Indigenous leaders draw line in sand

Aug 12, 2019

In the far north east of Arnhem land, a line has been drawn in the sand.

As part of the great Garma festival, two of the most important and revered leaders of Indigenous Australia have made it clear that  the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not negotiable.

Gallarwuy Yunupingu and Noel Pearson have told Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt that they will not accept the ill-informed and peremptory  veto of Scott Morrison’s government for constitutional recognition of a voice in parliament.

The father of reconciliation, Patrick Dodson, is already on board as a third musketeer and one of the fiercest warriors in the battle, Marcia Langton, has joined them. The four have not always been allies – indeed, they have often clashed over aims and tactics. But on this they are united – they have had enough of excuses and paternalism, of being fobbed off with whitefella compromises to blackfella demands.

Yunupingu’s threat to throw the constitution into the sea is obviously a metaphor, but from the leader of the Yolngu saltwater people it is a powerful one. And not only is support for the demands of Uluru gaining traction – the opponents are being rebutted from all sides. Even Barnaby Joyce has backed down from the untrue assertion that a voice would be a third chamber of parliament.

There are recalcitrants, of course – the professionally perverse Andrew Bolt and the hired guns of the secretly funded Institute of Public Affairs. But as Pearson has acerbically pointed out, they hardly stack up against the views of High Court Judges Murray Gleeson and Robert French.

However, to discern the truth we do not have to go to the legal supremos, eminent and convincing as they undoubtedly are. The participants at Uluru included their own lawyers, well-versed in both traditional and western precedents and they knew precisely what they were saying.

Morrison would no doubt deny it, but he is, at heart, an assimilationist. The word has gone out of fashion, but the basic idea remains –- indigenous Australians were surpassed by a more advanced culture and should therefore conform to it and obey the dictates of their conquerors. Winner takes all.

But this is not only morally repugnant, but bad history. Undoubtedly the European invaders had the firepower, and they used it ruthlessly. But they did not, and never have, won the battle of ideas.

As Bruce Pascoe has explained in his seminal work Dark Emu (incidentally the best seller at the wonderful Byron Writers Festival last week) our first nations were not primitive nomads, wandering the landscape in the hope of bare survival. They were settlers, agriculturists who shaped and managed their environment with skill and sophistication.

There was conflict, certainly – but it did not involved dispossession, or, crucially, slavery or servitude. It was resolved through makarrata – reconciliation, a renewal of friendship under the law. They developed a workable political culture millennia before the west and there is much we can still learn from it.

The idea that indigenous Australians should bow to the superior wisdom of Scott Morrison and Andrew Bolt is not only deeply offensive – it is fundamentally stupid. When the true history of the country is written, the Uluru Statement from the Heart will take its place not in competition with the Constitution, but in partnership with it. And we will all pay due reverence to both and be grateful

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