Earlier this year a national conference of First Nation Australians at Uluru recommended that a Council representing all Indigenous Australians be enshrined in the Constitution. The purpose of the Council would be to advise governments on policies affecting Indigenous Australians. It would not have legislative powers; it would be a strictly consultative body, advising governments and making recommendations to improve the living conditions of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The decision of the Turnbull government to reject this extremely important recommendation is evidence that Australia is a morally backward society.
It is surely ironic that soon after Australia secured a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council the Turnbull government rejected a proposal for an advisory body that could help address the appalling Indigenous human rights record of successive governments in this country. Turnbull’s limp excuse for rejecting the idea was that it would not win the necessary support it would need at a referendum to provide the appropriate constitutional framework for the advisory body.
The sad fact is that Turnbull is probably right. Most Australians couldn’t give a toss about the grim marginalization of Indigenous peoples in this country. In moral terms, non-Indigenous Australia increasingly conforms to what the anthropologist Edward Banfield once labelled a backward society.
Politics in contemporary Australia displays ever-congealing levels of moral backwardness. In addition to our cruelty to asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, we have pig-ignorant vested interests blocking the need for a coherent national energy policy, the reactionary stupidity of the same-sex marriage postal survey, mindless support for tax-payers to underwrite the monster Adani coal mine, persistent ideological obsessions with neo-liberal economic policies confecting the worst social inequality ever, indifference to the dying of the Great Barrier Reef, and a foreign policy framed by Australia being “joined at the hip” with the United States.
But the over-riding moral backwardness of contemporary Australian politics is glaringly evident in the country’s failure first to understand, and then to sensitively and effectively address this country’s disastrous human rights record on Indigenous affairs.
For years now some of our most outstanding historians and policy advisers – for example, “Nugget” Coombs, C.D. Rowley, Lorna Lipmann, Tim Rowse and Henry Reynolds – have been providing incontrovertible evidence about the brutal marginalization of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. This has been the case from the very first days of white settler colonialism. But governments have remained uncaring, ineffectual, racially antagonistic, and morally complacent.
The on-going treatment of Indigenous Australia by white Australia is a deep evil in the heart of this country’s politics. The one measure against which Australia should be – and is – being judged regionally and internationally is the way we so callously disregard the human right of First Australians.
The proposal for an Indigenous body that would have constitutional enshrinement protecting it from the populist whims of governments of the day should be brought back to the government’s agenda. Yes, the proposal that came out of the remarkable Uluru gathering earlier this year is an opaque one. But it is the germ of a very brilliant public policy possibility.
Constructing a body that is representative of the majority of Indigenous Australians is not beyond the capabilities of Indigenous leaders working with political scientists, historians, constitutional lawyers, and anthropologists. It may take time and resources and serious consulting with various interest groups, of course. But it will be time and resources well worth spending if we can come up with a proposal that could succeed at a referendum.
The Turnbull government’s rejection of this historically unprecedented proposal is evidence of its moral backwardness. Turnbull should have seized on this idea and made it a signal policy defining his prime ministership. Yes, it will require huge energy, political intelligence backed by sound ethical argument, and statesmanlike leadership to get it over the line. He could have called on the bipartisanship of the ALP parliamentary leaders on this issue and backup support from among state leaders in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. It is an historical tragedy that the Cabinet gave the whole idea such short shrift. It will go down in history as another example of the moral poverty of the Abbott-Turnbull era.
This country urgently needs to come to grips with the human rights issues affecting our Indigenous peoples. It should be at the very forefront of the country’s renewal of its politics. Because of our ignoring of Indigenous’ human rights, our harshness on the asylum seeker issue, our recalcitrance in responding the Paris accord on climate change, our craven clinging to the US alliance that sees us engaging in every US (even when the country’s national interest is not at stake), we are becoming a pariah nation in the global community. It is as if Australia is accruing the international approbrium that white South Africa achieved during the apartheid era.
It’s time for this country to awake in fright from its moral backwardness. And the first thing we need to act on is fully restoring the human rights of every Indigenous Australian, forever.
Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.