Yesterday (9 August) was, as you probably know, the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. I had planned to get this post completed by then, but, being on the road (again), it didn’t happen. I don’t think that matters a lot, though, as we should be caring about Indigenous Peoples every day until the disparities between us are removed, n’est-ce pas?
So now, my post. The title may look a bit strange. It’s because this post was partly inspired by my wanting to mention the Canberra Writers Festival. This year is its third under its current iteration, and the theme has remained the same: Power, Politics and Passion. Now, some of us literary types, are a little disappointed by the Festival because of this focus. We want more literature, as in literary fiction, but what we get is quite lot politics. I understand this. We are Canberra, the national capital, and this is a way of positioning our Festival as something different from others around the nation. Fair enough I suppose – it’s just not what I would prefer.
However, there are sessions that I’m very interested in, and two of these relate to indigenous Australian literature and culture. They are:
- GR60: First Things First: A panel discussion inspired by the recent Griffith Review, the one numbered 60 and titled First Things First. It was inspired by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the panel comprises some of the contributors to that edition, Dr. Sana Nakata, Shireen Morris, Paul Daley and Melissa Lucashenko. It is moderated by Dr Sandra Phillips.
- An Evening with First Nations Australia Writers: Comprises poetry readings by Ellen van Neerven, Yvette Holt, Jeanine Leane and Charmaine Papertalk Green, followed by a panel discussion titled Sovereign People – Sovereign Stories, involving Kim Scott, Melissa Lucashenko, and Alexis Wright, and moderated by Cathy Craigie.
Now, I’m not always very good at doing homework for writers’ festivals, but I have started reading the Griffith Review in preparation for that panel. I haven’t got very far, having only read editor Julianne Schultz’s introduction “Whispering in our hearts”, indigenous constitution lawyer Megan Davis’ piece “The long road to Uluru”, and Alexis Wright’s poem “Hey ancestor!”
For this brief introductory post, I’m just going to focus on Davis’ piece. Griffith Review’s bio for her says she is “a constitutional law professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous at the University of NSW. In 2011 she was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Expert Panel on Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution, and in 2015 she was appointed to the Referendum Council and designed the council’s deliberative constitutional dialogue process.”
This process – the First Nations Constitutional Dialogues – is the one that resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It was a rigorously defined and executed process that was, she writes, “quite different to the usual tick-the-box consultation.” It had to be, given the diversity of the groups involved, the importance of the work they were doing and the significance of the outcomes they desired – which was essentially to advise the government on a process for recognising the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. Davis writes that
A concrete model of recognition was needed to focus the nation’s attention and move the project forward. Uluru eventually provided the model.
In this article, she describes clearly, and in detail, the recent political history of “the progress toward recognition”, and then the development of a dialogue process aimed at ensuring that the results would be valid and authentic. It involved a Civics education module, so that the participants would understand the western democratic system within which they were working. This is an important point I think. We are not talking revolution here but a willingness to work with the wider Australian people and the government to resolve the ongoing issue concerning constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians – and all that that entails.
The article is excellent, and makes some significant points, including:
- that recognition of indigenous Australians in the constitution must be more than symbolic – it must be substantive.
- the importance of truth and justice, of the fact that the truth must be told and understood before justice can be achieved. She reported that “There was an overwhelming view in the dialogues that a nation cannot recognise people they do not know or understand. The Aboriginal experience in Australian history is critical to recognition.” A valid point – and one on which progress is being made but not fast enough.
- why the Voice to Parliament is so important – which includes that it “could provide a front-end political limit on the parliament’s power to make laws for Indigenous peoples.” In other words, it could head problems off at the pass, avoiding the current situation where inappropriate or ineffective or, worse, discriminatory legislation is enacted, which then costs money and time to challenge.
Indeed, in terms of priorities, she writes:
The First Nations Regional Dialogues ranked the Voice to Parliament as the primary reform priority. The next priority was treaty or agreement-making. The third was truth-telling.
How gut-wrenching then for this priority to have been dismissed so summarily by Prime Minister Turnbull, as it was within four months of the announcement. Many of us are still shaking our heads.
I could say more because this is a rich essay – but this seems to be a good point on which to finish for the moment. I’m sure I’ll be saying more after I attend the session at the end of August.