A Reminder of Unfinished Business
As we turn our minds to another February Closing the Gap speech from the Australian Prime Minister, a practice begun by Kevin Rudd in 2010, we hold in our minds a quiet fear that all this ritual, all these numbers, belie the nagging feeling that we are getting no-where in our attempts as a nation to redress Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage.
To my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters I just want to say, ala George in Seinfeld, “it’s not you its me.” Or more to the point, the failure to close the gap is the failure of non-Indigenous governments, institutions and people to close the most important gap - that of our relationship to each other.
The central fault is our failing to respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ agency, culture and right to self-determination.
After all, our relationship began poorly, Lieutenant Cook (his actual rank) failed to “seek the consent of the natives”, Governor Phillip tried but failed to create a positive relationship and Governor Macquarie wanted to bring terror to the survivors, not to mention the bringing of disease.
The lands and waters we now call Australia were possessed by a violent process of “gradual eviction” and degradation of the environment, something that continues to occur to this day (particularly if mining or potential fracking is involved).
There has been no consent given and no treaty made.
The failure to ‘treat’ has meant that our treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has created all these gaps, which we belatedly seek to close. And we keep getting it wrong. The COAG Closing the Gap policy begun by Prime Minister Rudd was tainted by the continuation of the Northern Territory Emergence ‘Intervention’. The promise of Mabo and the dismissing of the myth of terra nullius was made conditional by the Native Title Act and then tortuous by John Howard’s ‘Ten Point Plan’.
More recently, after years of discussion and consultation, recognition of the legal status and rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia, culminating in the gracious Statement from the Heart, was summarily dismissed by the Turnbull Government.
Each positive step is met and checkmated by non-Indigenous fear to commit.
We are a nation with arrested development and historical amnesia. To think that the 26th of January could ever be a day of unity for the nation is to make insult and forgetting a national past-time. If we non-Indigenous Australians had been invaded in the Second World War would we want to celebrate? To think that singing “we are young and free” in our national anthem is OK from the point of view of those who belong to the oldest continuing cultures in the world and who have their rights continually denied is to indulge in conceit. To think that having the symbol of invasion in the top left corner of our flag creates a sense of nationhood is to fail completely to disavow from the many crimes of the past.
Aboriginal activist, film-maker, playwright and singer-songwriter, Richard Frankland talks about a “Tomorrow Australia”; an Australia with a new National Day, a new Anthem, a new Flag, and, more importantly, a new nationhood founded on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights to self-determination, grounded in the First Peoples connection and oversight of its lands and waters and accepting of the many peoples who live here today.
That latter point is a gracious and undeserved aspect of his vision. But until we begin to collectively seek to build that ‘Tomorrow Australia’ and until the gap in non-Indigenous people’s relationship with the First Peoples is closed on the back of respect and commitment, we will forever be left with empty rituals and statistics in Canberra each February. We all need First Peoples Voices to be heard, truth-telling to occur across the land, and, most of all, a process of treaty-making to close the gap.
Dr Peter Lewis is the President of ANTaR’s National Board.