July 2023


The voice and our inauthentic heart

By Richard Flanagan
Coloured illustration from antiquity of cockatoo standing on grass

Detail from On The Art of Hunting With Birds. Source: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Racism, the Murdoch media and what success or defeat for the voice to parliament means for the stories we tell

In the recesses of the Vatican Library, one of the oldest libraries in the world, there was recently discovered a 13th century illuminated manuscript entitled On The Art of Hunting With Birds, a detailed study of falconry and ornithology written by his Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. In it, the emperor recorded his own observations after the manner of Aristotle. And so, to see if birds use their sense of smell to hunt, the emperor had vultures hooded, only to discover they didn’t seem to.

The book is illustrated with brilliant, detailed pictures of birds. Many marvellous creatures flock and fly over its vellum pages and wander the margins next to its elegant Carolingian script, one of which is for me the most marvellous of all: a sulphur-crested cockatoo.

The cocky looks a little worse for wear, a bit battered in that cocky way, but is unmistakeably and defiantly still manifesting or exuding a quintessential cocky nonchalance as she finds herself in four separate illustrations a very long way from home adorning beautifully wrought Latin descriptions. I say “she” advisedly, because cocky hens have red-brownish eyes and there remain flecks of red paint in the eyes of the emperor’s cocky.

The cocky rather resonated with me as I had a cocky for many years called Curly who also exuded character, with whom I often chatted. Curly was by nature possessive and jealous, but was a poor talker. Curly only ever learnt to say “Get fucked!”, which was an endearing comfort whenever journalists called. But I digress.

One description identifies Frederick’s cocky as a gift from an Egyptian sultan. The emperor’s cockatoo must have been traded from either what today we call Papua New Guinea, or Australia. We now know what Aboriginal people have always known: that far from being isolated from the world, Aboriginal people were connected by trade to others, the best known example being the trade between Makassan fishermen and the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land. Makassar – today part of Sulawesi in Indonesia – emerged as a major trading hub for Arab and Chinese traders several hundred years ago, and the trade with the Yolngu goes back at least this far. The exchange between the Yolngu and Makassans went beyond trade. Many Makassan loan words exist in the Yolngu language, and Islamic elements are acknowledged in the Yolngu dreaming; in one Yolngu women’s dance the dancers face towards Mecca. And Yolngu people will tell you how they long had families in Makassar.

All this raises an intriguing possibility that I hope to explore later this year when, under the auspices of the Yothu-Yindi Foundation, I will be writing with Yolngu schoolchildren a children’s book about a 13th century Yolngu child who steals away on a Makassan ship with her pet cockatoo and through a series of adventures accidentally discovers Europe, where, in Rome, her cockatoo is stolen for the emperor’s bestiary. More adventures entail: the child is reunited with the cockatoo and together they return to north-east Arnhem Land, where she regales family and friends around a beach campfire about how she discovered Europe, but it’s not much of a place, dirty, unequal, unjust, and full of thieves.

Some years ago I was sent an extraordinary essay by a then 18-year-old Yolngu woman called Siena Stubbs. In her essay, Siena wrote of how:

When Yolngu sing, we sing in a tense that doesn’t exist in English. To explore this tense, let’s take an activity, say a young boy walking along the beach. Within the songlines, this boy was walking along the beach, is walking along the beach and will walk along the beach, simultaneously. As a non-Yolngu person, it might be hard to understand this but it might make sense when you hear the songlines.

This is how we, as young people learn … Sitting on the beach, with our elders, listening, learning. The men commence the songline, the translation reading:

Gathering like clouds, sitting in a long line …
as the breeze caresses the cheeks of the original people.
Sitting down in a long row …
they watch the tide going in and out …
Sitting down in long lines …
Picturing the fishtrap called Wulthu Yambirrpa
Gurruwurungu (Bunjumbirr).

The songmen are recalling … what is happening now. This has always happened, is happening, and will happen in the future. Yolngu people have always sat/are sitting/will always sit under the shaded resting place named Bunjumbirr at this place and were thinking/think/will think about the fish that they will catch later in the day.

… The past is in the present is in the future. Our ancestors were here, are here and will be here, waiting for the tide to go out so the fish can be caught. Yambirrpa has always provided fish for Yolngu people and it will continue to.

… This structure has helped sustain both Yolngu life and the balance of the natural world for thousands of years. This is how Yolngu live. It is in the songs.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said no man ever steps in the same river twice for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. This beautiful axiom, so important in European thought, is often taken to mean that time itself is that river, that time divides us from ourselves, from our past, and from our future.

The Yolngu fourth tense implies something profoundly different: that we exist in a relationship with the larger world that is outside time yet also the guarantee that time continues; that by building the fish traps today we ensure they continue being built both in the past and in the future. It places us in a position of humility towards the land and sea, and towards those who come before and after us. The act is eternal and so are we for as long as we continue to build the fish traps, for as long as we continue to sing the land and sea in to being, for as long as we honour the material world that gives us our life.

For many years until his death earlier this year, the Gumatj clan of the Yolngu was led by the remarkable Yunupingu. In 2007, Yunupingu began to work towards constitutional recognition of Aboriginal people. His thinking in this was not driven by Enlightenment ideas of representation, but was rather the answer he found in the songlines, in the fourth tense. To reconcile his people to the modern world that otherwise threatened everything they held sacred and fundamental to life, constitutional recognition was to be a way of ensuring the songlines continued.

Yunupingu met with Noel Pearson, who with Marcia Langton then began to gather support. The idea was buffeted on the stormy rocks of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. By 2013, with Tony Abbott now prime minister, common ground was sought with the right in order to secure the bipartisan support that was then felt necessary to win a referendum. That led in 2014 to the idea of a constitutionally guaranteed voice to parliament. According to Shireen Morris, who worked with Pearson at the Cape York Institute at the time, the voice was conceived by conservatives playing to the idea of what Noel Pearson fondly called the “the radical centre” of Australian politics. The voice was above all, as Liberal MP Julian Leeser argued in 2016, a conservative measure of the type that “Griffith, Barton and their colleagues might have drafted”.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from around Australia, after extensive dialogues, agreed the proposal, at once modest but concrete, was the one best calculated to begin to end what they described as “the torment of their powerlessness”, to allow them some power over their own lives and to bring some justice. In 2017 these ideas found expression in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It turned out that there was no radical centre. Rather, there was a re-energised and increasingly powerful racist right that dominated both the Liberal and National parties. Malcolm Turnbull, in one of the most perfidious moments of his prime ministership, almost immediately caved to it, arguing, with deliberate lawyerly phrasing, that the voice would be perceived as a third house of parliament. It was nonsense, but with those weasel words, the proposal was abandoned by his government. Designed above all to win Liberal support, the voice was in this sense to prove an ongoing failure.

Then, with the election of the Albanese government last year, the voice returned. We find ourselves presented with a modest, conservative measure. We can find ready excuses for ignoring it. It is easy to accede to the racism that has so poisonously deformed us for so long by pointing to those Indigenous voices raised – with their own reasoning – against it.

But the majority of Indigenous leaders are making the case for constitutional recognition that they have created and which they lead. They are arguing for justice. They are arguing for a lessening of bureaucracy and the corruptions that afflict Indigenous lives. They are arguing for Aboriginal people to have some power over their own affairs. Those arguments, practical and concrete, are why 80 per cent of Indigenous people support the voice.

But I want to make an argument here – a far lesser argument, but I hope a not meaningless one – as a non-Indigenous Australian writer, as to why the voice matters also to non-Indigenous Australians and, I believe, Australian writing. We will be a while getting to the nub of my argument, but I promise you that we will.

It is often said that symbols don’t matter in politics. Sometimes, though, they are the only thing that matters. Not all stories are about symbols, but all symbols are stories.

We need look no further than the example of Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision not to flee Kyiv in the fateful early days of the Russian invasion when all seemed lost.

Contrast this with what we might imagine to be an Australian leaders’ response were Tonga to invade Australia tomorrow morning: the government decamping to Auckland by mid-afternoon with an ever-credulous Canberra press gallery in tow, repeating some mantra or other of a pragmatic but necessary choice. The nation would be Tongan by evening.

Zelensky, who came not out of politics but storytelling, understood what career politicians do not: the power of symbols and story. Over the next 15 months, not only Ukraine and Russia but world history has bent around that extraordinary moment one man decided to become a symbol. It was a miracle of courage, and so too can be the voice.

If the voice is, in one sense, a piece of historical jetsam from the dark era of Tony Abbott that seems now oddly out of its time, its power as a symbol of a different Australia has rapidly grown to dwarf the humility of a practical measure. That is why the fate of the voice assumes a significance and power far, far greater than the reform proposed. For Aboriginal people, in extending what Yunupingu called an invitation, have compelled us to face up to the great questions at the heart of all our futures. Who are we? Where are we? Why are we?

And all these questions returned to the nation in their confronting reality this year in the story of a prominent Black man who, some hours before our new king was crowned, dared to answer honestly when asked what that symbol of the monarchy meant to his people. Like Meursault in Camus’ novel The Outsider, Stan Grant’s only crime was to speak truthfully in reply.

We must confront this most terrible truth: in Australia there is racism and there is racism, and then there is the racism experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is of a completely different order, which is far more extreme, which is so pervasive as to often be invisible to non-Indigenous Australians, and which we do not assuage no matter how many welcomes to Country we politely observe. Spend some real time with Aboriginal people and you’ll see how they are still made to live in another country, and it is frequently a cruel, pitiless and brutally destructive world.

If we think that racism is past, or that it is lessening, witness the growing racist tsunami mounting against Aboriginal people as we approach the voice referendum and the targeted attacks, as precise as a musket shot, as lethal as poisoned flour, that have been made in recent weeks.

What followed the coronation broadcast would need a writer of Camus’ power to do it justice. I can only point to it and name it for what it is.

The Murdoch media.

What we are now witnessing being played out in Australia by the Murdoch media is the same dynamic that played out in the United States in 2021. We know from the Dominion voting machine case that the Murdoch media, from Rupert Murdoch down, knowingly promoted what it knew to be Donald Trump’s lie about voter fraud, contributing to the murderous attack and invasion of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, by a pro-Trump mob that led to nine deaths, and inflicting immeasurable and ongoing damage to US democracy in the process.

The Murdoch media is in 2023 dragging out the darkest demons of Australia in service of the basest political goals. And these demons, once summoned, may prove neither easy nor possible to exorcise. It amounts to a campaign of race hate and racial division, the only beneficiaries of which are the Coalition parties, as they now find themselves needing to win the “No” vote in the hope it will stop an otherwise possibly inexorable slide to becoming a One Nation–type minor party.

All of this is camouflaged with talk of equality and concern for constitutional propriety by the Coalition. Thus Tony Abbott argued that the voice will mean two classes of Australians “with the few given a special right to influence legislation over and above that accorded to the many”, which sounded phoned in, and no more than a succinct description of the power the fossil-fuel industry, the Murdoch family or the Institute of Public Affairs have over the Liberal Party.

For Peter Dutton, the quintessential Canberra bubble-head himself, the voice will “re-racialise the nation”. This, a nonsense masquerading as national concern, gaslit Australia to a degree that would shame even our former gaslighter-in-chief, Scott Morrison, who, possibly sensing a final venture into the Dadaist realm of the absurd that was his rhetorical specialty, followed up by declaring the voice creates “significant constitutional risk”, which seemed to forget – as he once had with the words of “April Sun in Cuba” – who it was who had actually risked our constitution and democracy by secretly appropriating more power to himself than any politician in our history.

The perverted irony of all these spurious arguments is ignored by the Murdoch media, and instead its commentators echo and amplify such hypocritical drivel as though it were the wisdom of Rousseau and Voltaire, and, in so doing, give cover to their sustained and growing pattern of attack on Indigenous institutions and leaders.

All this is the necessary fuel to social media’s hate-trolling fire, and all of it driven ever harder by the Murdoch media, just as it did prior to January 6 in the United States.

It must stop. For the love of our country, it must stop.

“The hate is raining down on us,” Pat Anderson, one of the architects of the Uluru statement, said in late May. Days before, the head of ASIO warned that the campaign may incite “spontaneous violence”, but there was no threat of terrorist attack “at this stage”. And then we learnt that a man had been arrested after making online threats against Stan Grant.

According to media monitoring data quoted by Guardian Australia, “there were more than 150 mentions of the ABC’s coronation coverage” in the Murdoch media in the two weeks following the broadcast. Frequently using Grant’s image to illustrate its stories, the Murdoch media portrayed the ABC’s coronation coverage as dominated by Grant’s “tirades” and the “black armband” view of history. The ABC broadcast was variously described as “race-obsessed”, a “woke bin fire of self-loathing” and a “hate-fest”.

As Craig Foster, ex-Socceroo and now Australian Republic Movement leader wrote: “I, too, was part of the ABC coronation coverage for which Stan has carried a heavy burden and yet, I would never suffer the same criticism, abuse, twisting of words or intent and racial vilification as First Nations people so courageously open themselves to. Consider that reality for a moment … When a First Nations person enters that conversation, however, just like for the past 253 years, they are flogged, massacred. Physically, psychologically, professionally, it is the same.”

Stan Grant wrote this on May 6, before the coronation:

To seal it all, the new King will be anointed with holy oil. This man is apparently a gift from God

… Dare not think about this too much. Because then this illusion shatters. We would have to think of the coronation regalia and the crown of stolen jewels.

The stolen land. The genocide. The brutality.

… To take this coronation seriously would be to try to make sense of an Australian prime minister pledging his allegiance to a Crown that tried to exterminate my people.

As a Christian, how do I take this seriously? Holy oil? Consecration? Does God bless empire?

There is more God in a ghost gum, in a riverbed, in the birdsong of my country.

What does it say about us when we allow Aboriginal people who remind us of these incontrovertible and undeniable truths to be publicly humiliated to the point of damage?

We need to understand that what happened in the foundation of our nation was one great crime composed of countless smaller crimes, and that what is needed is justice that is not only real and concrete but seen to be real and concrete, and that the cry for some power by Aboriginal people over how their lives are lived is not extreme or anti-democratic but exactly what our democracy must have if it is to prosper.

I know in saying this publicly I will in turn be targeted by News Corp. But if that is to be, so be it, and I will stand proudly with my Aboriginal brothers and sisters.

Stan Grant is my friend. When we catch up or even when he just texts me he always calls me brother. Stan is my brother. I am his brother. I hated seeing him hurt. It hurts me and it is hurting our country, this renascent racist hate. Stan has written one of the most important Australian books of the past 20 years, Talking to My Country.

If you haven’t read it, read it. It’s a radical book, and its thinking is far ahead of our country at this moment. It is a book of many things, but above all of love. It is dedicated to his grandmother, Ivy, and his wife, Tracy, “white women,” Stan writes, “who have loved us”.

When our brothers and sisters invite us to be one, to share their vast wealth of 60,000 years, why would we spit on the invitation and trample it into the dirt? Why would we? From whence the terrible fear?

There is no fineness of oppression, and if there is not this beginning of justice and recognition for Aboriginal Australia, there can be no justice in which we can trust. If we define Aboriginal people with hate, we will lose the power to define ourselves as something better and larger. And if we cannot imagine ourselves and our democracy as something larger, we will shrink with our failure – and keep on shrinking and shrinking.

It took a great deal of misery and murder and massacre to make Australia a White Australia, a tint that, although officially abolished, remains yet with us in grotesque motley of the recent speech by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, words not worth repeating, words that knowingly or unknowingly carry with them the violence that was integral and fundamental to the making of a vison that forced us all to become white even when for so long we weren’t. Irish people, Greek people, Italian people, Lebanese people – the list goes on as far as our modern history, of peoples who were at the beginning not seen as white, nor yet seen as worthy of being considered to be trusted with the idea of Englishness and later Australianness.

As White Australia faded, as White Australia was legislated out of existence, it morphed into a new if derivative idea, that of Australians as a European people. And the corollary of this idea is the idea of a Western civilisation and Western culture that took hold after September 11, and its uglier distant relations, the Great Replacement Theory and so on, that over time returned to the violence that was the issue at such tragedies as the Christchurch massacre perpetrated by an Australian gunman.

We all became white because that was the way of denying the great truth at our heart: 60,000 years of Indigenous history and with that, the invasion and the genocidal wars that followed, lasting into living memory when, for example, Yunupingu’s father, Mungurrawuy, was shot by a white man licensed by the government to do so during the massacres in far northern Australia in the 1920s and 1930s.

You may well ask what this has got to do with literature and Australian literature. Well, I think, a lot. Australian literature has for too long imagined itself as a European project with the ambition above all to be recognised as European. That’s what the colonial cringe was about – deference in those days to the prevailing models of English culture and the seeking of English approval. In recent years the cringe has returned with a vengeance with a new model and the same old sense of local failure and unworthiness: the United States. Everywhere in the literary world we hear being rerun the arguments and opinions and the politics of America as if they are the arguments and opinions and politics of Australia.

And they are not, because we are not, because our experience is fundamentally different.

There was and is, though, an uncomfortable truth at the heart of the cringe, a terrible, harsh reality: that something that we couldn’t even say, something that existed only as shadow on our psyches but was nevertheless real and would overwhelm us if we admitted it was there; that at the heart of us we were inauthentic.

And we were. Even the very best of us were. And to this day I think we still are. I think I am. For whatever we did as individuals as a nation we have never borne witness to the light that shone from the truth: the horror and the wonder of our great country; the truth of the invasion, the gift of 60,000 years of human civilisation. The strange truth of us. We are all in the same cage, at our best reduced to pointing at the light between the bars but the bars stand.

For too long we have been at the mercy of a European/American imagination, or, more exactly, our idea of what such an imagination might be, an ersatz replica we construct out of our own fears and paranoia. And this reflection of a certain terror, a certain shame we cannot identify about who and what we are, returns to us as a personal humiliation again and again. Because Australia remains unknown to itself. We have a national day that post-dates Milli Vanilli and a national anthem even more fraudulent.

False history creates false reverence and false pieties of pride and guilt, of dangerous nationalism and of misplaced shame. From a non-Indigenous perspective, we need to acknowledge as a nation who we are if we are to have stories that are genuine and true, that aren’t ingrained, if we are to escape subtle but false myths made plausible only by sheer repetition.

Looked at this way, we have spent the past 200 years living not in a real Australia but a simulation of Australia. And perhaps we in Australia have not been living here at all but in someone else’s idea of Australia, and it’s a false idea we as writers and readers keep returning to.

In a recent obituary for the well-regarded poet John Tranter in The Sydney Morning Herald, fellow poet Philip Mead noted how: “One of Tranter’s earliest memories is of falling out of his parents’ car, late at night, on a bend in the road to Moruya – a memory of a strange alienation in the Australian countryside … It was as if that moment of shocking aloneness on the road to Moruya informed all his perceptions of Australia.”

Perhaps. Or is it that a gifted poet’s literary imagination shaped his memory to that of a powerful yet deforming literary trope?

Our stories too often, our literature for too long, has frequently defined Australia through bizarre inversions, an invented and inexplicable violence, a negative image of inexplicable absences and losses. It has led to an alienating strangeness in our stories that feels somehow false. It is the eerie violence of country towns and the land itself that seems on permanent replay in literature and film and it is the endless trope of the great emptiness swallowing children, the endlessly repeated trope of the child missing in the wilderness that led a character in Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines to declare Australia the “country of lost children”.

Or it is the urban melodrama with its modernist kitsch and uptight sentences, that could be Newtown or Neukölln or New Jersey but is not here. A contempt for what we now call Country is perhaps better understood as a terror of acknowledgement and recognition, a refusal to see.

Aboriginal people once appeared in Australian novels as purely racist caricatures, if it all, then as people strangely without pasts, or more recently as ghosts, spectral reminders of words that can never be written.

And now many writers are lost as to how to write Indigenous characters at all, torn between guilt and fear of criticism. What too often remains are mumbled mantras no one understands, arid formulas as precise as prayers. Saying these things is not to belittle or judge such writers or important, iconic books but to note the way we as a culture are more crippled, more estranged, more unknowing in even our greatest achievements than we would like to think.

If I were to examine my own works by such a light I know they too will fail, and more so; that they too are crippled and more so, because it cannot be otherwise. Oppression is never quarantined, it is an unstoppable virus; it is not just Aboriginal people who writhe in a torment of powerlessness, but we who are also crippled, who are also less, whose very imaginings are constrained and curtained by Australian racism and whose books, in spite of our efforts, consequently help perpetuate that same torment.

It could be argued that it is only our Indigenous novelists who are able to roam more freely. The great increase in Aboriginal writing and the growing prominence of their works has been one of the outstanding developments of Australian writing in recent years. But even their writings can feel crimped by what our nation is, forced in their works to find resolutions that speak of either despair or hope because of the immense, perhaps intolerable political weight their work must bear.

Again, none of this is to lessen the worth of the books Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers have written or to suggest failure. Far from it. But it is to acknowledge the burden we all share, to point to the river we all must cross. It is to say we all need some great step forward as a society to escape and from which our literature would only benefit.

I am not denying that good, even great books have been written. But it has precluded them from encompassing some greater largeness of what it is to be Australian. And these things are ultimately not the failure of us as individuals, but us a nation to meet with Aboriginal people and listen.

“My blood,” writes Stan Grant, who has both Irish and Wiradjuri forebears, in Talking to My Country, “the blood of Moyne and Belabula. White and black: two worlds that even within me, bend to each other but still can’t quite touch.”

And is that not us too? – two worlds, bending, but never touching.

Who is Australia? Why Australia? Where is Australia? It is the great question to which we all must make an answer later this year, and that is the question of whether or not we support the voice.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart was an invitation to finally meet, to finally touch. If we listen to Aboriginal people, if we understand we are together, we might understand none of us are alone on the road to Moruya.

This may seem to have nothing at all to do with literature, with writing and writers. But the closer you look at it, the more you ponder it, it has everything to do with how we might dream ourselves anew.

Writers belong to two worlds: that of the universe of letters and that of the country which becomes their home. They should never forsake either but seek to honour both in their work. What the writer discovers from the universe of letters is that to succeed, the stories we choose to tell must ultimately be bedded in the truth of the dirt from which they arise.

And yet the moral and imaginative life of our country has for too long been founded in lies and stunted in consequence. We are all trying to tell stories, but at critical moments we either are struck dumb or our tongues stutter and stammer. The voice is the way we free our tongues.

The voice matters to our literature. For whatever the achievements of our writers, we have all for too long been joined to a lie we cannot escape alone. By representing our reality solely through a European/Western prism our literature makes a moral choice that limits our literature’s possibilities in depicting what the Australian experience is, rather than seeking to begin with that experience and speak to it in a truthful way.

Because we think we are European or American, we are as speechless as Lot’s wife when we confront our past, struck dumb with either the useless guilt of the left or the offensive bigotry of the right. And we become part of the sustaining lie that cripples us as a people.

Whether I wish to be or not, I am a child of this country. In seeking to understand it I have come to see that we must make a new start, a better start if our imaginings are to go further, if we are to create dreams that might liberate, stories that we might live better by.

And that is why the voice comes to us as something infinitely larger than being about a minor rejigging of our constitutional arrangements. It is about a greater choice that non-Indigenous people have to confront not simply out of guilt or pity or goodwill, but with an awareness of just what now confronts us as a nation, the extraordinary possibilities of saying yes, the profound costs of saying no.

We have to withstand much in the coming years as a country, as a nation. We must face extreme climate on the one hand, and extreme injustice and inequality on the other. We need as a people and as writers to discover and create our songlines, connect with what is most powerful in this country, this beautiful land and the people who are of it, so we may become of it also.

Not as a place of terror as our literature too often and still depicts it, or of ghosts, or of people we are too frightened to tell stories about for fear, but as a place of wonder and a source of strength. Not as a place of inexplicable violence but as place that recognises the historical violence against the Aboriginal people as the great crime it was and remains. That is our challenge, that is our hope, and if it is dashed from us, it will be our despair and our doom.

Near the end of his life, Yunupingu wrote a remarkable essay that ends this way:

I have spent all of those 50 years trying to reconcile my people, and my life, to the world that the mining company ushered in – a world that threatened everything for us.

My answer as it came was given to me by our songlines, and I led my family as we set about connecting and securing our songlines so as to ensure our life.

… I must dream of a future that is different from the past. A future that has in it everything my people need.

… Now when I am at Dhanaya, my most special place, I see the future running above the water, down the blue skyline and through the horizon, as if it were on a projector screen revealing to me a portrait of the future.

At other times I see a beautiful painting, created by the hands of masters, now broken into a thousand pieces. Those pieces are split up and thrown about, and I am seeking always to put them back together, to refit the pieces, to re-create the picture as it should be and then to hang it again on the wall – a beautiful picture for all to see.

In these moments I tune myself up so high that sometimes I can’t even hear myself think. I wonder, then, who understands me, who could understand?

Reading these words, I returned/return/will return to the story we began with of a lost cockatoo, far from its home, stranded in strange pages of alien Latin text. The cockatoo, for the Yolngu the bird is sacred, having the ability to communicate between our world and the spirit world.

We need to understand what Yunupingu was trying to tell us. We need to bring the Yolngu fourth tense into our thinking – into our literature, into our dreams, into our national affairs – honouring those who have lived before us and those who will live here after us, making of many countries one nation. The fourth tense is one that is sung and we need singers whose tongues are not torn out to create the new songlines we so urgently need, connecting this world to the spirit world of our many countries, black to white, past to present to future, honouring all that we are, so that we might finally go forward as the nation of which we dream.

The voice to parliament is the question mark that now appears over our country and, by implication, our literature. For us to be secure, for us to prosper, the answer lies not in relentless exploitation, nor more inequality, nor yet in reckless acts of external aggression to please larger countries. The answer lies in us and our land, and the way we answer this great question later this year. I hope, I pray, that our reply will be yes.


This essay was written and delivered as the Closing Address for the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 28, 2023. It has been modified from the print version to clarify a reference to News Corp.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan is the author of The Living Sea of Waking DreamsThe Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould’s Book of Fish and the Man Booker prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. His new book, Question 7, will be published in November.

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Detail of Maria Lassnig, ‘Zwei Arten zu sein (Doppelselbstporträt)’, showing two head and shoulder portraits

The female unique: ‘Art Monsters’ and ‘The Other Side’

New books on women’s art from Lauren Elkin and Jennifer Higgie explore the expression of monstrosity and the marginalisation of spiritual experience

Detail of Pierre Bonnard, ‘Coffee’, 1915, oil on canvas, showing woman at table drinking coffee with dog on lap standing front legs on table

Emotional virtue: ‘Pierre Bonnard: Designed by India Mahdavi’ and ‘Rembrandt: True to Life’

Concurrent exhibitions at the NGV survey the intense realism of Rembrandt and the emotional power of colour harnessed by Pierre Bonnard

More in The Monthly Essays

Members of the Kanakanvu tribe perform at a Saraya harvest festival, Donghua Village, Taiwan.

Who is Taiwanese?

Taiwan’s minority indigenous peoples are being used to refute mainland China’s claims on the island – but what does that mean for their recognition, land rights and identity?

Ash Barty with winners trophy, Wimbledon, 2021

Ash’s to Ash’s

From stepping away from tennis as a youth before returning to dominate Wimbledon and the Australian Open, to retiring as world No. 1 at the age of 25, Ash Barty has always owned her career path

Close-up photograph of Anne Summers, 2017

How to change a bad law

The campaign to repair the single parenting payment was a model of how research and advocacy can push government to face the cruel effects of a policy and change course

Photo of Animal Justice Party MP Georgie Purcell outside Parlament House with rescued greyhound Graham

Dog day afternoon

Animal welfare concerns have long plagued the greyhound racing industry, but in Victoria a campaign from covert investigators now has a parliamentarian leading the fight

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Image representing a film still of abstract colours

Tacita Dean and the poetics of film editing

The MCA’s survey of the British-born artist’s work reveals both the luminosity of analogue film and its precariousness

Image of David McBride

David McBride’s guilty plea and the need for whistleblower reform

The former army lawyer had no choice but to plead guilty, which goes to show how desperately we need better whistleblower protections

Installation view of the Kandinsky exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, showing three framed abstract paintings hanging on a wall

Kandinsky at AGNSW

The exhibition of the Russian painter’s work at the Art Gallery of NSW provides a fascinating view of 20th-century art’s leap from representation to abstraction

Image of Margret RoadKnight playing guitar and singing.

The unsung career of Margret RoadKnight

Little-known outside the Melbourne folk scene for decades, singer Margret RoadKnight’s 60 years of music-making is celebrated in a new compilation