‘Can we handle the truth? Henry Reynolds’ major 2021 work is crucial reference in this year of the Voice’, Honest History, 24 August 2023
Alison Broinowski reviews Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, by Henry Reynolds
Originally the Voice to Parliament seemed a straightforward idea. But its clear waters have been muddied by falsehoods, dissent, political agendas, and complex alternatives. Similarly, the referendum on an Australian Republic was deliberately made complicated so that it would fail. The tobacco lobby sought the same result, and those opposed to action on global heating still do. Many referendum voters on the Voice – the ‘No’ case is hoping – will give up in confusion. We are being presented with at least four alternatives: oppose the Voice, vote for it, hold off in the hope of a treaty, or oppose the referendum itself.
First Nations people composed the Voice in 2017, and the referendum date hasn’t yet been set, so Australians have had plenty of time to consider the issues. This is just the right moment to read Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru and Henry Reynolds’ Truth-Telling, which has the Uluru Statement from the Heart as its preface. At 439 carefully-chosen words, the Uluru Statement is only 167 words longer than Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of 1863, and similarly it aspires to ‘coming together after a struggle’, and truth-telling ‒ Makarrata.
But as after Gettysburg, so with Makarrata: the struggle for and against consensus will continue, perhaps for years. The conflict between races in the ‘United’ States and in the ‘Commonwealth’ of Australia has not ended.
Liberals like Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the Voice as a proposal for a parallel parliament (though Turnbull now says he supports it). Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price also opposes it, her grounds including that Indigenous Australians already have voices in Parliament, including hers. So does Nyunggai Warren Mundine. Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe wants the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to be called off, saying Australians must face hard truths about the nation’s history instead of supporting a ‘romanticised’ notion of sovereignty.
The Nationals are divided over legislating for the Voice or inserting it in the Constitution. Tony Abbott told a ‘No’ campaign event in August that he is ‘getting a little bit sick of Welcomes to Country because it belongs to all of us, not just to some of us’. Labor under Anthony Albanese has invested political capital in the success of the Voice, even though his referendum proposal is short on specifics and long on future implementation.
Reynolds wades into this debate as a historian, beginning with white ‘settlement’ of Australia in 1788. The errors made then, in London and in the colonies, in his view remain uncorrected and unadmitted. Principal among them was the notion of terra nullius, which enabled the British imperialists – having just lost their American colonies – to appropriate Australia for the new antipodean prison they needed. They illegally assumed ownership not just of the coasts of Australia but the whole continent, even places like Eddie Mabo’s island, on which they had never set foot.
That appropriation brought not meek submission, but recurring conflict between Indigenous residents and the better-armed, mounted invaders. Murder, rape, disease, and displacement caused hundreds of thousands of deaths of First Australians everywhere – many more, Reynolds calculates, than others conventionally assumed.
He traces the problem to when British governors failed to negotiate with First Nations people, and resorted to violence. Reynolds cites the early colonial governors – Phillip, Macquarie, Brisbane, Arthur, and Stirling – as complicit in killings of Indigenous people. But they ruled in the south, while the territories under the watch of three 19th century colonial governors and jurists, Sir John Downer, Sir John Forrest, and Sir Samuel Griffith, extended across the north of the continent, where Reynolds finds that ‘destruction of Aboriginal society’ occurred.
Reynolds particularly regards Griffith as morally and politically responsible for the violence carried out by the Native Police of behalf of the Queensland government. Other historians, Mark Finnane and Jonathan Richards, are less adamant, finding both for and against Griffith and considering the three knights’ actions in the context of their colonial times.
The evidence Reynolds finds of colonial and later atrocities leads him to consider sovereignty, who has it and who can impose it. First Nations people point to sixty millennia of territorial possession as evidence of ‘ancient sovereignty’. They repeat that their sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished, even while the Uluru Statement concedes that it ‘coexists with the sovereignty of the Crown’. Ironically, we now hear a lot about Australian ‘sovereignty’ from successive Federal governments who have since 2014 been surrendering it to the United States military. Now, wherever Ministers plan to store the resulting nuclear waste, it is certain to have an adverse impact on First Nations’ land.
So, what is now to be done? Reynolds cites the practice of other British former colonies in North America and New Zealand, as past examples of treaty-making with Indigenous groups for Australia to emulate. He challenges the Federal or State governments to negotiate dozens of treaties with individual First Nations groups, and to achieve national consensus for them. Senator Thorpe and her ‘blak sovereign’ movement want a single treaty with the Federal Government, ‘real self-determination’, and compensation for Aboriginal people. That could be much more difficult than this year’s referendum. Legal issues intrude and complicate the initially practical idea of the Voice.
*Alison Broinowski AM is a former diplomat, author and academic. She is President of Australians for War Powers Reform. For other work by her on Honest History, use our Search engine.