The Epic Story of Australia One Commonwealth Three Parts

The Australian Statesmen's Club Dinner

2017 July, 20

The Epic Story of Australia One Commonwealth Three Parts

Thank you very much Justin for your kind introduction, I am very pleased and honoured indeed to be with you this evening. I always have a struggle to write a text or speak extempore and this is another occasion when that struggle never fully resolved itself until this passed hour.


I first want to say about my political philosophy that I regard the three great philosophical traditions of conservatism, liberalism and socialism as part of my menu. I think a truly liberal society would be too heartless, we have to have a social dimension to our government and society, and yet we all know the danger of a purely socialist society and what would a liberal or socialist society be without conservatism, without the tradition and memories that conservatism holds dear. So I believe a good society is one that has a proper place for each, that the drive for personal improvement not be restrained and the liberal engine of self-interest is the driver of progress, it is the means out of poverty, but socially we must distribute opportunity because not all doors open from the outside, if we invest in social redistribution that gives opportunity to all so that they can build their capabilities and the words of that great Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, “If we invest in the capabilities of people from the wrong side of the tracks, they then can employ the engine of self interest in their breast to make for a better life for themselves and their children”. But of course at the end of the day, conservatism is where real value lies; religion, heritage, language, identity. I’m looking forward next month to a speech I will first give on my greatest passion. My greatest passion in life is the poet John Milton, his Paradise Lost represents the greatest act of human art in the history of mankind, will be my argument. Time comes to pick up Paradise Lost again, Samuel Johnson said “We too often picked it up and put it aside”. I’m going to be urging in my speech to pick it up again, for it is pure self-abnegation to deny yourself the sheer majesty of that extraordinary piece of human art, but I’m not here to talk about John Milton, although I wish I could. But I have been very much taken by the idea of epic, and that will be my theme here tonight, The Epic Story of Australia. One Commonwealth in three parts.


I first acknowledge the Wurrundjeri of the Kulin Nation. I bring greetings from that region first dubbed ‘York Cape’ by James Cook, just before he claimed possession of the eastern seaboard of this continent on behalf of the British Crown. He did so at Possession Island in the Torres Strait on 22 August 1770. The claimed land he called New South Wales.


I thank the members of this Club for your kind invitation to deliver this auspicious address, in this propitious week.


On Monday the Referendum Council, of which I was member, delivered the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition its Final Report. The Council made two recommendations: one constitutional and one extra-constitutional.


The recommended constitutional amendment reads:


That a referendum be held to provide in the Australian Constitution for a representative body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations a Voice to the Commonwealth Parliament.


The recommended declaration reads:


That an extra-constitutional Declaration of Recognition be enacted by legislation passed by all Australian Parliaments, ideally on the same day, to articulate a symbolic statement of recognition to unify Australians.


I can do no better than Wednesday’s editorial of The Australian to urge the correctness of the Referendum Council’s recommendations. The editor wrote:


There is a compelling logic to the argument that if parliament is to have power over indigenous affairs, it should take advice from indigenous citizens …


Few of us could reasonably suggest indigenous citizens should not have input into the administration of their affairs, such as native title, by the federal government.


The patient advocacy, said the Editor, of hundreds of people involved in the recognition process thus far — weighing competing agendas from a minimalist focus on a preamble to the push for a treaty — is deserving of great credit. They have been sufficiently agile to adjust their demands and expectations in order to deliver a consensus around this recently devised compromise.


The proposition, the editorial goes on to say, put to parliament now is starkly simple: forget other changes to the Constitution, just mandate an indigenous voice (an advisory body) and deal with recognition in a separate document that can be endorsed by all parliaments: federal, state and territory …


The declaration may be easier because it has been envisaged as recognising the crucial troika of indigenous heritage, British institutions and immigrant bounty: three strands around which the nation can unite.


As diligent and good-willed Australians, loyal not just to this Club but to our Commonwealth, I urge you to reflect on The Australian’s account. The editor provides the most salient explanation of the case for the Referendum Council’s two recommendations. These recommendations should be considered by the Parliament with appropriate pause and reflection, and then put to the people of Australia for their permission at a referendum with all necessary deliberation but no undue delay. For amending the constitution of this Commonwealth lies in the gift of the Australian people.


What is Australia and when did it come into existence?

This question may seem impertinent, until we reflect upon it. At the beginning of the nineteenth century no one called this land Australia, and certainly not at the time of the arrival of the First Fleet. It was well into the next century when the name Australia gained currency.


No event brought Australia into existence, until Federation on 1 January 1901, when the Australian Constitution created the Commonwealth of Australia. As you know our Constitution was part of an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.


Our country has retrofitted an un-factual myth of Australia onto the events of 26 January 1788. There was no Australia in 1788.  There was only the Colony of New South Wales.  There would be no Australian Commonwealth until 1901.


The events of 1901 gave legal effect to the legal idea of Australia. The birth was a legal event, born of its mother, the British Crown.


The Founding Fathers advised the British Parliament as to the terms of that act, which became the Constitution of Australia.


Unlike the United States of America, Australia was never declared. That was impossible, and has been impossible since Federation.


For a declaration is not a legal event. The law can declare anything subject to its own authority. A declaration of any standing, worth and durability cannot be arbitrary: it cannot assert untruths or be wilfully blind to truths. For the untruths and truths eventually become visible and erode convenient and time-limited definitions.


What is Australia?


Who are the Australians?


These are questions we have never answered as an Australian people. That there is an Australian people, there is no question. That this continent and its islands are ‘our land’, there is no question. And when is say ‘our’, I mean us.


But what Australia is, the idea of Australia and who is Australian, we have never truly answered. We have only partial answers. We have never answered the idea of Australia because we have never properly faced it.


How could the idea of Australia conjured in our mythic reconstruction of 26 January 1788 or the Federation of 1901 ­– without contending with the pre-existing Aborigines of this continent – be a proper answer to the question of Australia?


Furthermore, a Commonwealth of Australia that excluded the pre-existing Aborigines and banished the Chinese and other aliens under the White Australia policy up until Prime Minister Holt – could never have been a complete Australia.


My argument tonight is that Australia cannot be defined in the absence of each of these three stories.


So let us consider articulating the idea of Australia, and who are the Australians.


But first I want to assert that we Australians have an epic story. It is one of the great epic stories of this planet. We will recognise the epic scale of our story when we recognise each other.


Let me turn to the first part of that story:


The Epic Trek out of Africa: The foundation of the planet’s oldest continuing civilisation from more than 60,000 years ago

This very day, media reports pointed to the latest research published in the journal Nature, pushing back the date of Aboriginal presence in Australia beyond 60,000 years. Before I turn to the astounding stories illuminated by science, I first want to tell the epic story from within the mythologies of the First Peoples of this continent.


Australia’s greatest ethnographer, the late WEH Stanner, best described the Aboriginal concept of The Dreaming, in 1953, he wrote:


The Australian Aborigines’ outlook on the universe and man is shaped by a remarkable conception, which Spencer and Gillen immortalised as ‘the dream time’ or alcheringa of the Arunta or Aranda tribe. Comparable terms from other tribes are often almost untranslatable, or mean literally something like ‘men of old’. Some anthropologists have called it the Eternal Dream Time. I prefer to call it what many Aborigines call it in English: The Dreaming, or just, Dreaming.


A central meaning of The Dreaming is that of a sacred, heroic time long ago when man and nature came to be as they are; but neither ‘time’ nor ‘history’ as we understand them is involved in this meaning. I have never been able to discover any Aboriginal word for time as an abstract concept. And the sense of ‘history’ is wholly alien here. We shall not understand The Dreaming fully except as a complex of meanings. A blackfellow may call his totem, or the place from which his spirit came, his Dreaming. He may also explain the existence of a custom, or law of life, as causally due to The Dreaming.


A concept so impalpable and subtle naturally suffers badly by translation into our dry and abstract language. The blacks sense this difficulty. I can recall one intelligent old man who said to me, with a cadence almost as though he had been speaking verse:


White man got no dreaming,

Him go ’nother way.

White man, him go different.

Him got road belong himself.


Although as I have said, Stanner goes on, The Dreaming conjures up the notion of a sacred, heroic time of the indefinitely remote past, such a time is also, in a sense, still part of the present. One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen.


If one analyses the hundreds of tales about The Dreaming, one can see within them three elements. The first concerns the great marvels— how all the fire and water in the world were stolen and recaptured; how men made a mistake over sorcery and now have to die from it; how the hills, rivers, and waterholes were made; how the sun, moon, and stars were set upon their courses; and many other dramas of this kind. The second element tells how certain things were instituted for the first time—how animals and men diverged from a joint stock that was neither one nor the other; how the black-nosed kangaroo got his black nose and the porcupine his quills; how such social divisions as tribes, clans, and language groups were set up; how spirit-children were first placed in the waterholes, the winds, and the leaves of trees. A third element, if I am not mistaken, Stanner writes, allows one to suppose that many of the main institutions of present-day life were already ruling in The Dreaming, e.g. marriage, exogamy, sister-exchange, and initiation, as well as many of the well-known breaches of custom. The men of The Dreaming committed adultery, betrayed and killed each other, were greedy, stole and committed the very wrongs committed by those now alive.


These epic stories of the continent are much, much older than Homer. And are still held today.


Science tells a story of commensurable epic scale.


In the ground-breaking  study – The genomic history of Aboriginal Australian – led by the University of Cambridge,  published in September 2016 in the journal Nature reveals that Papuan and Aboriginal ancestors left Africa around 72,000 years ago and then split from the main group around 58,000 years ago.


They reached the supercontinent of 'Sahul' that originally united Tasmania, Australia and New Guinea around 50,000 years ago. Papuans and Aboriginals then split around 37,000 years ago, long before the continents were finally cut off from each other around 8,000 years ago.


Professor David Lambert, who was also involved with the study, said the point of entry into Australia was still unclear, but the data revealed an expansion of people from Cape York, he said:


"What our data shows is not so much that necessarily there was an entry point into the continent via Cape York, but what it shows us is that there was a divergence of a whole lot of people from Cape York, we think about 30,000 years ago".


When this astounding research came to light last year I wondered why parliament did not adjourn business to enable our nation’s leadership to reflect on its profundity to us as Australians. That this did not happen, and that we do not think to do such things – speaks to this great lacuna in our conception of Australia.


Let me now tell of a second epic story of Australia:


The Epic Voyage of the Endeavour: The establishment of British institutions in Australia from 26 January 1788

Australians should all know, but mostly do not, the epic nature of Captain James Cook’s voyage to the east coast of Australia in 1770. Everyone knows of his role in our history, but the controversies over whether he was the first European to indeed discover the east coast and the moral legacy of colonial annexation that followed his voyage and the claim to possession he made on behalf of the Crown – has diminished the appreciation of one of history’s greatest seafarers.


I of course should not be saying this, given the villainy that I should properly attach to Cook. But I cannot help but revere the epic scale of his courage and captaincy. It was the equivalent of manned space travel to the outer solar system.


He limped into the country of my own forefathers after running aground on coral at the reef now called Endeavour, into the harbour of a place we call Waymburr, what would thereafter be called Cooktown on the banks of the Endeavour River. The place of my birth. That 24 hour long battle to refloat and save the stuck and leaking ship was extraordinary.


After seven weeks repairing the ship at Waymburr, Cook eventually led the Endeavour through an opening in the reef which he sighted from the top of Dyiigarru (Lizard Island), enabling the Endeavour to escape the clutches of the reef.


However, worse calamity faced the Endeavour as it approached the mainland at Cape Direction, where the prospect of that bark shattering on the unforeseen reef was averted when a sudden gust of wind turned the ship off its fatal course.


This is Cook’s astonishing reflection upon these dangers:


"It is but a few days, he wrote, that I rejoiced having got without the Reef, but that joy was nothing when Compared to what I now felt at being safe at an Anchor within it, such is the Vissitudes attending this kind of Service & must always attend an unknown Navigation where one steers wholy in the dark without any manner of guide whatsoever.


… where one steers wholy in the dark without any manner of guide whatsoever …


No epic is pure happiness and light. Epics are about tragedy and heroism, cowardice and courage.


The arrival of the institutions of Britain upon the shoulders of the First Fleet, which became the law of this continent, is the second part of this great story of Australia, commencing with Cook.


I now want to turn to the third part of our story. There are in fact millions of this third variety, they concern:


The Epic Migrations: From Auschwitz, Somalia, Italy, Greece, Vietnam, Beirut and Tiananmen Square and so many more places

I want to just tell one extraordinary story of my acquaintance, a friend whom I met in the course of my constitutional recognition work.


After the communist takeover of Vietnam in 1975, he was 5 years old, everyone who had anything to do with the previous regime were sent to “re-education camps” and he and his family were confined there for 3 years with his mother, brother and maternal grandmother, and life, understandably was very hard.


After 3 years, he and his family were let out with no money and no food. They knew they had to take a perilous journey to the west, for a better life. They took the boat across the South China Sea, a local fishing trawler with 150 people on board. They landed in a Malaysian camp after drifting on the ocean for 3 weeks.   One of the most crowded places on earth, 40,000 people crammed into this small camp.


But an Australian delegation came to the camp and chose his family on the basis that they could, contribute positively to Australia.


They arrived in Brisbane in 1980, when he was 10 years old. He attending English classes and learnt how to adapt to the new culture.


This is a familiar story. But it is also unique.


He works in policy and research in support of Australia’s Constitution. He is a believer in the importance of Australia’s constitutional order, because he understands the importance of stability, that gives rise to stable institutions, accountable governance, transparency, fair elections, and elected leaders that are held accountable. Such structures avoid abuse of power, arbitrary use of force, and political instability of the kind he experienced in his homeland.


He is a supporter of constitutional recognition. He thinks we should all have a voice in the constitutional order, and he says “it seems reasonable and just that the first peoples of this land should be appropriately acknowledged.”


So there we have it,


A Declaration of Australia: Three verses, one song

A Declaration will enable us to thread these three epic themes into the one story of the Australian people.


Galarrwuy Yunpingu, the great Aboriginal leader from North Eastern land, expressed the imperative of recognition for our people in better terms that I could sum them:


What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past had thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.


Let us be a modern version of ourselves.


Thank you.