Australia is a nation and a state established on grounds belonging to Indigenous owners, through a war which has never ended.
I am a sociologist by profession, an Australian by birth and a Holocaust survivor by accident and good fortune of my parents. I grew up in the post-war period in the inner city and east of Sydney, living in a refugee community, with hardly any contact with Indigenous people. I was eighteen when my country voted to accept Indigenous people as equal members of the community, just a year after my country’s government decided to withhold support for the criminalisation of racial vilification in the UN Covenant for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We are a society that believes in equality, freedom and justice, though not too much of any of them, and not apparently if it incurs for us as individuals some emotional or financial cost.
The political and constitutional struggle that has now engulfed this country in the shadow of its incapacity to resolve the situation of Indigenous people, may come from fear, or desperation. However I believe there is a deeper question, for which there is much empirical evidence. Australia is a nation and a state established on grounds belonging to Indigenous owners, through a war which has never ended. Uncomfortably Australian governments still wage an unrelenting war of attrition and subjugation; they are matched in an unending war of resistance, which too often results in annihilation and pain. For over two hundred years Australia has been immersed in what has now become a low intensity guerrilla war, often fought without uniforms, but resulting in thousands of slain and wounded Indigenous people. Their deaths may be those of young men seized and locked away for breaking the “peace”, those of young women lost through drugs or illness or family violence, those of teenagers lost through self-harm, and those of the elders lost through sickness and poverty. When we step back we see a landscape no less dotted with dead than the forests of my parents’ native Poland patrolled by Nazis and bandits looking to end the presence of the Jewish people there. The camps may be less obvious and the intensity of destruction on a much lower scale, but the war goes on.
Thus the problem we face as a nation, that might one day we hope will find a solution through constitutional amendment, is how to make peace. No legal pretence is possible so long as the war continues, as so many other nations and peoples know to their cost. We have learnt all too sadly how to sustain our low intensity war, but we have never learned how to bring it to an end. Moreover it is a war that costs Indigenous Australia dearly and tragically, but non-Indigenous Australians barely notice. The burden non-Indigenous Australia carries remains at many removes, suffered momentarily in the embarrassment of public exposure, the inter-personal violence of a confrontation in a public place, or the moment of reflection when a story makes the news and the media tut tut or shake their collective heads in bemusement.
Research carried out for the ARC-funded Cyber Racism and Community Resilience Research project … examined … the vitriolic attacks directed at Indigenous football player Adam Goodes. Andrew Bolt’s view, we discovered, was that Goodes had been rather successful, well recognised and rewarded, and yet remained far too prone to identify as a target, antagonistic to middle Australia. In a deep semantic analysis, the following message was revealed: “There was a war between White people and Aborigines after the invasions; White people won because they had better technologies and more people: get over it, then you can become fully Australian. Hanging onto your Aboriginality is the heart of your problem”.
It is my submission then the war did not end and the invaders did not win. Therefore a Peace process needs to be developed and implemented through a collaboration of all parties. Firstly comes the process of trust building, then the process of peace making, then the ending of the war, then the making of a lasting honourable and secure peace. We will know peace has been made when the many signals of the continuing war, deaths, incarcerations, rapes, and violence, overtly diminish and Indigenous Australians, while retaining identity and dignity, have similar life opportunity outcomes in education, health, income and political representation as the rest of Australian society. Making peace requires both sides to want that outcome. There is as yet little signal that the Australian government and many Australian people have any desire to make the investment in practical political capital, recognition and compensation that is required for a lasting peace. Rather the low intensity war can comfortably be allowed to continue and the Indigenous people blamed yet again for self-inflected wounds.
We live in a state of denial, as though constitutional recognition stands apart from the deep violence to body and mind inflicted over more than 200 years, with the consequent brutalisation of both the Indigenous and settler communities. The Committee has the opportunity to produce a public narrative that lays out how a Peace process should move forward. Many Australians are looking for such a roadmap, understanding that the alternative can only produce more generations of pain.
This is a submission to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
Andrew Jakubowicz BA PhD MAICD FRSNSW is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney