The lost art of ‘truth-telling’
5 October 2022
It was a humbling experience to attend a function in Canberra’s old Parliament House recently to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the election of Neville Bonner to the federal Parliament.
Neville Bonner was the first Indigenous Australian to achieve this milestone and what an exceptional individual he was.
Exceptional, not just because he was a trailblazer for his community, but importantly, he eschewed the victimhood mantra that others more recently propagate.
The notable exceptions to this populist dogma are, of course, Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Warren Mundine, and South Australian Senator, Kerrynne Liddle, who were present at the celebration. Senators Price and Liddle eloquently expressed their admiration for their indigenous hero, Senator Bonner. Mr Bonner’s great-niece, Joanna Lindgren, also a former Queensland Senator, spoke beautifully of her admiration for her great uncle.
For me, however, it was a speech Bonner gave to the 1998 Constitutional Convention to consider if Australia should become a republic, that resonates most today.
Mr Bonner said, well before Greta Thunberg, ‘How dare you?’
‘I worry that what has proven to be a stable society which now recognises my peoples as equals is about to be replaced. How dare you? I repeat, how dare you?
‘…I cannot see the change we need, I cannot see how it will help my people … Let us work together on the real issues … Let us unite this country, not divide it ever.’
24 years on – with a fresh debate raging on constitutional change – Neville Bonner’s words ring true.
There couldn’t be a more fitting parallel for today’s constitutional rumblings.
For in the modern days of truth-telling – I have only one question: who hasn’t been telling the truth?
The demand for truth-telling assumes that porky pies have been the go-to narrative.
What more truth-telling can be told by non-Aboriginal Australians? Books, university lectures, classroom lessons, and documentaries abound in their tales of white woe. ‘We’ wear the badge of killers and committers of sabotage on a native people nearly 250 years ago.
What is it we are supposedly hiding that is not already known as the ‘truth’?
As a nation we have said Sorry. But it is not enough for some. We must burden ourselves with an eternal state of repentance and perpetually concede in coin.
In saying Sorry, we acknowledged past wrongs. We didn’t hide them, we nailed our collective sins to a national crucifix.
But can the same be said of all Aboriginal people and their stories?
Have ‘they’ been telling the truth?
Have all Indigenous activists been honest about their own culture? Have they been telling the truth about their tribal warring, their Indigenous injustices? Have they said sorry about all the bone-pointing?
While this might seem trite, or silly, it is not intended to be. There is no perfect civilisation and one-way finger-pointing is futile if truth is the genuine target.
Australians will be asked to vote on a Voice to Parliament. It can only divide – and possibly conquer – what has been to date a very calm, modern, considered, and united nation. Neville Bonner thought it was.
At a time when Aboriginal representation in our Federal Parliament is well celebrated, why would we want a Voice to Parliament when we have multiple Voices in Parliament?
We have one Parliament for all. Why appoint a Voice for some?
If we want truth-telling, then we should be honest about the Voice: for the Indigenous voice is not one sound – it is many – just as there are many tribes, many ‘nations’, many languages, and many mobs.
Like all other Australian ‘voices’, the Aboriginal song is not a monolithic, homogenised sound, but an orchestra of ideas and hopes.
If Victorian Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe is at one end of the Aboriginal spectrum of views, Senator Price is at the other.
The latter has not needed fake blood to sell her message.
She has, in the most modern of ways, staked her claim to ‘truth-telling’.
Senator Price doesn’t demand a Voice to Parliament, reparations, treaty or other punishment. She simply wants solutions that will make a difference to the Aboriginal men, women, and children who deserve better lives.
Senator Price dares to acknowledge the British who ‘discovered’ Australia – and despite struggles along the way – furnished a democracy of international envy.
She rightly points out that had other nations sailed this way, poking their flag in the red turf, then the Australia we know today would not exist. The Chinese Communist Party, for example, is not so keen on democracy, minorities, freedom of speech, or freedom in general.
Finally we ask, who determines the truth?
And if it is given, what of it? What does it mean? What sort of truth are people seeking?
It was to the Queen that Senator Thorpe pledged her allegiance in the federal Parliament. Was she being truthful after she was prodded to say the words as they were written, or were they said to secure her seat on the national stage from which she hurls rhetoric unbecoming of her station? This is, after all, the same Thorpe who screams shadows of sedition in the streets and described herself as an infiltrator of Parliament.
She is no leader.
And yet it was to the woman she despises, Her Majesty Elizabeth II, that in respect, billions recently glued their eyes to television screens and millions more lined British streets.
Her Majesty did not fire one bullet or demand any political action that has made Ms Thorpe’s life any less than it is today. Rather, it is within the imported British Westminster system of government that Ms Thorpe finds her employ and its enormous annual salary courtesy of her fellow white and black Australian taxpayers.
As Victorians head to the polls two months from now, they might do well to focus on truth-telling.
The Premier, Daniel Andrews, struggles with the concept on many fronts.
He obfuscates, he hides, he points the other way, he spins, weaves, warps, and contorts.
So as the nation faces demands for truth-telling – I ask Victorians especially – who hasn’t been telling the truth?
Bev McArthur is Liberal Member for Western Victoria and Shadow Assistant Minister for Scrutiny of Government.