Australian Research Council funds historical frontier violence project

The Australian Research Council has awarded $488,142 to the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research for their project on historical frontier violence: drivers, legacy and the role of truth-telling.

This ambitious project aims to build data to identify the historical factors that incited Australia's frontier wars; to quantify the legacy on communities today and understand how historical trauma is transmitted across generations.

Melbourne Institute Associate Professor Julie Moschion is leading this project team, which includes Dr. Cain Polidano, Emeritus Professor Boyd Hunter, Emeritus Professor Lyndall Ryan, Dr Francis Markham, Associate Professor Michelle Evans and Dr Chaminda Rajeev Samarage.

A grant sum of $488,142 will help resource the group's fieldwork and develop new knowledge on the circumstances and legacy of settlement, and the associated gaps in life prospects between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as a result of this settlement.

The project aims to increase public support for truth-telling and improve relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in a vital step towards reconciliation and healing the nation.

We spoke to  Associate Professor Julie Moschion about her expectations and hopes for the development of this project.

Woman with brown hair in a black singlet top smiling
Associate Professor Julie Moschion

Tell us about this project – how it came to exist and how you are working as a research team?

This project started about three years ago when my colleague Dr Cain Polidano and myself first heard of the work that Historian Professor Lyndall Ryan was doing to build a nationally verified dataset of Indigenous and settler massacres. In chats around the coffee machine, we often talked about reconciliation and the need for settler Australians to come to terms with violence perpetrated against First Nations people and the legacy that it has left today. Classroom lessons of peaceful settlement, Terra Nullius (empty lands) and the ruinous effects of smallpox (not violence) on First Nations communities are built into settler consciousness. Our chats around the coffee machine always came to the same conclusion: for settler Australians to embrace truth-telling (or the process of Makarrata as outlined in the Uluru Statement), we need a better understanding of the impacts on people today, including in settler communities that were subject to elements of their own toxic culture. Our worry was that without a clear link from the past to the present, it is possible that settler Australia would never leave their classroom lessons behind and/or fail to see the relevance of truth-telling to heal the nation.

Once Lyndall’s massacre maps started appearing in the media, we saw an opportunity to use our econometric toolbox and big-data handling expertise to build on her work and better understand the drivers and legacy of frontier violence, but we needed help.  We first reached out to Lyndall to get her thoughts on the idea. She was very encouraging and has been an important member of the team ever since. To build expertise in Australian geography and economic history – vital for understanding the drivers of violence – we recruited Prof. Boyd Hunter and Dr Francis Markham (ANU) to the team, who are both experienced in Indigenous research.

To complement the quantitative analysis, we also brought into the team qualitative researchers who will conduct community-based fieldwork to shed light on how intergenerational impacts are transmitted and the possible community protective factors, including cultural healing and truth-telling. The qualitative research will be led by Prof. Michelle Evans (UoM), who is an expert in Indigenous leadership and the Director of the Dilin Duwa Centre for Indigenous Business Leadership, with support from Prof. Judy Atkinson, an Indigenous field psychologist whose life work has focussed on treating trauma. We already had a working relationship with Michelle and we know from experience that she values the power of inter-disciplinary research. The work Michelle will lead will help inform the need for truth-telling and how best to support it. Rounding-out the team is engineer Dr Raj Samarage (UoM), who will support the development of research dissemination tools with input from our Indigenous-led steering committee. The tools will be developed, in a culturally sensitive and inclusive way, to showcase the study findings.

Woman with short grey hair smiling in front of a tree
Professor Lyndall Ryan

Receiving a grant of this proportion, what does it mean for you as academics and how will you use these funds to develop your research?

Receiving a grant of this size provides a fantastic opportunity to make the research happen by providing the necessary support to build the data and conduct the fieldwork. This is a very ambitious multi-disciplinary program of research that requires a lot of work in building data. A key output of the project is the Frontier War Dataset (FWD), which will be a national community-level dataset, where community is defined by contemporary measures of geographic area used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). FWD will contain data on massacres, contemporary community outcomes and other historical data. The historical data will include information about Indigenous community population estimates at the time of massacre (by updating historical estimates, taking into account impacts of epidemics); factors that may have contributed to community exposure to historical violence, such as the value of land acquisition (soil fertility, rainfall distributions, water courses and topography); and characteristics of settler communities (sex ratios, religion and ethnicity). The grant will enable us to draw-on the skills of Dr Bill Pascoe, who is central to the development of FWD. Bill worked with Lyndall on her project to verify massacre sites and has a unique understanding of the frontier and historical datasets and issues of Indigenous data sovereignty. At the end of the project, our hope is that FWD will be made available for other researchers.

The grant also gives us the opportunity to conduct Indigenous-led fieldwork in three communities that have been exposed to historical violence, but which, based on the quantitative analysis, appear to have different outcomes today. This will enable Michelle and Judy to gain an understanding of factors that can protect against/perpetuate the effects of intergenerational trauma. Essential for this work is the building of trust within communities. Creating a safe space for communities to fully participate in, and benefit from the research necessitates multiple visits that are well-planned and respectful of local culture and the sensitivities of past events and the implications today.

Finally, the grant provides the team the resources to bring together an Indigenous-led steering committee, comprising members of Indigenous groups and researchers from across Australia, who will provide guidance to the team on issues of Indigenous participation and engagement in the study, culturally sensitive communication of findings and Indigenous data sovereignty.

Woman smiling
Associate Professor Michelle Evans

By filling the gap in knowledge surrounding the circumstances of settlement and its enduring impacts on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, we hope to reconcile views about the circumstances and impacts of settlement on the present. A broader acceptance of the impacts of the past among settler Australians is seen by many as being a necessary step towards reconciliation:

There is a discernible lack of appreciation by settler Australia about the grievances and sense of historical injustice that Indigenous people feel. This must be addressed for Australia to be reconciled.” Patrick Dodson, Reconciliation Australia (2018), foreword.”

Findings from this project will help engage Australians about the circumstances of colonisation and the pain that is still felt by many Indigenous communities. By linking the past to today, the hope is, that this study will help Australians understand that truth-telling is not just about acknowledging shameful facts from our past, but also about deep listening to the experiences of First Nations people and taking action to heal the Nation. If successful, this project will help facilitate Makarrata, which is central to achieving aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship between First Nations and settler Australians, and build a unified country.

Man with glasses smiling
Dr. Francis Markham

What do you see as the biggest barrier or challenge to your research in this area?

Because of its sensitivities and relevance for public policy and the reconciliation process, this project is likely to have a much bigger impact in the community and involve much more engagement than we academics are generally used to. This could be a challenge at times, but mostly it is very exciting to actively participate to this piece of Australia’s story.

As a project focused on First Nations Australians, our research will follow the guidelines and principles outlined in the NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) Ethical conduct in research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and communities: Guidelines for researchers and stakeholders (2018) and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies (2012).

An Indigenous project that links so many secondary data sources from across Australia is rare in quantitative research, and in many ways, we will be breaking new ground in interpreting and applying these guidelines, especially in relation to community involvement and Indigenous data sovereignty. Indigenous research more commonly involves the collection of primary data from a small number of communities where there are already well-established examples of ‘best practice’ and where community engagement is relatively easy to define. More than a challenge, we see this as an opportunity to contribute to developing best-practice processes in applying the NHMRC and AIATSIS guidelines.

Dr. Cain Polidano

How can economists, and the Melbourne Institute more specifically, improve our understanding of colonisation in Australia?

It may not be straightforward to see what economists can contribute to understanding colonisation, but economic history is a well-developed field in Australia. Economists in general, and the Melbourne Institute, bring two important things to helping shed light on historical events. The first is the econometric toolbox and big-data expertise I referred to earlier, which is the specialty of applied micro-economists employed at the Melbourne Institute. These skills are commonly used in economic applications to establish statistical relationships between events, preferences and/or outcomes. For example, at Melbourne Institute, our bread and butter is using these skills to quantify the impacts of government policies on community outcomes of interest such as employment, education attainment and health. Applying these skills to explore the drivers of frontier violence and impacts on communities today is similar in many ways.

Man with glasses and beard
Dr. Rajeev Samarage

The fact that this research is being done within the Melbourne Institute is important. The research fits squarely within the Institute’s mission to “undertake and publish high-quality academic research on major economic and social policy issues affecting contemporary Australia”. With almost 60 years of experience in social policy research providing an evidence base for effective policy reform, Melbourne Institute is the perfect place to ensure that the research is transformed into policy action. While Indigenous research is relatively small within the Institute, the project will benefit from the wealth of experience in Indigenous research in our multi-disciplinary team. This project is also a great opportunity to help build expertise internally. A challenge for Melbourne Institute longer-term will be to better integrate Indigenous knowledge into our programs of research, which may be best served by supporting the training and recruitment of Indigenous researchers in Economics and by developing long-term multi-disciplinary collaborations.