Out of our three entwined stories, a voice for Australia

Opinion Article

2022 October, 28

The half-century since the 1967 referendum broke the silence on Australian history and various reforms and improvements were made as a consequence of the exercise of legislative power by the federal parliament. Yet the original failure of recognition of Aboriginal people was not remedied. 

Let me point out what is incontrovertible: Australia doesn’t make sense without recognition. Until the First Peoples are afforded our rightful place, we are a nation missing its most vital heart. 

The rift in our national soul becomes apparent each passing January. The old idea of an Australia that started on January 26, 1788, has frayed, and for a long time our leaders haven’t known what to do. The standard mode was to ignore the dissonance, and all of the consequences that flow from the failure of recognition, for 11 months of the year and then to panic in January about how we were going to deal with Australia Day. 

Repudiation is the enemy of recognition. In fighting against the repudiation of the country’s Indigenous heritage, no answer lies in the repudiation of its British heritage. They both endure for the memory and advantage of all Australians, even as we face the truths of our colonial past. For our history is replete with shame and pride, failure and achievement, fear and love, cruelty and kindness, conflict and comity, mistake and brilliance, folly and glory. We should never shy from any side of the truth. Our Australian storylines entwine further each generation and we should ever strive to leave our country better for our children. Let me lay out what lies on the horizon and who we can be. 

A Yes vote in the voice referendum will guarantee that Indigenous peoples will always have a say in laws and policies made about us. It will afford our people our rightful place in the constitutional compact. This constitutional partnership will empower us to work together towards better policies and practical outcomes for Indigenous communities. 

Mutual recognition will enable us to acknowledge three stories: the ancient Indigenous heritage that is Australia’s foundation; the British institutions built upon it; and the adorning gift of multicultural migration. 

The first story of our ancient Indigenous heritage is best described in the Uluru statement: 

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the First Nations of the Australian continent and its islands, possessed under ancient laws and customs, according to the reckoning of culture, from the Creation, according to the common law, from time immemorial, and according to science for more than 65 millennia. This 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 their ancestors.” 

The second story of our British institutions that were built upon it recognises that those who sailed the First Fleet landing at Sydney Cove carried upon their shoulders the common law of England, when the sovereignty of the British Crown was proclaimed. The rule of law, parliamentary government and the Australian English language have their provenance in Britain. From eyes on board ship, this was a settlement, and from eyes on shore, an invasion. The eve of the 25th and the dawn of the 26th January 1788 is when ancient Australia became the new Australia. The Britons and Irish – convict and free – who founded this institutional heritage made the commonwealth from 1901 a great democracy of the globe. 

The third story is the gift of multicultural migration and recognises that peoples from the earth over brought their multitude of cultural gifts to Australia. That we celebrate diversity in unity makes us a beacon to the world. When we renounced the White Australia policy, we made a better commonwealth. In Robert Hughes’s incomparable words we showed that people with different roots can live together, that we can learn to read the image-bank of others, that we can look across the frontiers of our differences without prejudice or illusion. 

These three stories will make us one: Australians. Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is not a project of identity politics, it is Australia’s longest standing and unresolved project for justice, unity and inclusion.

Out of our three entwined stories, a voice for Australia