The view from Billinudgel

Drawing a line in the sand: Garma festival 2019
Indigenous leaders have made it clear that the Uluru statement is not negotiable

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

As part of the great Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures earlier this month, two of the most important and revered leaders of Indigenous Australia made it clear that the Uluru Statement from the Heart is not negotiable.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Noel Pearson told the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, that they would not accept the Morrison government’s ill-informed and peremptory vetoing of the call for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament.

The father of reconciliation, Patrick Dodson, is on board as a third musketeer, and one of the fiercest warriors in the battle, Marcia Langton, is with them too. The four have not always seen eye to eye, but on this they are united – they have had enough of excuses and paternalism, of being fobbed off with whitefella compromises to blackfella demands.

Yunupingu’s threat to throw the Constitution into the sea is obviously a metaphor, but from the leader of the Yolngu saltwater people it is a powerful one. And not only is support for the demands of the Uluru statement gaining traction – the opponents are being rebutted from all sides. Even Barnaby Joyce has backed down from the untrue assertion that a voice would be a third chamber of parliament.

There are recalcitrants, of course, including the professionally perverse Andrew Bolt and the hired guns of the secretly funded Institute of Public Affairs. But as Pearson has acerbically pointed out, their criticisms hardly stack up against the views of High Court judges Murray Gleeson and Robert French.

However, to discern the truth we do not have to go to the legal supremos, eminent and convincing as they undoubtedly are. Those involved with the Uluru statement included lawyers, well-versed in both traditional and Western precedents, who knew precisely what they were saying.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison would no doubt deny it, but he is, at heart, an assimilationist. The word has gone out of fashion, but the basic idea remains – Indigenous Australians were colonised by a more advanced culture and should therefore obey the dictates of their conquerors. Winner takes all.

This is not only morally repugnant, but bad history. Undoubtedly the European invaders had the firepower, and they used it ruthlessly. But they did not win and never have won the battle of ideas.

As Bruce Pascoe has explained in his seminal work Dark Emu (incidentally a bestseller at the wonderful Byron Writers Festival last week) Australia’s First Nations people were not primitive nomads wandering the landscape in the hope of bare survival. They were agriculturists who shaped and managed their environment with skill and sophistication.

There was conflict, certainly – but it did not involve dispossession, or, crucially, slavery or servitude. It was resolved through Makarrata – reconciliation, a renewal of friendship under the law. They developed a workable political culture millennia before the West, and there is much we can still learn from it.

The idea that Indigenous Australians should bow to the superior wisdom of Scott Morrison and Andrew Bolt is not only deeply offensive – it is fundamentally stupid. When the true history of the country is written, the Uluru Statement from the Heart will take its place not in competition with the Constitution, but in partnership with it. And we will all pay due reverence to both.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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