By Mungo MacCallum
By and large, Tony Abbott’s excellent Arnhem Land adventure went rather well.
Admittedly, it was both belated and interrupted, but it redeemed a promise, which is worth celebrating in itself.
It had a touch of incongruity: the sight of the prime minister in a sober suit with the inevitable blue tie as he reported on the Great Humanitarian War while living in a tent in the bush was a contrast, at the very least. But some of us can remember the day when Malcolm Fraser’s deputy Doug Anthony ran the country from a caravan on the dunes of New Brighton beach, so there was a pleasing continuity in the Australian informality.
And of course there were plenty of casually studied photo ops in ranches, timber yards, plant nurseries and schools, among many others. But in fact the war news was the hard news; apart from that the perspiring press corps had to be content with leaks and rumours.
Abbott did indulge in serious discussion with the local elders, but none of it was public, as was fitting. For the most part it was the R words: recognition and referendum. And while we learned that the latter is likely to be postponed yet again, it is clear that there is still a long way towards agreement on the former.
Abbott had made it clear that he favours a minimalist model because that is the best the conservatives (of whom he is of course one) will accept. No bill of rights, no serious change in the body of the constitution, rather a general feelgood preamble acknowledging the obvious – that our indigenous Australians exist.
And this acknowledgement is to be offered precisely 50 years since the last Aboriginal referendum, which overwhelmingly endorsed the proposition that not only did they exist – indeed, they were to be included in the commonwealth census – but it was also desirable to make national, rather than state, laws about them. So it is worth recalling just what that change involved and how it has been implemented.
William Charles Wentworth, who pushed the idea and later became Australia’s first minister for aboriginal affairs, believed that the states had comprehensively failed to manage. Not only were the states’ laws a mish mash, but they were clearly inadequate both in the past and the present, let alone the future. It was time for Canberra to step in and start serious work on the problem, and particularly to begin to remedy the manifest disadvantage our indigenous Australians suffered.
And although he was unable to persuade Sir Robert Menzies of the need, his successor Harold Holt came to the party – and to the ballot box. The voters enthusiastically agreed; there was unprecedented, overwhelming support for the referendum.
And note that the support was positive: the idea was that laws would help and encourage Aboriginals. For a long time, that was the result – not always successful, but invariably well-meaning. Health, housing, education and welfare were all promoted. The idea of negative action against black Australia was off the agenda – until John Howard came along.
Howard reacted to the Wik judgement on land tenure and then the Northern Territory intervention to use the commonwealth laws to pass legislation to discriminate against, not in favour, of Aboriginal groups. And disconcertingly, much of white Australia applauded. The misleading idea that Aboriginals were receiving ‘special treatment’, driven by the ideological right and the envious ignorant, took hold.
And this is where Howard looked for a fig leaf: recognition in the constitution, some kind of camouflage that could cover what he called ‘the blemishes’ in our past. The idea has persisted, with Abbott the latest leader to find a form of words. But only a form of words: Abbott has already accepted a veto by the hard line conservatives, which means that the whole concept – empowerment by and for the Aboriginals themselves – is off the agenda. All that is allowable is whatever is acceptable to a grudging white Australia.
One of his most recent hand-picked committees to devise a formula consists of two white men (both former coalition ministers) and one black woman. They may be diligent and sincere, but they are hardly representative. And the same applies with Abbott’s mate, Noel Pearson, a man of great intellect and passion, but viewed with suspicion, and even resentment, by many of his compatriots.
Pearson sensibly rejects the whole idea of race as a silly and outmoded fantasy, but nonetheless wants a mechanism to ensure that Aboriginals are inside the tent – a guarantee for indigenous voices to be heard on political decisions. He and the conservative academic Greg Craven have since suggested an undefined indigenous advisory body of constitutional status but no legislative power – surely the worst of both worlds.
Of course, indigenous Australia, while officially consisting of only three per cent of the population, is hugely diverse: there are those who want a separate state, those who want parliamentary quotas, those who just want to be left alone. Even among the black minority, finding any kind of meaningful consensus will be very difficult and reconciling it with the white masses, who we are assured by both Abbott and Shorten are largely indifferent to the referendum despite the long debate, appears the work of a lifetime, not just three more years.
So it may well be that what emerges will be bland to the point of inanity: a Mickey Mouse statement of motherhood which satisfies no-one and achieves nothing. This will be a huge pity: a lot of time and effort from a lot of sincerely involved people – including Abbott himself – have committed to making a genuine step towards reconciliation; not quite a treaty, perhaps, but at least more than anodyne pap. But unless a lot more happens in the last few months than has in the many long years, it just is not going to happen.
Perhaps the last words might be those pronounced, optimistically, by Abbott himself the time he promised to deliver his initial, hopeful surmise: the reform, he said, would not be to change the constitution but to complete it. And it indeed it might: a final postscript on the document drafted by the paternalistic white supremacists who disregarded the first Australians when they took it to Westminster more than a century ago.