Anthony Albanese’s election night promise to honour the Uluru Statement from the Heart and institute a referendum on the Voice to Parliament was another of those incredibly emotional moments in the history of Black–White relations in Australian history. That this promise and apparent recognition came before speech-making on any other matter spelled hope to many people—dare I say, to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It seemed that a fundamental issue, before all other merely political considerations, was being set down as a sacred promise and touchstone of the Albanese way.
But like those other moments of either promise or determination firing up the Australian population around Indigenous matters, and often appearing to speak directly to Indigenous people’s concerns, emotion is deceptive. It means something—potentially even something deep and real—in relation to what might be called reconciliation, or more aptly, cultures coming together to recognise their significant differences and the diverse sources of those differences. Emotion, however, also leads us to fall prey to agendas we are not aware of, some of which are unintended consequences of hidden colonial logics, some the effects of quite strategic colonial-political action.
The 2007 Emergency Intervention into Northern Territory communities is a screaming example of both, borne upon national emotion around the need to ‘save’ Aboriginal children. The liberal Left and moral middle classes were persuaded of the need to save; Howard and his ungenerous men took desperate political advantage to intervene in the lives of flesh-and-blood Aboriginal people, with consequences for at least the next generation of young Aboriginal Territorians and reportedly for Aboriginal individuals and communities everywhere. Labor unquestioningly took up the same logic of violent discipline as its predecessors, but gave it the better-sounding ‘Stronger Futures’ name. It proceeded with a disingenuous consultation with Aboriginal communities, with the same underlying belief that the minister knew better than Aboriginal communities themselves how to approach the problems they faced.
Now expanded well out from saving children and having taken on a strongly feminist direction too—to protect Aboriginal women from Aboriginal men—Labor’s agenda would increasingly be focused through the prism of ‘Closing the Gap’. This is an all-purpose cause, since Liberal-National Coalition shadow ministers now also intone it (as their sacred duty) in opposition to the Voice. Whether one believes the ungenerous men and women of the Right at all—that they are truly anti-racist and, on that basis, all for closing the gap—may be less important than asking whether we can trust any party that uses such a framework as the measure of Indigenous well-being. In the Coalition’s hands it is an individualising tool. They will do nothing to ‘divide the Australian nation’ by allowing any notion of there being distinct peoples within it, and will honour us all equally, black and white, by measuring us as … individuals. In Labor’s hands it no doubt genuinely refers us to a whole history of Labor and labour concerns that are modern and social in nature: that once very productive understanding of ‘disadvantage’ and social amelioration within modern capitalist economies and welfare states.
But does it apply, should it apply, can it apply in relation to issues that have such a different history—including colonial dispossession and deep-going racist assumptions—and may more fundamentally be said to express a cultural conflict rather than simply a political or a social one? In this I am speaking equally of white Australians as formed in culture, and of the need for our own complex exploration of it.
Rhetorically, the Closing the Gap framework can no doubt be useful to Indigenous activists and policy-makers, and it clearly points to real indicators of disadvantage, to use that language. But others have argued that its logic is as a tool of assimilation—the reduction of the issues facing Indigenous peoples to the abstract statistical measurement of social factors according to already-given categories of contemporary economy and society, certainly rather than it being used as a tool for interrogating power, especially in the context of the framework’s failure. In over a decade, under governments of different stripes, the size of the gap between white and black well-being has barely, if at all, lessened on a range of factors, and in some jurisdictions it has gone backwards.
Of course we must come back to the Voice, the matter to hand, presented by Labor as a different, potent and unique shift into the realm of ‘recognition’ and not merely social amelioration or intervention. As with the Apology, it seems something of the deep history of colonisation and its consequences, otherwise largely suppressed (institutionally and psychologically) in the white world, is (finally, again) being seen. In the case of the Apology—and what more emotion-filled event could be imagined?—white Australia could recognise the mothers’ suffering; it was a formal apology made by the state for barbaric past policies, but what was most palpable was the suffering, not just in the stories we had learned from the Stolen Generations Report but the televised reactions of Aboriginal people present at the ceremony. A feeling for that suffering was very surely shared across Indigenous/non-Indigenous lines, in many ways.
The heart was in evidence here, and very strongly, as an organ of sympathy. But as suggested above, emotion is complicated. It is never pure; no appeal to or response ‘from the Heart’ is, even if it may feel that way. The Apology was an important symbolic moment, and an opening to something like reconciliation, but it did not issue in social repair or adequate recognition, and certainly not in the form of compensation for individuals or reparations generally.
Again, we can be sure that many, many non-Indigenous people of goodwill want to respond to the message from the Heart in the way it has been presented: as a direct and moving communication to non-Indigenous Australians to recognise an obvious injustice and structural bias in its relations with Indigenous Australians. The Uluru Statement is a beautiful desiderata that seeks a place in people’s hearts as the beginning of an openness to meaningful change and a proper expression of Indigenous rights. One can feel the generous humanity of its formulation, and one thinks of the heartfelt ‘messages’ to white Australia of personal history and dogged hope that advocates such as Pat Anderson and Pat Dodson have offered in support of a Yes vote, as a first step. Yet an imagined common humanity has never been enough to bridge relations of oppression or of colonial violence, in any of their forms, or for reparations when ‘injustice’ is recognised.
There’s a problem with the whole discourse, a liberal-humanistic one, which is itself implicated in discourses of colonial power and Indigenous ‘improvement’, and which certainly in white psyches is naïve to its own historical and privileged origins. One can feel the oratory of Noel Pearson and the seriousness of Marcia Langton as representatives of their people in the wording of the Statement, and respect is due, but how do they explain the response of the Liberal-National Coalition they have courted in ways both strategic and substantive, who remain unmoved by a message from the heart and whose No campaign has been effective across swathes of New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia at least? And why would these advocates for the Voice believe that Labor will go beyond the shallowness, if not deception, of its recent past actions and pronouncements on Indigenous affairs?
There has been considerable discussion about why we cannot draw today on the spirit of 1967, or the period of Whitlam’s and Fraser’s granting of land rights, a once very substantial and broad-ranging recognition of Indigenous ‘right’. Surely Anthony Albanese and his ministers know that that period of the postwar compact between the Left and Right of traditional parliamentary politics and 1960s/70s cultural optimism is dead? Surely they war-gamed the completely predictable response of the radical Right, hardened, divisive and linked into global patterns of right-wing refusal at any taint of liberalism? Did an election victory suggest to Albanese an easy win, or the irrepressible vibe at Garma feed an otherwise not-very-obvious egoistic sense of what his personal conviction might be able to carry in the nation generally?
Another possible explanation rests in what may have seemed to Labor and Yes-vote Indigenous activists alike a rising movement of recognition across Australia: the wave of identity-based recognition of ‘difference’, on which some may have wished to hang a more substantial recognition of Aboriginal right and sovereignty. Did the popularity of Welcomes to Country at public events, of smoking ceremonies and place-name changes that so many of us agree with, suggest a larger openness to change than now seems to be the case? Was this mistaken for a groundswell of support for something more substantial than the window-dressing of the many organisations, institutions and corporations that have taken up these practices? Alternatively, has Albanese always known, as politicians must, that a No vote was possible and that if it were to come to pass, it would have to be reframed as part of a ‘normal’ politics of winning and losing, despite the enormous damage it might do—despite the promise it had held out to Indigenous peoples and the substantive gains it has suggested?
Let’s return to the question of window-dressing. For this is an accusation made about the Voice itself by some Indigenous activists, taken up in the pages of this issue of Arena Quarterly by Celeste Liddle and Michael Mansell and elsewhere by Arena editors. Notwithstanding the position of the Coalition and the right wing generally that the Voice will enshrine racial division, ushering in dual sovereignty and a divided nation and leading inexorably to Treaty with consequences unknown, Labor’s commitment can be seen as very far from anything as substantive, or as radical. Indeed, while some residual hope for a Whitlamite openness to fairness may still fire up many in the ALP and its supporter base, it may be fatally tied up in a contemporary exercise in state renovation that has far less appeal. As Dan Tout argues in this issue, the liberal Left now seeks its sacred heart—the substance of the real Australia—in Aboriginal culture, or rather the signs of it. And as Kirsty Howey’s article on development in Darwin proceeds, we see clearly enough that any Voice to Parliament that is merely an advisory body, a status Mansell underlines, will have little chance against Labor’s favoured development model. Aboriginal land and culture will be sacrificed to a wholly more important god. As Guy Rundle has pointed out elsewhere, it won’t be long before the new AUKUS subs built by workers in South Australia will be named after Aboriginal spirit entities or given Aboriginal place-names. Will ‘recognition’ go deeper than that for the Australian public? What is the frisson for it in the use of culture in this way?
Arena has long published material that has carefully interrogated the actions of government and its agencies in Indigenous matters; thus the opening foray above into the histories of Intervention, the Apology and Closing the Gap. There is a history not only of good intentions, but also ineptitude, sometimes deceit, often cruelty and certainly violence against Aboriginal communities even in these ‘enlightened’ policies of recent decades. Yet today there appears to be a further set of dangers, and they may not sit primarily with the clear racism of much of the No-vote right wing. How will the Voice, if it comes into being, handle the further deracination of Culture in the hands of sympathetic technocrats, used as a tool itself of enlightened governance of Indigenous people and their aspirations?
As Lidia Thorpe among others has pointed out, there was a better way to go: Truth-telling first, then Treaty, then Voice. But that would have been to initiate a serious, in-depth process that would have engaged Labor’s energies well past its other pressing in-depth changes to the nation’s profile—its outward-turning posture in particular, including AUKUS. Let the world see that we treat ‘our’ Indigenous people better; now let’s get on with our global business.
As we must vote on the Voice, let us hope for success. If voted into existence, it will constitute a small but material event in the history of peoples’ relations on this continent. We could hope that the reality of its existence, as something more deliberative and visible than ATSIC, would seed the view in the wider population that this continent is shared between two groups of peoples, who are united by history but divided indissolubly by how that history happened.
For those of us who look to more radical possibilities of change than many Voice supporters endorse, Celeste Liddle’s remark in these pages—that it is an exaggeration to argue that a No vote will be an epochal disaster for First Nations—must be taken as spot on. Voted up or voted down, what matters is what happens after the referendum—a campaign to support the Voice in whatever capacities it has to produce change and a regrouping around and rethinking of the politics of the peoples on this continent. Some pathways will have been shown to be dead ends; others may show where new pathways into new sovereignties and new possibilities lie.