Richard J. Martin reviews 'The Colonial Fantasy: Why white Australia can’t solve black problems' by Sarah Maddison

Richard J. Martin reviews 'The Colonial Fantasy: Why white Australia can’t solve black problems' by Sarah Maddison

The Colonial Fantasy: Why white Australia can’t solve black problems

by Sarah Maddison

Allen & Unwin, $34.99 pb, 336 pp, 9781760295820

‘Fuck Australia, I hope it fucking burns to the ground.’ Sarah Maddison opens this book by quoting Tarneen Onus-Williams, the young Indigenous activist who sparked a brief controversy when her inflammatory comments about Australia were reported around 26 January 2018. For Maddison, a Professor of Politics at the University of Melbourne, Onus-Williams’s Australia Day comments (and subsequent clarification) convey a profound insight into ‘the system’. She writes:

The current system – the settler colonial system – is not working ... Yet despite incontrovertible evidence of this failure, the nation persists in governing the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in ways that are damaging and harmful, firm in its belief that with the right policy approach … Indigenous lives will somehow improve. This is the colonial fantasy.

Indeed, Maddison dismisses both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ approaches to Indigenous policy as not just failing but actually covertly desiring the ‘elimination’ of Indigenous peoples. Her message for readers is that ‘[w]hite Australia can’t solve black problems because white Australia is the problem’, and while the ‘structure’ of settler colonialism endures in the institutions of Australian society, Indigenous people will fail, and things will continue to worsen. As such, she argues for a complete rethink of policy approaches to ‘Australia’s settler problem’, one that would abandon ‘the liberal settler order’ produced by the colonial fantasy for something else, although she acknowledges that the alternative to settler colonialism ‘is uncertain’ as ‘there are no easy answers’.

Subscribe to ABR

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Published in August 2019, no. 413
Richard J. Martin

Richard J. Martin

Richard J. Martin is a postdoctoral research fellow and consultant anthropologist at the University of Queensland. His academic research focuses on issues of land and identity in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, where he has completed extensive fieldwork with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents over a number of years. He has also conducted applied research on native title claims and Aboriginal cultural heritage issues around Queensland. 

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.