Myth claims Australia classified Aboriginals as animals

Brian Gordon, USA TODAY Network
Published 7:00 a.m. ET Oct. 22, 2020

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The Claim: Until the 1960s, Australia classified its Aboriginal population as animals under the Flora and Fauna Act

That their government used to group Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as wildlife is a prevalent claim in Australia, one that’s been frequently repeated in recent years online as well as by Australian politicians and celebrities.  

Upon becoming the first Aboriginal person elected to the New South Wales Parliament in 2003, Linda Burney said: “For the first 10 years of my life, like all Indigenous people at the time, I was not a citizen of this country. We existed under the Flora and Fauna Act of New South Wales.”  

In his 2015 research on the “Flora and Fauna Act” claim, Samuel Brynand of the University of Canberra traced the claim’s recent popularity to Burney’s comments.

In June, a post on the Facebook page Lost in History made a similar claim about the “Flora and Fauna Act”, which was shared 15,000 times online. When asked for evidence supporting its post, Lost in History provided a link containing disproved information.

The roots of the myth

Australia’s native inhabitants were often discriminated against by the country’s European settlers. (Photo: CONTRIBUTED)

There is no record of an Australian Flora and Fauna Act involving its Indigenous population.  

Claims surrounding this purported legislation are untrue, said Helen Irving, a professor of Australian constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

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“This is a myth that frustrates me constantly, since, apart from being simply wrong, it confuses and misrepresents so much about the law, and about history,” she said in an email.

The myth is rooted in the 1967 Referendum. Amid a push for civil rights akin to the movement transpiring around the same time in the United States, Australians overwhelming approved changes to their constitution. These technical modifications allowed Australia’s federal government to pass specific laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander citizens.

Irving pointed out the Australian Parliament wouldn’t have had the power to enact a Flora and Fauna Act before the referendum, which supposedly erased the act.

The 1967 referendum did expand how Indigenous citizens were counted in the national census, but Brynand, in his research, said Aboriginal people had been counted since the country’s first census in 1911.

Real discrimination fuels false claim

The Flora and Fauna Act myth touches on a long, true history of discrimination that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experienced at the hands of the Australian government.

From the late 18th to early 20th centuries, white Australian colonists – with government support – killed thousands of Indigenous people. Last year, a special report from The Guardian identified 270 massacres around the country over a 140-year period.

Disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians persist today, with non-Indigenous Australians having better literacy rates, job prospects, and life expectancies. The government’s Close the Gap Campaign looks to narrow these divides, but some still say the country’s laws don’t go far enough to shield Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from discrimination.

The Flora and Fauna Act might be false, but the sentiments behind the myth hit at frustrations many Australians still feel.

“My personal sense is that (the myth) is popular because it provides a simplified way of expressing long-standing and deep-seated (and justified) grievances about the historical treatment of the Aboriginal people,” Irving said.

Still, Irving believes the myth undercuts the experiences of Indigenous people and ultimately serves more hard than good.

“The truth of discrimination against Aboriginal Australians is bad enough, without exaggerating what happened,” she said.

Our Rating: False

There is no evidence of a Flora and Fauna Act under Australian law that classified its Aboriginal population as plants and animals. While the claim speaks to frustrations many Australians harbor around Indigenous equality, we rate this claim FALSE because it is unfounded by law and concluded false by multiple scholars.  

Our fact-check sources:

  • Linda Burney, May 6, 2003, “Inaugural Speeches”
  • Australian Broadcasting Corporation, March 19, 2018, “Fact check: Were Indigenous Australians classified under a flora and fauna act until the 1967 referendum?”
  • Samuel Byrnand, May 1, 2015, “Reconfiguring History: The “Flora and Fauna Act” and other myths of Australian legislation”
  • Lost in History, June 28, Facebook post
  • Australia Government, Commonwealth Resources, Commonwealth case law database
  • Parliament of Australia, May 25, 2017, “The 1967 Referendum”
  • The Guardian, March 3, 2019, “The killing times: the massacres of Aboriginal people Australia must confront”
  • Australian Human Rights Commission, Close the Gap: Indigenous Health Campaign

Brian Gordon is a North Carolina statewide reporter for the USA Today Network. Follow him on Twitter: @briansamuel92.

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here, for more.

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