Peter Hoysted: Australia Day debate hides the failure of practical reconciliation

This is Australia and we can’t even have a public holiday celebrating national identity and consciousness without having a blue.

The debate has largely been led by buffoons looking for a quick, easy path to self-aggrandisement, a ticket to ride on the media ferris wheel. The advocacy of the ‘no change ever’ side of the donnybrook is about as bold as calling for a reduction of the road toll or a collective finger wagging about the dangers of injecting black tar heroin.

Today an Australian businessman, Ben Beath entered the fray from the other side, offering his staff extra holidays if they chose to work on Australia Day by way of protest.

Alan Tudge, a member of the Turnbull cabinet, said the initiative would make “no difference” to advancing the interests of Aboriginal Australians.

Never a truer word was said. Yes, Australia Day and what it stands for is deeply mired in symbolism. Any change to the date which incidentally would require the consent of the states, territories and federal government — a laughably implausible prospect at the best of times — would require leap-frogging from one particular piece of symbolism to another.

There is no real appetite for change in the wider community. I get it. A lot of people don’t like change. Politically, it’s a perfectly reasonable position to hold but the fact remains if we disliked change to the point of never actually changing we’d still be single cell amoeba, swimming around in the primordial slime and eating with our arses.

Regardless of your view, the simple fact is Australia did not become a nation on January 26, 1788. Rather southeastern Australia became a penal colony. The British loved Australia so much they turned it into a prison. In 1788, this vast expanse of land was useful only to the British as a point on the compass to offload some of the working class trash who had muddied the shoes of the aristocracy by drunkenly cavorting about and stealing their hankies.

In doing so a process of dispossession, murder, humiliation, disease and exploitation of the world’s longest surviving civilisation commenced. If you can’t at least feel empathy towards Indigenous Australians, let me point you towards the Hare checklist for psychopathy.

But in the great public holiday barney, this matters little. As the Minister for Human Services said this morning, there is no practical benefit to the lives of Indigenous Australians in changing the date celebrating nationhood.

The larger problem is the Turnbull government has shirked practical reconciliation, too.

The day after Malcolm Turnbull rolled Tony Abbott, I wrote an article in praise of the fallen PM and mentioned a speech he made in Sydney in support of constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. For mine, it was Abbott’s finest moment as PM. It was a rousing speech and at the time, one felt that recognition by constitutional means was a short step away. Abbott may not have been able to enunciate a clear pathway to it but he had made clear his conviction.

While it was a long way off the media radar at the time, the events of September 2015 effectively replaced a prime minister who cared deeply about Indigenous Australians with one who, if he cares at all, keeps it well hidden.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart rejected mere symbolism. Rather than the vexed business of specific constitutional recognition of Indigenous people as the First Australians, what was proposed was the creation of an advisory body to the federal parliament with the existence of the body reflected in the constitution. The Uluru statement was referred to the government for consideration in June last year.

In August at the Garma Festival, a celebration of Indigenous culture in Arnhem Land, Malcolm Turnbull said little of substance and spoke in homilies. The Uluru Council’s proposal was being considered by cabinet. It would need bipartisan support, the PM said. His speech would prove to be a deferral of a rejection, a rejection the PM dare not make in front of a mainly Indigenous audience.

Two months later cabinet did reject the Uluru Council’s proposal and handed down its reasons by press release. The rationale was that the advisory body amounted to a “third house of parliament.” This was a falsehood and it is difficult to imagine it was not a deliberate act of political chicanery.

Here is what Noel Pearson, a member of the Uluru Council, wrote two days later:

“The body would be external: a voice to parliament, not in parliament. It would have no veto power. No voting rights. It would not change the make-up of the houses. It would be an advisory body like the one that exists now, except constitutionally guaranteed in terms of existence and hopefully more effective.”

The press release also questioned the outcome of a referendum on the creation of the advisory body. It had the bipartisan support Turnbull had insisted was a prerequisite in his Garma speech but this apparently was not enough.

Peering through the political fog of the decision, the Turnbull government took the easy way out as it almost always does. It was too hard, too risky.

A decade or more of work by some of Australia’s best Indigenous thinkers combined with some of the nation’s finest legal minds was flushed into the political sewer. The Turnbull government has set back the recognition process by at least another ten years.

“I think Malcolm Turnbull has broken the First Nations’ hearts of this country, expressed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart,” Mr Pearson said.

“He accused John Howard of doing that in 1999 and he has done the same thing in relation to recognition of Indigenous Australians.”

In the space of six months the Turnbull government’s has won the quinella — a rejection of a symbolic form of recognition, by way of a change of date to Australia Day, but what is much worse is the weak abandonment of a more practical and enduring form of recognition.

What we are left with is the morally indefensible position that might is right and white people know what is best for the First Australians.

Tell me, Mr Tudge, how is the government advancing the interests of Aboriginal Australians?

This article was originally published in The Australian on 19 January 2018.

Uphold & Recognise