From the 1970s until the 1990s—when what the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’ came to a belated end, and the assimilation era gave way to self-determination under influential public servant ‘Nugget’ Coombs—the left’s support for Aboriginal causes appeared as natural as the right’s scepticism. But the election of the Howard government in 1996 coincided with generational change in Indigenous leadership, most significantly bringing Cape York’s Noel Pearson to the fore. Since then an intellectual shift has taken place, and the assumption that the left owns Indigenous policy in Australia has been challenged.
Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris’s collection, The Forgotten People: Liberal and Conservative Approaches to Recognising Indigenous Peoples, is a logical product of this shift. But its ambitions are greater than merely providing a catalogue of varying approaches to Indigenous issues. The editors hope to build intellectual and political support for their carefully negotiated model of Indigenous constitutional recognition. Though the book offers some useful insights, it also highlights a lack of will on the part of some conservatives to truly confront Australia’s past and present failings in Aboriginal affairs.
In the early 1990s Noel Pearson had been somewhat of a left-wing firebrand, but—as he recounts in the foreword to The Forgotten People—he gradually came to appreciate the importance of reaching out to conservatives in his campaign for meaningful reform. Pearson began to stress responsibilities over rights—language that pleased conservatives—while John Howard spoke of practical, as opposed to symbolic, reconciliation.
The current debate over constitutional recognition fuses the symbolic and the practical, which accounts for the variety of positions being taken from across the political spectrum. There is general consensus on the need to remove the outdated race-based provisions of the Constitution, but considerable disagreement about what might replace them. Constitutional conservatives are concerned about the unintended consequences of inserting symbolic statements into what is essentially a rulebook, ‘a practical and pragmatic charter of government.’ They also have deep reservations about Aboriginal demands for constitutional protection from discrimination, which they see as a ‘one-clause bill of rights’ that would strip power from the parliament and hand it to unelected judges.
These disagreements bring us to the grand compact the book seeks to promote. Concerned that a lack of common ground was leading towards a failed referendum, constitutional conservatives Greg Craven, Damien Freeman and Julian Leeser sat down with Noel Pearson and his adviser Shireen Morris in the hope of reaching a compromise that would both uphold the Constitution and produce substantive, as opposed to merely symbolic, change.
The result is, on the one hand, Freeman and Leeser’s proposal for a Declaration of Recognition separate from the Constitution, which was launched and endorsed by Pearson in April last year. On the other, Pearson has proposed that, in preference to a non-discrimination clause, the Constitution could be amended ‘to guarantee the indigenous voice in indigenous affairs’, in the form of an Indigenous advisory body. Though Freeman readily admits that ‘we butted heads with Noel and Shireen on this point’, he and Leeser have endorsed their proposal.
Freeman and Leeser are members of the Samuel Griffith Society, an organisation of constitutional conservatives founded by former Treasury Secretary and National Party Senator John Stone in 1992. Its early interventions in Indigenous affairs were characterised by furious opposition to white Australia’s most significant act of inclusion and recognition: the High Court’s rejection of the legal fiction of terra nullius in its Mabo judgment. Stone neatly captured the Society’s view of Mabo when he dismissed it as ‘a fit of self-indulgent personal remorse [which] overturned two centuries of settled property law.’1
But the Samuel Griffith Society’s approach to Indigenous issues has evolved since Stone’s retirement in 2009. Greg Craven, himself a co-founder of the Society, argues in The Forgotten People that far from being a ‘small group of shadowy reactionary beings, […] the so-called “Con Cons” are merely the pointy, frigid tip of an iceberg of national sentiment’. If this is true it is significant that the next generation of constitutional conservatives have moved on from belligerent opposition to Aboriginal land rights and are ready to discuss Indigenous issues with sensitivity and respect.
Constructive and positive as these discussions appear to have been, The Forgotten People is not without its sour notes. In an otherwise thoughtful piece, Chris Kenny cannot resist the opportunity to denigrate his ideological adversaries. The left’s ‘hectoring approach, all too often, is the most divisive of all’, he says, while Andrew Bolt’s laughable ‘I am an indigenous Australian’2 argument is ‘powerful and inclusive’. Kenny also invokes Geoffrey Blainey’s 1990s culture war cri de coeur ‘the black-armband view of Australian history’ to describe the views of those who would have us speak honestly about our often violent history.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Mackerras provides ample cause for scepticism about conservative goodwill when he concludes his begrudging chapter with the expectation that an act of recognition can finally put all this sorry business to bed. ‘I hope the Aboriginal people will accept’, he writes, ‘that we have said “sorry” three times (in 1967, 2008 and 2017), and that that will be enough.’ He was echoed in June by an editorial in the Australian, in which recognition was viewed as ‘an end point, a settlement of the debate about governance structures. To suggest it might be just another milepost on the way to resolving the next grievance will further undermine its chances.’3
These tone-deaf contributions go to the heart of the right’s wider difficulties with Indigenous affairs. For all of the supposed goodwill of conservatives, there is a continued attempt to deny—or, at best, ‘move on’ from—uncomfortable historical truths. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Daily Telegraph’s piece of tabloid race-baiting in March: a front-page outcry about universities using the term ‘invasion’ instead of ‘discovery’ or ‘settlement’ to describe first contact.4
A surprising exception in this regard is the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton. Usually known for his ignorance on matters of sexual diversity, Shelton proves himself able to grapple with difficult historical questions, and writes jarringly about the frontier violence that occurred in and around his hometown of Toowoomba. Shelton is prepared to face the truth head-on, rather than speak in vague platitudes about past injustices or, in John Howard’s unfortunate phrasing, ‘blemishes’. As Paul Keating said in his famous Redfern address, ‘there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth.’ More of this sort of serious introspection from all Australians would be most welcome.
But the limits of conservative goodwill towards Indigenous Australians were on full display during the election campaign, when the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples’ Redfern Statement reiterated longstanding Indigenous desire for a treaty. Bill Shorten gave tentative, in-principle support to the idea, and was met with immediate opprobrium from conservatives. Malcolm Turnbull accused him of putting the constitutional recognition process at risk. The Australian’s Paul Kelly agreed, rejecting a treaty as a radical step, ‘long anathema to majority Australian opinion.’5 John Anderson, the former leader of the National Party who co-authored a review of the recognition process in 2014, was also dismissive. For Indigenous people, the message is loud and clear: ask for too much and you’ll get nothing at all.
Understandably, the emphasis in The Forgotten People is on the positive, on ways to overcome divisions and look to a better future for Indigenous Australians. But this admirable objective leaves the reader with the feeling that something is missing: a serious reckoning with the ongoing prejudice against Indigenous Australians shown—not exclusively, but predominantly—by elements of the political right.
Andrew Bolt continues to deny the existence of the stolen generations, and senior Liberals such as Peter Dutton and Sophie Mirabella refused to sit through Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008. Keith Windschuttle built a second career on his systematic denial of frontier violence and massacres of Aboriginal people. Gary Johns—once a Labor minister but now further to the right than most Liberals—holds Aboriginal culture in contempt, and is now leading a campaign against recognition under the banner ‘Recognise What?’ All are given privileged media platforms to spread their prejudice far and wide.6
In a recent essay, Noel Pearson seemed taken aback by the bile that filled the online comments section of an article he had written for the Australian. It was ‘as if a great red sludge had erupted from an unfortunate antipodean orifice, spewing vile cowardice and obscurantism’.7 But this is the standard daily output of the unabashed bigots that form a significant part of the readership of right-wing publications, websites and blogs. It simmers below the surface of political debate, encouraged by the likes of Bolt, Windschuttle and Johns.
Perhaps the contributors to The Forgotten People feel that such contemptible views deserve no amplification, which is a reasonable position to take. But to ignore them completely is to embrace a new form of denial, in which all Australians have nothing but goodwill for Indigenous people, in which blatantly racist policies were well intentioned if a little misguided, and, for all of the problems they face, Aborigines still live in the best country in the world, right?
- John Stone, ‘Strains of the Third World,’ Australian Financial Review, 5 August 1993.
- Andrew Bolt, ‘I am, you are, we are Australian,’ Herald Sun, 29 January 2014.
- ‘Treaty talk can only derail constitutional recognition,’ Australian, 16 June 2016.
- ‘WHITEWASH: UNSW rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia,’ Daily Telegraph, 30 March 2016.
- Paul Kelly, ‘Course set for referendum failure,’ Australian, 15 June 2016.
- For further evidence of conservative unwillingness to take Indigenous voices seriously, see Jeremy Sammut, ‘Not So Black and White: Stan Grant’s Nostalgia for Injustice,’ Quadrant, June 2016, pp. 20–28, where in seven thousand remarkably condescending words a white man explains to a black man why he is wrong about racism in Australia.
- Noel Pearson, ‘Mind our language,’ Monthly, April 2016, pp. 11–13.