Olivia Johnston

The truth about Terra Nullius and why First Nations people say Tudge is wrong to say we need optimism

Australia’s federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, will not endorse the  draft national curriculum for secondary teachers of Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) because  the changes are “overly negative”and could teach kids a hatred of their Country” (ABC 2021).  

But from a First Nations perspective, the time has come to speak the truth about what has happened since the invasion of the sovereign lands and waterways, the act of Terra Nullius and the legacy of this mindset. 

The draft national curriculum was publicly released for comments in early 2021. It revealed substantial changes to the Year 7-10 History curriculum and is to be finalised and given to all state Education Ministers for their consideration and endorsement by the end of this year. 

Since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 2012, many secondary teachers of HASS have lamented the lack of Australian History taught in Years 7-10. Australian History which was previously covered in Year 8 was moved and watered-down into the primary school curriculum, leaving secondary HASS to cover a very broad scope without much Australian and Indigenous History until Year 10. 

The new draft History curriculum proposes the inclusion of more Australian focused content earlier; including pre-colonisation First Nation histories in Year 7 and more detailed consideration of Australians’ roles in both WWI and WWII in Years 9 and 10 respectively. Year 10 will still include the civil rights History of Australian and Indigenous peoples – the only Australian and Indigenous focuses to date.

Many of these inclusions will be welcomed and celebrated by Australian HASS teachers, but our purpose here is not to defend the draft curriculum but to question the minister. 

Perhaps Minister Tudge is what Noongars call ‘dwokabert’ (deaf ears)?

Minister Tudge argues that contestability should not feature prominently as a historical concept in our curriculum, but that we “must give an optimistic view of our country.” Do these values represent, “the vast majority of Australian people?” Do we not have a responsibility to teach about the pluralist backgrounds and perspectives of our diverse society? Isn’t our role to equip secondary school students with critical thinking skills to make choices, based on well-informed and widely-considered ideas and beliefs?  And most importantly, surely Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples will remain rhetorical unless we teach a true and accurate account of Australian history in order to develop future generations of Australians who are well-informed about Australia’s rich, diverse and unsettled history?

The goals for education in Australia were formally confirmed again in the Alice Springs (Mpartwe) Declaration in 2019. They included the creation of “active and informed citizens.” Minister Tudge’s agenda, to propagate patriotism and blindly optimistic views about Australia, are accompanied by his argument that History “should be about teaching accuracy” rather than contestability. It is ironic that contestability and debate is one of the key pillars of the liberal democracy that the Minister is arguing should be appreciated, while he is, at the same time, rejecting that History should be contested.

This is what is most concerning about Minister Tudge’s rhetoric – he is poisoning the curriculum well by insisting on the unquestioning acceptance of an incorrect, or at least out-dated, version of Australian History. To come out in opposition now to curriculum change, after his government commissioned Marcia Langton A.O. to integrate and thus infuse Indigenous knowledges into curriculum material just last year, is disrespectful and ‘winyarn’ (sorrowful).

Returning to the Howard Era arguments for “accuracy” and teaching “what happened” as fact in History is contrary to the Australian educational goals of developing critical and creative thinkers. If we want a better way forward then we need to look no further than the Australian Coat of Arms with its ‘waitj’ (emu) and ‘yonga’ (kangaroo) standard bearers. Both animals cannot walk backwards and they symbolise forward thinking and national progress.

Australian students should be challenged to understand that there are different perspectives of our National history, it is not a single story.  Critical thinkers, in History, ask questions about whose stories are being told, what perspectives are being represented, and whose versions of History are we reading? We do not accept just “his story,” but we look for “her” stories, and “their” stories. It is essential to the process of reconciliation to know the true histories of Australia as it is a vital element in providing systemic change in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples which holds the power to Heal Country on both sides of history.

 From left to right:

Dr Olivia Johnston  is a qualified HASS secondary teacher and now an Edith Cowan University lecturer who is upskilling and mentoring the next generation of HASS teachers in Western Australia.

Dr Libby Jackson-Barrett is a Noongar teacher, scholar and researcher. Her PhD thesis offers an accessible insight into Indigenous Theories of Knowledge and Yarning Circles with 3 cups of Tea patience.

Dr Christine Cunningham is an Educational Leadership academic. She admires her early career co-authors very much and is the Higher Degrees Coordinator at Edith Cowan University’s School of Education. 

Many thanks to Peter Broelman who allowed the use of his cartoon which is the main image for this story, as selected by the authors