While a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament remains hostage to toxic mainstream political manoeuvring and corresponding media coverage, politics is also failing the other Uluru priority of historical truth-telling.
Last week federal parliament’s joint select committee report on constitutional recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples effectively kicked the “recognition” can further down the road, leaving open the possibility that “the voice” could be merely established in legislation rather than protected by the constitution.
The critical issue, of course, is that legislation (as demonstrated with the abolition of Atsic in 2005 after John Howard and Mark Latham made it the centre of a 2004 election-time get-tough-on-alleged-blackfella-corruption auction) leaves the voice at the whim of non-Indigenous political opportunism.
But the report also, rightly, highlighted the imperative of historical truth-telling and the urgent related priority to establish a national keeping place for Indigenous ancestral remains, thousands of sets of which are held in cardboard boxes at public institutions, such as museums, across Australia.
Indeed, truth-telling about Indigenous and colonial history is a higher priority for many Indigenous people who have never wanted anything to do with notions of recognition in what they view as the settler state’s founding document. They’ve long wanted truth-telling and been suspicious of “recognition” since the vague genesis of political sentiment that symbolic constitutional acknowledgement was somehow desirable, on through its mishandled evolution by the profligate and largely pointless Recognise campaign. Uluru and the nationwide consultations preceding it took truth-telling seriously because that’s what Indigenous people said they wanted, just as the type of recognition – “the voice” – that the big meetings settled on was nothing like anything the politicians’ Recognise, with all its limited imagination, could ever have fathomed.
Truth-telling about the violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the colonial and postcolonial frontier at the hands of British redcoats, European settlers, militias, police and raiding parties is the great void of Australian historiography, national consciousness and conscience.
It is the unspoken, simmering verity at the heart of continental sovereignty. It encapsulates the terrible experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the traumatic legacies of which manifest in some of the world’s worst social, economic and human disadvantage despite Australia’s provenance and prosperity.
The parliamentary committee report reflects the wide pre-Uluru convention consultation process – the “regional dialogues” – in which Indigenous people all over the country called for a formal, publicly sponsored process of historical truth-telling.
In its submission to the parliamentary committee, First Nations Media Australia correctly pointed out the “failures of mainstream media to accurately portray Australia’s history and represent the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
The same might be said of mainstream Australian history which has until recently – and with notable exceptions – failed to do anything resembling justice to the violent experiences of Indigenous people, from invasion at 1788, to the dispossession and massacres upon which the “White Australia” federation was built.
In its submission, the Kingsford Legal Centre and Community Legal Centres NSW attributed generational trauma to “colonisation, dispossession, genocide, the Stolen Generations, stolen wages, over-incarceration, removal of children to out-of-home care, prevalent discrimination and other human rights violations experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
It said, “A truth-telling process has the potential to provide a form of restorative justice, educate the Australian community and provide a path forward for reconciliation.”
Indigenous student Thomas Wilkie-Black wrote: “The regional dialogues suggest First Nations feel they have been unable to secure such a platform and the state has failed to sufficiently acknowledge frontier violence. By giving survivors of frontier violence the opportunity to share and have their experiences officially acknowledged for the first time, truth-telling can promote their healing.”
Since Uluru the political class has dedicated next to no consideration to what a truth-telling process might look like. For starters, there needs to be a serious national discussion about whether a truth-telling commission should travel to schools and community halls throughout the nation, be broadcast and – like the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse – make public all testimony.
The world has seen numerous examples of formal truth-telling processes as part of post-conflict reconciliation. Most recently notable, perhaps, is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission implemented post-apartheid in South Africa, where victims of violence and oppression, and their oppressors, publicly told their stories. The state and individuals were granted immunity from prosecution, much to the chagrin of victims’ families, such as that of activist Steve Biko. Could a similar model aid conciliation between black and non-Indigenous people in Australia? Critically, how would it address issues of compensation and redress?
Considering so many crimes against Indigenous people in Australia (shootings, massacres, poisonings, the theft of Indigenous children and lands, and deaths in custody) reverberate generationally, should a truth-telling process be punitive or restorative? Might it be both?
A few months before he died last year I caught up with Sol Bellear, a leading Indigenous activist who introduced then prime minister Paul Keating when he delivered his seminal Redfern speech in 1992. Keating is the only Australian prime minister to acknowledge the full extent of historical violence and prejudice against Indigenous people of this continent.
Bellear said Keating’s speech had offered the basis of a truth-telling process that Australia had, sadly, negligently, failed to embrace and develop.
“I went repeatedly to the Reconciliation Council and tried to push through a type of truth and justice commission – you know, public hearings in cities and at town halls in schools in small towns across Australia, in communities where terrible stuff happened, and where the descendants of victims and others [perpetrators] still lived. Where the memories – and even some of the victims and those responsible – still actually lived. But no takers,” he said.
“They talked about reconciliation … and my point was always that you couldn’t have that because blacks and whites had never had the initial conciliation – and truth, truth in history, a public kind of process to bring that about, was critical to that. History is everything . . . But they weren’t going to back it.”
Bellear was not a lone voice when it comes to challenging the appropriateness of the term “reconciliation” to describe bridge-building between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians. In Australia, the term grew out of the 1991 political construct, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, established to bring the continent’s black and white people together.
I’ve written many times it’s the wrong word. It should be “conciliation”, because there has not yet been a first step – there has been nothing resembling a reckoning.
Henry Reynolds, the living Australian historian who has, perhaps, done more than any other to illuminate this nation’s violent beginnings, wrote in This Whispering in Our Hearts Revisited: “The word itself was problematic. It is an old word derived from Latin meaning ‘restoration’, which usually referred to the restoration of previously good relations. It is difficult to see how this could possibly apply to Australian history.”
And what of the committee’s recommendations for the keeping place for all those remains – bones that illustrate starkly the events that transpired across the continent post-1788?
Well, it’s almost four years since a government-appointed committee recommended establishing a keeping place for Indigenous remains in the national capital, Canberra. The cost would be somewhere between $10m and $50m. The government, further demonstrating an absence of respect and diligence that characterises its approach to Indigenous issues, has not seen fit to formally respond.
The government has just spent $600m celebrating the centenary of Anzac and committed another $500m to the Australian War Memorial, which does not commemorate frontier conflict.
As the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait social justice commissioner Mick Gooda told the parliamentary committee, “I think we should have our warriors in the national War Memorial . . . We should recognise our warriors Windradyne, Yagan, Jandamarra in the War Memorial.”
Commemoration – what we choose to remember as a nation as determined by our politicians – involves choices, of course.
Labor needs to demonstrate its bona fides here, too. Political words on issues of great note to Indigenous people are cheap. History has at least demonstrated that.
So don’t hold your breath on truth-telling, the voice – or a keeping place.