The idea of a country negotiating a treaty with its indigenous inhabitants is hardly novel.
Three of our closest friends and allies (New Zealand, Canada and the United States) have all done so successfully, and none of their nations fallen into terminal division and chaos.
And of course even in Australia, a treaty has been under discussion for nearly a century. Aboriginal elders have talked about it since at least the sesquicentenary of settlement in 1938, and it was seriously mooted a generation later when the great public servant, Dr H C (Nugget) Coombs proposed what he called a makharrata – a settlement.
Since then it has surfaced and resurfaced numerous times; Bob Hawke toyed with the idea in the 80s and it came to something of a climax in Yothu Yindi’s 1990 anthemic song Treaty, which caught the attention of a number of progressive politicians.
But today’s hard line conservatives prefer to ignore the history, both international and local. They have resisted any acknowledgement of Aboriginal recognition, even that of the most innocuous mention in the constitution, although the official position of both major parties (and most of the minor ones) is to pursue at least that symbolic step.
But for most serious participants in the process, it can only be a first step; the long march towards genuine reconciliation must continue. Hence it was utterly unsurprising that , when asked, Bill Shorten should mention the T word during last week’s Q and A telecast.
The event would have been unremarkable except that Malcolm Turnbull took the opportunity to play politics, accusing Shorten of undermining the bipartisan push for recognition.
The attack was unnecessary and unworthy; Turnbull is sympathetic towards the indigenous cause (he is, for instance, prepared to accept the settlement of 1788 as an invasion) and should have simply acknowledged the reality that a treaty has long been part of the discussion, but that the immediate aim was to push for a bipartisan referendum on recognition.
It was he, not Shorten, who has undermined the process: by turning it into a political fight, it was inevitable that the media would latch on to it, and acrimonious divisions would emerge.
Probably the silliest was from Barnaby Joyce, who even rejected the concept of invasion: an invasion, he said, would have involved an army. Quite apart from the fact that the first fleet did in fact include a well armed and aggressive corps of marines, it is worth noting that Joyce himself was prepared to repel a recent incursion of two small terriers – they were, presumably, threatening the security and welfare of the commonwealth.
But more importantly, the right wingers have been given a second wind: many are unwilling even to countenance the idea of recognition, but if that is regarded as inevitable they want the whole issue done and dusted – a last step, not a first. Turnbull’s opportunistic response to Shorten has encouraged them to campaign for this clearly absurd stance.
It is probably too late to undo the damage, but as the nation’s leader, he should do his best to bring the debate back on the rails. The idea of a treaty cannot and will not be wished out of existence; at best it can be put on the backburner. Shorten may, in the context, have been a little indiscreet, but Turnbull is the one who turned on the heat. Shame, Prime Minster, shame.
Mungo MacCallum is a political commentator and former senior correspondent in the Canberra Press Gallery.