Racism: The unstated Australian agenda?

Nov 1, 2023
Uluru Statement from the Heart from the First Nations National Constitutional Convention.

In the wake of the failed Voice referendum several topics are still attracting contentious debate. How significant was racism for the no case? Does the decisive defeat suggest that Australia remains chained to its heritage of White Australia? Many people think so.

In an essay in The Saturday Paper John Hewson declared in his opening sentence:

‘It is time to stop pretending the overwhelming “No” vote wasn’t fanned by racism, underlying all the lies and misrepresentation. This is not to say all those who voted “No” were racists. Rather it is increasingly clear racism was the mostly unstated agenda of some of the referendum’s strongest public opponents: those who clung to the concept of White Australia, and the supremacy of white settlers…’

Other prominent commentators have been just as emphatic, insisting that modern multi-cultural Australia has turned its back on the heritage of the old Anglo white-man’s world. There is clearly great sensitivity about the whole subject. Australians are very touchy about how others see us. In an article on the campaign veteran Canberra journalist Nikki Savva observed that among the many low points of the public debate was when ‘the media and others perversely condemned Indigenous leader Marcia Langton for calling out racism, rather than condemn the racism itself.’

Savva clearly appreciated that Langton and her contemporaries had experienced racism all their lives. They knew all about it. What was galling as the debate unfolded were the opinions of people who so often gave the impression that they actually knew more about First Nations people than they did themselves and had no doubt about putting them straight about what policy direction they should be pursuing. Such paternalistic preaching was at the centre of the response to the Uluru Statement.

Some historical context is required here. The Uluru Statement of May 2017 emerged from a process of investigation activated by both Prime Minister Abbott and Opposition Leader Shorten in 2014. It was a project commissioned and funded by the government. An appointed Referendum Council organised an intensive nation-wide survey of First Nation’s communities to determine what they wanted the referendum to address. It was a scrupulous and professional process and without doubt the most extensive survey of indigenous opinion that had ever been undertaken. The results of the series of public meetings were synthesised by 250 community leaders at Uluru and enshrined in the Statement. Having done so the leaders, ‘coming from all points of the southern sky’, found that the reaction was, all too often, not what they had every reason to expect. As debate about the Voice intensified more and more mainstream Australians ventured forth saying that the Uluru delegation had got it wrong and were making unacceptable demands on the community. Asking for constitutional change was a bridge too far. They were seeking influence beyond their station and clearly didn’t know what was good for them. The condescension and disrespect was unmistakable. Some of the rhetoric from the ‘No’ case rubbed salt in the wounds. The claim that it was all the work of an ‘urban elite’ or that it emanated from Canberra and didn’t have widespread First Nation’s support was particularly insulting. The whole process leading up the final convention at Uluru had deliberately tipped the representational balance in favour of remote traditional communities.

Voting patterns are telling. There was strong to overwhelming support for the ‘Yes’ vote all over remote Australia ranging from the mid 70’s to the low 90’s. Traditional communities had clearly seen the campaign for the voice as their own. With the loss they were struck by a double disappointment. The Australian people had rebuffed them and refused their offer to walk together into the future. But more directly confronting was that fact that the vote of white Australians all over north Australia in the electorates of Durack, Lingiari, Leichardt, Kennedy and Herbert were so overwhelmingly against the Voice. The message of open hostility was unmistakable. In response a spokesman for three of the Territory’s Land Councils remarked that ‘It is fair to say that not everyone who voted No is racist but also fair to say that all racists voted No.’ What was more ‘the vitriol and hatred that were part of the campaign existed prior to, but were given license through the process.’ These are observations which should be taken seriously by those commentators who, living in the multi-cultural suburbs of the major cities, declare that we are not a racist country. In the north things are different. The ‘killing times’ of the frontier wars are two or three generations closer than in the south. Systematic segregation, casual racial brutality, removal of children, every-day racist discourse are all keenly remembered. Indeed the’ vitriol and hatred’ of old, racist white Australia has not yet been overcome.

Does the renewed alienation of traditional communities matter? Well yes it does in ways that may not be immediately apparent. The unmissable fact is that such vast areas of the north are now controlled by the traditional owners and that includes both land and sea. And the land is not only owned it is occupied more completely now than at any time since the British invasion. The Electoral Commission serviced 189 remote locations in the referendum campaign. And remote they may be from urban Australia but they are not remote from the rest of the world, from Melanesia and South-East Asia. And traditional communities have control of much of the northern coastline and in particular such strategically important locations as the Tiwi Islands and the Torres Strait. Given the rapid contemporary Australian/ American militarisation of North Australia it becomes vital for traditional communities to assert authority over the decisions as to how ancestral homelands are to be used.

Recent developments in international law now come into play. Australia signed up to the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People fourteen years ago. It has had bi-partisan support. Its provisions are not well known. But parts of it are of great contemporary relevance to traditional communities. This is particularly the case with Article 30/2 which declares that:

“States shall undertake effective consultations with the indigenous people concerned, through appropriate procedures and in particular through their representative institutions, prior to using their lands or territories for military activities.”

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