I come from the region first dubbed York Cape by James Cook, just before he claimed possession of the eastern seaboard on behalf of the British crown. He did so at Possession Island in the Torres Strait on August 22, 1770. The claimed land he called New South Wales.
The Referendum Council, of which I was a member, delivered its final report in July. It made two recommendations: one constitutional and one extraconstitutional. First, it recommended a referendum be held to provide in the Australian Constitution for a representative body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a voice to the parliament in relation to their affairs.
Second, it recommended an extraconstitutional Declaration of Recognition, enacted by legislation passed by all Australian parliaments, to articulate a symbolic statement of recognition to unify Australians.
Diligent and good-willed Australians should reflect on these modest but profound proposals, for amending the Constitution lies in the gift of the Australian people.
What is Australia and when did it come into existence? This question may seem impertinent until we reflect on it. At the beginning of the 19th century no one called this land Australia, let alone at the time of the First Fleet’s arrival. It was well into the 19th century that the name Australia gained currency.
No event brought Australia into existence until Federation on January 1, 1901, when the Australian Constitution created the Commonwealth of Australia. Our country has retrofitted an unfactual myth of Australia on to the events of January 26, 1788. There was no Australia in 1788. There was only the colony of New South Wales. There would be no Australian commonwealth until 1901.
The events of 1901 gave legal effect to Australia. This birth was a legal event, with the British crown as the mother. The commonwealth’s founding fathers advised the British parliament of the terms of that act, which became the Constitution of Australia.
Unlike the United States of America, Australia was never declared. A declaration is not a legal event. The law can declare anything subject to its own authority. Not so a declaration. Having no basis in law, a declaration must stand on its own authority. Its own validity and rightness. Its own values and its own truth.
A declaration of any standing, worth and durability cannot be arbitrary: it cannot assert untruths or be wilfully blind to truths. For the untruths and truths eventually become visible and erode convenient and time-limited definitions.
What is Australia? Who are the Australians? These are questions we have never properly answered as an Australian people. That there is an Australian people, there is no question. That this continent and its islands are our land, there is no question. And when I say ours, I mean all of us.
Yet we have never properly faced the idea of Australia. How could the idea of Australia conjured in our mythic reconstruction of January 26, 1788, or the Federation of 1901 — without contending with the indigenous inhabitants of our land — be a proper answer to the question of Australia? A commonwealth that excluded the pre-existing Aborigines and banished the Chinese and other aliens under the White Australia policy until Harold Holt’s prime ministership could never have been a complete Australia.
Australians have an epic story. It is one of the great epic stories of this planet. We will recognise the scale of our story when we recognise each other.
The first part of this story is the epic trek out of Africa. Latest research pushes back the date of Aboriginal presence in Australia beyond 60,000 years. Our epic story begins from science as well; as from within the mythologies of the First Peoples of this continent. Australia’s most eminent ethnographer, WEH Stanner, explained the Dreaming as telling rich tales of “great marvels”:
… how all the fire and water in the world were stolen and recaptured; how men made a mistake over sorcery and now have to die from it; how the hills, rivers, and waterholes were made; how the sun, moon, and stars were set upon their courses; and many other dramas of this kind … how animals and men diverged from a joint stock that was neither one nor the other; how the black-nosed kangaroo got his black nose and the porcupine his quills; how such social divisions as tribes, clans, and language groups were set up; how spirit-children were first placed in the waterholes, the winds, and leaves of trees …
These epic stories of the continent are much, much older than Homer. And are still held today.
Science tells a story of commensurable scale. A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia led by the University of Cambridge reveals that Papuan and Aboriginal ancestors left Africa about 72,000 years ago, then split from the main group about 58,000 years ago. They reached the supercontinent of Sahul that once united Tasmania, Australia and New Guinea 50,000 years ago. Papuans and Aborigines split about 37,000 years ago, long before the continents were cut off from each other 8000 or so years ago. When this research came to light last year I wondered why parliament did not adjourn business to enable our nation’s leadership to reflect on its profundity to us as Australians. That this did not happen, and that we do not think to do such things, speaks to this great lacuna in our conception of Australia.
There is a second epic story of Australia: the voyage of the Endeavour. Australians should know the epic nature of James Cook’s voyage to the east coast of Australia in 1770. Everyone knows of his role in our history, but controversies over whether he was the first European to discover the east coast of Australia and the moral legacy of colonial annexation that followed his voyage have diminished the appreciation of one of history’s greatest seafarers.
I, of course, should not be saying this, given the villainy that I should properly attach to Cook. But the epic scale of his courage and captaincy is plain. It was the equivalent of manned space travel to the outer solar system. He limped into the country of my forefathers after running aground on coral at the reef now called Endeavour, into the harbour of a place we call Waymburr, what would thereafter be called Cooktown on the banks of the Endeavour River. The place of my birth. That 24-hour-long battle to refloat and save the stuck and leaking ship was a herculean struggle.
After seven weeks repairing the ship, Cook eventually led the Endeavour through a gap in the reef that he sighted from the top of Dyiigarru (Lizard Island), enabling the Endeavour to escape the clutches of the Great Barrier Reef.
However, worse calamity faced the Endeavour as it approached the mainland at Cape Direction, where the prospect of his bark shattering on the reef was averted when a sudden gust of wind turned the ship off its fatal course. Cook reflected on these dangers:
It is but a few days ago that I rejoiced at having got without the Reef, but that joy was nothing when Compared to what I now felt at being safe at an Anchor within it, such is the Vissitudes attending this kind of Service & must always attend and unknown Navigation where one steers wholy in the dark without any manner of guide whatever …
No epic is pure happiness and light. Cook’s voyage ultimately meant devastation and dispossession for the First Peoples. But it was still an epic voyage. Epics are about tragedy and heroism, cowardice and courage, the worst and best of humanity. The arrival of British institutions on the shoulders of the First Fleet, which became the law of this continent, is the second part of Australia’s epic story, commencing with Cook.
I now want to turn to the third species of epic story. There are in fact millions of such stories. The epic migrations from Auschwitz, Somalia, Italy, Vietnam, Beirut and Tiananmen Square, and so many other places.
I want to tell one extraordinary story of an acquaintance, Binh. After the communist takeover of Vietnam in 1975, when Binh was five years old, everyone who had anything to do with the previous South Vietnamese regime were sent to re-education camps, as they were called — essentially labour camps. Binh was confined there with his mum, brother and maternal grandmother.
After three years, Binh and his family were let out with no money and no food. They knew they had to take a perilous journey to the West, for a better life. They took the boat journey across the South China Sea on a fishing trawler with 150 people on board. It was about 12m long. They landed in a camp in Malaysia after drifting on the ocean for three weeks. It was one of the most crowded places on earth, with 40,000 people crammed into a small area.
An Australian delegation came to the camp and chose his family on the basis that, as a young family, it could contribute positively to Australia. Binh’s family arrived in 1980, when he was 10. They lived in Brisbane for a year, attending English classes and learning to adapt to the new culture.
This is a familiar story. But it is also unique. Binh works in policy and research in support of Australia’s Constitution. He is a believer in the importance of Australia’s constitutional order because he understands the importance of constitutional stability that gives rise to stable institutions, accountable governance, transparency and fair elections. Such structures avoid abuse of power, arbitrary use of force, and political instability of the kind Binh experienced in his homeland.
Binh is also a supporter of constitutional recognition. He thinks we should all have a fair voice in the constitutional order.
“It seems reasonable and just that the first peoples of this land should be appropriately acknowledged,” he says.
These are three equally epic parts to our national story. A Declaration of Australia should have three verses, but it must be one song. A Declaration will enable us to thread together these three epic stories into the one story of our Australian commonwealth: a declaration to unite the nation.
This is an edited extract from an address to the Australian Club Statesmen’s Dinner in Melbourne on July 19.