I am channel surfing on a Saturday night when I linger on images and footage of the Australia of my childhood. Laughing blonde people at the beach, frolicking in their ancient swimwear, throwing beach balls against a backdrop of Sydney Harbour.
Australians in innocence. Playing with free-living days. Loving the waves and the sunshine and the welcome cool of the sea.
There was a time I would have inserted myself right into that story, being one among the blonde people. These days I find myself scanning involuntarily, almost unconsciously, for darker faces, darker hair, as my heart begins a now-familiar ache and tears stab at my eyes.
For there are people missing in the picture. People on the fringes, just outside the frame, not welcome on the shore. People for whom, not so very long ago and just inside the boundaries of living memory, those waves and that headland were home and hearth.
Over the past 18 months I have driven 40,000 kms, mostly cross-crossing NSW, from the sea to the mountains across the plains, into the outback and back again. And everywhere I go I see ghosts. Ghosts of trees, tall and strong and shady. Ghosts of animals, the wild zoo of my Blinky Bill days living in and around the once-trees. Ghosts of people, tall and walking and sitting and eating and dancing and hunting and loving and not-loving. And fences. I see fences claiming ‘this land is mine’.
The other night on TV I witnessed a family in distress over a vast hole a mining company is entitled to dig on their cattle property. Five years they have battled the company, fearing the hole will contaminate the water beneath the land they’ve worked for five generations. And I feel for that family. I really do.
But here is what I do not understand:
Australians have wonderful empathy for the rights of landowners living in the shadow of corporate profiteers. Especially when they come for our land and our communities.
Our longstanding farming families can count five even six generations of ownership.
Yet the Indigenous people of this land, those who are missing from our stories, can count their generations of continuous land custodianship in the thousands.
This is not the past.
For here is what else I learned criss-crossing this country. The grief of dispossession of land is present. It is current. It is living. It is now.
It is a living reality for living First Nations people in this country fenced out of land they still consider their home.
It is not ‘the past’.
And now I understand – finally, I really get it – Australia is stolen land. Every time we buy and sell property we are trading in stolen goods. You might own the house and the possessions inside that house, but you do not own the land.
You never will. And your children never will.
This is the legacy we are passing down the line.
And this is the legacy we must address if we are to ‘close the gap’.
The grief of farming families facing loss of land is magnified ten-thousand-fold for the First Nations people of this country. The tragic impact of losing land on one farming family or five families, on one farming community or five communities, is amplified exponentially to entire peoples and all communities among Indigenous people who paid a price too high for your right to grieve for ‘your’ land.
And the grieving of Indigenous people for their land belongs not only to those impossibly large tracts of private land in the Outback – it references all our land. Yes, you too bridge walkers for Reconciliation, the suburbs of our major cities are the original stolen lands.
So I understand the politics of dispossession. We inherit a system. We have our ‘rights’. We ‘own’ our land. We work hard. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved. What right does a mining company have to take all that away, right? What right to break the livelihood and the assets and the hearts and the mental and physical health of that hardworking family? Right?
What I don’t understand is how, in our grief, our hearts don’t also break for others who are grieving the loss of that same land?
How is it we think five generations is something to be respected when we dismiss the thousands of continuous generations who were the custodians of that land before us and – in their hearts and bodies and minds – still are?
The grieving among the First Nations people of this land is present. It is real. It is current. It is now. It is affecting their health and wellbeing. It is devastating their spirits.
We will share Stan Grant’s video a million times – but will we take action for which we might pay a price?
Wake up Australia. Our forbears didn’t take this land peaceably. Scrape colonial history with your fingernail and you’ll discover the land was taken with brutal force, and there were civil wars fought over this land.
‘We’ will ‘fix’ the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians – ‘we’ will ‘close the gap’ – when ‘we’ right the wrong of stolen land.
I don’t know how we do this.
What I do know is we ought to declare a moratorium on land sales until we do. You can buy and sell the house. The land is not for sale until we right the wrong of stolen land.
A moratorium on land sales: watch how quickly we’d come up with a solution.
Watch how quickly we’d ‘close the gap’.
Watch how quickly the spirits of Australia’s First Nations people would rise – and we all know what happens to our health, wellbeing and life expectancy when our spirits begin to soar, when we have hope, when wrongs are righted as best they can be righted, when the grieving is put to bed.
And perhaps then, when my grandchildren’s children are surfing old footage, they’ll see First Nations Australians inside the frame.
Close the gap? #sortitoutAustralia