Moment of Truth
Australia is on the brink of momentous change, but only if we can face up to the past – a Quarterly Essay extract
Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to “see” the profound historical importance of the Uluru Statement pointed to a far deeper problem: the culture of entrenched indifference towards Indigenous Australia. One of the most striking absences from the Turnbull government’s press release was the Makarrata Commission. There was no mention of the proposal for a body to oversee treaty-making and truth-telling about the nation’s history. The silence was deafening, yet unsurprising. If anything makes a Coalition government uncomfortable, it’s facing up to the way the country was conquered. The two most significant acknowledgments by federal governments of historical injustice in the last thirty years – Paul Keating’s Redfern Park Speech (1992) and Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations (2008) – have both come from the Labor side of politics. By contrast, John Howard turned the condemnation of “black armband history” into a political calling card for a generation of conservatives.
Yet the reasons for the Turnbull government’s disregard go beyond the confines of Liberal political philosophy. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu suggests, they reflect a deeper cultural prejudice. “The Australian people know their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own,” he argues, “which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines – and people – now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.”
Mick Dodson agrees, claiming that there’s “something in the Australian psyche that goes back to colonisation and the way in which present-day Australia came by the country and there’s fear of facing up to that truth … we don’t want to confront these wrongs and be called to account for them.” What Dodson calls “the Australian psyche” W.E.H. Stanner referred to as the “Australian conscience,” a state of heart and mind, a moral calculus that was inherently resistant to confronting a profound historical truth: “there was more than an accidental correspondence between the ruin of Aboriginal, and the making of European life in Australia. There was, in fact, a functional concomitance … the destruction of Aboriginal society was not the consequence of European development, but its price.” It’s precisely this recognition – that the material success of Australian society was built upon the dispossession of Indigenous Australia, a history that clearly demands treaty and settlement – that causes so many to avert their eyes.
In 2017, it was not only the government’s response to the Referendum Council that betrayed a deep-seated fear of confronting the past. It was also starkly evident in the public controversy over the inscriptions on colonial statues and the debate over the memorialisation of the frontier wars and the future of Australia Day. Even these disputes are only the surface ripples of a far more prolonged and all-encompassing national project, one that we have yet to see “whole” rather than through its constituent parts – reconciliation and constitutional recognition; the republic; and the recent resurgence of Anzac Day as Australia’s national day. All of these designs for national renewal are intimately connected to the challenge of truth-telling and the acknowledgment of history, yet so far we have failed to see the connections between them. We contemplate recognition. We remain divided over the meaning of Australia Day. We gather around the hearth of Anzac. We discuss the republic. But these debates and their histories circulate in parallel universes. This essay is an attempt to bring them together, to yoke a vast body of historical scholarship that has transformed our understanding of Australian history over the past five decades to the deeper currents of a country on the brink of momentous change.
Within the next decade Australia has the opportunity to achieve a meaningful constitutional settlement with Indigenous Australians, to become a republic, and perhaps in the process, to redefine the way we see ourselves and the way the country is seen by others. If these changes are to have any realistic prospect of success, we need to articulate a more cohesive and unified vision, one that understands the crucial importance of truth-telling, together with a fundamental paradox: that acknowledging the past – or, more specifically, what the poet Judith Wright called the “attitudes that helped us to conquer and settle this country” – will not weigh us down. It will liberate us. This applies as much to Indigenous as it does to other Australians.
In his extraordinary essay “Rom Watangu: The Law of the Land,” published in TheMonthly in July 2016, Galarrwuy Yunupingu recalled how his father, Mungurrawuy, was present “when the massacres occurred in [East Arnhem Land] in the 1920s and 1930s.” He was also “shot by a man licensed to do so.” “These events and what lies behind them are burned into our minds,” he explained. “They are never forgotten. Such things are remembered. Like the scar that marked the exit of the bullet from my father’s body.” The scars – memories of forced removal, murder, warfare, resistance and survival – are etched into the bloodlines of Australia’s historical imagination. In the past, we have dealt with them by repression, silence and denial. But we have yet to understand how we can use them productively. As Marcia Langton wrote in 2003, because of the work of historians and Aboriginal people who have shared their oral histories over the last decades, we now have “a much more robust idea of the past from which Australians need not shrink in denial, but which, if wrestled with honestly, lays the foundations for a new story of the nation.” This “new story” is one that we have barely begun to glimpse. Ever so tentatively, we are coming to accept the relationship between the acknowledgment of history and the re-founding of the nation on more honest, just and legitimate grounds.
The cultures and histories of Indigenous Australia that were believed to be destined for extinction at the time of Federation in 1901 have not merely resurfaced, they have moved from the periphery of Australia’s national imagination to its centre, where they rightly belong. This gradual transformation – the rise of the very presence that had allegedly been vanquished – represents the most significant shift in Australia’s historical consciousness since European settlement began. And its expression is central to the new constitutional settlement we are striving to accomplish. Many writers before me – historians, novelists, lawyers, artists, journalists, theologians, politicians, anthropologists, political scientists and countless more – have grappled with the complex relationship between history, constitutional justice and national legitimacy. This is a collaborative project. And we have to take the long view.
Since the 1970s, Australia has been struggling with the challenge of founding what Noel Pearson has eloquently called a “more complete Commonwealth.” No longer able to rely on the old narratives that sustained what was seen as an isolated, essentially British society in the South Pacific, and confronting a rising tide of Indigenous protest and revisionist history which exposed the lie of peaceful British settlement, the country has witnessed an ongoing crisis of faith in its legitimacy. At the heart of this crisis is a dispute about the way the country was conquered and settled – the long history of Australia’s frontier. The very first Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s “In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right” (2001), interpreted the bitter debate over the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Bringing Them Home report (1997) as a symptom of a much longer-lasting and “larger culture war – over the meaning of Aboriginal dispossession.”
Sixteen years later, we are still trying to understand the meaning of this history and its significance for the nation’s future. The question of whether Australia Day should be moved – debated in one form or another since the commemoration of Governor Arthur Phillip’s arrival at Sydney Cove began in earnest in the nineteenth century – is merely the latest example. But it is also a sign of a slowly dawning realisation: the way we acknowledge our history has the power to make or unmake the nation. If we really intend to found a more complete Commonwealth, are we prepared to change the way we represent the nation’s past and include the perspective of Indigenous Australians? Are we willing to honour the democratic process and Indigenous consensus that underwrites the Uluru Statement? And can we find the political will to transcend the bitter divisions that have plagued public discussion of the country’s history for so long? A bird’s-eye view of Australia’s culture in 2018 suggests that we remain deeply divided over the way the country was founded.
Our government dismisses the Uluru Statement from the Heart, refusing to embrace a truth-telling commission. Our legal and political system grapples with questions of native title and the ongoing legacies of the frontier in remote communities. Our schools, universities and media debate the terminology we should use to describe the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and how much emphasis we should place on invasion and dispossession, while on Australia Day this year tens of thousands cried “change the date,” as they marched in cities and towns around the country. Our journalists, historians, poets, playwrights, novelists, artists, composers, scriptwriters, filmmakers, dancers and curators produce work that deals with the troubling inheritance of the frontier. Our citizens erect memorials to those killed in massacres and violent encounters. Our clergy and community leaders speak of the need for reconciliation and recognition. More than any other history, the history of the frontier continues to unsettle and trouble us – we rake over the embers, endlessly searching for redemption.
Mark McKenna is a professor of history at the University of Sydney. His books include An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.
Malcolm Turnbull’s failure to “see” the profound historical importance of the Uluru Statement pointed to a far deeper problem: the culture of entrenched indifference towards Indigenous Australia. One of the most striking absences from the Turnbull government’s press release was the Makarrata Commission. There was no mention of the proposal for a body to oversee treaty-making and truth-telling about the nation’s history. The silence was deafening, yet unsurprising. If anything makes a Coalition government uncomfortable, it’s facing up to the way the country was conquered. The two most significant acknowledgments by federal governments of historical injustice in the last thirty years – Paul Keating’s Redfern Park Speech (1992) and Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations (2008) – have both come from the Labor side of politics. By contrast, John Howard turned the condemnation of “...
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