It is fitting that the Uluru Statement from the Heart celebrated the triumphant referendum of 1967: “In 1967 we were counted; in 2017 we seek to be heard,” the statement declared.
And others noted later anniversaries: the Mabo judgment of 1992, the Bringing Them Home report on the stolen generations in 1997 But there is an older and equally relevant anniversary, one in which the conservatives have been wallowing nostalgically for the past week.
The 1942 Forgotten People speech from Robert Menzies, is now extolled as the foundation manifesto of the modern Liberal Party. Menzies’s forgotten people were the middle classes, and they were a receptive audience – they voted for him in 1949 and proceeded to do so for the next 23 years.
But the ones Menzies really forgot – and ignored – were the first Australians, and he had consistently refused pleas led by one of his backbenchers, William Charles Wentworth, to bring about the referendum which was eventually implemented by Harold Holt. Such was, and still is, the inertia of conservative politics.
The conservative approach was, perhaps, typified by John Howard – the man who abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, who did his best to undermine the Mabo judgement with his insistence that he had a covenant with Australia’s farmers (but not, apparently any empathy with Australia’s Aboriginals), who berated indigenous audiences until many of them turned their backs on him, who twice suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, who instituted the unilateral intervention into settlements in the Northern Territory and who refused to countenance an apology for the stolen children.
And he then attempted conciliation with an anodyne suggestion that the pre-federation existence of Aboriginal Australians should be mentioned in the preamble to the constitution – a syrupy placebo that was rightly rejected by the populace. But at least that opened the way for some form of constitutional recognition, and that was enough to terrify the ageing white conservatives who dominated the Liberal and National Parties party and their supporters in the media.
Some of the extremists – Andrew Bolt and Greg Sheridan, to name but two of the noisiest – rejected any acknowledgement of Aboriginals in the constitution at all: it could be seen as divisive, they spluttered. Hang on, by whom? The generations of whites doing the dividing?
What they apparently meant was that they liked things just as they were – of course, they had lots of Aboriginal friends (well, a few acquaintances, anyway) and they weren’t getting uppity, so there was no reason for any change. Other Tories were a little more nuanced: there could perhaps be a few tweaks in the constitution, but they had to be bland to point of meaningless, because anything serious would never get past a referendum. At least it wouldn’t if they had anything to do with it, and given that they were obviously prepared for a campaign of fear and loathing, they were confident that their predictions would be self-fulfilling.
In other words, they were the gatekeepers, the masters and commanders; what Indigenous Australians wanted was irrelevant, they would just have to take whatever crumbs White Australia was willing to dole out to them. This was real white man’s burden thinking: patronising, insulting and demeaning, and it was hardly surprising the Uluru delegates rejected it in favour of a somewhat more robust formulation.
It had two parts: one was based on Noel Pearson’s idea of an indigenous voice in parliament, which on the face of it would seem unexceptional – there are already five articulate and voluble voices in the current two houses. But the catch is they were all chosen by their respective parties (Jacqui Lambie was originally from Palmer United); they were not elected primarily as indigenous representatives. The Uluru statement wants to see a presence embedded in the constitution. It is not clear how this can be managed, but it would, by definition, involve a referendum, and at least some of the conservatives could be guaranteed to campaign against it, leaving the result at best problematic.
But the other bit, working towards a Makarrata –a form of treaty – while it may appear more difficult, actually has promise. This is because no referendum would be needed; the treaty power is already given to the Commonwealth in the constitution, so if the major parties can come together on it, end of story – and perhaps the real start of reconciliation.
The Tories, of course, would go ape shit: they would scream about two separate nations, apartheid, and all sorts of nonsensical hyperbole, ignoring the fact that such countries as the United States, Canada and New Zealand have long since signed treaties with their original inhabitants without splitting their sovereignty apart. And although negotiations with multiple Indigenous nations would be difficult, it must surely be encouraging that so many of their representatives at Uluru resolved, unanimously, to give it a try.
So the Uluru Statement is offering a deal – not the one that Malcolm Turnbull, who is still talking vaguely about recognition, wanted, but a concrete proposal he will have to confront once the ideas have been workshopped and refined, possibly as early in August at the Garma festival at Yirrkala. The Prime Minister is, as always, cautious and lawyerly, but not dismissive and Bill Shorten is more optimistic. So it may not be an impossible dream.
And this might bring us to yet another anniversary: 1972, the It’s Time election, where Gough Whitlam announced: “We will legislate to give Aborigines land rights, not just because their case is beyond argument but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.” The simple goodness and rightness of these words still resonates through the years which have followed. There have been many attempts to move forward since, some successes, all too many failures. But we can report progress, both materially and socially.
There is probably less goodwill, less generosity of spirit now than there was in 1972, not to mention 1967; the struggle for reconciliation is now seen as less urgent than other concerns, and the politics of inclusion, even within our own country, less forgiving. But the men and women from Uluru have given us a guide to the great goal of uniting all Australians, old and new, in facing the past with honesty and the future with hope. The next step could be the big one.