Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

A very good thing
Uluru will be shut to climbers from 2019

Image of Uluru

Uluru at dusk, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Photo: Michael Nelson, Parks Australia

A very good thing happened today.

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board announced that Uluru will close to climbers from 26 October 2019.

It is a good thing because this has long been the desire of the traditional owners of the land, for whom Uluru is a sacred site. For some time, a sign has stood at the bottom of the rock, asking tourists not to climb. It is clear in its request, and concise in its reasoning: “We, the Anangu traditional owners, have this to say. Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted. This is our home. As custodians, we are responsible for your safety and behaviour. Too many people do not listen to our message. Too many people have died or been hurt causing great sadness. We worry about you and we worry about your family. Please don’t climb. We invite you to walk around the base and discover a deeper understanding of this place.”

And yet some have continued to ignore the sign, and put their own wishes above those of a people who have cared for the rock, and the land that surrounds it, for thousands of years.

“Some people, in tourism and government, for example, might have been saying we need to keep it open but it’s not their law that lies in this land. It is an extremely important place, not a theme park like Disneyland. If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don't enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity. After much discussion, we’ve decided it’s time.” These are the words of Sammy Wilson, Indigenous leader and senior traditional owner, and chair of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management, and they are hard to argue with.

Closing Uluru to climbers is a hugely important decision in itself, but it is also worth noting in relation to the government’s rejection last week of the central recommendation of the Referendum Council: to create an Indigenous “Voice to Parliament”, or advisory council.

The rejection was – and it is not remarkable to say so – a political decision. That was true inside government – Noel Pearson was right in saying Malcolm Turnbull did not have enough political capital to make a different decision, and that it was driven by Tony Abbott. Politics was also a reason the prime minister gave for not proceeding with the proposal: he said the recommendations would never be accepted by a majority of Australians.

But politicians may be underestimating their citizens. In recent years, public opinion has repeatedly crept ahead of the political classes. That was true of same-sex marriage – a rapid shift caught out the major parties. Liberal MP Russell Broadbent suggests it may be true on refugees. And it has clearly been true on Indigenous affairs.

Here, for example, was Liberal frontbencher Greg Hunt in 2009, attacking Labor over the idea Uluru might be shut: “The prime minister cannot allow Peter Garrett to go ahead with his plan to close the climb. I have always suspected that closing the rock to walkers was on Labor’s agenda. Today we see the start of their plan to end one of the great tourism experiences in Australia. Big Brother is coming to Uluru to slam the gate closed on an Australian tourism icon, the climb.”

It seems as though Hunt was singing along to a song without having realised it had fallen off the charts long ago. Even while he was pandering to what he imagined was his reactionary audience, the attitude of the actual, real-life public was quickly shifting. In the 1990s, 74% of visitors climbed the rock. By 2010, a year after Hunt made that statement, the number was down to 38%. In the years since it has fallen to 16%.

Similarly, even before Turnbull made his pronouncement on public support for a Voice to Parliament, a poll had been conducted showing 60% of Australians actually supported such a proposal.

I cannot help wondering if Turnbull’s occasional attempts to shore up his position by loudly defending the date of Australia Day will look similarly misjudged, and very soon. It was not long ago I felt entirely comfortable attending Australia Day celebrations. I don’t anymore, and I know I’m far from alone.

Racial politics, along with old-school appeals to chauvinistic patriotism, are not going away any time soon, as Pauline Hanson demonstrates. But that doesn’t mean they have the same appeal to the political centre as they once did. The world may have changed more than many of our politicians realise. 

In other news


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The transformative impact of the technology introduced between 1917 and 1967 on the lives of everyday Australians compared with the changes of the computer age can be judged by the old technologies’ continued indispensability. If made to choose, would you keep your fridge or your tablet; your car or your computer; electricity or wireless connection; hot water or fast broadband; washing machine or Twitter feed; vaccination or Snapchat? Personal experience supports the historical evidence that what was most transformative in how we have lived over the past century is not unprecedented connectivity.” read on


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“It seemed to me this was the greatest ambition of the work – not staying up all night, nor serial intimacy with strangers (and sometimes friends) – but where to locate the performance. In cinema, with close-ups? In theatre, costumed on stage? In actual life, repeatedly obligated to a role whose parameters were more exposed to the audience than anyone, implicating us in this ordeal?” READ ON

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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