This country has witnessed a counter-revolution against First Nations rights

Oct 25, 2023
Australian Aboriginal Flag Low Angle Close up, 3D Render.

The turn of events we have seen in the defeat of the Voice referendum is what appears to be a successful counter-revolution in Australia steered by the right wing think-tanks and the Murdoch press. The arguments which were mobilised in opposition to the Voice to Parliament has transported the nation back 60 years to Paul Hasluck’s era of assimilation. This should be seen as no less shocking than had the Australian people this year voted to re-introduce the discredited White Australia Policy.

The case for the yes vote was outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart in May 2017. It distilled the views which had emerged in a process of nation- wide consultation. The no case, on the other hand, emerged fitfully from numerous sources and is consequently more difficult to summarise. Beyond the recommendation ‘If You Don’t Know Vote No’ were the obviously effective cluster of ideas about race and equality. In his post referendum declaration Tony Abbott said that Australians had voted for equality. The rhetorical trail to this conclusion was lined with a series of assertions. The Voice was providing powers and privileges to the First Nations community based either on race or ancestry or both. It was therefore divisive and would perpetuate separatism. ‘Australians being an egalitarian lot’, a correspondent to The Age declared, ‘were never going to grant one section of the community privileged access to government over everyone else, regardless of how long they had occupied the country.’ It was the intellectual camouflage which permitted many conscientious voters to rebuff the appeal of the First Nations with a clear conscience while espousing community values of equality, convinced that the racists were over there on the other side of the barricades.

History helps us to understand how the debate unfolded. It involves the matter of minority rights; ideas which accompanied the emergence of nation states. Special minority treaties were imposed on the new nations which were established after the end of the First World War. The League of Nations ratified 24 Minority Treaties between 1919 and 1932 which established the rights of assorted national and cultural minorities. In the same period Australia was deeply committed to racial homogeneity. The population was far less diverse in 1950 than it had been at federation. Australian spokesmen informed the world that Australia did not have any minorities. When asked about the Aborigines they characteristically declared that they were a dying race or that they were a primitive stone -age people who needed paternal care rather than civil or political rights. When in the 1930’s it became apparent that in the long settled parts of the country the Aboriginal fringe dwelling communities were in fact increasing policy makers talked of breeding out the colour not commemorating the unanticipated demographic recovery.

The post-war world presented Australia with a range of new challenges. Decolonisation, human rights and the total discrediting of racial science and sociology provided a radically new environment. Assimilation became the signature policy of the coalition governments which were in power from 1949 to 1972. The key figure was Paul Hasluck, Minister for Territories from 1950 to 1961. He was well prepared for the task. As a journalist he had studied the Noongar communities of the South-west of Western Australia. He had written a thesis on Aboriginal history and he had been a member of Australia’s delegation to the meetings which founded the United Nations. He knew that the country did have a significant minority and that Australia would have to answer to the world for its policies. He committed the country to a policy of assimilation as outlined at a national conference in 1961. It meant that:

“All Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected to attain the same manner of living as other Australians, and to live as members of a single Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs as other Australians.”

It is important to realise that Hasluck’s motivation was not to nurture the Aboriginal communities but to absorb them in order to maintain the nation’s homogeneity. He feared that they would cohere into self- conscious political minorities. But he was reassured by white Australia’s overwhelming demographic preponderance. There was, he declared, no doubt who would swallow whom.

But by 1961 Hasluck’s policy was already under siege. That was the year when the erstwhile colonies of the European powers gained a majority in the U.N’s General Assembly. They viewed assimilation in the settler colonies as racist in intention and part of the ongoing process of colonisation. The first international document on indigenous rights, the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 107 on the rights of indigenous and tribal people was passed in 1957. Indigenous rights have gained increasing global support ever since leading up to the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007 with the support of 150 States. It goes without saying that it was diametrically opposed to policies of assimilation.

Which brings us back to the arguments which were mobilised in opposition to the Voice to Parliament. The reiteration of calls for national unity; for an end to separatism and division; for the total rejection of what were seen as special rights for First Nation’s communities indicated that the nation has been transported back 60 years to the era of assimilation. Many people who absorbed the message may have known nothing about Paul Hasluck or how the world has changed since his time in office. But the turn of events we have seen is what appears to be a successful counter-revolution steered by the right wing think- tanks and the Murdoch press. Tony Abbott led the charge arguing that ‘if the people’s vote is to be respected, it should mean abandoning or at least scaling back, recent concessions to separatism’. In particular he targeted ‘flying the Aboriginal flag co-equally with the national one as if Australia is a country of two nations.’ He also singled out for praise Senator Jacinta Price whose insistence that colonisation had been a good thing for Aboriginal people was ‘a watershed moment.’ He criticised ceremonies that recognise Indigenous peoples’ ancestral connection with their ancient homelands. This was the man who in 2018 was appointed to be the Special Envoy to Aboriginal Australia and who proudly explained that he had spent a week in a remote community every year since 2008.

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