Poor prospects for Indigenous justice.

Jun 11, 2020

Those of us who would like to live in a more just Australia have little reason for optimism. We endure the shame of continually failing to address the social disadvantage affecting Indigenous peoples. Demands for change will continue.

The Black Lives Matter movement, prominent in protests over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the USA, held demonstrations in Australia over the ‘Queen’s Birthday’ weekend. Reactions varied. Premiers advised people not to attend on health grounds. In a predictable rant the federal Minister for Finance condemned the marchers as selfish and irresponsible.

Members of the current government lack understanding of how people can be motivated strongly on grounds of principle. They usually appeal only to the baser instincts of self-interest and greed. The Minister forgot that as pandemic lockdowns eased people flocked to hotels and regional tourist destinations and that in a few days, crowds will attend football matches.

Some media pushed the line that the demonstrations were derivative and that the issue of Indigenous Australians dying in police custody was not raised until Mr Floyd’s death in the USA. Indigenous peoples are always judged in these paradoxical terms. If they campaign long and hard about issues of vital importance, they are labelled as perennial whingers and so ignored. If they take advantage when the world’s focus turns to an issue, they are condemned for opportunism.

Indigenous led initiatives are important for addressing Indigenous disadvantage. That is why the Uluru Statement was a source of hope. Realistically however, Black activists reflected that 50 years had passed since the 1967 Referendum. They feared that should the opportunities presented by the Uluru Statement be lost, another 50 years might pass before systemic change could be achieved.

The Statement was a carefully formulated expression of the consensus which had been developed by a commission looking at Constitutional inclusion. It has since been pointed out that its three main recommendations of Treaty, Truth and Voice did not necessarily depend on constitutional change. The Turnbull Government ‘s response was to claim that the recommendations relied on majority support in the community and that leadership would be needed. Turnbull’s approach to leadership, displayed in the slow reaction to demands for marriage equality legislation, saw the Uluru Statement languish.

Whether Turnbull’s failure to lead on Uluru was reluctant or otherwise, his successor Prime Minister Morrison immediately made his hostility to the recommendations plain. An Indigenous Voice in parliament would not be countenanced. This ‘third chamber’ notion was a controversial interpretation designed to maximise hostility to the Uluru Statement. Turnbull might have hoped that community support for inclusion of Indigenous people in the Constitution would miraculously materialise. Morrison’s attitude encouraged its opponents and strengthened their arguments. He might as well have been writing the ‘No’ case for a future referendum.

Morrison set up a new consultation about a voice to parliament, known as a ‘co-design’ process. He suggested that indigenous people had to be involved in the process, but ignored the very real involvement that had occurred in the formation of a consensus around the Uluru recommendations. While the Minister for Indigenous Australians secured positions on the committee for some outstanding individuals, the government’s sincerity is questionable. What seems clear is that the government will accept the recommendations of this group only if they find them convenient. Presumably it expects only outcomes consistent with its own philosophies. It is likely that the process and outcome will be divisive and delay progress even further. The term ‘hypocrisy’ suggests itself here.

Paternalism has characterised Indigenous policy for over 200 years. Its shape has varied, from denial of facts to denial of responsibility. It is consistent with a similar attitude to migrants especially those who wish to retain their own cultural identities, the disabled, the elderly and anyone who does not contribute to the bountiful economy so precious to conservatives.

The frustration of Indigenous people has been clear over the last few days. Increasingly those of us who believe that Australia cannot be a fair land until we address Indigenous dispossession and disadvantage are coming to share that frustration. Indigenous people have been incredibly patient as they wait for the rest of us to accept that our own integrity and survival is inextricably bound up with theirs. Perhaps protesting during a pandemic is a sign that Indigenous people are growing impatient and willing to take more risks to achieve their ends. After all, they do not have much to lose. They have tried our ways and found them totally inadequate. So many times, a revolution in Indigenous affairs seems to beckon, and nothing short of a revolution is required. Those who run our governments however, are adept at convincing us that reform is achievable. Yet again, the revolution is postponed.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics. He is privileged to live in Wiradjuri country.

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