I planned to write a combined post for my last two events of Day 1, given both focussed on Indigenous Australians, but there was so much that I wanted to document (for myself, at least) that I decided to devote a post to each. There was, though, some overlap in terms of issues discussed, albeit from different perspectives. One of these was the fraught issue of “sovereignty.”
GR60: First things first
This event drew from Griffith Review’s 60th issue, titled First things first, which I referenced in my recent introductory post on this year’s festival. The event was advertised to be a panel: Dr. Sana Nakata, Shireen Morris, Paul Daley and Melissa Lucashenko moderated by Dr Sandra Phillips, but, as happened with most panels I attended, one person – here, Dr. Sana Nakata – didn’t appear. It was, however, an excellent session, albeit one which reminded us of the challenges still ahead for Australia. Given the session’s topic, the panel clarified who was (Phillips and Lucashenko) and was not (Daley and Morris) indigenous.
Moderator Dr Sandra Phillips was also the co-editor of First things first. She introduced the participants, and briefly described the edition’s genesis in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the implications of then PM Turnbull’s rejection of the Voice. She then asked the participants to explain why were taking part in the panel. From there the conversation flowed somewhat organically, with Phillips injecting the odd question as needed …
Melissa Lucashenko said that when it comes to the issue of sovereignty, she’s somewhere in the middle, because she can’t claim to speak on behalf of anyone, beyond her family, until there is an elected model.
Constitutional lawyer and advisor to the Cape York Institute, Shireen Morris, described the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which resulted from an extensive consultative process, as historic. There were only 7 dissenters out of 250 delegates, albeit some dissent is good she said. The delegates coalesced around the idea of a Voice, so Turnbull’s outright rejection has been devastating.
Lucashenko was not as positive as Morris, feeling that the process had been rushed. She wasn’t convinced that the delegates had a mandate to represent all indigenous people. Here, political journalist Paul Daley, responding to her question, confirmed that our original Constitution was developed over 10 years. Phillips, however, felt that the consultation had been thorough and, further, had built on significant work preceding it (and on “the back of continuous failure to resolve things”.)
So, there was a difference of opinion about the Uluru Statement but the discussion remained completely respectful and focused on facts, on exploring ideas, and on sharing information. Lucashenko reiterated several times that she is very interested in the Voice but is concerned about what it would look like, how it would be made representative. Meanwhile, she said, she exerts her own sovereignty everyday.
Morris’ focus is constitutional reform. She strongly believes that getting something significant into the constitution is important because it’s harder to change, harder to get rid of (than something legislated, like ATSIC!) But, of course, this means that change is hard to get into the constitution too! So, the Voice needs to be in the constitution. Morris argued that the idea of a Voice can be enshrined in the constitution (via a referendum of course) with the details worked out and legislated afterwards. This is not an unusual process – but, of course, it requires trust, doesn’t it? Morris said the government should be working on the details now!
Later in the session, Morris said she’d argue that First Nations sovereignty was never ceded, and that the constitution is “squashing down” their sovereignty. Substantial constitutional reform is need to allow First Nations sovereignty to shine through, to express itself in a permanent way.
Daley commented that the Uluru Statement asks Australians to walk together “for a better future” for all, but that the immediate response of the then Deputy Prime Minister was that “that’s not gonna happen” and, of course, Turnbull dismissed the request for a Voice to considered a few months later in a press release. There was general agreement that the “whitefella political position is dire.” There was fury that ATSIC was killed off because of concerns about corruption, but the same thing doesn’t see whitefella institutions pulled down.
The other important issue coming out of the Uluru statement is the need for truth-telling. The panel discussed Daley’s contribution to GR60, his truthtelling essay “Enduring traditions of Aboriginal protest” about the two indigenous men, Jimmy Clements and John Noble, who “turned up for the royal opening of the new Commonwealth Parliament building in Canberra” on 9 May 1927. Their story has never been properly told, and indeed in most reports and stories, the two men have been conflated into one. Daley sees their attendance as their assertion of Aboriginal sovereignty and as part of ongoing indigenous protest and resistance. Daley said that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves, and that the story of the frontier is there in Trove (yes!), if you want it.
Phillips added that contemporary Australian history is so short, there is no excuse for our not knowing the full story of our country. She argued that literature (meaning, I think, forms like fiction and poetry) plays a role in the truth-telling process.
At this point there was discussion of Lucashenko’s latest novel Too much lip, which Phillips said was about Aboriginal family relationships, about history and how “what happened in the past is with us today.” Lucashenko added that her characters are living in an age of depression and anxiety, but “don’t be depressed,” she said, “be angry.” She talked about the challenge of making these “hard” stories funny. For her next project, she’d like to write about colonial Brisbane. Trove – and archives in general – abound, she said, with “stories of resistance.”
Phillips added, cynically, that despite all these stories we end with lead characters in films that are Red Dogs! (Oh dear, my Red Dog post is still in my top ten posts.)
Daley talked about the novel he is writing. It’s inspired by the 1948 American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, and in it he explores how the expedition was seen by indigenous and non-indigenous people. He realises it’s a cultural fraught thing to do, but he will, he assured Lucashenko, get indigenous assessment of what he’s written.
Phillips noted that there’d been millennia of successful governance in this country, and 230 years of destruction and oppression. Repairing this needs time, but we all need to be part of the dialogue. Meanwhile, she hoped, the panel had provided some illumination of the issues we are all facing. Yes, it did, I’d say.
This is getting long, and there were quite a few questions, so I’m just going to summarise some of the main points that arose:
- ATSIC represented a minimum model of what indigenous people want/need but she, Lucashenko, has good memories of it. It was killed off because, she said, white people don’t like indigenous people managing resources.
- The Constitution issue is currently at a complete impasse, because our current (white) politicians appear to have no will to engage with the Uluru Statement.
- Indigenous groups don’t need to wait for the Federal Government to act and are in fact working at local, regional and state levels to forge agreements.
- Representation models for the Voice to Parliament could vary across the country depending on the needs and desires of different indigenous groups.