Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid

Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. And then, it’s all over. Calm is restored as summer winds down, the kids return to school, and the working year starts in earnest – until the next national shibboleth lumbers into view – Anzac Day in late April. 

This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we are too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words.

The fires have dominated the media space, with harrowing photographs and video footage of their impact on people, property, and wildlife, stories of heroism and resilience, and circular debates and divisions, political posturing and finger-pointing. They have crowded out others news and reportage from around Australia and overseas where much is happening, be it the US’ assassination of Iran’s foremost general, ongoing protests in Beirut and Baghdad, the continued pounding on tons and villages in Syria’s beleaguered Idlib province, devastating floods in Indonesia, and volcano eruptions in the Philippines and and Zealand – and, less catastrophic but infinitely entertaining, Britain’s imminent retreat from Europe, and Harry and Meghan’s divorce from the royal family.

The fires have also crowded out the predictable argy-bargy over our national identity. It’s as if the partisans and opinionistas right across our political spectrum have holstered their weapons in deference to our collective pyro-purgatory.

There is one piece, however, that I deem worthy of republishing in In That Howling Infinite insofar as it encapsulates perfectly a cognitive and cultural dissonance at the heart of our national identity that I touched upon recently in How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo.

Sydney journalist Elizabeth Farrelly is always worth reading for her perspective on our identity, our culture and our natural and built environment. On this Australia Day 2020, she asks the perennial rhetorical question: what does it mean to be Australian? Her observations are illuminating. Here is my summary – you can read it in full below.

“As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up …

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite.

Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over. Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable, exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and  set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilizers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognized for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better … God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponized it. We’ll show this country who’s boss. 

Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. 

This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology”.

See also: We got them Australia Day Blues;  and Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Survival-by-respect or death-by-stupid: your choice Straya

Elizabeth Farrrelly, Sydney Morning Herald 26th January 2020

It’s invasion day again only, this time, the eyes of the world are upon us. Under headlines like “Australia shows us the road to hell“, the world is wondering if our economy isn’t every bit as fragile as the landscape it routinely exploits. It’s wondering about our tourism, with massive cancellations already from China and a US travel warning putting Australia on par with Gaza and PNG. It’s asking how long Australia will be habitable. But beneath those questions lies another. What, at this crossroads, does it mean to be Australian?

The first three are questions of both fact and perception. As such they may be partly addressed by Scott Morrison’s $76m commitment to beef-up Australia as a brand. But the last is a question for us. Who are we, as a nation, and who do we wish to be going forward? 

Australia Bushfires: Tourism fire effects

The tourism industry has lost some $4.5 billion as overseas visitors cancel trips over bushfires.

As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can dust off our angel wings and smarten up.

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite. 

 

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

And sure, to some extent, that’s just colonialism. Colonialism is inherently macho, and inherently denialist. But it should be transitional. Now, as the NY Times argues, our political denialism is “scarier than the fires”. Smarten up? It’s time we grew up.

This is Australia’s moment of reckoning. It’s time we lost the attitude. Time we made a clear, rational and collective choice between survival-by-respect and death-by-stupid.

On top of Auckland’s Maungakiekie, the volcanic Māori pa also known as One Tree Hill, stands an obelisk. The land was bequeathed to the city in the mid-19th century by the beloved Scot Sir John Logan Campbell, who designed the obelisk as a permanent record “of his admiration for the achievements and character of the great Maori people”. That was then – now, New Zealand has Jacinda. And yes, these dots are connected.

Australia has shown no such reverence. Indeed, unable even to express genuine remorse for our repeated attempts at genocide and erasure-by-other-means, we’re still doing arrogant displacement. And we, as a result, have Scott Morrison, who must live with the disparaging epithet concocted by the lads at the Betoota Advocate – Scotty from marketing – because many Australians believe there is a ring of truth to it.

Morrison who responds to bushfires by wanting to clear more land. Who thinks hazard reduction is climate action and more advertising can persuade them back to a charred continent. Death by stupid.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better. Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over.

Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s filthy foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable (Alice had 55 days above 40 degrees last yearand recorded street-surface temperatures between 61 and 68 degrees celsius), exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.  

As if that very ancestry, those very records, hadn’t been, for two centuries, the subject of our energetic erasure. As if being Indigenous had always yielded some special right to speak, instead of the precise opposite. As if the speaker’s genetic makeup validated or invalidated his speech. What?

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilisers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. That’ll show them. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognised for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers cheat – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks. 

God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponised it. By golly we’ll show this country who’s boss. Then if things get really rough, we’ll pop to heaven. Let’s hear it. A recent street poster picturing Morrison declaring Pentecostals for a Warmer Planet! may seem extreme, but Meritus Professor of Religious Thought, Philip C. Almond, explains why Morrison’s faith meansreducing carbon emissions … may have little intellectual purchase with the PM” – because world’s end means the second coming and, for the chosen, salvation. It’s also why Morrison’s beloved Hillsong church can happily advertise its coming conference, called Breathe Again, with Bishop T D Jakes saying “it’s amazing how God can strike a match in Australia and the whole world catches on fire”. As if the fires were God given.

That’s choice A, Scott Morrison’s choice. Business as usual but with extra cheesy advertising. Choice B, survival-by-respect, recognizes that even cheese can’t sell a pile of ash.

Survival-by-respect means just that: respect for Indigenous peoples, for nature and for women. It means knowing that listening is no weakness, but a path to greater strength.

On the ground, the shift would be dramatic but not impossible. Zero carbon cities would become an immediate priority: solar vehicles, green roads, every surface productive of food or energy. It would mean ending coal production. Investing in renewables. Creating whole new industries. 

This would mean listening to people who’ve spent 60,000 years here. Not copying, necessarily, listening. And listening, above all, to nature, heeding the fires’ overwhelming lesson. Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology. 

Sure, we can stick with lazy old Plan A. We can bow to Brand Australia and trust our grandchildren’s futures to the Rapture Hypothesis. Good luck with that, and happy Straya Day!

Bare Dinkum

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

We oughtn’t fear an Indigenous Voice – but we do

They were standing on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified
‘cause somewhere, someone had lied
And now you’re standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Goanna

Journalist Jacqueline Maley wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald  on17th November 2019:

“The Uluru Statement From the Heart, with its reasoned call for constitutional recognition, has become such a politicised issue that it is easy to forget what a beautiful piece of writing it is. It is not even 500 words, but within it is a world: the struggle, tragedy and dignity of one of the world’s oldest living cultures. It discusses the ancestral ties of First Nations peoples to the land, unextinguished by colonisation. It talks about children stolen and incarcerated. “This is the torment of our powerlessness,” it reads “.

You’d have thought that the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our constitution would be a no-brainer, and that their participation as stakeholders and advisers in matters of government policy affecting them, much as many other bodies and institutions do, would be a reasonable and worthwhile proposition. It would, one might’ve thought, be simply the right thing to do.

But you’d be disappointed. Not in today’s Australia, it would seem. The things that divide us are greater than those which unite us.

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney has written a clear and concise response to the naysayers, fear-mongers and purveyors of misinformation. It ought to be required reading, but as it is behind News Ltd’s paywall, I republish it here.

It is followed by an opinion piece by one time journalist and now academic, Stan Grant, on why the plan for a referendum proposed by our new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, may be a forlorn hope (both Grant and Wyatt are indigenous Australians); and after this, an informative article by conservative columnist Chris Kenny.

Kenny is normally a caustic and predictable member of News Corp’s right wing  comments racy, but here, he provides a good analysis of the obstacles facing Wyatt and the ambivalent PM Scott Morrison.

“There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate – indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sport­ing organisations – mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options … (for) constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood. Everyone wants to parade their view … but are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate”.

Malcolm Harrison, an old friend of mine, makes the following observations”:

”The liberal, progressive left, identity politics movement seems to have met some severe headwinds of late, and the growing apprehension about some of its more extreme aspects may halt it for the forseeable future. Various forms of conservatism are definitely gaining ground at least in the short term. The voices of oppressed indigenous peoples, and those colonised like India, are growing louder, and demands for financial compensation are becoming more common. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a very real issue. If I were the government of Australia, I would be making secure deals with what’s left of the indigenous peoples, while I still could. Excluding them from the constitution only strengthens their future case. From the perspective of identity politics, if I were an aboriginal I would be righteously aware that from a human rights perspective, I had a lot to complain about. And sooner or later, the conscience of my society might be forced to acknowledge this in practical ways that at present it is not prepared to countenance or even consider. But, as I imply in the first paragraph, we may not get there in the short term, and indeed we may never get there at all. Indeed, if some of the extreme ideas being privately discussed among our present neoliberal aristocratic elites come to fruition, many more of us might be joining our indigenous brothers on the fringes, beyond the pale”.

There is a darkness at the heart of democracy in the new world “settler colonial” countries like Australia and New Zealand, America and Canada, where for almost all of our history, we’ve confronted the gulf between the ideal of political equality and the reality of indigenous dispossession and exclusion. To a greater or lesser extent, with greater or lessers success, we’ve laboured to close the gap. It’s a slow train coming.

Also, in In That Howling Infinite: Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Postscript

two month’s on, and it would appear that positions have hardened. More like ossified, I would say.

Delivering the 19th Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture in early August, Ken Wyatt made explicit, in the strongest terms since becoming Minister for Indigenous Australians, that the Morrison government has decided to dismiss the call for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the constitution.

“I want to be very clear,” he said. “The question we put to the Australian people will not result in what some desire, and that is an enshrined voice to the Parliament –  these two matters [constitutional recognition and a Voice to parliament], whilst related, need to be treated separately.”

Whilst carefully choosing how it tackles the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the government’s tactic may be to appear to be doing something, while doing nothing at all.

If the government legislates the Voice without constitutionally enshrining it, it will not only ignore the Uluru Statement and the unprecedented consensus that made it, ii will be setting it up to fail. A First Nations Voice established by an act of parliament alone and not protected by the constitution will one day be diminished or repealed at the whim of a future parliament as has been the fate of all national Indigenous representative bodies. Moreover, Indigenous people do not support mere symbolic constitutional recognition and have dismissed it in regional constitutional dialogues. Those who are to be recognised need to be able determine how they are recognised.

22nd August 2019

See also in In That Howling Infinite:

Fright-monsters keen to deny voice a fair go

Anne Twomey, The Australian, 13th July 2019

The most remarkable thing about a proposal for an indigenous voice to parliament is how moderate and reasonable it is. It is not a demand to dictate laws. There is no insistence upon a power of veto. There is simply a cry to be recognized — to be listened to with respect.

It means no more than that indigenous views can be channeled into the parliament by a formal mechanism so that they can be taken into account and parliament can be better informed when making laws that affect indigenous Australians.

How many people would prefer that the parliament be poorly informed? Who thinks it is a good idea for parliament to waste money on ineffective programs that achieve nothing?

The proposal is so very reasonable that it has shocked people into imagining hidden conspiracies and conjuring up fright-monsters, because they cannot bring themselves to believe that a proposed change could actually be good.

The best way to dispel fright-monsters is to expose them. The first is the claim that any indigenous voice that could channel its views and advice into the parliament would be a “third house of parliament”.

To state the obvious, it would be a third house only if it was given the power to initiate bills, pass and veto them, and be defined as a constituent part of the parliament in section 1 of the Constitution.

The only people suggesting this are those who are opposing it, so we can strike this off the list of problems.

If the suggestion is that any person or body that formally advises parliament in relation to bills or policies is a third house, then we would have a parliament of very many houses indeed.

Take, for example, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, whose role is to provide independent oversight of national security legislation and make recommendations about it, which are tabled in parliament. The monitor is currently conducting an inquiry into laws that terminate the citizenship of people involved with terrorism. Does this make the monitor a “third house of parliament”?

If so, the monitor would join the Auditor-General, the Productivity Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the many other bodies and people whose job it is to ensure that the parliament is better informed about particular subject matters.

All of these bodies and officers have influence, and should be listened to with respect because of their experience and expertise, but that does not mean they dictate legislation and government policies.

Governments have to take into account broader issues as well, such as the budgetary position and the general wellbeing of the entire country.

There is no greater threat in having an indigenous body advise and influence the parliament than there is in relation to any of these other bodies. Instead, there is a benefit in having a better informed parliament and hopefully better targeted laws and policies.

The next argument is that if this indigenous voice is enshrined in the Constitution, the High Court will get involved and every time indigenous advice is not followed there will be litigation and the High Court will force the parliament to give effect to that advice. This view is misguided. It is part of the principle of the separation of powers that the courts do not intervene in the internal deliberations of the parliament.

The High Court has held that it will not enforce constitutional provisions, such as sections 53 and 54 regarding money bills, because they concern the internal proceedings of the houses. As long as the constitutional provisions concerning an indigenous voice were drafted to make it clear that consideration of its advice was part of the internal proceedings of the houses, the matter would not be one that could be brought before, or enforced by, the courts.

The third argument concerns equality. Some have argued that there is a fundamental principle of equality in the Constitution and that division on the basis of race should not be brought into the Constitution.

First, there is no general provision of equality in the Constitution. For example, Tasmanians have, per head of population, far greater representation in the federal parliament than voters from NSW.

Members of parliament might also be aware by now that section 44 disqualifies them if they are dual nationals.

Second, the Constitution has always provided for distinctions based upon race. From 1901 to 1967 section 127 provided that for certain purposes “aboriginal natives” were not counted in the population.

This did not mean that they weren’t counted in the census. Every census, from the very first, has included detailed information about indigenous Australians. But it did mean that when determining the population for the purpose of calculating how many seats a state had in parliament, indigenous Australians were excluded from the statistics until this provision was repealed in the 1967 referendum.

Section 25 continues to provide that if a state excludes people from voting on the basis of race, it is punished by having its population reduced for the purposes of its representation in the federal parliament. Section 51 (xxvi) continues to allow the federal parliament to make laws with respect to the “people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

There are good reasons today to remove sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) from the Constitution, but there will still be a need to include some kind of power to make laws with respect to indigenous Australians.

This is not because of race. It is because of indigeneity.

Only indigenous Australians have legal rights that preceded British settlement and continue to apply today.

Only indigenous Australians have a history and culture unique to Australia.

It is not racist, divisive or a breach of principles of equality to enact laws that deal with native title rights or protect indigenous cultural heritage.

Nor is it racist, divisive or in breach of principles of equality to allow the only group about whom special laws are made to be heard about the making of these laws. Indeed, it is only fair, and fairness is a fundamental principle that Australians respect.

Anne Twomey is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

Ken Wyatt, a man in the cross-hairs of history

Stan Grant, Sydney Morning Herald, 13th July 2019

Ken Wyatt is a man of history. He has defied a history of Indigenous children stolen from their families. He has defied a history that locked Indigenous people out of Australian political life, that for too many years denied Aboriginal people full citizenship. This week he made history, speaking at the National Press Club as the first Aboriginal person to be a cabinet minister in a federal government – an Aboriginal person leading the portfolio for Indigenous Australians.

His moment in history ... Ken Wyatt, the Miniser for Indigenous Australians.                        Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians (Alex Ellinghaussen)

But when it comes to constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, history is against him. There have been 44 referendums put to the Australian people and only eight carried. It has been more than 40 years since the last yes vote. We set a high bar: change requires a majority of voters in a majority of states. Fifty per cent of the national population plus one is not enough.

The numbers are against him: Indigenous people are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population seeking to win over 97 per cent. Politics is against him: he is in the wrong party; more than half of all referendums have been put by the ALP. Right now, Ken Wyatt cannot even count on the full support of his own side of politics.

If a referendum won’t succeed, there will be no vote, he says. He’s hoping for consensus, bringing together political opposition including influential politicians such as Pauline Hanson. He wants a conversation with the Australian people around barbecues and dinner tables. His hardest conversation will be with Indigenous people.

Black Australia has already spoken. The Uluru Statement from the Heart remains the clearest expression of the aspirations of Indigenous people, emerging out of an exhaustive and emotional process of negotiation and consultation. It is itself a compromise, a conservative position, achieved in spite of understandable hostility from some Indigenous people who have no faith in Australian politics. Now they are being asked to compromise again.

What was all of that for? Where is the trust? The previous Turnbull government rejected the key recommendation of the Uluru Statement, that there be a constitutionally enshrined “voice” – a representative body allowing Indigenous people to advise and inform government policy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was among many who called it a “third chamber” of Parliament. He reportedly has not shifted from that view.

Wyatt has already framed future negotiations by indicating that he may prefer some symbolic words of recognition in the constitution and a legislated statutory voice. He is testing the resolve and agility of Indigenous leadership. Will they walk back their demand for a constitutional voice? Can they accept symbolism? He’s already sought to recast constitutional recognition as the preserve of urban Indigenous elites, disconnected from impoverished remote black communities.

Ken Wyatt is also on a collision course with the Labor opposition. Senior Indigenous ALP figures Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson have reasserted their commitment to the spirit of the Uluru Statement and full constitutional recognition. It sets up a divisive political battle, which would scuttle any hope of a successful referendum.

Constitutional lawyer George Williams knows how difficult referendums are. He has previously laid out a roadmap to a yes vote. It requires political bipartisanship and popular ownership.  It cannot be perceived as political self-interest. The public must know what they are voting for, so it requires popular education. Referendums, Williams warns, are a minefield of misinformation.

And there must be a sound and sensible proposal.

Professor Williams has cautioned that the referendum process itself may be out of date – not suited to contemporary Australia. He says referendums should be expected to fail if there is political opposition or if the people feel confused or left out of the process.

On that basis, as it stands right now, an Indigenous constitutional voice looks a forlorn prospect.

But there is a glimmer of hope and it comes from our history. In 1967, Australians voted in overwhelming numbers – more than 90 per cent, the most resounding yes vote ever – to count Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Parliament to make laws for First Peoples.

Ken Wyatt is invoking the spirit of ’67, but he also knows its lesson: it was a victory of fairness over difference. Australians are wary of difference, suspicious of questions of rights. Australia has no bill of rights; our constitution is a rule book, not a rights manifesto. Australia is a triumph of liberalism where people are not defined by their race, religion, ethnicity or culture. Australia is a place where migrants are encouraged to leave their histories and old enmities behind. Nationally we are more comfortable mythologizing our own history than probing its darkest corners.

Indigenous people live with their history; they carry its scars; it defines them. In a country founded on terra nullius – empty land – where the rights of the First Peoples were extinguished, where no treaties have been signed, this – as the Uluru Statement says – is the torment of their powerlessness.

When it comes to Indigenous recognition – symbolism or substance – black and white Australia speak with a very different voice.

Ken Wyatt, a man of history, is now in the cross-hairs of history.

Stan Grant is professor of Global Affairs at Griffith University. He is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man.

The key to an indigenous voice’s success – it must be practical

Chris Kenny, The Australian, 13th July 2019

For all their best intentions, it might have been a mistake for Ken Wyatt and Scott Morrison to put indigenous constitutional recognition back on the agenda and commit to getting it done in this term of government. There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate — indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sport­ing organisations — mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options, and groups as diverse and seemingly irrelevant as national sporting organisations and major businesses running jingoistic campaigns supporting constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood.

Everyone wants to parade their view and, yes, signal their virtue, but they are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate.

Completely lost in the debate is the genesis of the “voice” proposal as a compromise proffered by conservative thinkers looking to deliver a meaningful outcome for indigenous Australians while preserving the integrity of the Constitution. This concept, first devised by indigenous leader Noel Pearson building on work by now Liberal MP Julian Leeser, conser­vative philosopher Damien Free­man and others, was assiduously workshopped and then explained and promoted to politicians, commentators and activists.

At the heart of this proposal, and a key to understanding this debate, is the desire to ensure constitutional recognition provides more than a cursory or symbolic mention of Aboriginal people in our nation’s founding document but delivers a practical outcome for indigenous advancement. This would be done by guaranteeing indigenous input into decision-making over their affairs — something that happens informally now but under the plan would be genuinely representative and underpinned in the Constitution.

In return, the Constitution would be protected from more radical change and a statement of national values would make more poetic exclamations about the shared indigenous, British and immigrant strands of our national bounty, outside of the Constitution. Incredibly, all the work devising this approach occurred outside the official channels such as the expert panel and select committee inquiries.

Initially its prospects seemed likely to match those of a snowflake at Uluru. It was attacked as a sop by the activists on the left who argued for a racial non-discrimination clause to be inserted into the Constitution as well as an indigenous affairs power and recognition clause that looked like a broad-ranging, de facto bill of rights. The right branded this voice approach as a divisive attempt to give additional rights and representation to indigenous Australians — an attempt to inject race into the Constitution.

Never mind that race is already embedded in our Constitution and that whatever happens on recognition the detailed constitutional changes are likely to remove those redundant race-based clauses. Never mind that by dint of legislation such as the Native Title Act there already are very specific measures that fall under the constitutional responsibility of the federal government that demand special consideration for indigenous people. And never mind that successive governments, Labor and Liberal, have had informal bodies to provide advice from Aboriginal people on these issues.

Somehow, mainly because of the power of the ideas but also thanks to the persuasiveness of Pearson and his team, the thrust of these ideas was embraced by a summit of indigenous community leaders at Uluru in May 2017. It was a monumental achievement but the grandiloquence of the “Statement from the Heart” would always frighten many horses.

Talk of “first sovereign nations” and spiritual links to the land was anathema to calculated, clinical constitutional change. Having invested some time in comprehending this process, I recall being immediately dismayed by the emotive words of the Uluru statement because I foresaw the political resistance they would trigger. It is a beautiful statement in many ways, and certainly encapsulates a wise position, but constitutional change is no place for emotionalism. Still, at its core are two proposals: “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution” and “a Maka­rrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.

This is now characterized as indigenous people asking too much of their non-indigenous compatriots. It is actually the opposite; these proposals can be seen as a generous offer of compromise from Aboriginal Australia to try to advance reconciliation in a practical but meaningful way.

Instead of demanding a racial non-discrimination clause and direct recognition of their rights in the Constitution, indigenous Australia is merely looking to have a guaranteed, advisory and non-binding input into legislation that affects them. And instead of demanding a treaty, they have come up with a regionally based process of agreements and truth-telling under the Yolngu (Arnhem Land) word of Makarrata, which encompasses conflict resolution but helps to avoid divisive arguments over treaties.

Conservative politicians as different as Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have dismissed the entire voice proposal as a “third chamber” that is too radical to contemplate. This has made the voice a third rail in the debate.

This is disappointing and ultimately dishonest because there are so many options available to arrange the representation and functions of a voice that if anyone has concerns it might be directly elected and wield some kind of informal veto power over parliament then a way to deal with the issue is to propose an acceptable format rather than just create fears over a third chamber. Otherwise, are they really suggesting the Aboriginal advisory councils reporting to Labor and Liberal governments over past decades have operated as third chambers of parliament?

Not all the blame for the emptiness of this debate rests with the conservatives — let me remind you, conservative thinkers were at the genesis of this proposal. The sloganeering on the progressive side has probably created more concern in the community than the scare campaigns from the Right.

People like Marcia Langton have been so aggressive towards their perceived ideological enemies that they burn goodwill faster than others can create it. And when big business and big sport start pushing loosely formed ideas about Recognition or a Voice onto customers and supporters — out of context and without formal proposals even being in existence — they raise the suspicions of voters, if not their hackles.

The most likely avenue for compromise now is for Morrison to prevail, as hinted at in Wyatt’s speech, and have a voice formalised through legislation but not mandated in the Constitution. This will disappoint many indigenous people but might fly.

Another idea worth consideration to assuage the doubters might be some sort of sunset provision. There is a legitimate argument to be made that one race-based grouping should not have separate consideration in our political processes. For reasons I have outlined previously (mainly recognizing historical disadvantage and accepting special status under native title rights), I think an exception should be made for indigenous Australians. But perhaps in the spirit of the Closing the Gap initiative, any changes could recognize that once those crucial gaps in social outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous are closed, then special representation might no longer be required.

That will be a long way off. But it might provide extra emphasis on the need to focus on practical outcomes rather than mere symbolism. Let us see where the debate takes us in coming months. Success for Wyatt would be success for the nation. But he and Morrison need to be wise enough to walk away from their self-imposed time frame if necessary.

This will be worthwhile only if it delivers something practical that can help indigenous advancement and provide closure to decades of debate. A trite phrase dropped into a preamble to make the majority feel good about themselves won’t be worth the effort and could create more trouble than it is worth.

Read also: Walk with me, Australia: Ken Wyatt’s historic pledge for Indigenous recognition