Australian Notes

Australian notes

John Stone

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John Stone

4 March 2023

9:00 AM

When the Australian editorialises (24/02/23) that, ‘No one who has followed [its] reporting over decades could remain untouched by the misery afflicting many of our Indigenous communities’ (it means Aboriginal communities, but let that common error pass), it can so claim without fear of contradiction. Nor, it goes on, ‘would they question the vital need to solve the problems that underlie that misery’. True, but the issue has always been, and remains, how to do so?

For longer than I care to remember, well-meaning people like that editorial writer have said we ‘need to solve’ those problems. Program after program has been devised in efforts to do so, and billions upon billions of dollars provided by Australian taxpayers to finance those programs. Yet stubbornly, the problems remain. How can that be?

Some reasons, I suggest, are obvious. For example, when that same editorialist says that the Australian ‘has long been in favour of an acknowledgement [in our constitution] of the country’s first peoples’, does he or she really believe that such a development would have any positive influence on those unsolved problems? Of course it wouldn’t; so why do otherwise intelligent people continue to prattle on to the contrary?

(To digress for one moment, incidentally, there is no sustainable basis for Aboriginal ‘recognition’ in our constitution. As has been said, that document is a rule book, not a history book. It laid down the basis on which six British colonies agreed ‘to unite in one indissoluble Commonwealth under the Crown…’. It had nothing to say about the then inhabitants – non-Aboriginal or Aboriginal – of those colonies (thenceforth states). In 1999, John Howard (demonstrating that even great men can make fools of themselves) put forward a referendum to insert a ‘recognition’ statement via a new preamble to the constitution. The Australian electorate, wise in such matters, consigned it to the flames, with only 39 per cent in favour nationally, and defeating it in every state and territory.)

‘Most Australians’, as that editorial said, ‘bear enormous goodwill towards the first inhabitants of this continent…’. However, I greatly doubt that that goodwill springs, as the editorialist suggests, from ‘sharing a pride in their tens of thousands of years of culture’. Culture? What culture? The one that, as the late Tim Fischer once bravely pointed out, never even managed to invent the wheel? The one in which, as English soldiers observed in 1788, male Aborigines maltreated their women abominably? – as they continue to do today in so many parts of this country. The one in which superstition and retrograde concepts such as ‘payback’ are so firmly entrenched? The 1999 referendum proposed ‘honouring Aborigines… for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country’. Examples of that ‘enrichment’ have recently been manifesting themselves in no uncertain manner on the streets of Alice Springs.

Few topics in this country evoke so much emotion – and so much intellectual confusion – as the state of Aboriginal affairs. One major reason for this is that our ‘Aborigines’ in fact fall into two very different categories. The first category – the one in which Aboriginal culture still holds sway and those ‘problems’ remain so apparent – comprises the 60,000 to 70,000 whose ancestry is wholly Aboriginal. The second category – several times more numerous – consists of people of mixed ancestry, who have chosen to identify as ‘Aboriginal’, but who could equally (or even more accurately in many cases) identify with their Caucasian, Chinese, or other non-Aboriginal forebears. (Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, whose outstanding qualities almost literally shine out of her, has actually taken this bull by the horns, referring to herself from time to time as ‘part-Aboriginal’.) These people live in the community side-by-side with their non-Aboriginal neighbours, go to work on a regular basis, send their children to school, take out mortgages, and so on. So why do governments include them in programs devised to deal with Aboriginal problems? Because, I suggest, the politicians leading those governments lack the intestinal fortitude to refuse to do so.

That is precisely the problem with the current controversy over the so-called Voice to parliament – the matter to which the editorial mentioned at the outset principally pertains. The undeniable fact is that this proposal seeks to insert into our constitution provisions endowing one set of Australians (Aborigines – however defined!) with rights not available to the rest of us. But as the Institute of Public Affairs, writing about this many months ago, said: ‘Race has no place in Australia’s Constitution.’ (It was not merely opposing the Voice on those grounds, but arguing for removal of the two existing race-based passages in that document.) This is so obvious that all the questions about how the Voice would work, were it to come to pass, are plainly irrelevant. Why then are our politicians? – particularly the leader of the opposition, Peter Dutton – so reluctant to say so?

I have read almost every issue of the Australian since its first day of publication in 1964. It is a great newspaper, towering over the pygmies otherwise littering the Australian media landscape. It has a claim, indeed, for inclusion among the ten (or even possibly the five) best newspapers in the world. Why then, in the face of all reason, does it continue to support the Voice? It is not the case that, ‘Lack of detail on voice risks losing nation’s goodwill’, as the headline to that editorial claimed. Nor is it the case that, as the subsidiary headline claimed, ‘Time is running out for the government to allay legitimate fears’. As noted, those fears are irrelevant. What does risk losing people’s goodwill is the unprincipled push to destroy the constitutional foundation whereby all Australians are equal. With all due respect to a great newspaper, when will reality break in?

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