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Focus question 4: Should people be equal before the law?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: The one place - two ways of life (30 min) ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Myall Creek massacre and the rule of law (70-90 min) ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: 'The Law Rules' chart (5 min) ESL Activity 3
Activity 4: Newspaper article (60 min) ESL Activity 4
Assessment ESL Assessment
Activity 5: Are we equal before the law? ESL Activity 5


We have seen how in the early years of European settlement in Australia the making of law and decisions about individual cases were controlled by the governor. In other words, the two major differences between the law as it was then and the law now are:

  • ordinary people had no say in what the law would be
  • the court was not independent.

The British Government changed this system after Macquarie by:

  • making the governor appoint people to advise him
  • making the courts separate from the governor by putting a judge in charge of the courts.

In Focus question 4 we will look at another important principle of law: that we are all equal in the eyes of the law. To do this we will look at an important event in the rule of law in Australia - the Myall Creek massacre of 1838.

Activity 1: The one place - two ways of life (30 min)

Handout 16 1a Read through the sections on Aboriginal law and British law on Handout 16 with students.

1b Discuss how the different lifestyles of the two groups and their attitudes towards the land might lead to conflict.

1c Ask the class to suggest likely areas of conflict.

1d Record responses, which might include:

  • settlers cut off Aboriginal people from traditional hunting grounds and water sources
  • settlers do not understand that land is sacred to Aboriginal people
  • Aboriginal people kill sheep for food, not understanding that they are owned by the settlers
  • there is a lack of a police presence in rural areas.

1e Ask students to nominate likely outcomes of such conflict.

Activity 2: Myall Creek massacre and the rule of law (70-90 min)

Handout 16 2a Refer students to Handout 16 and read through 'The Myall Creek massacre 1838' with them.

2b Explain that there were numerous massacres of Aboriginal people during white settlement.

2c Highlight the fact that while Aboriginal people were entitled to be protected by British law they were not permitted to give evidence in a court. It was claimed that most Aboriginal people were not Christians and therefore could not take the oath to tell the truth.

2d Ask students what they think was the result of the Myall Creek massacre.

  • Do you think the murderers will be brought to trial?
  • If so, what do you think will be the outcome of the trial?

2e Record their responses on the board.

2f Discuss the idea that Aboriginal people could not appear before courts or give evidence. Ask students what they think would happen in court because of this. For example, if there are only Aboriginal survivors and no white witnesses to the crime, how can the court find out what happened?

Handout 17,18 2g Distribute Handout 17 to half the groups and Handout 18 to the rest. Groups should consider the questions and produce a written group response on the following:

  • who was charged with murder at the trial and for what crime
  • the rights of the Aboriginal people under the rule of law
  • the outcome of the trial
  • the different responses to the verdict
  • your group's opinion of the verdict.

2h Take responses from representatives of groups working on Handout 17 and record them on the board.

2i Discuss why there was such a variety of responses to the trial at the time.

2j Discuss with the groups how the government felt. Governor Gipps had tried to uphold the law and failed. How lawful would Australia have looked in the eyes of the British?

2k Take responses from representatives of groups working on Handout 18 and record them on the board.

2l Discuss why there was such a variety of responses to this trial at the time.

2m Discuss how the British Government might have felt about the final outcome.

2n Explain that Myall Creek was famous because it was the first time that white settlers had been executed under British law for the murder of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Activity 3: 'The Law Rules' chart (5 min)

Refer students to 'The Law Rules' chart and complete entries for the table in Focus question 5, Activity 2.

Activity 4: Newspaper article (60 min)

4a Students work in groups to write an article for a newspaper at the time of the Myall Creek massacre.

4b The article should include:

4c Students write a paragraph stating what they think should have happened and why, commenting on the decision of the court.


This task will be assessed according to the following criteria. The student can:

Activity 5: Are we equal before the law?

5a Present the following scenarios to the class:

A You are not allowed to attend the same school as your neighbour because you are not from the same ethnic group. The law says that you must attend a school with students of the same group.

B You apply for a weekend job that you know you are very good at, but you are told that only people of the opposite gender to you can do the job.

5b Gather student reactions to the scenarios. Discuss the concept of discrimination by asking if it is fair to treat people differently because of gender, ethnic group or disability.

5c Remind students that in colonial times the law treated some people differently. This continued for many years. For example, there were different pay scales for men and women until quite recently.

Stories Internet

5d Introduce the idea that legislation (parliament-made law) was introduced to protect people against discrimination. These laws enable people to make claims in a civil court against cases of discrimination. Have some students locate definitions of the terms 'discriminate', 'legislate' and 'Act' in the glossaries that are included on the Stories of Democracy CD ROM and on the Discovering Democracy website.

5e Write the following titles on the board and discuss their implications. Ask students to think of scenarios in which the following Acts could be applied.

More information on discrimination appears in the 'People Power' unit.

ESL activities

Back to 'The Law Rules - At a glance'

AcknowledgementsLegal Information