As we move into National Reconciliation Week there are some milestones: The 20th Anniversary of Bringing them Home, the 25th anniversary of Mabo and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum where 92% of Australians voted to allow Indigenous peoples to be counted in the census.
I often wonder about the other 8%. I merely surmise they are the ancestors of the the current crop of the angry, frightened and ignorant right wing rump otherwise known as customers of Rupert Murdoch, flagwits, Reclaim Australia and the joint and several political parties characterised by a permanent state of offence that other people are not like them.
The theme for #NRW2017 is “Let’s Take the Next Steps”. In my workplace we are very committed to reconciliation. We are going to be writing down our personal commitment to what our steps will be. I know mine already – and that is to support wholeheartedly, and without reservation, and be an advocate for the intent, spirit and goals of this extraordinary document. This Statement from the Heart.
The usual suspects, or the descendants of the 8% will try to paint this statement as divisive. On the one hand that would appear to miss the point. But missing the point is not the point. The point will be trying to obfuscate. To muddy the waters. And, with no shame or sense of irony – to divide.
That will be the actual point.
But this Statement seeks to unite. This is made clear in the first substantive paragraph:
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.
Reading that back and writ large is an intertwining of faith, fact, law and science. This is a commonality between our peoples and reflects, ultimately, that we cannot turn back the clock. You cannot change history. But you can learn from it and thereby guide the future.
Now this is where it gets predictable. The 8 percenters will repeat the tired old trope that we are living in the here and now, that they were not responsible for what happened, and why should they feel guilty?
But let’s just have a look at that and give it some analysis. Yes, we are living in the now and no – you were not responsible. However, what about the notion of having a shared history? Which I think this Statement reflects. Shared history is important. We are taught in school, for example, about the importance of our relationships with Britain and the USA. Why? We have a shared history and that has influenced our present and will continue to do so. Those aspects of shared history are many and varied and one is a major one: war.
And here is another thing. Inasmuch as Indigenous Australians are told to “get over” colonisation and everything it brought, why are we not “over” Gallipoli or Pozieres?
It might also beg the question of why we have living ex-service-people sleeping rough on the street or committing suicide for want of support while $650m can be found for memorials for people who have been dead 100 years. It may reflect an inability to deal with the here and now, it being far more comfortable to get a faraway look in your eye, wear a poppy, talk nobly about sacrifice, buy another beer and play two-up.
I am not suggesting for one second we ought not have ANZAC Day. Taylor, J 2304306 has participated in the one day of the year as part of a catafalque party, I’ve marched with my mates and all of that. I recognise it from a sense of place from history, and a sense of shared history with those other men and women. Many other people do the same, and not just with ANZAC Day. It could be any day where there is something momentous from history to commemorate, and we come together to do it. If Carlyle was right and that history is the essence of innumerable biography, then it means it is nothing other than what we share as people and as a people.
So why cannot we approach a concept of shared history with Indigenous Australia? John Howard pissed in the soup with the “black armband” view. A more accurate description is white blindfold. In not acknowledging that history a message is actually being sent “I don’t care”. This is going to happen over the next few days.
Then the right wing media, Bolt, Windschuttle, Akerman, Devine and other such great thinkers of the modern age will respond to the inevitable dog-whistle and after a preliminary round of mutual arse-sniffing on Sky News or some such other echo chamber, the yapping of “Guilt Industry!!” will commence.
It is all getting rather tedious.
I am unsure of what it is in the psyche of the conservative commentariat but there seems to be an inability to separate empathy and compassion from guilt. It may surprise people to know that it is entirely possible to feel empathetic and compassionate and have a genuine desire to want to help without feeling a shred of guilt or shame or blame. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that much, at least.
I have no feelings of guilt for what amounted to genocide in this country. Then again, I’ve never experienced dispossession and I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be a curiosity in your own country, or not feel you are on your country on equal terms.
But I know what it feels like to want to help someone who does not have it as good as you. Many other Australians know that feeling too. That is why we have volunteers and charities: the Salvos, the Red Cross, Vinnies, the White Coats, Medecin sans Frontieres and myriad others. This is an innate desire, and in some cases, need, to roll up your sleeves and do your bit to make someone else’s life a little better, if you can. And I would give fairly good odds that not one of the army of people who go out and do this work, day in, day out, for little or no monetary gain do so out of anything to do with guilt. They do so out of empathy and compassion: Two of the things that make us human. And they do so because they want to make Australia better, as well as be better Australians.
So why is it so hard when it comes to Indigenous Australia? It need not be the case.
I think that is the point of the Statement from the Heart. They are not asking for us to make reparations out of guilt. Nor is this Statement a request for a hand out or even a hand up. It is a request for a hand on equal terms. They are asking for nothing other than that which we take for granted as our birth-right or citizenship right, to take their place alongside us, because currently they do not and cannot.
Why is this the case.? Principally because, I think, they are regarded as a defeated people. And there is an ugly streak of “winners are grinners” than runs through part of the Australian psyche. They are regarded as losers, even though they never ceded sovereignty. But against firearms, alcohol, disease, strychnine laced flour and waterholes, being treated as fauna up until 1967, stolen children and otherwise relegated to missions where you needed a pass to go into town you don’t really stand much of a chance of victory. A referendum is great but it will not do much except trap you in your equality; when what is really needed is equity.
Equity, in my view, and I think this is consistent with the concept in whitefella law, means recognising and acknowledging that sovereignty, in the sense of the document was never ceded and co-exists with Crown sovereignty. This will be a difficult concept for many to grasp, even for the well-meaning:
This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
You note again the intertwining of our cultures, going beyond the notion of shared history and exploring shared concepts of being. This is in the reference to ancestral ties to the land or “mother nature”. You will also note the concept of birth, death and being returned to the land. Who has not heard that at a funeral service for a friend?
And what about spiritual sovereignty with respect to land? We all recognise that, for we all know that links to what we call home go deeper than a crown lease or discharge of mortgage. In the The Castle Darryl Kerrigan taught us that and so did his lawyer and it is more than just a vibe.
I don’t read anything in this document that seeks to be divisive and assign blame for past wrongs. To read that in would actually be to miss the point. What this Statement says to me is that we are in the here and now and we are here because of the past, but we can do something now and pass it on for the future. This Statement is seeking a fundamental pathway. Righting wrongs is all well and good but for the future we need to break the cycle and thereby influence the future.
Important work is being done in that area, but not many know of it: Empowered Communities. This is a national framework, which, at its heart, is about Aboriginal communities taking control of their own destinies and breaking the cycle of passive welfare and all that which goes with it. But don’t just take my word for it, read the report.
I was privileged to be seconded to the West Kimberley from Feb to April 2017 where I had the honour to work on a project associated with Empowered Communities and also meet and work with some of its leaders, one of whom has ultimately played a role in the shaping of the Statement.
Now, I considered myself reasonably enlightened when I got to Broome. A few days in and I was profoundly angry. When one reads the media one either gets the shock horror depravity rubbish of the Murdoch press, or, let the record show, this being what I have been told, the sob stories in the more left leaning media. Both wings of this very confused avian critter are misguided and wrong-headed.
In the West Kimberley, and in many other regions, the Empowered Communities model is providing real change and positive results. There are Aboriginal people standing up and making a red-hot go of things with education and trade training, governance, preventative health, suicide prevention, youth leadership. It goes on and on.
But mainstream Australia is being told none of this. This is happening right under our noses and, for some unfathomable reason, we are told relatively nothing. This is both is shameful and irresponsible. If nothing else it is a lowest common denominator perpetuation of the patronising attitude that Indigenous Australians have been dealing with for over 2 centuries: the whitefella even gets to decide what blackfella stories get told.
Well, as Gandhi and Shakespeare might have said: “Fuck that shit”.
It was during my secondment that I had some wonderful discussions with my colleagues in my host organisation. One in particular I remember with a young woman, trying to bring up a kid by herself and finish her law degree. We got talking about reconciliation and how we could make things work and so forth and I finally got the point she was making. Her world-view was that reconciliation is not just about making Indigenous lives better. It is about making Australia better for all of us. Of course, with true reconciliation non-Indigenous Australians will benefit. And you don’t have to be Einstein to work out how.
On a spiritual level the entire country – whether you are part of the guilt industry or not, will be better off. With less passive welfare we will see a better return on investment from the taxpayer dollar spend on health, education, welfare, the justice system. With greater employment the tax base is broadened.
With new businesses and investment you promote the free flow of capital. And on a cultural level you get a mutual understanding. How is any of that divisive?
This much is illustrated here:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
And finally, this:
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
Which captures again our shared history and, so fundamentally and importantly, a vision for a shared future. The time for symbolism is over. Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters, our fellow Australians, seek to be heard. I think it is time we all sat up and listened and then joined that trek.
Let’s take the next steps.
[In the preparation of this chapter of my blog I pay my deepest respects to the people of the West Kimberley for inspiring me to change my life]