Written in the stars: Time is right for recognition

, - January 27, 2014

the australian picture 20140127
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke Source: Supplied

GARY Flandro is the renowned aerospace engineer at the University of Tennessee Space Institute responsible for the extraordinary research he conducted for NASA in 1967 that gave rise to the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft which, over the past 37 years, visited Saturn and Jupiter as part of a grand tour of the solar system.

In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, further than anyone or anything has ever explored in history, and Voyager 2 will do so sometime after 2016.

As a PhD student, Flandro’s research uncovered the unique alignment of the outer planets that would enable spacecraft to use gravitational assists from Jupiter to be propelled to Saturn and then on to Uranus and Neptune. NASA had to scramble to take advantage of this once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity and preparations began in earnest for launches that took place in 1977.

Voyager 2 was launched in August and Voyager 1 a month later. They have done the grand tour and are charting regions of space that hardly seemed conceivable when they were first launched.

The confounding conundrums of the relationship between the descendants of the original Australians who came to this continent up to 60,000 years ago and the descendants of the new Australians who formed the modern nation of Australia have this kind of once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity this year.

If we do the Flandro calculations about planetary alignment of the opportunity to bring indigenous policy to a new place, then this is the year to seize.

There are two dimensions that can come together: one symbolic, the other practical, both ultimately connected to each other.

The symbolic dimension concerns indigenous recognition in the Australian Constitution. Tony Abbott is a longstanding advocate of recognition, having inherited the commitment made by his conservative predecessor and elder John Howard at the 2007 federal election. He has not been shy about telling the country he regards constitutional recognition as an integral part of his program, and nominated indigenous affairs as one of the five headline priorities of his prime ministership.

My own more than a decade-long Flandro-type calculations told me that the only hope for constitutional recognition was a highly conservative leader of a conservative government being prepared to lead the country to a successful referendum. I once said that if Howard was not going to lead this reform, then it would have to be a leader in the same vein as Howard.

Even while Abbott was No 4 or No 5 in the Coalition succession, I thought he represented the Richard Nixon type who could go to China on indigenous reconciliation. He is now the Prime Minister and is on an election commitment to consider reform proposals within the first year of his term. The promised parliamentary committee chaired by indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt is holding hearings and will report during the course of this year.

Changing the Constitution is the most difficult challenge in Australian politics. You need a majority of voters in a majority of the states to be in favour of the reform. This newspaper reported last week the strong support among Australians for this recognition, but that does not mean much if there is a concerted opposition. Unless we aim to get more than 90 per cent of voters on side with the reform – the 1967 referendum on removing clauses in the Constitution discriminating against Aborigines secured 90.77 per cent – the chances of failure are high.

The second dimension is practical. A new policy paradigm has become dominant, based on cultural and economic development; land rights and welfare reform; recognition of heritage; and the abandonment of racialist exceptionalism. It has elements commonplace in indigenous families and communities prior to the welfare era. But what is new is that cultural identity and modern development is understood as complementary rather than anathema.

Yet the practice of indigenous affairs is still largely stuck in the old paradigm. The new policy, around which there is now a bipartisan and wide consensus, needs to be reflected in the actual administration of indigenous affairs.

This highlights the importance of the Prime Minister’s pledge to implement the recommendations of Andrew Forrest’s review of indigenous employment, and the Empowered Communities framework for reforming the relationship between governments and indigenous communities to make indigenous affairs more productive and consistent with reform policies.

If Abbott takes good advice from the Indigenous Advisory Council chaired by Warren Mundine, then the potential for progress on the practical agenda is very real.

Constitutional reform will be very hard to sell to an Australian citizenry who, I believe, have great goodwill and earnest hopes for reconciliation, but who naturally want to be convinced that proposed reforms will lead to a better future for indigenous peoples.

Without demonstrable traction on the practical agenda, the symbolic reform will face sceptical Australians, black and white. A narrative that explains the relationship between the symbolic and the practical will be needed.

The planetary alignment that has emerged has been many decades in movement. Key developments occurred under the prime ministerships of Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd. Abbott inherits this opportunity from these Labor prime ministers.

Those who think him incapable of transcending partisan politics to appreciate the larger perspective should read his speech as opposition leader on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act in March last year.

He said: “Australia is a blessed country. Our climate, our land, our people, our institutions rightly make us the envy of the earth, except for one thing – we have never fully made peace with the first Australians. This is the stain on our soul that prime minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago.

“We have to acknowledge that pre-1788, this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now, and until we have acknowledged that, we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people.”

Whether we follow the advice of Flandro or Henry Kissinger, 2014 is a propitious year for those inclined to seize best chances.