Living on Stolen land
'The Voice' and the Legacy of Colonisation
Aboriginals fighting against the Europeans invading their natural homes,
Samuel Calvert, 1870s.
As I write I am looking out my window at bushland populated by golden wattle in full bloom, with a background of yellow gum and a foreground of Melaleuca scrub. Gold against eucalyptus green. The hillside we live on was devastated by gold miners in the 1850s but was recently ignited into new life by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. I am looking at a scene of beauty whose scars still lie as open wounds in the landscape for all to see. I live in a town that was founded on greed but which was built with visions of social commonwealth. This is Australia, and I love it.
Yet ‘Australia’ is the product of a colossal act of theft. This is a shocking statement, but there is simply no evading the truth of it. I hope to write more about the process of colonisation in later editions, as it affects how we should think about many things: the church, the economic basis for our affluence, and even our own rights to property in land. For now, let it suffice to say that the dispossession of the First Nations people was always a fundamentally violent process. It resulted in the almost complete erasure of a ‘world’—the Indigenous population, language, culture, economy, and landscape—and its replacement by strange new world, flooded with strange new people, flora, fauna, and diseases. The settler colonisation of the nineteenth century was not like anything that went before. It was, in effect, an alien invasion, with all of the suddenness, devastation, shock, and bewilderment that sci-fi depictions of such events relate.
Non-indigenous Australians cannot possibly comprehend the enormous burden of suffering, trauma, and anger that First Nations people have been forced to carry with them. We do not see how this massive unseen tumour of history reproduces its cancerous cells in the data of Indigenous unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence, petty crime, incarceration, and entrenched health and educational disadvantage. And so we have the perennial Australian habit of blaming ‘them’ for all ‘their’ problems, while complaining about all the supposed hand-outs ‘they’ get from the government. I have had such sentiments voiced to me a few times in the last couple of weeks, expressed in both subtle and crude forms.
Generally, Manna Matters has stayed away from adding to the cacophony of comment on current affairs, and focussed on the deeper subterranean issues that few talk about. On this issue I feel constrained to make an exception. In October this year, Australians will vote in a referendum on a proposed ‘Indigenous Voice to Parliament’. This is surely an important moment in our nation’s history, and I am worried that we will be found wanting.
My aim here is to try to do something that I have struggled to find in the media, which is to wrestle with difficult questions without being driven by a campaigning agenda. My overall concern is to show how the proposal for ‘the Voice,’ and some of the complexities in the debate over it, are all a product of the deep legacies of colonisation that have been festering unaddressed in our nation’s soul. We cannot imagine that dealing with such deep wounds will be neat or straightforward; it will always be messy, but it must be attempted.
Let me lay my cards on the table. I am immediately and strongly disposed towards the ‘Yes’ case for ‘the Voice’. As an adolescent, it was the struggle for Indigenous justice that formed my awakening into social justice, and in many ways the issue set me on my present course. Nevertheless, when Anthony Albanese announced that there would be a referendum on the proposal in this electoral term, my first reaction was dismay.
It is incredibly difficult to win a referendum in Australia. Out of forty-four, only eight have returned a ‘Yes’ vote, and of these successful instances, all had strong bipartisan support. Prime Minister Albanese announced this referendum at a time when Peter Dutton is the head of the Liberal Party and Barnaby Joyce the effective head of the Nationals, two men who have been distinguished by their hardness of heart—hostility, even—towards Indigenous voices. And this at a time when discussion of public issues is increasingly wedged into the ideological factions of the culture wars. I feared that the political climate was not conducive to a positive outcome for Indigenous people, and to an extent, this is being borne out.
On the other hand, I fully understood the impatience of some Indigenous leaders to act while there is a sympathetic government is in office. Who knows when that will be again? The wisdom of the timing of this referendum will be a matter for later reflection, but what of the proposal itself?
It is worth giving a little background here. There is a long history of Indigenous activism that has sought some sort of recognition within the Australian polity of the particular rights and position of First Nations people. In particular, the Barunga Statement handed to Bob Hawke by Galarrwuy Yunupingu in 1988, called for a ‘national elected Aboriginal and Islander organisation to oversee Aboriginal and Islander affairs’.
The Uluru Statement surrounded by its four artists: Rene Kulitja (lead artist, second from the right), Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, and Happy Reid. Photo: Clive Scollay.
The particular proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament had its origins in 2015 while Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister, presenting the opportunity that some significant step might be taken under a sympathetic conservative government, with strong bipartisan support. This led to the establishment of a Referendum Council and Constitutional Dialogues with Indigenous People that culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017. There is little doubt that, whatever else you may think about it, the Uluru Statement from the Heart represents a significant moment in Australian history as one of the most representative gatherings of Indigenous leaders ever.
The Uluru Statement issued a three-fold call to the Australian people for Voice, Truth, and Treaty. Of these, the conservative government judged that only the proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament was viable, and, now under Scott Morrison’s leadership, began a process of ‘co-design’ towards a referendum on the matter.
The irony, and perhaps the tragedy, is that the proposal for a non-binding Indigenous Voice to Parliament was a compromise gesture from Indigenous leaders specifically designed to be amenable to the Liberal-National Coalition, the very people who have now turned vehemently against it. There are any number of things that Indigenous leaders might have pressed for, but what they have actually proposed is a very modest compromise measure. In light of the history of suffering they have experienced, this must be seen as a very deep offering of grace.
"I was around in the 1990s when they went into histrionic scaremongering about the Mabo decision undermining the basis of the nation, and John Howard promised (and delivered) “bucket loads of extinguishment”."
Let me be frank in admitting that I am strongly predisposed to discount most of the objections to ‘the Voice’ coming from the Coalition parties. I was around in the 1990s when they went into histrionic scaremongering about the Mabo decision undermining the basis of the nation, and John Howard promised (and delivered) “bucket loads of extinguishment”. Again and again, they have reacted with startling ferocity to any modest gains made by Indigenous people, so I am not kindly disposed to their arguments.
Nevertheless, if I am honest, the current proposal for a non-binding Indigenous Voice to Parliament is not public policy that stirs my blood. I have to admit that there is some plausibility to the concern that it may add another obstructive layer of bureaucracy to the layers of government, that it may be vulnerable to the politicisation of the Canberra bubble, and that it may be prone to legal challenges seeking to define and either limit or extend its powers. I am not convinced that it will provide a watershed in the struggle to reduce intractable Indigenous disadvantage.
These things may be true, or they may not; however, for me, they do not present an obstacle to supporting the ‘Yes’ case. No significant political change is without uncertainty or risk (just think of the introduction of a GST). Moreover, as I said above, beginning to address the very deep wounds of colonisation will always be messy and we should not imagine that it can be a done without some ‘cost’ to the nation as a whole. The desire for some costless appeasement of Indigenous people—cheap grace—is but an extension of the ongoing wrongs of colonisation.
For me, the essential datum about ‘the Voice’ is that it is a proposal that has come from the most representative gathering of senior Indigenous leaders in our history. To the best of my knowledge, the proposal has the support of the majority of Indigenous people. If we are to begin to address the past, such a voice must be heeded.
Yet, I would be less than honest if I did not confess that any easy certainty about this has been discomfited by the surprisingly strong Indigenous opposition to ‘the Voice’. I am moved less by the vehemence of the most prominent opponents (think Lidia Thorpe) than my growing awareness of the extent of the doubts of many ordinary Indigenous folk, although I lack the ability to judge what proportion they represent (I do not particularly trust the media estimations of these matters).
Of the various reasons for opposing ‘the Voice’ expressed by Indigenous people, there a two that have struck a chord with some of my own worries. The first is basically a sense of distrust in a proposal coming from what is perceived to be an elite group of Indigenous leaders who control the majority of Indigenous organisations. This is a voice of disaffection and disenfranchisement that is parallel to the disaffection of much of the broader Australian population with its political leaders. I am not competent to really understand or analyse these dynamics within the Indigenous community, however my limited experience is that there is some validity to a widening gap between those able to exploit new political and economic opportunities, and those who feel locked out.
The second objection that resonates with me is simply the concern that Australia as a nation is not yet mature enough to deliberate on such weighty matters that are bound up with the claims of ongoing sovereignty of First Nations people. The concern is that trying to undertake such steps before the nation is ready will only result in them being pushed even further into the future. But will Australia ever be ready? How can such things be advanced if they are not pushed? To such questions I have no real answer.
Ultimately, these are matters for the Indigenous community to wrestle with. Why should we expect that Indigenous Australians be characterised by a unity and harmony that no other human groups have achieved? What we are witnessing taking shape before our eyes, is the very difficult and messy process of the birthing of an Indigenous Australian polity, or polities, trying to salvage something of the diverse and ancient claims of First Nations so that they can take a place within the modern world system. Before 1788, there was no such thing as ‘Australia’, no understanding of a single landmass as a bounded entity, no sense of common peoplehood or common governance. Indigenous people are being forced to somehow create these things in order to deal with the post-apocalyptic catastrophe of colonisation, and they are having to do so within the merciless and divisive pressure of our political-media system. We should cut them some slack.
What I have tried to represent here is my own wrestling with complexities and doubts that the world of politics seems reluctant to admit. What seems clear to me is that followers of Jesus should be people who seek to address wrongs and heal hurt, impelled by love for the other that reaches across human divisions of race, gender, and class. In Australia, we live in the midst of great wrongs and great hurts.
In the final analysis, for better or worse, in October Australians must vote either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a proposal that has been advanced by Australia’s Indigenous leaders and is supported by the majority of Indigenous people. It has been presented in hope and in good faith. If there is any genuine interest in addressing the legacies of colonisation, then it seems to me that the only credible answer is ‘Yes’. A collective ‘No’ from Australia will be incredibly damaging: another trauma in the long litany of injustices. I fear deeply for what a ‘No’ vote will mean for our nation’s soul and the many destructive ways in which this will play out in our politics. A collective ‘Yes’ we will not mean that we have accomplished ‘justice’, nor done something that is without risk, but we will have signalled our intention to take the next step to addressing the legacy of the past. This would be one step towards healing.
Delegates with the Uluru Statement.