The moral basis of contemporary Australian society is being squeezed dry by political opportunism and contempt for civic virtue among our political leaders. The ignorance those leaders demonstrate about the insult Australia Day has become for many Indigenous people is evidence that Australia has become a morally backward society.
When the history of the first half of the twenty-first century in Australia is written, one of the negative features of the period will be the country’s failure to rid itself of the political mean-spiritedness marring public discussions about the past and present injustices suffered by Indigenous Australians. Despite all the historical and sociological evidence, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are still the victims of perhaps the worst example of social injustice this nation has yet been able to confect.
Two recent examples highlight the malevolence that is central to contemporary thinking in this complacent country about Indigenous Australians and the policymaking they so urgently need.
First, there is Malcolm Turnbull’s hasty and contemptible response to the Uluru Statement that came out of the conference of First Peoples in May 2017. The Statement called on the government to lead a constitutional reform process that would establish an advisory body advising the Australian parliament on policy matters affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians. It was never once suggested that this putative advisory body would have any legislative powers.
Here was an absolutely golden opportunity for a true statesman to step forward to refine the concept so it could become a progressive development in the history of post-colonial Australia and take the country forward as a moral community.
Sadly, however, Turnbull is certainly no statesman – as we have come to understand all too clearly over the past two years. He rejected the proposal out of hand, declaring that Australians would never approve a third House for the federal parliament.
A third House was never part of the Uluru Statement. So either the Prime Minister was deliberately lying about the proposal, or he was reacting to it in the manner we would expect from a small-minded politician in a morally backward society.
More recently we have the issue of Australia Day rearing its silly head again.
Senator Richard Di Natale has proposed that the Greens will pursue a policy to move the Australia Day public holiday from its 26 January date to a more appropriate day in the year. He argues that while 26 January commemorates the date in 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove, for Indigenous Australia it marks the commencement of white settler colonialism in Australia, with all its trials and tribulations for Aborigines – then and ever since. Not a few Australians agree with him. Moreover, recent opinion polling suggests that a majority of voters would not be fussed at all if the date were to be changed.
However Coalition leaders, such as Turnbull, Steve Ciobo and – predictably – Tony Abbott, have responded savagely to Dr Di Natale’s proposal branding it, inter alia, un-Australian, divisive, unpatriotic, unacceptable, disrespectful of Australia’s diversity, and so on. Abbott even thinks that 26 January 1788 was the beginning of Indigenous Australia’s good fortune! Nigel Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, opined that Aborigines in remote areas had not raised the matter with him, implying therefore that it is not a significant issue.
What is so morally ugly about these responses is their total lack of sensitivity to the Indigenous question that still haunts Australian public policy. In the tradition of John Howard’s “black armband” contribution to the culture wars, those shallow politicians aim straight for the lowest common denominator, knowing there is a xenophobic and racist audience out there to cheering them on, regardless of the consequences. If they see a head sticking up that is rationally and compassionately addressing the Indigenous question, their immediate instinct is to kick it.
All of which means that the civilized discussion that Senator Di Natale would like us to have about Australia Day has been turned into a mindless political brawl.
The fact that we Australians really must face up to – and soon – is that the date of 26 January raises very real issues about the consequences of the arrival of white settlers in 1788 for large numbers of thoughtful Aboriginal and Torres Strait folk, as well as for many non-Indigenous people. Being conscious of those issues can be extremely painful, even soul-destroying. Any attempt to write them off, or to diminish or conceal them, or to stupidly politicize them, is evidence of a very clumsy version of ethnic cleansing.
As explained by the wonderful political historian C.D. Rowley, in his pioneering work, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, the consequences of white settlement for Indigenous Australians have been nothing short of catastrophic. And they still are. As fine writers like Henry Reynolds, Tim Rowse, Lyndal Ryan, Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson, Max Charlesworth, and others have made crystal clear, the gap has not been closed. Indigenous peoples are still marginalised, disregarded, despised, insulted and injured mentally and physically, on a daily basis. No government – federal or state – has ever understood the depth of the problem or produced policies to resolve it. It is as if they are willfully wishing it away.
So of course celebrating Australia Day on 26 January is very deeply insulting to many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. But let’s not cancel it as a special day in the country’s annual calendar. Let’s make it a day of quiet reflection on what needs to be done – a day of atonement for the crimes committed against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, a day for Australia to recall the apology Kevin Rudd made in the Australian parliament in February of 2008, a day to demand real and effective action from our political leaders, not just mealy mouthed populism.
And let’s move on to the republic and mark the day that that is achieved as Australia’s Independence Day.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic.