Parts of Australia’s history lurk beneath public statements. Politicians’ speeches hint at more than they say explicitly.

Prime Minister Albanese’s 'Closing the Gap' speech on 13 February came 16 years after Prime Minister Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, particularly the Stolen Generations. The events of the Stolen Generations contributed to the intergenerational trauma of First Nations Australians.

Australia’s Frontier Wars also contributed to that trauma, but there has been no national Apology for them, though they caused the deaths of between 20 000 and 100 000 Indigenous Australians, men, women and children. (No-one knows exactly how many people died; bodies were buried or burned, records were lost or destroyed.) The documentary The Australian Wars, websites like Australian Frontier Conflicts, and many other sources include the testimony of First Nations people on the other side of this 'commemoration gap' and from their ancestors.

The closest there has been to an Apology was Prime Minister Keating’s Redfern Speech in 1992:

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

Properly recognising and commemorating the Frontier Wars at the Australian War Memorial and other commemorative sites around Australia would be a practical – if incomplete – Apology. It would help all Australians gain what Prime Minister Albanese in his speech called 'a shared understanding of our history and a united vision for our future'.

For some of us, reaching that shared understanding will require much adjustment. Despite the mass of contemporary evidence and the dozens of accounts written since the Frontier Wars, some non-Indigenous Australians refuse to acknowledge that this conflict ever happened – or, if it did, that we all should 'get over it'. First Nations people, however, know from stories passed down through the generations that the Frontier Wars did indeed happen and that the scars remain.

On 1 March, the Minister responsible for the War Memorial, Matt Keogh, called for Expressions of Interest from Australians wishing to be considered for five vacancies on the Memorial’s governing Council. This public advertising may lead to the refreshing of the Council with people well-disposed to a new approach to the Frontier Wars.

There is just as much reason to apologise for the Frontier Wars at the War Memorial and other shrines as there has been for apologising for the Stolen Generations and forced adoptions. In each case, the effects are felt long after the original actions.

From shared understanding comes healing and Reconciliation. Closing the Commemoration Gap will not directly deliver a socio-economic outcome but it will deliver psychic benefits to blackfellers and whitefellers alike. The Commemoration Gap is the twentieth gap; it is the gap that needs closing just as much as the other nineteen.

The concept of Defending Country can help achieve shared understanding. It recognises that black and white Australians have suffered similarly in war. It applies to all people who have fought for Australia or parts of it. It applies just as much to First Australians (Arrernte, Noongar, Wiradjuri, and others), defending their Country on Country (and dying on Country), as it does to uniformed Australians fighting and dying during our overseas wars.

Defending Country is the thread that binds together:       

  • First Nations warriors who resisted settler-invader, police and military power;
  • First Nations women, children and old folk who died with their men or suffered massacre, rape and poison;
  • men and women in the country’s uniform (including Indigenous service people) sent overseas to fight for King and Empire, for Australia, or 'to defend our values'.

All these people believed their Country was threatened and deserved defending.

What a nation commemorates shows what it regards as important. A nation which embraces the concept of Defending Country, a nation which does not distinguish by skin colour or descent or the identity of the enemy the worth of 'service and sacrifice' to defend Country, is a different nation from what went before.

Having our war memorials properly 'own' the Frontier Wars would go a long way towards closing the Commemoration Gap. What we commemorate becomes important. Failing to properly commemorate the Frontier Wars shows we do not regard them as important.

Historian Henry Reynolds, author of many books on Australia’s black history, said this in The Australian Wars documentary: 'it was our most important war. One, it was fought in Australia, two, it was fought about Australia and, three, it determined the ownership and the control, the sovereignty of a whole continent. Now, what can be more important than that – to us?'

Prime Minister Albanese reminded us that 'Australians believe in the fair go'. Prime Minister Keating at Redfern spoke of our 'fundamental belief in justice'. The way Australia has treated First Nations deaths and dispossession in the Frontier Wars has been unfair and unjust.

It’s time for a fair go. It’s time for justice. Minister Keogh’s call for Expressions of Interest for positions on the Memorial Council might – just might – indicate that the time is getting closer.

Mar 12, 2024

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