Australia has not reconciled with its past. Beginning with an invasion in the 18th century, the modern state of ‘Australia’ is complicit in the massacre, subjugation and, in the eyes of many Australians, genocide of the indigenous peoples of the land. For more than two hundred years, indigenous Australians have been oppressed by colonial and Australian governments.
Yet Indigenous Australians have been present on the Australian continent for over 50,000 years, making them the most ancient continuing human civilisation on earth. Indigenous Australians had been supporting the land for tens of thousands of years before the Egyptian pharaohs, the Roman emperors or the Aztec kingdoms.
The incredible histories and ecologies of indigenous Australian cultures are inspiring, and prove the capacity of humans to live in sustainable and empowering societies for thousands of years. Bill Gamage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth or Bruse Pascoe’s Dark Emu are fantastic introductions to indigenous Australian land management and ecology. Forgotten War by Henry Reynolds provides an enlightening look into the conflicts that shaped modern Australia, as do the articles cited above.
Indigenous Australians have lower life expectancies, higher incarceration, poverty and suicide rates, and lack political agency in a land their ancestors have inhabited for tens of thousands of years.
Yet indigenous Australians continue to be the victims of systemic discrimination, inequalities, and violence. Indigenous Australians have lower life expectancies, higher incarceration, poverty and suicide rates, and lack political agency in a land their ancestors have inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Indigenous children are particularly vulnerable to cycles of intergenerational trauma, poverty, mental health issues, and family violence. The challenges facing indigenous people and communities in Australia are complex. Sadly, government interventions and initiatives are proving ineffective in securing indigenous lifestyles and empowering indigenous communities to live fulfilling lives. The 2019 Closing the Gap Report found that indigenous Australian live on average 11 years less than their non-indigenous counterparts, and this gap is widening every year. This is unacceptable.
Yet, despite the horrifying indigenous realities described above, conventional wisdom says that the modern Australian state is a success story. Ruling politicians will point out that living standards are among the highest in the world and the majority of the population live affluent and rewarding lives. Australia is a multicultural nation, with a proud history of immigration, particularly in the 20th century. Many countries across the world look to Australia as a peaceful and prosperous modern democracy, in spite of the illegal offshore detention of refugees and the shameful inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
But the history of modern Australia cannot be separated from its ugly past, its shameful present, and, unless we change as a country, its unacceptable future. Regressive governmental policies, the continued celebration of the arrival of the first fleet in Australia, continued police violence (such as the alledged murder of an 19 year-old unarmed indigenous man whilst I was writing this article) and child removal policies all inhibit national healing and stop Australia moving forward as a nation.
Australia needs a better national dialogue with its indigenous people for the sake of reconciliation and shared histories.
Australia needs a better national dialogue with its indigenous people for the sake of reconciliation and shared histories. It needs a vision for a more inclusive and participatory future. In celebration of the theme of Dialogue at The Paris Globalist, I want to explain why a First Nations voice to the Australian parliament, recognised by the constitution, is a national imperative.
In 2017, following consultations with over 1200 indigenous Australians across the country, more than 250 indigenous Australian elders and leaders met for a historic four-day conference resulting in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The Statement from the Heart called unambiguously for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.” It is proposed that this voice would be introduced into the constitution, and would provide indigenous Australians a say in matters of law that affect them and constitutionally guarantees them a say in their own affairs.
However, the current Australian centre-right government has made it clear they do not plan on amending the constitution, and instead make the case for a body legislated by the parliament. This “voice to the government,” rather than a “voice to the parliament,” would have similar functions, but lacks the symbolic importance of recognising the unique role and history of First Nations people in the modern Australian State. Furthermore, the government’s preferred model means that a First Nation’s Voice requires the ongoing support of the parliament of the day and thus could be stripped by a future parliament.
Constitutional recognition for First Nations people in Australia is a moral imperative. The dignity, identity and future of Australia as a country depends on a proper and genuine voice for and recognition of indigenous First Nations people. The vast inequalities faced by indigenous Australians won’t be solved by recognition alone. But a stronger voice in issues that concern their communities, and the (envisioned) end of paternalistic policy-making, will lead to better outcomes for indigenous communities, more aligned to indigenous ecologies and connections to land.
The editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, Lisa Davies, recently stressed the importance of recognising indigenous First Nations people in the constitution, writing that “Australia’s history, now and through the (future), will strongly determine the future unity, moral courage and strength of this nation.”
With the Australian minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt announcing plans for a referendum on indigenous recognition within three years, now is the time to mobilise and campaign for a strong indigenous voice in the Australian constitution, and help create a better Australia, a more inclusive Australia, and a fairer Australia. The dignity of this country and its people depend on it.