Anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner spoke in his famous 1968 Boyer lecture ‘After the Dreaming’ about the ‘cult of forgetfulness’ that pervaded the Australian national psyche.
It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
Today that same phenomenon of a cult of national amnesia persists, undermining any attempts to correct the historical record or conduct intelligent, rational public debate on questions of ‘race’ generally and Aboriginal issues in particular.
This apparent inability of most Australians to come to terms with their own history persists to this very day. As a university teacher and professor of history, I have for the past twenty years encountered and taught thousands of Australian students, and I remain appalled at how ignorant and disinterested in Australian history the vast majority of them are. It has been my observation that more than 90% of my students fresh out of high school have learned little or nothing about it.
Students, like those who turn up in my classes, go on to become adults who are sublimely ignorant of even the most basic ideas and issues of their history. This is a problem when it comes to engaging students on Indigenous concerns if they have little or no knowledge of even basic facts of Australian history.
The problem of forgetfulness as identified by Stanner in 1968 is still out there, and since then a whole generation of Anglo-Australians has grown to maturity blissfully ignorant of the real problems confronting Aboriginal people. Further, the national ‘forgetfulness’ that Stanner observed has been compounded by torrents of misinformation, peddled initially by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, then followed by decades of history and culture wars. This has poisoned the waters of any attempt at reasonable and rational debate around Aboriginal issues.
And so we come to the question of a national referendum on the Voice to Parliament. Setting aside the serious questions around the legitimacy and/or effectiveness of the Voice proposal, a more important question perhaps should be:
Are the majority of Australians sufficiently cognisant of Australian history to enable them to make an informed decision on how they should vote in the referendum?
I suggest the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. And if that is the case, then we are proceeding with a referendum in which most Australian voters haven’t the slightest clue as to what the real issues are.
Which could well mean that the 2023 referendum will turn out the same as the 1967 referendum which resulted in a major ‘YES’ vote—but not because many Australians at the time had any idea of the real concerns of Australian history that underpinned why they were voting. Rather, it was a ‘feel good vote’: an exercise that made white voters feel good about themselves.
There was also the added bonus of knowing they would not have to think about the uncomfortable issues around ‘Aborigines’ again for a long time—at least, not until the next nuisance of a referendum. As those who voted in 1967 discovered, they didn’t have to vote again for those ‘damned Abos’ for almost another sixty years.
And so today we are again faced with a situation whereby Australians are to vote in a referendum about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people without having anything other than a superficial knowledge of the topic. Further, what little they do know has likely been shaped by tabloid newspapers and television stations owned by Rupert Murdoch—notorious in the United States for his misinformation and propaganda Fox News cable network—or influenced by the sham ‘debates’ of the history and culture wars of the past few decades.
And if by chance any voters are knowledgeable enough to arrive at what they may consider an informed decision, then chances are they will vote in support of any obscurely defined proposition that they are told by selected Aboriginal ‘leaders’ to be a good thing. I believe that a miserably informed electorate is not a good thing for democracy, let alone Aboriginal people.
The 1967 referendum was hailed by white Australia as a great step forward for Aboriginal people, but in reality it meant little meaningful change.
A good measure of freedom and equity in any country that claims Western, democratic ideals and values is the incarceration rates of the most disadvantaged in society. By that measure alone, Australia’s record is an appalling one, even after at least two significant royal commissions related to Aboriginal incarceration. The final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, signed on 15 April 1991, made 339 recommendations—most of which are today ignored by legal authorities and institutions, including courts, prison officers and police. That report also found that the fundamental reason why so many Aboriginal people were imprisoned throughout Australia was the systemic white racism entrenched deeply throughout all levels of the criminal justice system.
It is not, therefore, unreasonable to conclude that if the white racism detected at all social and class levels of the justice system is representative of wider society, then not only are Australians unqualified to vote in any referendum on Aboriginal issues, but also, that Stanner’s Great Australian Silence lives on to this very day.
And so, it might be said, that Great Australian Silence is unlikely to be pierced by any Aboriginal Voice in the foreseeable future, regardless of the results of any meaningless referendum.
Thus, today the state of the nation called Australia is, in the words of the song, ‘same as it ever was’.
Gary Foley is a Gumbainggir activist, actor, historian, curator and academic. He has been at the centre of major political activities since the 1971 Springbok tour demonstrations. Gary is a professor in the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Academic Unit at Victoria University.
Image: Tony Albert (Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku Yalanji peoples), You Wreck Me #46, 2020, printed photographs and vintage Captain Cook ephemera on archival paper, 28 × 38 cm, photographed by Rhett Hammerton, courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf.