With racism and racially-charged language much in the news right now, we’re getting some interesting signals about people’s beliefs. One of the most interesting popped up again in this Mama Mia article by The Project’s Charlie Pickering, titled “I know nothing about racism in Australia“. It’s an argument – quite an eloquent one – that white Australians should do more listening to indigenous voices about racism.
And it includes this remarkable line claiming that Australian law used to treat indigenous people as “fauna”:
“I know that until the 1967 referendum altered our constitution to include all Australians as enfranchised citizens, our first peoples were regulated by the Flora & Fauna Act.”
What I presume Pickering means is not just that the Flora and Fauna Act covered Indigenous people along with everyone else, or even that it mentioned them specially (say, to give them rights to hunt on the land), but that lawmakers classed Indigenous people as “fauna”.
If true, it is of course an outrage. One of the commenters on the Pickering article says:
“This is so powerful, I didn’t know about the Flora and Fauna Act until reading these articles on Mamamia recently. I am so glad that we have been able to have these discussions about racism …”
Is it true? I have seen this claim only once before, possibly in this 23 May 2007 newspaper article about former NSW government minister Linda Burney.
“I was a child. It still staggers me that for the first 10 years of my life, I existed under the Flora and Fauna Act of NSW.”
I thought I knew a little about the application of law to indigenous people, and this claim seems rather odd. Australian law has done plenty of bad things to indigenous people at different times, although the history is much more complex than some people allow. But if Australian laws were classifying indigenous people as “fauna”, you’d hope a few more people would have mentioned it over the decades.
I can’t find any reference to this claim before the Linda Burney article, although the same claim was made on the ABC’s PM program by Mark Colvin two days after that article appeared.
“If you weren’t around for the 1967 referendum on Aborigines, or you can’t remember why it mattered, think about this.
“Before that vote, Aboriginal people weren’t counted as people, they came under the Flora and Fauna Act.”
It’s also mentioned somewhat obliquely in the video below:
It is certainly the case that until its abolition, Section 127 of the Constitution meant Indigenous people were not counted when deciding the numbers in electorates, which eroded the impact of any individual indigenous vote and which is racist enough on its own. (Section 127 appears to have come from the populous south-east corner states’s desire to limit Queensland and WA’s say in national affairs.) Worse still were the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 and the Queensland and WA laws which all prohibited Indigenous people from voting. (Compulsory voting was only finally introduced for Indigenous people at Commonwealth level by the Hawke government in 1983). But none of this means Indigenous people were “regulated by the Flora & Fauna Act”, state or federal.
It would certainly be useful to get this regulation on the record if it was once indeed the case. Does anyone know where the claim originates?
Update, September 2014: More than a year after posting, there is no evidence that there ever was a Flora and Fauna Act anywhere in Australia. There was certainly no Commonwealth act. The closest thing uncovered in comments below is the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act 1967, which among many other things legislated on some aboriginal cultural heritage issues. It may be that concern over NSW regulation of Aboriginal artifacts morphed into the claim that indigenous people themselves were controlled by the Act.
Since this issue of the “Flora and Fauna Act” seems to be getting into schools, it’s worth noting it has no sound historical basis right now.
But note Joyce Capewell’s comment below: it is possible, though so far not established, that some indigenous people were given documentation that referred in some way to “flora and fauna”. (WA did have, bizarrely, a “Department of Aborigines and Fisheries” for 18 years from 1908.) Unless and until we find a copy of that documentation, the tracks seem to have been blown away.
Update, August 2016: Chris Lloyd asked Marcia Langton about the issue and she confirms it isn’t true. Chris’s comment below paraphrases Marcia as saying it “is a myth that has circulated in the Aboriginal movement since the 1970s. It started as a joke and I think it was Lester or Jerry Bostock who first described our status with this phrase at a FCAATSI conference in Canberra in 1977. It was an attempt to say that at that time we were regarded as less than animals.”
Unless someone wants to argue with Marcia Langton, then I think we now have a solid explanation. And as usual, it’s a stuff-up rather than a conspiracy.
David on Twitter: @shorewalker1