Uncovering the roots of Indigenous employment disadvantage in Australia has won PhD graduate Dr Rae Norris one of four inaugural Chancellor’s medals from Griffith University.

Dr Norris tracked attitudes towards Indigenous people from 1788 to the 1960s to understand why Indigenous Australians were and are disadvantaged in employment.

Laws governing Indigenous Australians between 1850 and 1960s limited the freedom of movement and employment of Indigenous Australians, Dr Norris said.

“These laws were based on four assumptions – Indigenous inferiority; Indigenous laziness, incapacity and irresponsibility; the need for white intervention in Indigenous lives; and disregard for Indigenous understandings, values and choices,” Dr Norris said.

“By the 1920s all jurisdictions surveyed controlled every aspect of Indigenous lives.

“The law was used to actively prevent the success of Indigenous work arrangements and make dependent the very Indigenous people who were supposed to benefit from them.”

Dr Norris said the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station was a prime example of how legislation was used to economically disadvantage Indigenous people.

“In the 1860s Coranderrk Indigenous people were noted for their smart dressing, comfortable well-decorated homes and their successful station management,” Dr Norris said.

“However, instead of becoming a model for accommodation between black and white, successive governments and bureaucrats kept making decisions over the next two decades which reversed the station’s early success and in the end made the station fail.”

Dr Norris said the Coranderrk events were of particular interest as they set the pattern for subsequent dealings between Indigenous Australians and governments.

“This included a pattern of broken promises, ignorance of and disrespect for Indigenous culture and prejudiced views of Indigenous capacity despite all evidence,” Dr Norris said.

“My research shows how negative attitudes have continuously underpinned Indigenous employment disadvantage and emphasises the importance of redefining the problem and working with Indigenous people to find solutions.”

Dr Norris intends to continue her research and turn her thesis into a book. The medal was presented at Griffith’s graduation ceremony on Friday, December 14 at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre from 7pm.

“It is a great honour to receive the Chancellor’s Medal,” Dr Norris said.

“I must thank Griffith Professor of Politics and Public Policy Ciaran O’Fairchealliagh and QUT law lecturer Dr Loretta de Plevitz for their excellent support and supervision.”

The Chancellor’s Medals are awarded annually for exceptional performance in the PhD thesis examination, with one recipient from each academic group. The other recipients included: Dr Ivan Chester from Arts, Education and Law, Griffith Health’s Dr Michael Kim and Dr Rod Eastwood from Science, Environment, Engineering and Technology.