Stephens, David: Three important markers on the way to a New Australia – maybe

David Stephens*

‘Three important markers on the way to a New Australia – maybe’, Honest History, 11 August 2023

All of the many voices on and around the Voice need to be listened to, some with more respect than others, but this week there have been three items that deserve especially close attention. Some readers may have missed them.

The first marker was the powerful essay, ‘White Australia’s moral backwardness‘, in Pearls and Irritations by Allan Patience of the University of Melbourne.

White Australians like to think of themselves [Patience commences] as an egalitarian and frank people, despising pretentiousness, while basking in a reputation for larrikinism and mateship. But this is all a front, papering over a culture that is deeply racist, excessively masculinist, and incorrigibly populist. Indeed, from its very beginnings, white Australia has been a morally backward society. And there are no signs that this is abating. Its moral backwardness is disgustingly on show in the No campaign against the forthcoming referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

The No campaign, Patience goes on, ‘is one of the most cynical and immoral exercises that we’ve seen in this country for many decades’. Reasons to vote Yes, on the other hand, include making up for our past history of racism, massacres and the stolen generations, as well as our failure to Close those many Gaps.

So the call by the Indigenous leaders in the Uluru statement for a Voice to advise the parliament on policies affecting Indigenous peoples has to be seen as one of the most innovative and hopeful ideas ever to come before the Australian people. Here is an opportunity to confront the incipient white supremacist culture that has been so toxic for so long among too many white Australians.

Then there was the attention drawn to ‘Our Story’, the section of the Referendum Council report from 2017. This was the material misrepresented by some of the No side in the Voice debate and firmly placed in context by the Uluru Dialogue’s Professor Megan Davis among others. Anyone who has followed the Uluru Statement story since 2017 knows that the Statement is one page long, no more, no less. Here is a picture of it.

The gullible might have been taken in by the claims that there were another 26 pages in the Statement. The reference was to ‘Our Story’, section 2.2.1 of the Referendum Council report of 2017. In the hard copy of the report ‘Our Story’ runs from pages 16 to 32, introduced thus: ‘A synthesis of the Records of Meetings of the First Nations Regional Dialogues was produced by the Referendum Council. This synthesis, entitled “Our Story”, recounted the themes that emerged in the Dialogues …’. Essentially, it was a rendering of Australia’s history by participants in the consultations leading to the Uluru Statement, with many incisive quotes. Here is one from the Ross River (NT) Dialogue held from 31 March to 2 April 2017:

Participants expressed disgust about a statue of John McDouall Stuart being erected in Alice Springs following the 150th anniversary of his successful attempt to reach the top end. This expedition led to the opening up of the “South Australian frontier” which lead to massacres as the telegraph line was established and white settlers moved into the region. People feel sad whenever they see the statue; its presence and the fact that Stuart is holding a gun is disrespectful to the Aboriginal community who are descendants of the families slaughtered during the massacres throughout central Australia.

The third marker was Clare Wright’s long essay in The Conversation, ‘Friday essay: 60 years old, the Yirrkala Bark Petitions are one of our founding documents – so why don’t we know more about them?’ Wright has written about Eureka, women’s suffrage, and now the Petitions of 1963, as three pillars of Australia’s democracy. The Bark Petitions were a plea for recognition of traditional land ownership in Arnhem Land (‘a grassroots community response to the clash of legal and land tenure systems on the 20th-century Australian frontier’) but most Australians have never heard of them.

‘This ignorance says much about our national pastime of historical amnesia, our wilful forgetfulness of any event that falls outside the canon of military achievement – or failure.’ It makes, says Wright, the truth-telling part of the Uluru Statement particularly important.

Like the petitions, which set out the contours of Yolŋu land ownership, so the Uluru Statement provides a map too: Voice, Treaty, Truth. Signposts to a new dawn for an old country, an awakening based on consultation, recognition and restorative justice. The Uluru Statement calls for the Australian Constitution to grow a tongue. It is time for us to listen.

Putting all these together and having in the back of one’s mind the recent demolition of what Chris Masters (Flawed Hero, p. 540) called the ‘counterfeit exemplar’ of Ben Roberts-Smith, the larger-than-life Anzac mascot, is it too fanciful to suggest that we are on the path to a New Australia, blackfellers and whitefellers together, post-patriarchy, post-Anzackery, post casual racism, post-denialist about our history, with reducing inequalities of income, wealth and power, multicultural in the distribution of power as well as in politicians’ fantasies, and committed to real action on climate change? Others can add to the list; swallows and summer and the usual caveats. But maybe, just maybe.

*David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and a member of Defending Country Memorial Project Inc., encouraging the Australian War Memorial to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars. A related piece.

Click here for all items related to:
To comment or discuss, Log in to Honest History.

Leave a Reply