What is social justice?

I believe that social justice is found in a society in which all people are accepted as being equal, human rights are sacrosanct, and personal dignity is universally respected and admired.

The Australian Human Rights Commission describes social justice as “about making sure that every Australian – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – has choices about how they live and the means to make those choices. It also means recognising the distinctive rights that Indigenous Australians hold as the original peoples of this land”.[i]

Unfortunately, in my own experience, these ideals of social justice and the reality of everyday existence for Indigenous Australians, with its extreme social and economic disadvantage, could not be further apart.

I spent my early childhood in country Victoria in the 1950s. This was an era in which Australian attitudes were at their white, Anglo-centric, colonial, xenophobic worst.  The infamous ‘White Australia policy’ was still operational. Immigrants were largely treated with disdain. Continental immigrants were disparagingly referred to as “wogs”. The customs and traditions that they had brought with them were viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright alarm.

The situation for the original inhabitants of Australia was far worse. When the British had invaded their country in 1788, they assumed its control and ownership by asserting that the legal notion of “terra-nullius” applied. This effectively denied the connection of the Indigenous people to their land, and was used to justify ongoing policy and attitudes in denying them that land, and their natural rights. It wasn’t until the referendum of 1967 that Aboriginal people were even included in official reckoning of the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a state or territory. Although the overwhelming result of that referendum provided the government with a clear mandate to implement policies to benefit Aborigines, it did little to end the firmly ingrained discrimination against them.

In the small country towns of my state, in my childhood, Aborigines were often disparagingly referred to as “abos”. They seemed to be considered as a lesser species; they were viewed with mistrust and distaste, and when they were discussed by well-meaning individuals, it was most often with an air of patronage and condescension. I often see little change in the bigotry evident in contemporary attitudes. The concept of the “other” thrives, albeit unwittingly.

A large proportion of Australia’s Indigenous peoples still contend with a marked inequity in critical facets of their lives, such as health services, life-expectancy, educational outcome, employment, and the proportion of those incarcerated compared with their white counterparts. They constantly face the loss of their culture, their languages and song-lines; and with these, the vital and nourishing connection with their land, and their dignity and responsibility as the proud owners of country. We are all so much the less for it.

[i] Comission, Australian Human Rights. Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice. n.d. http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/index.html (accessed March 6, 2011).


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