LONG BEFORE 1873, when William Christie Gosse ‘discovered’ the six-hundred-million-year-old sandstone monolith at the centre of Australia and called it Ayers – for the about-to-be-deposed South Australian Colonial Secretary – Uluru has had symbolic power that outstrips even its imposing physical dimensions. For the Anangu people, custodians for millennia of the deeply spiritual Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta, life is based on a foundation of law, religion and morals known as tjukurpa, which encompasses the creation period, the present and the future.
Those raised in a Western tradition confront an intellectual challenge when seeking to engage with this ancient way of making sense of the world, where the rocks, caves, boulders, trees and waterholes are evidence of creation by ancestral beings. But as the unsolicited testimonies of countless tourists attest, they feel the power.
For a century after Gosse’s ‘discovery’, the Anangu continued to live on their ancestral lands and survived the archetypical sweep of Australian settlement and land management policies – reserves, missions, pastoral leases, national parks. In 1971, a group of Elders met with officials at the Office of Aboriginal Affairs at Ernabella to complain about the impact of pastoralism, mining, tourism and the desecration of sacred sites, and a characteristically complicated, frustrating and protracted legal and political process began. Fourteen years later, the rights to the land of the traditional owners were eventually returned. On 26 October 1985, Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen handed over the title deeds to the Elders, who then signed a ninety-nine-year lease to create a national park under joint management with an Anangu-majority board.
Every year since the ‘handover’, its anniversary has been celebrated and appraised for what still needs to be done to ensure that those who live there receive the benefits that are their due. Uluru is one of Australia’s most iconic sites, the defining image for tourism and trade, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for its cultural value, but with unfinished business.
Uluru was the obvious location – ‘the spiritual heart of the nation’ – for the 2017 First Nations National Constitutional Convention attended by more than two hundred and fifty First Nations representatives. At the end of the three-day convention, on 26 May 2017, the Uluru Statement from the Heart proposed a reform agenda that grew out of dialogues around the country – where Indigenous people considered how recognition could make a real difference – and was endorsed with a standing ovation and referred to the government-appointed Referendum Council.
Five months later, on the thirty-second anniversary of the Uluru handover, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the council’s recommendations for constitutional changes that included a Voice to Parliament, saying: ‘The government does not believe that such an addition to our national representative institutions is either desirable or capable of winning acceptance in a referendum.’
On the contrary, the evidence from public opinion polls pointed to widespread support for the proposals: regardless of state, age, gender, socio-economic status and identity 71.1 per cent of people, in every state and territory, supported a general statement in the constitution, 60.7 per cent supported the Voice to Parliament, and 58.4 per cent supported some sort of formal agreement between states and First Nations
In 1999, Turnbull accused his predecessor John Howard of breaking the nation’s heart by effectively blocking the move to become a republic (which polls showed had widespread popular support) and now the same accusation was thrown back at him by those who had diligently worked to solve an even more intractable flaw at the moral core of the nation. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was the latest in a long line of entreaties from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dismissed out of hand by those with political power.
Australians are said to be a practical people uncomfortable with symbolism, but symbols grounded in reality have extraordinary power that cannot be avoided. In this case the symbolism could not have been clearer: not only was the government rejecting, without meaningful consultation, the recommendations of a body it had appointed, but rejecting them on the anniversary of the day when the symbolic heart of the nation had been returned to its traditional owners.
If 26 October was a deliberate choice for this announcement, it was brutally insensitive; if it was a coincidence it spoke to ignorance that disqualifies national leadership.
GOVERNMENT MANAGEMENT OF Indigenous affairs has oscillated on the false binary of symbolic and practical responses since first settlement. Most politicians have followed their worst imaginings of public opinion, rather than provided leadership. The history of Indigenous policy-making is marked more by failure than success. Professor Tim Rowse has done a great service to the nation by documenting this sad, sometimes well-meaning, often misguided and racist history in Indigenous and Other Australians Since 1901 (UNSW Press, 2017). It is a sobering but important read as it is important to know the history, even as it is repeated. Among the countless pieces of legislation and responses is a consistent pattern: that First Australians have never been treated as truly equal citizens, and the repeated call for greater self-determination has been ignored at huge economic and human cost.
As a result, the lived legacy for many First Nations people is marked by trauma and rage. As a friend of mine said: ‘Remember how frustrated you feel on your worst day, and imagine living like that all the time, with no money, fearful of authority, knowing you are disrespected and suspected and not considered an equal citizen.’ Not surprisingly, this translates into high rates of suicide, incarceration, violence and abuse for Indigenous Australians that routinely, but ineffectively, attract voyeuristic attention, but little meaningful action – what the Uluru statement described as the ‘torment of powerlessness’.
Even the government’s rejection of the Referendum Council’s recommendations acknowledged this: ‘People who ask for a voice feel voiceless and feel like they are not being heard.’ The solution proposed in the next paragraph of the media release – more Indigenous members of parliament – wilfully missed the point.
There are nonetheless successes that can be attributed to policy interventions the past fifty years: despite the limits of the native title process, the Indigenous Estate has grown to include almost half the land mass of Australia; fifty-two years after Charles Perkins was the first male Aboriginal student to complete a degree, more than thirty thousand have graduated; fifteen thousand Indigenous students are enrolled in Australian universities each year, and hundreds have now completed doctoral degrees and are making important contributions; Indigenous artists, writers, singers, actors and filmmakers are now the most consistent and distinctive cultural creators. The treaty generation is well-educated, articulate and determined – we ignore them, and their less fortunate cousins, at our peril.
Unlike all the countries Australia compares itself with, we have not reached an enduring settlement with our First Peoples that recognises and institutionalises their unique perspective and experience. This must be addressed as a matter of national urgency.
THIS EDITION OF Griffith Review was conceived in the wake of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Those who had been paying attention understood the importance of that moment. Not only was it the most extensive form of political consultation ever undertaken in Australia, for the first time it drew together competing interests and perspectives in the often-fraught world of Indigenous politics. The rigour of the dialogues was quite different to the usual tick-the-box consultation. Those who gave up their time to attend, travelling to the remote corners of the country to talk with and listen to the twelve hundred participants in the dialogues, did so in good faith. This time it will be different, they promised.
Over the past fifteen years of editing Griffith Review I have resisted producing an edition with an Indigenous theme, preferring to include Indigenous writers and topics in every volume as essential voices of the nation. But following Uluru I thought that something had shifted, that the time was right to publish an edition that focused solely on Indigenous issues, written predominantly by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Dr Sandra Phillips, then the chair of First Nations Australia Writers Network and an academic at QUT, was available to co-edit; and Professor Peter Coaldrake, the then Vice-Chancellor of QUT, enthusiastically supported the partnership.
As we began planning we gave the edition a working title, Renewed Promise. I was aware that ‘promise’ was a much overused, and frequently abused, word in relation to Indigenous affairs, but this felt different. We planned to explore how the Uluru Statement might be realised, how the Voice to Parliament, Makarrata, truth-telling and treaty might be operationalised, lessons of the past addressed and a new future forged. A remarkable group of writers agreed to contribute.
The 26 October announcement changed that. The reaction was one of shock and heartbreak: the promise had not been renewed, but broken – again. Over the following months some of those who had agreed to write struggled to find their voice and a way of saying something that could cut through to maintain hope that historic wrongs might be righted. Rather than looking forward we were back in the same territory that has characterised black-white relations in this country for centuries.
We could no longer call the edition Renewed Promise and were delighted when Melissa Lucashenko suggested a new title: First Things First.
In late 2017, I commissioned Michael Gordon, the highly regarded Fairfax journalist, to write about the political response to Uluru, to provide insight into what happened and why – how politics is conducted behind closed doors. Michael was unique, a highly respected political reporter who understood the urgency of meaningful Indigenous recognition. In January he asked for an extension – he had gathered so much material he needed more time to write. I happily agreed, confident that Michael’s meticulous reporting would help make sense of an intractable political blind spot. Sadly, he died before he completed his report. His loss is deeply felt, and this edition honours the spirit of his respectful reporting and determination to help make this country all it can be.
19 March 2018
Note: this article was updated on 10 May 2018 to reflect that Charles Perkins was the first male Aboriginal student to complete a degree. The first Aboriginal person to graduate from an Australian university was Margaret Valadian, from South Brisbane, who graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Queensland a short time before Charles Perkins graduated from the University of Sydney.