A Bridge Too Far


Peter O’Brien

NAIDOC Week has come and gone for another year, thank goodness.  As a regular listener to ABC Classic FM, I’m inured to the constant mentions that the broadcast is coming from Gadigal (or whatever) land and treat it as background noise. It is irritating but not enough for me to turn it off.  It rose to a deafening cacophony during NAIDOC. 

That NAIDOC was capped off with the sight of the Wallabies singing the National Anthem in some obscure Aboriginal dialect and the insane decision of NSW Premier Perrottet to replace the NSW state flag on the Harbour Bridge with the Aboriginal one were the last straws for me.  Once upon a time, a few years ago even, I guess I could stomach NAIDOC Week, but recently it has become so ‘in your face’ that it has become intolerable.  I’ve had a gutful.

As regards the Wallabies, what immediately struck me watching this sickening virtue signalling was this: when was the last time anyone saw the members of any national or state football team  join in ‘as one’ to sing the English language version, i.e. the official one, of the National Anthem?  

As to the Harbour Bridge issue, that brought to mind Uluru. In deference to Aboriginal ownership, we now no longer refer to it as Ayres Rock and we accede to the wish not to climb it, despite the fact that there was never any tradition of not climbing.   But the Harbour Bridge owes nothing whatsoever to Aboriginal tradition, history or technology.  It was built by the people of New South Wales.  Sixteen of them lost their lives in its construction.  And yet the Premier of New South Wales has unilaterally decided to remove the flag symbolizing the efforts and sacrifices of those people and replace it with the Aboriginal flag.  This was not done at the behest of the Commonwealth government.  It was Perrottet’s own weak-kneed initiative.  So much for federalism.

Which brings me to recognition.

The claim is made that recognition, in the Constitution, of Aboriginal people as the original owners/inhabitants of this continent will make them feel empowered and give them confidence to stride ahead into the future.  Some will tell you this recognition is purely symbolic.  Mostly it is white supporters who push this line.  The most influential Indigenous activists reject mere symbolism.  They are quite open about the fact that they want some form of self-government.  However, for the moment let’s look at the idea of symbolic recognition.

My question is this: what would be the game-changing factor in this symbolic gesture that would trump all the other gestures and practical actions that have gone before?  What is it about a mention in a document (which most Australians have never and will never read) , that would succeed where the gestures and measures outlined below have apparently failed?

Why wouldn’t Aborigines already feel empowered and included when they see their flag flying outside every public building in the land?

Why wouldn’t Aborigines already feel empowered and included when they are acknowledged at every public event?

Why wouldn’t Aborigines already feel empowered and included when they are invited to welcome us to their country at almost every public event?

Why would not Indigenous people already feel empowered and included when they see their culture mandated as a cross curriculum imperative in our schools?

Why wouldn’t Aborigines feel empowered and included when they see their culture front and centre at the opening ceremony of all major sporting events?

Why wouldn’t Aborigines already feel empowered and included when they remember that in 1970 Lionel Rose was named the ninth Australian of the Year, the first of nine who have been so honoured in the 62-year history of the award?  That in 1995, David Unaipon featured on our $50 note?  That in 1972 Pastor Douglas Nicholls was knighted and in 1976 became Governor of South Australia?

I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point.

The real agenda, hinted at in the Uluru Statement and openly expressed by many of the leading Indigenous activists, is for a separate Aboriginal sovereignty, of equal standing with the sovereignty that already forms the basis of Australia.  This would be a recipe for disaster.  Potentially, you might find yourself subject to a different set of laws than your next-door neighbour. 

Here is an example already in train.  The Yuin people of South-Eastern NSW have lodged a land title claim for the entire south coast for NSW, from Sutherland Shire to the Victorian border, including the inshore waters out to three nautical miles.  One of the things sought is the unrestricted right to fish these waters. At the moment, Yuin people can take fish for consumption without having a fishing licence, but they are governed by bag limits, which are greater than for the general populace (ten abalone vs two, and twenty fish vs ten).  But they can also apply to exceed these limits for ‘cultural purposes’.

Yuin man Kevin Mason says he has been fishing in his ancestral waters since he was a boy, providing much needed food for his community on the New South Wales South Coast.  “That’s our livelihood, it’s the life blood of Aboriginal people,” he said. “How to feed [mob], that’s been handed down to me and I’ll hand it down to my next generation.”  The  proponents claim that the Yuin are a traditional fishing community and fishing is an essential cultural imperative for them, which leads one to wonder why Mr Mason has to feed his mob.  Why aren’t they all doing it?

The proponents of this claim say that if they are successful it will open up commercial opportunities.  If the claim is successful, it is possible the ruling might allow traditional owners to restrict access to other Australians.

People’s freedom to do what they like, or what they are used to doing in the past, is being constrained all the time in the name of the common good.  Mr Mason might like to consider that restrictions on his fishing rights are offset by his ownership of a tinnie which considerably enhances his ability to catch fish, and his ownership of a fridge that allows him to store his catch, and that he doesn’t have to eat fish every day.  When not fishing, he can eat a pizza and watch the footy on his flat screen TV, if he so desires.

In 2013, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Recognition Act which recognized the prior occupation of the continent.  This Act was intended to kick-start the process for a referendum on constitutional recognition. It allowed the Parliament to establish a review for the way forward and allowed two years for this process to commence.  That review never took place and was eventually overtaken by the process of establishing the Uluru Statement.  The Act lapsed in 2015.  It could easily be resurrected in limited form to provide the same official recognition as the 2013 Act, from our foremost Parliament.  It would be a foolish government that ever sought to repeal such an act.

Recently, in the wake of the childish actions of The Green’s Adam Bandt in ignoring the Australian flag, Tony Abbott suggested it might be time to reconsider the prominence given to the Aboriginal flag.  Good on him I say, but let’s not stop there.  Let’s cut back drastically on all this pointless and divisive symbolism.  Let’s trash the ubiquitous welcome to country, the acknowledgement of traditional owners, the Aboriginal motifs on Qantas aircraft, the Aboriginal pride football rounds and all the rest of it.  Aboriginal people are good at a lot of things but, just lately, they seem to excel at whingeing.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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