There’s no doubt Australia is an incredible country in many ways and there’s nothing quite like celebrating this fact with your family, friends or co-workers on Australia day. It’s even more important we don’t ignore the worst parts of our history and how it continues to impact us today. Eliza is a nurse who has shared her thoughts on what January 26 means to her.
As the 26th of January approaches, the nationwide conversation around Australia’s dark and recent history becomes unavoidable. Officially, it’s ‘Australia Day’. But many reject this name and the displays of patriotism that come with it. On the surface, it’s a deliberate and significant celebration of all things ‘Australian’. But on January 26th, how many of us truly reflect on ‘Australia’? What brought us here today, 230 years since the first fleet landed and Arthur Phillip raised his country’s flag in a place most of us call ‘Sydney’? And what does all this mean for nurses?
Registered Nurses in Australia will be familiar with our Standards for Practice. The second paragraph recognises the “importance of history and culture to health and wellbeing” and the “impact of colonisation on the cultural, social and spiritual lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which has contributed to significant health inequity in Australia.”
In declaring this land as their own 230 years ago, white settlers began the illegal occupation of over 500 Indigenous nations. This colonisation continues to destroy over 50 000 years of language, culture, and knowledge. Sovereignty has never been ceded and no treaty has been signed, and for many the violence continues, with a life expectancy gap of over 10 years.
On January 26th 2017, tens of thousands of people filled the streets of our major cities. They marched in solidarity with First Nations communities to voice their shame at the Australian Government for maintaining Apartheid-like conditions established by the forefathers of this occupation. We are told proud stories in classrooms of men like Lachlan Macquarie and Arthur Phillip, yet rarely do we hear their actual words.
Governor Macquarie, who today has universities and hospitals named in his legacy, wrote:
“I have directed as many Natives as possible to be made Prisoners, with the view of keeping them as Hostages until the real guilty ones have surrendered themselves … In the event of the Natives making the smallest show of resistance … the officers have been authorized to fire on them to compel them to surrender; hanging up on Trees the Bodies of such Natives as may be killed on such occasions, in order to strike the greater terror into the Survivors.”
Many would argue this constitutes genocide. The UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, including killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Against this, Australia’s history and indeed much of our present constitute ongoing genocide. Genocide does not necessarily look like concentration camps and dictatorships. It can look like disproportionate rates of incarceration, forced closure of communities, and forced removal of children from their families only to subject them to horrific abuse in foster homes. It looks like hundreds of murders in custody every year and alarmingly high rates of suicide amongst children. It looks like the first and sovereign custodians of this land being forced from their countries to live in poverty.
Defending the decision to close 150 Western Australian remote Indigenous communities, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that Indigenous people living in remote and impoverished communities with little access to education and employment are making a “lifestyle choice”. This represents a belief held by many that the social and health issues that First Nations people face are the fault of their own inability or unwillingness to integrate into Australian society.
Effective nursing practice recognises that all people come from overlapping contexts, histories, and communities, influencing their perceptions of wellness, access to healthcare, and health outcomes. We know that health and wellness, and disease and trauma, are intergenerational. Discounting these contextual factors is ineffective nursing practice. At worst, it is victim blaming and abuse.
Christine Tanner, on whose model of clinical judgement we often rely, writes:
“Good clinical judgements in nursing require an understanding of not only the pathophysiological and diagnostic aspects of a patient’s clinical presentation and disease, but also the illness experience for both the patient and family and their physical, social, and emotional strengths and coping resources.”
As nurses working in culturally diverse communities, we must examine how we deliver care when our practice has foundations in Western biomedical models of health and its sociocultural beliefs and assumptions. For many First Nations people, physical and mental health is directly dependent on the health of their land, families, and communities, existing in a web of interrelations in contrast with the analytical and compartmentalising tendency of Western healthcare. “If the land’s sick, we’re sick”. We must rid ourselves of the idea that ours is the one superior model of healthcare.
Nursing is a proud profession. We recognise the value of holistic person-centred care, empathy and cultural safety. We practise these skills even when we feel exhausted and frustrated. Our communities seek our guidance and support more so than any other health practitioner, earning us the title of ‘most trusted profession in Australia‘. We have a unique understanding of the complexities influencing health outcomes for marginalised people, and so we must use our knowledge and compassion to empower these communities and stand in solidarity, day in and day out. We need to make it clear that we refuse to live and work in a society that subjects innocent and vulnerable people to racist, institutionalised violence and abuse. If the public sees nurses show up on January 26th and every other day in support of this country’s First Peoples, we can effect change and inspire others to stand with us on the right side of history.
The NSWNMA will be attending the Justice Through Treaty March on Friday, 26 January 2018, meeting at 9:30am at Redfern Park in Redfern. Look out for our flags and scrubs – we hope you can join us.