WHO WE WERE, WHO WE ARE, AND WHO WE CAN BE
We are on the last leg of a long journey.
We are encamped on the hinterlands of the great capitals of the Federation: Hobart, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and the nation’s capital: Canberra, seeking for a majority of these states in their own right and by a majority of the total of Australian electors, to approve an amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia through a Voice.
We wait the final stretch. Since we left Uluru on 27 May 2017, millions of Australians have joined the journey. We are excited but anxious. Our hearts are warm and legs wearied, but our eyes are ever searching over those blue mountains for the great emerald city beyond. The trek across the vast country has been long, seemingly endless and at times dispiriting, but we are buoyed because the nation’s 31st prime minister committed to us – the Australian people – that a referendum question will soon be put. We know the nation’s leader must be joined by all his counterparties in the federal parliament, and in the parliaments of the states, and communities across the country – but our hearts are hopeful.
Clouds threaten the horizon and thunderstorms of strife and discord are rumbling. We are worried wind and rain will obscure the remaining pathway through the mountains ahead. That our cause may perish in the mud.
Our journey from the heart will culminate in a national vote within these 12 months. Soon every Australian over 18 years will wake one Saturday morning and make their way in the millions down roads to walk bridges across every great river and harbour, every stream, dry gully and flooding creek through the communities, towns and cities of the nation – to cast their vote in a referendum.
They will each cast their vote on the question of whether the nation should build its greatest bridge – a bridge to unite at long last the First Peoples of this country with our British institutional inheritance and our multicultural achievement, under the Constitution.
A bridge to join all Australians in common cause, to work together in partnership to make a new settlement that celebrates the rightful place of Indigenous heritage in Australia’s national identity. A constitutional bridge to create an ongoing dialogue between the First Peoples and Australian governments and parliaments, to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
I have taken the bridge metaphor from channel 9 television reporter, Chris O’Keefe, who gave the best explanation of what this referendum is all about. The people will vote on the principle – should Indigenous peoples be guaranteed a fairer say in laws and policies made about them – and parliament will legislate the detail. O’Keefe explained: “The government [is] effectively asking Australians ‘do we need a bridge across the Sydney Harbour? Yes or no?’ With the parliament then to decide how many lanes it will have and its design.”
It is the Australian people who are responsible for recognition through their vote in a referendum. It is their elected parliamentary representatives who design and enact the details in law.
Constitutional recognition will endure but the legislative details can be changed by the parliament if and when it chooses to do so.
If we come to see that recognition of Indigenous Australians involves mutual recognition of British and Migrant Australians – then the people of Australia will vote to build this greatest bridge and the referendum will succeed. Of this I am certain.
In my lecture I will traverse three periods of our history.
Let me first refer to ‘who we were’. This is the period from 1788, moving past 1901 and ending in 1967.
Emerging from a screening of a 2019 documentary about the end of the career of footballer Adam Goodes, I thought about the trouble Australians have with Aboriginal people. The trouble is readily called racism, and certainly racism is much to do with it, but the reality is not that simple.
We are a much unloved people. We are perhaps the ethnic group Australians feel least connected to. We are not popular and we are not personally known to many Australians. Few have met us and a small minority count us as friends. And despite never having met any of us and knowing very little about us other than what is in the media and what WEH Stanner, whose 1968 Boyer Lectures looms large over my lectures, called ‘folklore’ about us – Australians hold and express strong views about us, the great proportion of which is negative and unfriendly. It has ever been thus. Worse in the past but still true today.
If success in the forthcoming referendum is predicated on our popularity as a people, then it is doubtful we will succeed. It does not and will not take much to mobilise antipathy against Aboriginal people and to conjure the worst imaginings about us and the recognition we seek. For those who wish to oppose our recognition it will be like shooting fish in a barrel. An inane thing to do – but easy. A heartless thing to do – but easy.
Unlike same-sex marriage there is not the requisite empathy of love to break through the prejudice, contempt and yes, violence, of the past. Australians simply do not have Aboriginal people within their circles of family and friendship with whom they can share fellow feeling.
My reflection on the Goodes film produced three thoughts.
First there is the original sin of Australian racism against Aboriginal people. The old assumption Aborigines were innately inferior and sub-human was the strongest idea for almost one and a half centuries of colonial thinking. Listen to Stanner speak of how these ideas still formed the folklore of Australia at the end of the 1960s:
I was asked the other day whether I did not agree that the Aborigines must have originated and evolved within Australia. My questioner was an earnest and sensible man and I asked him why he thought so. His answer was: ‘because they are in every way so unlike any other people in the world’. He was quite unaware that he was expressing a view common in Australia more than one hundred and thirty years ago which has stalwartly withstood all the biological, anthropological and archaeological information built up since that time. Popular folklore is like that, and our folklore about the Aborigines shows the qualities which distinguish it everywhere, a splendid credulity towards the unlikely and an iron resolve to believe the improbable. It mixes truth, half-truth and untruth into hard little concretions of faith that defy dissolution by better knowledge.
I believe original sin racism has greatly receded and the vast majority of fair-minded Australians are repulsed by it. If there are now few remnants, its legacy is still prevalent.
It is the second part that explains the enduring antipathy against my people today. It is the problem Australians have about the place the settlers/invaders have in this country vis a vis Aboriginal peoples. It is a troubling and unsettled question, involving denial and defensiveness and how to deal with guilt and truth. It is also such an old question going back to colonial days: if the colonists recognised the indigenous then would that not be a repudiation of who they were and their place in this country?
It is this fear of repudiation that lies at the heart of the country’s trouble with Aboriginal people. The country just does not know how to deal with recognition without the fear of repudiation. Denial and a visceral antipathy is the residue.
After the discombobulation of the Goodes film I realised a third aspect of this trouble: it is what I call the white versus white over black problem. A large part of the conflagration in these past 50 years since racism became unacceptable in the 1960s, is the fight between progressive and conservative Australians over race and Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people are the subjects of this fight, but they are not its prime protagonists. This is what is now the culture war between liberals and conservatives in the United States and progressives and conservatives here in Australia. That we have followed the Americans in this is unfortunate but not surprising.
Race and the Aboriginal problem of Australia is about white Australians in a cultural and political struggle with other white Australians. It is yet another agenda of the culture wars. The progressives are seen as, and see themselves as, sympathetic to the Aborigines and see their conservative opponents as bigoted and determined to hold onto the legacy of the country’s old racism. And yet, as I will discuss later in my lectures, this dichotomy is not necessarily true.
My realisation after Goodes and his travails, was that without sorting out that complex of matters falling under the rubric of ‘recognition’ we will forever think that what we call racism is at the heart of our problem as a nation rather than our not knowing who we are.
Of all the claims I will make in these lectures this is the boldest and one of which I am most convicted: racism will diminish in this country when we succeed with recognition. It will not have the same purchase on us: neither on the majority party that has defaulted to it over two centuries, nor the minority that lives it, fears it and who too often succumb to the very fear itself.
The assumption of the doctrine of terra nullius – that Australia was not owned and was open to British settlement without consideration of the native owners – together with the racism that replaced the Noble Savage of Cook’s Enlightenment with an increasingly vicious view of the natives aimed at both justifying and enabling frontier violence and dispossession mutating into the pseudo-scientific racism of the Darwinian nineteenth century and early twentieth – combined to form the terrible ideology of the denial of recognition. The Australian colonial project needed this denial and was underpinned by its vehemence until well after the frontiers fell silent.
After this, the Great Australian Silence just did not speak to this history. It was a denial which endured for more than 150 years. WEH Stanner’s famous 1968 lectures surveyed Australia’s historiography and made the observation:
… that inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale. We have been able for so long to disremember the aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.
This is who we were until 1967.
Let me turn to who we are.
One of the peculiar realisations re-reading Stanner’s 1968 lectures is what little mention there is of the referendum held the year before. There are two small references, and given the subject of his lectures, I wonder why. I had never noticed this before. The 1967 referendum was the most successful amendment to the Australian constitution since Federation, with 90 percent of Australians voting yes.
It appears that to Stanner the 1967 amendments did not amount to much. One explanation might be that the amendments did not effect positive recognition or acknowledgment of Aboriginal people. The previous exclusion of Aboriginal people from the law-making power of the Commonwealth Parliament under section 51(26) – the race power – was deleted so that the parliament had power to legislate in respect of any race. And our exclusion from being counted in the census was also reversed.
The Australian constitution moved from negative exclusion to neutral silence. But the 1967 referendum was not positive recognition. I expect this is the reason for Stanner’s lack of interest in it. Citizenship was necessary but not sufficient.
The half century since 1967 broke the silence on Australian history and various reforms and improvements were made as a consequence of the exercise of legislative power by the Commonwealth Parliament.
Yet, the original failure of recognition was not remedied.
Let me point out what is incontrovertible: Australia doesn’t make sense without recognition. Until the First Peoples are afforded our rightful place, we are a nation missing its most vital heart.
The rift in our national soul becomes apparent each passing January. The old idea of an Australia that started on 26 January 1788 and that’s that, has frayed and for a long time our leaders haven’t known what to do. The standard mode was to ignore the dissonance and all of the consequences that flow from the failure of recognition, for 11 months of the year, and then to panic in January about how we were going to deal with Australia Day.
Repudiation is the enemy of recognition. In fighting against the repudiation of the country’s indigenous heritage, no answer lies in the repudiation of its British heritage. They both endure for the memory and advantage of all Australians, even as we face the truths of our colonial past. For our history is replete with shame and pride, failure and achievement, fear and love, cruelty and kindness, conflict and comity, mistake and brilliance, folly and glory. We should never shy from any side of the truth. Our Australian storylines entwine further each generation and we should ever strive to leave our country better for our children.
Let me lay out what lies on the horizon and who we can be.
A yes vote in the voice referendum will guarantee that Indigenous peoples will always have a say in laws and policies made about us. It will afford our people our rightful place in the constitutional compact. This constitutional partnership will empower us to work together towards better policies and practical outcomes for Indigenous communities.
Mutual recognition will enable us to acknowledge three stories: the Ancient Indigenous Heritage which is Australia’s foundation, the British Institutions built upon it, and the adorning Gift of Multicultural Migration.
The first story of our Ancient Indigenous Heritage is best described in the Uluru Statement:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the First Nations of the Australian continent and its islands, possessed under ancient laws and customs, according to the reckoning of culture, from the Creation, according to the common law, from time immemorial, and according to science for more than 65 millennia. This is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or mother nature, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with their ancestors.
The second story of our British Institutions that were built upon it recognises that those who sailed the First Fleet landing at Sydney Cove carried upon their shoulders the common law of England, when the sovereignty of the British Crown was proclaimed. The rule of law, parliamentary government and the Australian English language have their provenance in Britain. From eyes on board ship, this was a settlement, and from eyes on shore, an invasion. The eve of the 25th and the dawn of the 26th January 1788 is when Ancient Australia became the New Australia. The Britons and Irish – convict and free – who founded this institutional heritage, made the Commonwealth from 1901, a great democracy of the globe.
The third story is the Gift of Multicultural Migration and recognises that peoples from the earth over brought their multitude of cultural gifts to Australia. That we celebrate diversity in unity makes us a beacon to the world. When we renounced the White Australia policy, we made a better Commonwealth. In Robert Hughes’ incomparable words we showed that people with different roots can live together, that we can learn to read the image-bank of others, that we can look across the frontiers of our differences without prejudice or illusion.
These three stories will make us one: Australians.
Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is not a project of identity politics, it is Australia’s longest standing and unresolved project for justice, unity and inclusion.
Let me end with a thought experiment.
Easter Saturday 1891 the leading lights of the six colonies have come together to draw up the Constitution on the paddle steamer, Lucinda, anchored on the western foreshores of Pittwater in Sydney's north. They are to spend "a mammoth 13-hour session" drafting the Constitution of the proposed Commonwealth of Australia. The Constitutional Committee is hosted by Sir Samuel Griffith, Premier of Queensland and later first Chief Justice of the High Court. Edmund Barton, later the nation’s first Prime Minister, is there as is Charles Kingston, future Premier of South Australia. Sir John Downer is there for some time with other Founding Fathers of the new nation, once described by Professor Marcia Langton – with great affection of course – as a collection of beards, moustaches and whiskers protruding from venerable ears, noses and eyebrows. The core of the Australian Constitution is drafted here. The work done over that Easter weekend is decisive in the constitutional history of the nation.
Imagine the Committee on board the Lucinda is made aware of a gathering of ambassadors representing tribes from all compass points of Ancient Australia: North, South, East and West. At the invitation of the Eora peoples they have come to make representations to those drafting the constitution of the new Commonwealth. Their people have suffered great depredations in the past 100 years of frontier conflict and dispossession – their numbers are now much diminished and many tribes are near driven off the face of the earth.
If these representations included the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through a Voice to the Parliament and Executive Government in order to create a dialogue between the old and new Australians in respect of the country’s heritage and its future – what would those on board the Lucinda respond with the benefit of our hindsight today? I ask each of us: what would our response be if we were on board the Lucinda?