australian Bureau of Statistics managers of Indigenous and broader community ethnic group portfolios need to work together with the leading ASSI organisations to host/support educational workshops in states regional and remote areas in order to ascertain an accurate demographic statistic for the ASSI community.
Furthermore it is vital that we facilitate the meaningful participation of the ASSI community in this process through a series of supported educational workshops need to be hosted in the regions across Australia where we know our communities exist.
Truth and Reconciliation
We cannot afford to wait another 150 years for the truth to be told. The Blackbirding story has been left out of our national narrative for too long and our understanding of ourselves, our history and our region has been much poorer for it.
It’s time for Labor, as a progressive party to lead the way in acknowledging and hopefully even celebrating the remarkable contribution which the Australian South Sea Islander community have made and continue to make to this nation.
Published with the authors’ permission.