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A dialogue with the deaf (Part 2)

Part Twenty-one of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.

The Uluru proposal undoubtedly needs filling out. But it is simply not correct to say that there is insufficient detail for the model to be considered by the Australian people.

Once adopted constitutionally, the detail of the body would be decided on by Parliament. This is – actually – one of the strengths of the Uluru proposal: it respects the sovereignty of Parliament and avoids creating a rigid structure which cannot be reformed later if experience demonstrates the need.

In determining the detail, the government could engage with the wealth of thinking which has already been done (indeed, there have been entire reports, conferences, workshops and special editions of journals dedicated to this very issue), as well as facilitating further dialogue with Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

Instead of being regarded as an affront to equality, the new body would reflect the internationally recognised right to self-determination. As the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states, at Article 18: “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”

As Dr Gabrielle Appleby, an Associate Professor at University of New South Wales Law School and the Associate Dean (International & External Engagement), wrote: “I can think of no clearer, simpler and more direct way of doing exactly this than the Uluru Statement’s call for a voice to parliament. It came out of a series of Indigenous-designed and Indigenous-led dialogues that culminated in the National First Nations Constitutional Convention at Uluru.

Surprisingly, the government also misrepresents the process which brought to the proposal. In its press release, it states that the proposal “is new to the discussion about constitutional change, and dismissed the extensive and valuable work done over the past decade.” True, the Uluru Statement did not adopt the recommendations which were made in previous reports, but that does not mean that the drafters failed to consider those reports and recommendations.

In the regional dialogues held across Australia prior to the Uluru Convention, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates were given detailed written information and shown videos explaining these recommendations. Constitutional experts detailed the recommendations and options for reform, and spent significant time answering questions. In each dialogue, a series of working groups considered the possible benefits and disadvantages of each option.

In every dialogue, following this careful consideration, previous recommendations were rejected in favour of reform that would lead to political empowerment. In each case, the need for a political voice emerged as a priority, and it went on to be unanimously adopted at the Uluru Convention among applause and tears.

The government claims that it recognises the desire for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to have a greater say in their own affairs, that it understands their feeling of voicelessness. But it is using its own voice to drown out the voices of Indigenous Australians. Such an approach can never lead to true self-determination. It can only perpetuate voicelessness.

To achieve genuine reconciliation, the relationship between government and Indigenous Australia needs to be reset. It needs to be governed by a deep-rooted sense of respect, justice and good faith. It is with these values that Indigenous Australia approached the task they were given at Uluru. Now, we, the people of Australia, should reject the government’s purported rejections of the Uluru Statement. We must call on the prime minister to reconsider the call for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice.” (Gabrielle Appleby, Malcolm Turnbull’s announcement misunderstands Uluru, and should be rejected, 27 October 2017, Inside Story).

Much will be written of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of the proposal of a special, constitutionally recognised, Indigenous advisory council expressing a ‘Voice.’

Indigenous representatives had endorsed holding a referendum on whether to establish such a council, but Mr Turnbull said that anybody “would inevitably become seen as a third chamber of Parliament” and that was neither “desirable or capable of winning acceptance.”

Coming from Senator Scullion such nonsense could have been listened too, with as much magnanimity as possible. Chivalry could have justified having to hear the same from Senator Brandis, who happened to be the Attorney-General.

But such atrociousness could hardly flow from the lips of someone like Mr Turnbull, who recently added to his multi-talented experience a kind of Elizabethan discernment. Really? And which one will it be: Elisabeth 1, who ate with her hands and partnered with Francis Drake and other ‘venture capitalists’, or Elisabeth 2, a formidable tax haven devotee who sought a Royal Paradise in Bermuda for her investments?

So much talent was met by the agonising comment of Ms Pat Anderson, an Alywarre woman, whose mother was victim of the Stolen Generations, having been ”taken as a young girl by white men on horseback from her Alywarre family in the country north-east of Alice Springs, sometime in the early 1920s,” as Ms Anderson would write. (As Prime Minister Turnbull poetically expressed on 31 October 2017, at Beersheba: “The tradition of man and horse is part of us. It is part of Australia.”). Pat grew up in Parap Camp in Darwin in the 1950s.

Ms. Anderson is an indefatigable advocate for social justice and tireless campaigner for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and holds the Chair of the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s national institute for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander health research. Ms Anderson is recognised nationally and internationally for her leadership on health, education and the protection and nurture of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children.

In 2007, together with Mr Rex Wild, QC, Ms Anderson authored the Little children are sacred report.

Speaking on the A.B.C. News Breakfast on 27 October 2017 Ms. Anderson, as co-chairwoman of the now disbanded Referendum Council, delivered a scathing assessment of M Turnbull. She said: “The Prime Minister has turned himself into the latest mission manager. He knows what is best for us.”

Missions were set up by churches or religion-imbued individuals forcibly to house Indigenous People and train them in Christian doctrine, and also to put them to work. Most of the missions were developed on land granted by the government for this purpose.

Similar, but not identical, were ‘stations’ or ‘managed reserves’, such as the ones established by the New South Wales government’s ‘Aboriginal Protection Board’ from 1883 onwards; they were managed by officials appointed by the Aboriginal Protection Board.

And then of course there were the ‘reserves’, essentially parcels of land, generally of no use to anyone and set aside to force Indigenous People to live on. Because of the intrinsic no-value they were not ‘managed’ by any government or its officials.

Mission became the general descriptor for such places where the ‘white man’ pretended ‘to civilise’ the Indigenous People, with a view to ‘whitening the race’.

On paper, such privately controlled or state-run ‘missions/reserves’ were designed to protect and defend the Indigenous People from outsiders.

As Ms Anderson said once again at the A.B.C. programme, such apparently benign purpose was the façade. “In reality this meant total control of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives, including legal guardianship of their children.”

In some cases, being moved to a settlement was a precursor to children being removed from their families – a practice now known to have resulted in the Stolen Generations.

In a sense, such institutions preceded by a few years the organisation by the Germans of the first Konzentrationslager in December 1904 in what was then German South West Africa [Wilhelmine Namibia]. It was all justified as ‘protection’, in a Weltanschauung – world view, later adopted by the Nazis, in which superior Germans ruled over sub-human non-Germans with brutality and slavery. In Sahul the respective parts – human and sub-human – were the Englanders and the Indigenous People.

Ms Anderson clearly explained what she meant: “Why ask if you won’t listen?”

What she called a “kick in the guts for us all” was Mr Turnbull’s way of saying that “He knows what is best for us, but that also he is omniscient, because he knows how the Australian public are going to … vote at a referendum.”

The ‘Voice’ was a key recommendation of the Uluru Statement, which came at the end of a six-month consultation process. “This is not just something that’s happened,” Ms Anderson said.

“Number one of our terms of reference was to go out and ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people what we wanted. We told [Mr. Turnbull what we wanted] and he said, ‘Nope, we’re not doing that’. Why ask us? Just do it. …” Generations of decision-makers have been doing [that] to us … Do not ask us if you don’t want to hear what we have to say.”(Why did an Indigenous leader call Malcolm Turnbull a ‘mission manager’?, 27 October 2017, The A.B.C.).

Another voice, in addition to that of Ms Anderson, should be mentioned, equally heartfelt but similarly condemnatory because taking a large sweep. It is that of Professor Allan Patience in a recent on-line article. Professor Patience, now a principal fellow in political science at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne has observed Australia from chairs at various Australian universities, and maintained a view of Australian affairs while teaching at the University of Papua New Guinea and in the faculty of foreign studies at Sophia University, Tokyo.

This is what he had to say:

The decision of the Turnbull government to reject this extremely important recommendation [of the ‘Voice’ which – as Patience well understood – “would not have legislative powers; it would be a strictly consultative body, advising governments and making recommendations to improve the living conditions of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”] is evidence that Australia is a morally backward society.” [Emphasis added].

And:

“It is surely ironic that soon after Australia secured a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council the Turnbull government rejected a proposal for an advisory body that could help address the appalling Indigenous human rights record of successive governments in this country. Turnbull’s limp excuse for rejecting the idea was that it would not win the necessary support it would need at a referendum to provide the appropriate constitutional framework for the advisory body.”

And this:

“The sad fact is that Turnbull is probably right. Most Australians couldn’t give a toss about the grim marginalization of Indigenous peoples in this country. In moral terms, non-Indigenous Australia increasingly conforms to what the anthropologist Edward Banfield once labelled a backward society.” [Incidentally, Banfield, an American political scientist, wrote the Moral basis of a backward society after a long study of life in Chiaromonte, in the region of Basilicata, in southern Italy, in 1955. Banfield concluded that the curse of the place was rooted in the distrust, envy and suspicion displayed by its inhabitants’ relations – or lack thereof – with each other. For a complex of reasons there prevailed a mis-conception of the family as an institution, social isolation and poverty, and an inability to work together to solve common social problems, or even to pool common resources and talents to build infrastructure or common economic concerns. He called “amoral familism” the result of that behaviour. He concluded that the inhabitants of Chiaromonte lacked, for historical and cultural reasons, what he termed “social capital” – that is, the attitudes, habits, norms and networks which motivate people to work for the common good].

Patience went on:

“Politics in contemporary Australia displays ever-congealing levels of moral backwardness. In addition to our cruelty to asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, we have pig-ignorant vested interests blocking the need for a coherent national energy policy, the reactionary stupidity of the same-sex marriage postal survey, mindless support for tax-payers to underwrite the monster Adani coal mine, persistent ideological obsessions with neo-liberal economic policies confecting the worst social inequality ever, indifference to the dying of the Great Barrier Reef, and a foreign policy framed by Australia being “joined at the hip” with the United States.

But the over-riding moral backwardness of contemporary Australian politics is glaringly evident in the country’s failure first to understand, and then to sensitively and effectively address this country’s disastrous human rights record on Indigenous affairs. [Emphasis added].

For years now some of our most outstanding historians and policy advisers – for example, “Nugget” Coombs, C.D. Rowley, Lorna Lipmann, Tim Rowse and Henry Reynolds – have been providing incontrovertible evidence about the brutal marginalization of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. This has been the case from the very first days of white settler colonialism. But governments have remained uncaring, ineffectual, racially antagonistic, and morally complacent.

The on-going treatment of Indigenous Australia by white Australia is a deep evil in the heart of this country’s politics. The one measure against which Australia should be – and is – being judged regionally and internationally is the way we so callously disregard the human rights of First Australians.

The proposal for an Indigenous body that would have constitutional enshrinement protecting it from the populist whims of governments of the day should be brought back to the government’s agenda. Yes, the proposal that came out of the remarkable Uluru gathering earlier this year is an opaque one. But it is the germ of a very brilliant public policy possibility.

Constructing a body that is representative of the majority of Indigenous Australians is not beyond the capabilities of Indigenous leaders working with political scientists, historians, constitutional lawyers, and anthropologists. It may take time and resources and serious consulting with various interest groups, of course. But it will be time and resources well worth spending if we can come up with a proposal that could succeed at a referendum.

The Turnbull government’s rejection of this historically unprecedented proposal is evidence of its moral backwardness. Turnbull should have seized on this idea and made it a signal policy defining his prime ministership. Yes, it will require huge energy, political intelligence backed by sound ethical argument, and statesmanlike leadership to get it over the line. He could have called on the bipartisanship of the ALP parliamentary leaders on this issue and backup support from among state leaders in NSW, Victoria and South Australia. It is an historical tragedy that the Cabinet gave the whole idea such short shrift. It will go down in history as another example of the moral poverty of the Abbott-Turnbull era.

This country urgently needs to come to grips with the human rights issues affecting our Indigenous peoples. It should be at the very forefront of the country’s renewal of its politics. Because of our ignoring of Indigenous’ human rights, our harshness on the asylum seeker issue, our recalcitrance in responding the Paris accord on climate change, our craven clinging to the US alliance that sees us engaging in every US (even when the country’s national interest is not at stake), we are becoming a pariah nation in the global community. It is as if Australia is accruing the international opprobrium that white South Africa achieved during the apartheid era.

It’s time for this country to awake in fright from its moral backwardness. And the first thing we need to act on is fully restoring the human rights of every Indigenous Australian, forever.” [Emphasis added]. (Allan Patience, Is Australia a morally backward society?, 30 October 2017, John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations).

Continued Monday with: The greener grass (somewhere) (Part 1)

Previous instalment: A dialogue with the deaf (Part 1)

Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.

 

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