By Henry Johnston
On June 16, 1858 Abraham Lincoln spoke these prophetic words to his peers assembled at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield: “a house divided against itself, cannot stand”.
Lincoln won the presidency of the United States and a civil war provoked by slavery, an abomination known by the recent ancestors of many Aboriginal Australians.
Lincoln’s seven words launched countless political science theses, and to this day his observation remains a moral actuality among those who aspire to the highest of offices.
I do not know if the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten pondered Lincoln’s words when he began his Budget Reply speech in the Australian Parliament on April 4 2019.
But across the despatch box neither Shorten nor the nation, could ignore the self-evident truth of a government utterly divided against itself.
Shorten’s first five words “women and men of Australia” is a deliberate riff on Gough Whitlam’s famous aphorism, “men and women of Australia.” Whitlam’s memorable saying marked the beginning of Australia’s transformation from colonial backwater to one of the most intriguing societies ever to occupy an entire continent.
And yet on the cusp of the most important elections of the century, ABC journalist Leigh Sales concluded her interview by asking; “what would you say to the Australian voter who thinks, “jeez, I just don’t like that Bill Shorten bloke very much. I don’t know if I can vote for him?”
While the full transcript includes Shorten’s response, Sales’ observation poses a raft of questions about how we view ourselves.
No matter who we elect I doubt Australians will ever be fully content with who we are as a people, and the nation will likely continue as “a house divided against itself, [and thus] cannot stand”.
Shorten alluded to the answer during his speech. In the words of the American author Ken Kesey, it is a great notion whose time is yet to come.
But the idea is given short shrift by media, and the majority of the women and men of Australia know virtually nothing about Makarrata.
I have not read one media report on the Budget Reply Speech which reported Shorten’s reference to a Makarrata.
I find this odd given the Uluru Statement is a modern Australian rhetorical masterwork.
Consider this. “How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?
“With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
“Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.”
When asked about Makarrata the former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said; “the constitution cannot be changed by Parliament. Only the Australian people can do that. No political deal, no cross-party compromise, no leader’s handshake, can deliver constitutional change … To do that, a constitutionally conservative nation must be persuaded that the proposed amendments respect the fundamental values of the constitution, and will deliver precise changes, clearly understood, that benefit all Australians.”
Herein is the difference between a conservative right-wing party bereft of ideas and a centre-left party within a whisker of government and led by a man characterised by a senior ABC journalist whose “personal popularity is a bit lacklustre”.
On the contrary.
A politician who opines ‘we owe the Uluru delegates an open mind on the big questions. On the form recognition takes, on treaties, on changes required in the constitution,’ seems to me to have absorbed the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln who said; “I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale at Brays Bookshop in Balmain an at Forty South Publishing.
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