The infantilisation of Indigenous Australians

A problem for democracy

I GREW UP in the 1990s, the daughter of a white Australian and a Torres Strait Islander. I was raised on my mother’s stories of the Cairns Esplanade, her doctor father and English migrant mother. I learned the stories of generations of my British ancestors, as far back as the Battle of Hastings, who over the centuries would emigrate to Massachusetts, to Ohio, to Bermuda via the White House, to the Victorian goldfields, to Fitzroy in Melbourne, and to Sydney, where my grandfather was born. I grew up on stories of British settlers, of dispossessors, of those who wielded colonial power and benefited from it. And I was raised on my father’s stories, too. Stories of water, of fishing and of islands. Especially of the island that is ours, the one we don’t live on anymore, Naghir. I listened to the stories of how multiple generations of my Islander family navigated the arrival of the missionaries and the government to access education, to find work, to keep fishing, to stay free. I watched my father become the first Torres Strait Islander to receive a PhD. And, to be completely honest, I didn’t really hear all those stories about our family – I read some of them in his book. I think this is important to acknowledge: Indigenous people are not meant to write our own histories, we’re just meant to speak them. And we’re usually expected to speak them against a more powerful, white, narrative. But it was not ever like that for me. These were never stories told against one another. These were the stories that just told me who I was. In all, I grew up on stories both written and spoken, authored by both the dispossessed and their dispossessors. Some have told me that it’s almost like I grew up in two Australias, but I didn’t. I grew up in the same Australia as you. This is your Australia, too.

Imperfect memories of my childhood are punctuated by things like Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (my mother weeping, my father rolling his eyes), the Murray Islanders going to the High Court, Eddie Mabo’s tombstone being desecrated, governments generally messing with our lives. I grew up with Pauline Hanson, and the vitriol that she legitimised spilled over into the schoolyard. As an adult, when I’ve reflected on how I’ve come to do the work I do, interested as I am in the politics of childhood, these are the faded moments I recall. As an adult, when I’ve seen deeply controversial political moments take hold, I’ve always noticed the children at the heart of them: the children not thrown overboard, the children of the Northern Territory Intervention, the kids of same-sex parents during the recent marriage-equality plebiscite. Because though they are rarely seen and rarely heard, children are never far from the political struggles of a nation.

I was meant to be a lawyer, of course. Work for a bank or something. I was born as a citizen with access to a full education – a member of the first generation of my Islander family to have these things. Everything that everyone had fought for and sacrificed in the century prior had been for those two things: citizenship and education. So I was meant to actually do something with it: I was meant to grow up and become me. Not an activist, not an Indigenous leader, not some bleeding heart liberal fighting the good fight, but just me. Pursuing whatever passions and talents I desired. I was meant to grow up and become free of the politics and struggles that had defined Islander’s lives for so long. I was meant to grow up free of existential questions about identity, personal and national. And I’ve tried. I really have. For the duration of my short career, I have professed to mentors and colleagues: I don’t do Indigenous stuff. It’s not my thing. I’m not interested.



I AM INTERESTED in politics. My great-great-uncle was the Cambridge political philosopher Henry Sidgwick, a contemporary of John Stuart Mill. So maybe the interest is genetic or inherited or something. But then, maybe I got it from my dad and my Islander family whose lives had been caught up in this great political mess we call colonisation. In any case, I always just loved the history of ideas bound up in the pile of books that consumed my childhood. And, in hindsight, the concept that has always fascinated me is that of childhood. Especially how it coincides so often and so comfortably with the idea of modern democracy. John Locke wrote about modern democracy and childhood; Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about modern democracy and childhood; John Dewey wrote about modern democracy and educating children. And when politicians seek to gain control over a debate, when they seek to place a claim beyond political contestation, they often do so by making a claim about children. When politicians want to appear to move above the merely ‘political’ to claim a moral trump card, I guarantee that irrespective of party or ideological persuasion, you will nearly always see this done through the figure of the child: famine, war, refugees, gun reform in the United States, the environment, LGBTIQ+ rights, education. In Australia, we’ve had royal commissions into institutional responses to child sex abuse and the Northern Territory youth justice system, the Bringing them Home report, the Little Children Are Sacred report and subsequent Northern Territory Emergency Response. We’ve had the death of Elijah Doughty. The clusters of Indigenous child suicides.

So, it turns out that I don’t get to be interested in politics, and the history of the concept of childhood, to be an Australian and not do Indigenous stuff. It turns out that in Australia, the politics of childhood is predominantly about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It turns out that the history of Australia is a history of interventions into the childhoods of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And it turns out that the concept of childhood that emerges in Western political thought, alongside ideas of modern democracy, is entirely at odds with the idea of Indigenous childhood that emerges from the West in very closely related literatures and time frames.

The most influential idea of childhood that emerges from Western political thought is that it is a developmental stage of life: a child is a becoming, not a being. What John Locke thought of as a ‘blank slate’. The idea of childhood stipulates that the child grows up and becomes a good, responsible citizen. Childhood is a formative stage for learning about how to be good and not evil. There are lots of different ways to learn, and different thinkers write about this quite differently. What is similar is that education becomes one of the only legitimate interventions into children’s lives (orphanages, for the lowest classes, were another, but that’s related in a lot of ways). For the middle and upper classes, education first takes place in the home with private tutors. And, indeed, this was the education system of my mother’s family: children educated by private tutors and young women who worked as governesses, and taught children in private homes. For the working classes, education becomes accessible through a public education system, which eventually becomes compulsory. At the time this system develops it is also designed to keep the rabble off the street while their parents are off working in factories. From there, education starts to take different pedagogical forms: trying to produce ideal future leaders to realise a better world versus just trying to stop children from becoming delinquents; teaching by example; teaching by experience; and teaching by modifying the big bad real world into a more socially controlled form: the school. This is what we would recognise today.

Indigenous children are entirely cut out of this, of course. My own great-grandfather lobbied hard and eventually used his own wealth (as a Samoan trader who married into our Islander family) to pay private teachers to provide an education to his family. My grandmother was educated to Year 5, and then became a teacher to the local community herself. But the real contrast isn’t in my family history, it’s in the emergence of an entirely distinct idea of Indigenous childhood from childhood as a more neutral, but not remotely inclusive, designation. The idea of Indigenous childhood follows on from the more general idea of Indigenous people that emerges in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: that Indigenous peoples live in a permanent state of uncivilised savagery. They’re human, but animal-like. They have no rational capacity; they’re driven by instincts for survival. They’re a bit like Peter Pan – kids who never grow up – except a lot less fun. And a lot more real.


FOR AS LONG as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have been recognised as human, various forms of knowledge have sought to reduce that humanity. One key way in which that humanity has been diminished is through the infantilisation of Indigenous people. Historically, this has been predicated upon the ‘fact’ that we lacked the maturity, the autonomy and the rational capacities to be extended any civil or political status. The relationship of Indigenous people to new colonial nation-states can be characterised as that of an unwanted child borne from an illegitimate relationship between the Crown and the lands and seas it colonised. This is a logic that extends far beyond our own lands. Canadian academic Toby Rollo writes in his paper ‘Feral children: settler colonialism, progress, and the figure of the child’ that the colonial logic itself is grounded in misopedy, the ‘denigration and subordination of children and childhood’. Later, in ‘The colour of childhood: the role of the child/human binary in the production of anti-black racism’, Rollo expands this claim through an exploration of a multiplicity of historical texts across the Americas and across time that captures the ways in which Indigenous peoples and black bodies come to be infantilised. Rollo cites British philosopher William Winwood Reade writing in 1872 that ‘it is not an empty metaphor to say that savages are children’, and Cecil Rhodes in 1887, stating that ‘the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise’, while in the US a university president stated in 1901 that ‘the Negro is a child race’. What is evident in statements such as these is that the infantilisation of Indigenous peoples relies upon a pre-existing logic that children themselves have no political salience.

In my book Childhood Citizenship, Governance and Policy (Routledge, 2016), I have analysed the ways in which early developmental psychology is problematically predicated upon Darwinian theories of evolution. As David Archard describes in Children: Rights and Childhood (Routledge, 1993), the convergence of social Darwinism with psychological claims about childhood gave rise to the idea that ‘the development of the child into an adult mirrors, without literally reproducing, the progress of humanity as a whole. The child is seen as the analogue of the “primitive” human or pre-human animal.’ This underpins what was known as recapitulation theory, mapping evolutionary theory onto developmental theories in a manner that would see, as John Morss describes in The Biologising of Childhood (Taylor & Francis, 1990), ‘the expression of pain in the infant’ as resembling ‘that of “a monkey or Negro”’, at once making an equivalence of children and blacks, and of blacks and animals. The arrival of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is a significant historical moment because it ushers in a new ‘civilised’ humanity. When these enlightened Europeans encountered people in new lands, those people were cast as primitive savages whose own civilisational development remained in its infancy. Rollo explains in ‘Feral children’ that such connections produce an ‘idea of a telos of progress from animal child to human adult [as] both a historical and conceptual antecedent of the idea of European civilisation’.

To bring these insights to Australia, the infantilisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are specifically present in a range of government documents from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One example is in this exchange recorded in the Minutes of Evidence at the 1913 South Australian Royal Commission on Aborigines, between the commission members and Walter Edwin Dalton, the accountant and honorary secretary of the Aborigines’ Friends’ Association:

Dalton: You have to bear in mind that sixty years ago the natives were practically animals crawling about in the bush. The half-castes are their children and usually, also, the children of the most depraved class of white men. They have not the heredity that other races have, and you cannot expect them to work on purely industrial lines…
Commission member: In asking my question I had the rising generation of half-castes and quadroons in mind, rather than the old aboriginals. Do you not think that the members of that rising generation are different in character from their parents on the maternal side?
Dalton: Yes; but those people are the children of natives who were more or less animals sixty years ago, and their fathers were possibly the lower class of whites. As a rule, it is a low class of white who cohabits with a native woman, and their children have not the stamina and the proper conception of right and wrong that other children have.

In this exchange, it is the humanity of Aboriginal people that is being interrogated. An argument is being presented that Aboriginal people have barely evolved out of animalhood. Having humanised Indigenous peoples, however, their infantilisation set policy upon a course in pursuit of their ‘evolution’ and eventual assimilation into white Australia. To achieve that, it was necessary to intervene in the lives of Indigenous Australian children as early and as completely as possible. Later, in the Minutes of Evidence, the commission asks the Queensland Deputy Chief Protector of Aboriginals, JW Bleakley: ‘At what age do you think they should be taken away?’ He responds:

As soon as they are old enough to do without their mothers. I think that any child whom the protector considered should be separated from aboriginal conditions should be taken away as soon as possible so as to leave as little remembrance as possible of the camp in that child’s mind.

And so, the infantalised Indigenous Australian is now a real child who, if removed from their mothers, can grow up, evolve and assimilate.

Across decades, the benevolent intentions of some individuals are present, but such benevolence is ultimately ineffective and harmful because it remains wedded to the infantilisation of Indigenous peoples. I can almost hear Walter Edwin Dalton’s voice as he tries to mount an argument that Aboriginal men and women can, through appropriate religious and educational instruction, ‘grow up’ against a commission that is highly sceptical of any such capacity. An infantalised view of Indigenous Australians as permanently without any potential to become ‘civilised’ damns them to sub-human status and to violence aimed at eradicating the population – what we now call genocide. However, the view that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children could ‘grow up’ damned us to something else – to assimilation procured through separating children from their mothers, and their mothers from their land. From this infantalised construction of Indigeneity, to raise children into adults demands they be taken from their mothers at an age when they will carry no memory of their parents.

It must be said that across these few illustrative examples, the intensive governance of Indigenous families – predominantly through stratifying ‘full-blood’, ‘half-caste’, ‘quadroon’ and ‘octoroon’ categories for the purposes of determining strategies of child removal – was undertaken not so much for their own good as for the good of the nation. I remain unpersuaded, across hundreds of pages of historical records, that the belief in doing good by Indigenous children was ever the priority over building and sustaining the white imaginary of the Australian nation. Because as long as these children ceased to exist, as long as they either died or could be successfully assimilated, the legitimacy of the new white Australian nation-state could remain intact.

That we have lived, that we have had the audacity to reproduce, to hold our children close, to call them our own, and to refuse, resist and rise against our would-be eliminated future has also denied Australia the possibility of its own white, settled, future. And so we are left, as we have always been, standing on ancient ground uncertain of our future. And we all look to the lives and bodies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children for resolution.


AT THIS POINT, I have to pause and just tell something straight: I hate this work. I hate that my interest in politics, and my interest in childhood, and my being Australian and a Torres Strait Islander has led me to a path in my professional career where these are the documents, the historical records, the policy problems that I sit with every day. It makes me deeply sad that this is my work. Gentle phrases like your work is so desperately needed make me furious: Why am I expected to fix it? You people have had two hundred years to understand what you’ve done and you still cannot see it! But then I take a breath and remember: I am not the only Australian who feels that way. Because, like many Australians, I also feel determined to deepen my understanding of how our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children’s lives have become so entwined with the settling and unsettling of Australia. Such provocations are necessary if we are to imagine any future in which the arms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents everywhere are known by all to be the safest place for their children to rest their heads at night. These provocations are also necessary for the democratic renewal of our nation.

By ‘democratic renewal’ I mean more than the non-violent transition from one government to the next, more than election cycles and more than going to a voting booth and trying not to graffiti a phallic symbol onto the list of candidates who wish to represent you. By renewal, I want to explore the capacity of democracy to change itself democratically and non-violently. I’m interested in building the capacity for Australian democracy to be changed through a willingness to challenge our thinking about democracy’s core normative commitments. About those key principles we name as responsible government and representative government. I mean, how can our political system represent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? That’s a real question – because the system is not designed to.

What does responsible government mean in our Australian context? Yes, we have a Westminster system of parliament, bicameral representation and mechanisms of internal accountability. But what does this ‘responsibility’ mean in relation to the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations? In this context, why do we assume, as our Prime Minister does, that two chambers are enough? Things like voting rights, the right to stand for election – neither of these really scratch the surface of what we mean by responsible and representative government. Democracy is so much more than that. These are deep, profound, theoretical questions but they attend to very practical problems. Our democracy must be renewed, and building capacity for that renewal starts with bringing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children into a shared imagination for this nation’s future.

I know that sounds wishy-washy. I’m an academic, so trust me, it annoys me more than anyone to phrase it that way. But let’s think about the ways in which Indigenous Australian children have been shut out of that imaginary: through an outdated logic that says they will never grow up; by being ripped from their mothers’ arms; by being denied language and land and belonging; by being made to feel that they are being pulled between a white future and a black past; by being known and, in turn, by being refused access to knowledge; by being the presence that reminds the state that its origins are unjust and will never be made right. Our existence means the white imagination this nation once held so tightly was never possible and never will be. In so many ways, Indigenous Australian children have been constructed as an antagonism of, even antithesis to, the democratic future of this country. The idea that they can contribute to its future, even as those who imagine its future, seems impossible in this context. And it is important to give this idea some consideration, however slippery it might feel. As André Dao wrote in Griffith Review 56: Millenials Strike Back: ‘The future belongs to those who dare to imagine it.’ I’ll be somewhat more forceful on this point: the future can only belong to those allowed to imagine it. At the end of his essay, Dao states: ‘…the future is coming. The question for those interested in social justice is: whose future?’ My immediate response to that question haunts me: not ours, I think. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have only ever had their claims to the past legitimised; our claims to the future continue to be denied.

In democratic terms, refusing a place for Indigenous Australian children in a shared imagination for the nation’s future results in greatly reducing the possibility for meaningful and substantive acts of renewal. This affects us all. We damn ourselves to the problems of the old; we reduce our openness to the new so substantively that with each generation we return to seemingly intractable social and political problems. This produces what we might describe as a political landscape of democratic recapitulation – a generational reiteration of the status quo that makes change, growth and evolution impossible. Importantly, this is not a recapitulation that happens to Indigenous Australian children, it is a recapitulation that happens to Australia, as a nation-state and as a democracy. With each generation, the problem of what to do with these peoples returns, and with each generation the ‘problem’ appears more and more impossible to ‘solve’. Across the practices of child removal, systemic child abuse and child incarceration, we have continued to make objects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children: objects to be known, studied, examined and resolved. The problem-object we have created of Indigenous Australian children across our nation’s history has, and remains, a racialised one. We are made sense of as the remnants of a displaced peoples, once inhuman, then child-like, and now dysfunctional, who can never claim a place in the future without destabilising the existing order of things. That’s a significant problem to redress, but my claim is that you counter it by understanding that our contemporary political landscape is still characterised by the legacy of these outdated ideas. And we resist and challenge that legacy by centring Indigenous Australian children – by making sure that in debates about Australia’s democratic future we allow Indigenous Australian children to present as more than simply a problem to be solved, but rather as the very people who will grow up and renew this nation. To do so will set in course an important counter-narrative: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children grow up. They are not just problem-objects to be known, but can possess knowledge about our democratic condition and can imagine things for our country’s democratic future. And every time we intervene in their lives, we mess that up a little bit. It’s a problem for those kids, sure. But it’s a really big problem for our democracy.

One of the legacies of the colonial logic of infantalised Indigenous peoples, of the idea that children can never grow up, or that the only thing we are capable of learning is how to be white, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people simply don’t know anything. I mean that feels absurd to write, but it’s something I feel more and more every day as I attempt to establish my academic career. The stories of our personal lives are more sought after than our intellectual expertise. I understand why some academics envy that – how we can write and publish off the back of simply living our lives. But those academics do not know how we envy them: academics who get to hide behind a name and institutional by-line, behind a method for knowing that is not grounded in who you are, who have permission to know as well as permission to be. I say this because I want to be really explicit about why this matters for Australia’s democracy, which will never be complete without the full and meaningful participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
And by full and meaningful participation, I do not simply mean voting or standing for parliament or being consulted by senior bureaucrats who mean well. By full and meaningful participation in Australian democracy, I mean: knowing it, challenging it, theorising it, changing it. I mean renewing it.


THIS YEAR, IN the Uluru Statement From the Heart, Aboriginal lawyer and academic Megan Davis spoke these words on behalf of the Referendum Council:

Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future… We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish.

If Makarrata is the coming together after struggle, then Australia’s struggle with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children requires confrontation and provocation. As an academic, my current research is an effort to account more fully for the ways in which children appear in politics irrespective of their lack of political status. This is why understanding the close proximity between educational pedagogy and political philosophy in Western thought matters for our discussions of Australian democracy. This is why understanding that the idea of childhood as ‘growing up’, and the idea of Indigenous peoples as people who can never ‘grow up’ matters for Australian democracy.

The democratic problem that arises from infantalising Indigenous Australians is that we think we can simply grow out of the political conflicts that have shaped our nation. That with the right interventions in the lives of a single generation, it might be possible to solve the harms, injustices and mistakes of the past and ameliorate the contemporary effects on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And that the enduring, vexed question of what is to be done with these people? might finally, once and for all, disappear. But the other way to make enduring questions disappear is to stop asking them. The difficult politics that our Indigenous bodies produce for the state is perhaps not a question at all, but the defining condition of our nation. We make Australia what it is. And our problems, which arise from the historical legacy and contemporary practices of child removal, child incarceration, child abuse and child suicide, are the nation’s problems. Controlling the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children has never been just about the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it has been about trying to make certain that which can never be certain: the future of the Australian nation. Creating space to include Indigenous Australian children in the imaginary of the Australian nation is about accepting futures that will never be made certain. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will tell you that, as discomforting as it may be, it is perfectly possible to live with uncertainty. And it is necessary to have a democratic political system that can change.

When Prime Minister Turnbull refused Makarrata, I was surprised at how disappointed I felt. I was not remotely surprised at the refusal, so why would I feel disappointed? Hurt? Angry? Sad? Indigenous Australians are so incredibly familiar with having doors closed in their face, even at the point at which they thought they’d been invited in. (That’s not a metaphorical statement. I’m pretty certain most of us have had that experience.) So why did it make many of us feel so bitter? For me, it comes down to this: Prime Minister’s Turnbull’s reductive, misleading characterisation of the proposal as inevitably becoming ‘a third chamber of parliament’ is infuriating. Not just because it is such a sharply political mischaracterisation of what was proposed, but because implicit in his dismissal was this: these blackfellas think they can come here, to my house, with the audacity to suggest we change our political system? Our perfect Australian democracy? What do they know? They know nothing.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have always known what Australian democracy is. We appreciate its strengths, but we also know its weaknesses more acutely than any other group of people who stand on the lands of this great continent. We understand politics. We know what’s at stake. And not just for us, we understand what’s at stake for the government too. We get it. It’s hard. We don’t just know all these things because we have lived it, and have lived it since childhood, we know because we did it the white way too: law degrees, PhDs, and by reading every dead white man’s political treatise on what an ideal, good and just society looks like. In that context, it’s pretty galling to have a fairly conservative proposal dismissed out of fear of change. An Indigenous Voice to Parliament is an example of democratic renewal: it brings in a new generation of thinkers who seek a form of political change that better realises the core commitments of the political system that operates. To create more responsible government, to be more representative of Australian life and being.


AUSTRALIA’S DEMOCRACY IS deficient. It does not meet or realise its own ideals. It does not just fall short for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but its shortcomings are felt especially keenly by us. It falls particularly short for all children, who are told to wait their turn and to participate only according to the rules that the previous generation has set for them. But it falls especially short for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are more likely to be in out-of-home care, more likely to incarcerated, more likely to die from suicide than their non-Indigenous counterparts. And those problems – abuse and neglect, crime, mental health – are real, urgent problems. But the children are not the problem. Indigenous people are not the problem. We never have been. We are the threads picked out from a democratic system that never really stitched itself together properly. Australian democracy requires change, it requires renewal and we cannot achieve that if we do not give space to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to imagine themselves in the future of this country. They are entitled to a place in the past and present, yes. They are also entitled to a place in the future of this nation irrespective of the uncertainty that their existence produces. If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children can imagine themselves in Australia’s democratic future as those who will grow up to become not its problems, but instead its makers, its keepers, its believers, then it will be because something else extraordinary has happened. It will be because Australia finally grew up too.

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