Perhaps because, by its very nature, establishing a colony at Port Jackson in 1788 was theft of another people’s land, Australia seems to have been a racist society from the beginning and to have remained so.
Denial is almost a national characteristic: we seem simply incapable of accepting the reality of our beginnings. We should all regularly examine our consciences in this rancid matter, unremittingly testing ourselves and our history.
Yet, for several reasons, that should not have been a characteristic of this society. We still seem impervious to the fact that the birth of European Australia was in an era of real (if flawed) idealism: during the Age of the Enlightenment, only a year after the creation of the American Constitution (and shortly before it came into effect) and a mere year before the Revolution in France. Equally important, the colony was officially established (on 7 February 1788) when the Judge-Advocate, David Collins, publicly read King George III’s formal commission to Governor Arthur Phillip; that ceremony closed with three rifle volleys and the marines’ band playing “God save the King”. Subsequent generations should have heeded that King’s remarkable injunction to those diverse colonists, notwithstanding the associated rape of country and culture which, apparently, it was willing to ignore.
The monarch gave detailed orders for the setting up a court system and then specified some remarkable procedures to govern their treatment of the native Australians.
“You are to endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all of our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them. And if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you cause such offenders to be brought to punishment according to the degree of the offence”.
Later settlers seemed ignorant of that royal command and considered the land – that most tangible of cultural and pragmatic assets — theirs to usurp. Even worse were eugenically derived official policies to “breed out” — genetically and culturally – all semblance of aboriginality. Furthermore, as Ray Evans detailed in his History of Queensland, those settlers all too often used the language (not to mention the methods) of war when describing their relations with indigenous people: Australians would never really accept their contributions in sport or the armed forces. Until it began to be relaxed (between 1949 and 1973, first with the admission of Japanese “War Brides” and later with the “Colombo Plan”) the “White Australia Policy” was a cornerstone of the nation’s self-identity.
Then, in 1967, the unbelievable happened. Almost 91% of voters agreed with the referendum question to approve “An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the People of the Aboriginal Race in any State and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the Population”. There was a majority in every state (the lowest, almost 81%, being in Western Australia), yet the exercise did not automatically confer citizenship. Subsequently, many people rejoiced at the “Mabo Decision” of the High Court (1992), namely that “Native Title” has long existed in Australia and was not abolished by the duplicitous British device of Terra nullius. Then, by finding (in the subsequent “Wik Decision” of 1996, after the election of John Howard’s conservative government) that certain statutory pastoral leases (as opposed to freehold title) did not grant rights of exclusive possession to the leaseholders and that, therefore, native title rights could co-exist with those leases, the High Court generated much distasteful controversy in which unscrupulous and opportunistic politicians (whom, not inaccurately, many considered frank racists) claimed that suburban backyards were at risk of aboriginal repossession. The new government then made things worse with its Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act (1997), and a consequential decision of the High Court showed — to the dismay of many – that owing to the legally-limited terms of the 1967 Constitutional change, the Commonwealth could still make laws to the detriment of indigenous people.
As a consequence of this sorry history, and the scurvy rejection by Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative government of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart (issued in 2017 by the 16-member Referendum Council which had been jointly appointed in 2015 by Turnbull and Shorten), the issue of a positive Constitutional recognition of our native peoples remains horribly divisive, but pressingly significant. That statement — which includes the emotionally powerful sentence, “In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.” — is, at the same time, both eloquently spiritual and worldly. Its prompt rejection by the Troika of Turnbull, Brandis and Scullion was prosaic, ungenerous, even mischievous.
However this foundational issue may be viewed by the contending parties, its resolution must necessarily be a political one and, therefore, a compromise. If social acceptance and cohesion are to be sustained, each party must feel that, whatever it has conceded, it has also gained something. I believe that the wording of the German Constitution (1949) has a great deal to offer, here. It begins comprehensively by asserting: “Human dignity shall be inviolable [unantastbar]. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” We would do well to emulate that nobility of spirit: our Constitution is myopic and prosaic by contrast. That sustaining document of modern German society goes on: “Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist. No person shall be favoured or disfavoured because of sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith or religious or political opinions.”
In declaring the nation’s opposition to all social and personal hostility and adverse discrimination, that seems to acknowledge both history and the harmfulness of persistent disadvantage. Together with selected aspirational items from the “Uluru Statement”, its ethos would greatly enhance our own aspirations and sense of national obligation. How could any Australian statesman or woman, irrespective of social outlook or disposition, possibly object to that obligation?
Some may think that, faced with building a civil future from the catastrophe and ruination of tyranny and war, Germany had no alternative. We all need to recognise that, after more than two centuries of what has, essentially, been a social and literal war, we Australians also need to take comparably courageous steps, lest our future continue to be based on falsity and denial. Unless we acknowledge that delusion, we are merely pretending to live worthwhile lives. We must find within ourselves the courage and the moral fibre to achieve that acknowledgment and to make amends in the interests of us all – whatever, in those inspiring German words, our “sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith or religious or political opinions.”
John Carmody,honorary life member of Australian Physiological Society