By Mungo MacCallum
Malcolm Turnbull was working this Christmas, at the Wayside Chapel lunch among other places, which was both personally worthy and newsworthy.
But we hope he also had a few moments of his own, with the truffles Bill Shorten predicted, because however merry his Christmas may have been, his advent was pretty underwhelming. The big moments of December just did not capture the imagination as they were meant to.
His much-heralded Innovation Statement was big on sizzle but a bit short of a sausage or two, and was also crippled by not-so-friendly fire from Mal Brough and Ian Macfarlane.
The Paris climate summit also a had a pie-in-the-sky feel about it: the activists thought it was an agreement but not a solution, while the sceptics derided it as a waste of time and money, if not a plot to cement the United Nations as a one world government.
COAG came and went without either an agreement or a solution; Scott Morrison said he’d come back in March. And then he unveiled MYEFO, a litany of gloom and doom he was unable to dispel; there was a fair bit of spin, but not even the faintest sound of jingle bells.
So our great leader, the man who has been anointed to redeem us from the toils of Tony Abbott, will have to come up with a few agile resolutions for the new year. And he could do worse than revisit an idea of his predecessor – no, not the ones the Murdoch press keeps flogging, but one of the few progressive programs of the last couple of years: aboriginal reconciliation.
Of course Abbott did not initiate the idea: it has been around, on and off, since the last couple of centuries, and it has always been difficult, divisive and controversial. Many Indigenous Australians reject the mere concept: what do you mean re-conciliation? There was never any conciliation to begin with. But Abbott, to his credit, was determined to try and get back on track; his self-styled title of the Prime Minister for Aboriginals did not deliver much in the way of tangible reform, but it could not be denied that he had a genuine sympathy with the people concerned, and developed real friendships with some of the most passionate people within the movement.
His starting point was to go back to his mentor, John Howard, who wanted to revise the preamble to the Australian constitution, a task in which, as so often, he failed dismally. Abbott wanted at least an acknowledgement of the previous occupation of those who had been around for some 60,000 years. But it quickly became apparent that was not going to be sufficient.
What was the point of changing the constitution to admit the bleeding obvious? You might as well run a referendum to assert that the sky was blue and the grass was green. If something was to be done, it would have to be something serious; at the very least, the references of race in the body of the document would have to be abolished or amended.
This was simply unacceptable to the conservatives – the real conservatives, who were interested in preserving the status quo at all costs. Real change, they insisted, would be too risky – it would produce a lawyers’ picnic, by which they meant they would fight to the death (and of course in the courts) to prevent the outcome the activists wanted. And so, yet again, the outcome was sent to a committee, in the expectation that whatever was put to the referendum would be so inoffensive that no rational opposition would emerge.
The ambition for real reform was not always so timorous. The 1967 referendum, whose 50th anniversary Abbott hoped to emulate with his own agenda, was an overwhelming success. And soon afterwards, the movement for a formal treaty, along the lines of the New Zealand Treaty of Waitangi, began to gain ground. One of the main players was the great public servant H C (Nugget) Coombs; his idea was for a Makarrata, a settlement to give legislative force to the rights of indigenous Australians. It grew and then subsided over the years, the most recent manifestation in the anthemic song from Manduwuy Yunupingu in the Yothu Yindi band.
But for the hardliners, a treaty under any name implied a form of Aboriginal sovereignty, which they regarded as out of the question. And there was a more practical problem: the sheer diversity of the indigenous nations. It has been estimated that in 1788 there were 273 separate languages spoken in Australia and there are still a great many different tribes and cultures extant. To bring them together as a united voice makes the formation of the European Community a doddle in comparison.
And this has also bedevilled progress towards the current negotiations. Black politics are at least as passionately debated as white politics, and even harder to assemble into anything like a coherent whole. So anything other than a pointlessly anodyne consensus looks as improbable as ever.
Perhaps it is time to think laterally: Ted Egan, the former Northern Territory Administrator, bush balladist and tireless advocate for the indigenous cause, suggests that we should scrap the whole idea of acknowledging Aboriginal Australia and instead accept an acknowledgement from them to us, the new settlers. The original inhabitants could offer a gracious welcome to the immigrants, who would be invited to accept it with similar grace.
It is a wonderful, daring idea, but perhaps a little too innovative even for our agile prime minister. But if Malcolm Turnbull is yearning for excitement, I am happy to give him Ted Egan’s email.