Jeff Kennett: Recognise, uphold but also celebrate indigenous Australians

The article below was first published in The Herald Sun on 30 May 2017.

I am not a fan of the ABC’s Q&A and rarely watch it. But I did last Monday because it had a panel of indigenous leaders talking about the Uluru Statement and how the contents of that might be advanced. For those who missed the program, I suggest you watch it on ABC iview.

Even allowing for Tony Jones’ continual interruptions, the panellists were considered and constructive. The first people’s deliberations at Uluru last weekend led to the Uluru Statement, at the heart of which were two fundamental requests.

  1. That our Constitution be changed to recognise our first people.
  2. That there be a standing indigenous council to advise the federal government on matters that affect the lives, customs and welfare of the first people, and the council’s views be sought if the government initiates any legislation that might affect indigenous communities.

Neither of the two requests is Earth-shattering and I believe both deserve, and would receive, overwhelming community support.

The real question is how they can be achieved to the satisfaction of all Australians through a referendum that will be required to change the Constitution.

Let’s be clear. We cannot change the past, for better or worse. Occupation of this country was no different from the original occupation of the United States of America or New Zealand. People from other continents, with different language and customs, settled and, in the main, dispossessed indigenous communities.

What has occurred since has been subject to a lot of effort, mistakes and successes.

Again, we can’t change that. What we can do is ask ourselves what might be appropriate for the future. Our first people should be at the forefront of that debate.

Indigenous leader Noel Pearson said the first people want to uphold the Constitution, with an amendment that would recognise them. But I don’t think that goes far enough. I believe we must also celebrate them. They are possibly the oldest people on Earth. Their history and customs are unique. Their stories and culture are captivating.

So many non-indigenous Australians take great pleasure in their art, in many cases committed to rocks and caves centuries ago. We, and increasingly thousands of overseas visitors to this country, want to experience the history of our unique first people.

Indigenous leaders Megan Davis, Pat Anderson and Noel Pearson present the Uluru Statement. Picture: James Croucher

They are ours and we are theirs; if not originally by choice, then by the passage of time.

So many of our first people are highly educated in professions such as the law, medicine, education and parliamentary service. It’s entirely understandable that they want to be recognised officially in our Constitution and to contribute to the laws and regulations that govern their lives. Why should that not be the case?

How many commissions, authorities and other bodies have been established by parliaments to advise governments or to wield authority? If you were to count them I suspect it would be in the hundreds. So why should there not be a standing council of first people to represent their interests?

The Canadian Constitution was struck in 1867, about 30 years before ours. It was changed in 1982 to include, among other things, Aboriginal rights. Canada did not come to a shuddering halt as a result of those changes. Nor would Australia; but we might develop a better way of living with our first people.

Sadly, so much of what Australian parliaments have done since the early 1970s has been ineffectual and wrong, even though it was done with good intentions.

On the other hand, a few things have worked wonderfully well, such as the recognition of Aboriginal land rights. ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, was an attempt to give the first people a greater say in the management of their own affairs. But ATSIC failed, mainly because of internal conflict.

Everyone has learnt from that experience. It is time to start again.

I did not like Q&A panellist Nakkiah Lui’s use of the words “invasion and genocide”. It was emotional but not helpful in achieving what the Uluru Statement is all about. But the contributions of elder Pat Anderson and academic Megan Davis were considered and powerful, based on experience and hard work.

Anderson talked about the need for consideration before we rush into rejecting the thrust of the Uluru Statement; the need for a period of truth talk where we all speak honestly with each other as a way to find a future path.

Our elected leaders are having trouble being relevant, but I believe the Australian public increasingly want to give our first people the recognition they seek.

We are an educated community in a land of extraordinary opportunity that could, in my opinion, be even better.

Pat Anderson has said that some of the comments made by our elected leaders since the Uluru Statement was released were without inspiration and were not aspirational. I agree with her, and as I reflected on the Uluru Statement and the Q&A discussions, I thought again that is what is wrong with Australian politics today, particularly at the federal level. It is uninspiring and it is not aspirational. It is simply about the short-term electoral interests of those currently serving.

Imagine what could be achieved if this matter had bipartisan agreement?

Now is the time to be inspiring, aspirational and excited about the good we all do and what we can achieve together — for after our land itself, our most important asset is our first people.

Uphold, recognise and celebrate.

Count me in!

Have a good and thoughtful day.

Uphold & Recognise