A Rightful Place

Woodford Folk Festival

2015 December, 27

A Rightful Place

Good morning, everyone.

I feel like a prodigal son, returning to Woodford at Bill’s very kind invitation. I was here in the very early days of the festival here at Woodford and I’ve been meaning to come back at very invitation Bill has issued me. I feel a great sense of privilege for his kind invitation.

I want to acknowledge the First Nations of this area. Possibly one of the most glorious places on planet earth. I really love this country. I bring greetings from Cape York Peninsula, from the First Nations of that region and my countrymen; Kuku Yalandji people, Guugu Yimithirr people, the Wik people, Umpila people, Kaantyu people, Wuthathi poeple. These are the First Nations of Australia. And if indigenous recognition in the constitution is about anything, it will be and has to be about the recognition fundamentally of those First Nations. These First Nations pre-date Australia and they have survived Australia.

The question of recognition sometimes appears to me to be somewhat absurd when you think about the fact that those who have been here for 200 years and a bit are called upon to recognise those who have been here for 53,000 years plus. Reflect upon that absurdity - how is it that we have come to a stage in this continent when the people who have been here for 200 and something years must be asked to vote overwhelming in favour of recognising those who were here for 50 millennia plus. But it is a necessary thing to do because in 1788 the power structure changed irrevocably, and that power structure effected an exclusion of the original owners. The original First Nations of this country. And we must contend with the fact of that power structure and seek a rightful place for the original peoples in this Commonwealth.

Before I get into my argument about the urgency and necessity of that recognition, let me make a couple of preliminary points.

Firstly, the task of constitutional recognition in Australia is to get a majority of voters in a major of the states to put their hands up. Think about that. A majority of voters in a majority of the states. It’s not simply enough to get 51% of Australians to put their hands up. You’ve actually got to get majorities in states like Western Australia, Tasmania and indeed our own state of Queensland. We can’t just scrape in with just 51%, we’ve got a have a super majority. One of the referendum that failed, one of the many that failed, was voted on by 64% of Australians. A referendum that had 64% of Australians in favour of it still failed. Because our constitution demands that you get majority of voters in the majority of the states.  So, this is a very tight window of constitutional opportunity. It’s a real challenge to manoeuvre a successful referendum question through that small window. And the necessary politics and strategy, and indeed the necessary model, that can be guided through that window has to be very carefully considered. It is an almost insuperable challenge.

Let me tell you something about myself - because I have somewhat confused my original centre-left supporters and indeed people on the left in relation to the politics that I have prosecuted. I am neither from the left nor the right, I seek the radical centre of politics. The radical centre of policy. I hew neither to the left nor the right. There are great big tribes prosecuting those agendas. I’m interested in the synthesis of those two agendas. And the synthesis is not simply cutting the tribe up the middle. It is not a kind of lowest common denominator middle position. The radical centre should be a higher position that transcends the left and the right, because too many of our human predicaments, in my view, require a radical synthesis of left and right positions.

That is why perhaps people on the left have been dismayed about my politics. Why should I be in favour of positions in relation to social reconstruction, order, tackling substance abuse, being in favour economic development, being in favour of mundane things like education? It is because I believe that downtrodden people must rise up in the world and take a fair share. They must take a rightful place. And we must never believe that it is our destiny to remain at the bottom. That is the one thing I utterly reject. I do not believe that the inexorable pyramid of Australia should locate for its indigenous peoples a rightful place right at the bottom gutter. I want what other Australians want for my children. I want them to have access to the economy, I want them to have jobs, I want them to have a good education. I want to build meaningful lives with them.

Our policy was well articulated by the Indian economist Amartya Sen when he said “the purpose of public policy should be that our children have the capability to choose lives they have reason to value”. They should have the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value. 

And the important thing that Sen articulated when he said that, was that in order to have real choice you have to have real capabilities. You’ve got to have good health, good education, you need to grow up in good families and good communities. So, I’ve been concerned, not just with the structural aspect of our people’s oppression, I’m concerned with the most mundane details or theirs lives and the lives of my own family. I believe that we must attack the predicament of indigenous Australians at both levels. At both the human and practical level of domestic life so that we start to climb out of poverty. But, we must also attack the structures of oppression, the racism, the institutional disempowerment of our people in this country.

And in this morning’s talk I want to talk about the ultimate expression of that structural disempowerment, namely: our exclusion from the Constitution. Because I believe, ultimately, everything cascades out of that non-recognition. You want to talk about indigenous disempowerment? Well, its wellspring is the constitution. We don’t have a fair power deal in the country’s constitution. You want to talk about the source of disempowerment? We have to talk about the constitution.

So, I am a prodigal son to Woodford, and I thank Bill Hauritz for providing a fattened calf, albeit vegetarian, and my late friend Lew Griffiths who was a constant source of provocation for me to come to this festival. He, alas, was lost to us a couple of years ago and there’s a tree in his memory up in that hillside where the sunshine of his love casts a warm glow upon me on this site. I remember him with great love and fondness. He was a white Australian mate who understood that this country’s better self still remains ahead of it. This country’s better self still remains before us. And until, as Gough said, until we identify that rightful place for the pre-existing First Nations of Australia in this commonwealth, the country will still be bereft, it will still be spiritually bereft.

Henry Reynolds once quoted a great lawyer from Sydney, who was very hostile to aboriginal people in the 1900’s, who nevertheless said that as long as we don’t deal with this issue there will still be a whispering in our hearts. If we don’t deal with this indigenous issue and the recognition of the rightful place in this country, there will still be a whispering in our hearts.

Now why didn’t the 1967 referendum put paid to the question? Of course, when the constitution was put in the place in 1901 at the time of the federation, indigenous Australians or, as the constitution said ‘people of the aboriginal race’, were recognised in a negative way in the constitution, that is, references to aboriginal people in the original constitution were to the effect of not counting them in the census. So, there was explicit reference to aboriginal people but only to ensure that they were not counted in the census and secondly to deprive the commonwealth parliament of the power to make laws in respect of peoples of the aboriginal race.

So, there was a kind of negative recognition in the original constitution. 1967 remedied that problem to an extent by neutralising the question. There was no more reference in the constitution following 1967 to aboriginal people at all, because the so-called race power was amended so as not to deprive the commonwealth parliament of the power to make laws in respect of aboriginal Australians. So, 67 as important an event in the citizenship of our people as it was, did not solve the issue of recognition. This whole issue of the country recognising the First Nationhood of the original peoples of this country remained an open question as it does today.

I was part of an expert panel appointed by the Gillard government in 2011 and I heard for the first time the argument in respect of race. And I came to understand from people wiser than me how so calamitous it was that our inclusion in 1967 was on the basis of race, rather than on the basis of the fact that we were the indigenous people of the country.

You see, the 67’ referendum included us in the nations citizenship on the basis of race, and we all know today in a way that was little known in 1967 that there are no separate races; there is only the human race. I came to understand the argument that we must remove reference to race from our constitution. We are indigenous peoples; we are not a separate race. We have our own cultures, languages, traditions, rituals, religions, as do many other people on the face of the planet. But we are not a separate race. And our inclusion in the country’s citizenship should not be on that basis because race carries with it a 200-plus year-old baggage. And you know what that baggage is. We all know the subterranean baggage attached to the concept of race, so far as it concerns our people. It is a baggage of superiority and inferiority. It is a baggage about a whole lot of assumptions, about our innate inequality. Too much of that baggage survives still in this country for us to use the concept of race with complete neutrality. So we must get rid of it. We are not a separate race; we are an indigenous people. It is bad for white Australians for us to continue to talk about race and it is bad for our own people to think of ourselves as such, to internalise the idea that we are part of a separate race.

So, I came to understand that argument and the need for us to abjure the concept of race and rid it from our constitution. But we must do more than that. There must be a positive recognition of the First Nations of Australia in our institutional and constitutional arrangements. We must go on to ensure that there is positive recognition.

And there are three general ideas that have been promulgated around the world and indeed put in place in other western democracies, and indeed in constitutions in the third world, and they generally congregate around the recognition of rights and the protection of rights, not the least, the right to be free from discrimination.

A second set of ideas congregate around the notion of representation; political representation in the institutional architecture of the nation. In Australia, perhaps one of the most signal aspects of our disempowerment is the fact that we are 3% of the nation. We’ve got a 3% mouse dealing with a 97% elephant, and therefore our democratic participation in the usual structures of government, amounts to very little. That is the basis of the disempowerment of so many of our communities. We can’t get the democracy to work for us. We can’t get the executive to work for us, we can’t get the parliament to work for us. And the rest of Australia does not truly understand what Bill Stanner, the late anthropologist, called the “torment of powerlessness” endured by indigenous Australians. The torment of powerlessness.

In the normal course, if we were a substantial minority, perhaps the problems would not be so egregious. But in our case, one the shear aspects of our predicament is simply the numbers. How can 3% make a parliament and government work for it? And we need more diligence from government than most other sectors of the community, to overcome our challenges and problems. We need an equitable and diligent system of democracy to work in our favour. And I tell you that when I see communities around the country, when I see First Nations grappling with their problems, the kind of universal circumstance linking all of those communities is their inability to make government respond to them as citizens. Respond to them in relation to their position as Australian citizens.

So, we’ve got to address the issue of empowerment. How do First Nations deal with the elephant of government on a level playing field? Otherwise, we have the default position; which is that government determines almost everything. Government dominates our lives and makes all the decisions and the only relationship they have with us is one of consultation and mendicancy. We are mendicants of government as long as we don’t equalise the power.

So, we must, in a model that goes to the Australian people in a referendum, have a substantive proposal. Constitutional recognition is not simply about symbolism. It is not simply about flowery words at the beginning of the constitution. It can’t be. It has got to have substance in relation to rights, in relation to representation and in relation to agreements. We must enable the new peoples to treat with the old peoples. We must treat with one another in a way that we never did in the past. Because the single most greatest anxiety in the communities that I know across the country, is an existential one. They fear for their future existence. How can it be that a people can occupy a country for 53,000 years can after 200 fear for their future? How can languages be spoken on the land? How can the hills and the mangroves and that rock have a name and we face the prospect that those names will wash away in the decades to come?

I go down to my beach house in Cape York, Yurrgubarraalbigu, I pass a mountain called Thamal Nubuun. All these places have names, there’s a name every hundred metres sometimes. and I look on the map and Thamal Nubuun’s name is Round Hill. The official name is Round Hill. The rich story and names of Australia enjoy no official recognition. We probably only have ever recorded 5% of the names of this continent. This is a named continent. This country is filed with names. And the beating heart of the jewfish at that bend in the river that you can hear when you go passed in the boat, is an unrecorded story and an unrecognised story. Australia is a named continent and yet it denies perhaps more than 95% of its names. We are welcomed to country increasingly by the First Nations of this land but there is no official recognition of their existence. The community has come to embrace the idea of the First Nations but the institutional architecture of the country has not. That is the challenge of recognition. How do we embrace the indigenous heritage of this country and recognise the peoples whose heritage it primarily is?

Let me close by saying that recognition is also a mirror, when you recognise Indigenous Australians, you will come to recognise yourselves, the descendants of the British colonists will come to see themselves for the first time. The descendants of the immigrants, the Italians, the Greeks, the Vietnamizes, the Congolese, the Sudanese and the Indians, they will all come to recognise themselves.

Recognition is a mirror.

It cannot just be a kind of privilege conveyed by the majority to the original peoples, as if it were some gift dammed to be given, this is about recognising all of us, it is about recognising us as a common wealth. And the great privilege of being Australian must be conferred to its Indigenous peoples and there must be inclusion rather than the exclusion of the past 200 years.

What is Australia?

My answer to that question is that we are in three parts, that first part must be the Indigenous heritage and history of this country, it is the foundations upon which we live. It will ever be, no matter how long we deny it, the first part of who we are, is the land and the seascape and the stories and the names and the first nations who are the first custodians of it. That is who we are.

The second part of who we are, is that we are legatees of that British invasion, planted on this country were the institutions of Britain, its language, its rule of law, its democratic institutions, and notwithstanding its parlance record with its Indigenous peoples and other aliens, as the constitution referred to them, notwithstanding that tragedy and that brutality. Australia is made up of that heritage, the heritage of Britain is here amongst us, it forms an irrevocable part of what Australia is.

The third part of our heritage is the great multicultural triumph, the gifts of peoples from all over the world, their languages, their heritage, their culture, their ethnic beauty and diversity, is also the heritage of Australia.

And those three parts come together, to make what Australia is. The indigenous foundations, the British intuitions and the multicultural triumph.

It is time for as a country that we come to tie those three things together and recognise ourselves for what we are. We can’t do it if don’t, from the outset, treat with the indigenous people of this country and come to terms with that part of our heritage.

I envisage a future for Australia where young children, like the children of my late friend, will identify with my culture and my language and my traditions as if it was their own. There will be an Australia in the future where there are Wik speakers who are white. Where there are Pitjantjatjara speakers who are Vietnamize. I envisage a future where we will all own the Indigenous heritage of this country as our own and we will strive fervently that these first nations may live long on the earth.

I went down to Bill’s camp, I saw the 500-year vision for Woodford, and I thought yes I am going to aim my sights higher now, because I so am anxious that the Wik people, the Guugu Yimithirr people, Yalanji people and the Noongar people, that we may live long on this earth, and our languages, our cultures, our traditions, the knowledge of the country and the names that make the country, are not lost. This is a named land, and it should be the duty, it should be the privilege of all Australians to own this heritage. In order for us to do that, we must formalise that recognition in our constitutional arrangements.

Thank you.