Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 3: Indigenous Australians (1)

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

Sandra Phillips, Paul Daley, Shireen Morris, and Melissa Lucashenko

Sandra Phillips, Paul Daley, Shireen Morris, and Melissa Lucashenko

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.

The Voice

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.

12 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 3: Indigenous Australians (1)

  1. Interesting what Lucashenko said: I wouldn’t have described Too Much Lip as angry. Maybe I’ve interpreted it wrongly, but I thought that the book was saying that anger and grievance is proving self-destructive to Indigenous people and that *provided history is acknowledged and an apology is made* it’s better to reconcile if you can.

    • Interesting Lisa. I’ll have to wait until I read the book.

      Still, it’s sometimes hard to get the nuances right when taking notes while people are talking talking. As I wrote this I thought, hmm, did she say that about the book or more generally about a way to be! My notes implied it was about the book, but my memory wonders if it was more about an attitude for people to take (not necessarily her characters in her book.) I was actually thinking about this in bed last night, because I do think anger can be self-destructive. It may be that she’s saying, though she didn’t elaborate this at the time, “be” angry but don’t “behave” angrily. I think there’s a difference, and that the latter can be destructive while the former can motivate you to not give up, to keep going.

  2. Excellent review. Thanks. Last Friday my wife and I took the “Aboriginal Heritage” tour in the Botanic Gardens ($40/head x 90″ – which stretched to two hours) – just the two of us. Main guide was Henrietta BAIRD – originally from North Queensland – Cairns region – but Scottish ancestry (viz. Baird) too. A graduate of NAISDA – was Shirley in the 2016 revival of “Stolen” written by Jane Harrison (first director was Wesley Enoch – back in 1998) and has just written a play selected for production (next year?) We talked across the tour – native plants used in remarkable ways – food and other – and around the nature of our country – it’s Indigenous essence – people including writers we respect – Melissa Lucashenko and Marie Munkara, Bruce Pascoe – and Linda Burney – our various ancestries and links – I have some to Worimi and a family connection via a cousin’s children to a Stolen Generation Gurindji man (brought to mind as we admired the Botanic Gardens Sea Wall promenade paving of Indigenous sea creatures from illustrations by Gurindji descended woman Brenda L Croft). And Paul DALEY – I really admire his Guardian essays!

    • Thanks for this and for preserving with a second version and a shorter version Jim.

      That sounds like an excellent tour, and one I’ll consider when I next go to Sydney. I love learning about our native plants – and love trying the edible ones whenever I get the opportunity.

      Paul Daley is good value I agree – I’d love to find time to read his Canberra book.

  3. I wrote a lengthy response earlier – not appeared – and posted it two or three times! Marvellous your reviews of this seminar/session and of those following. Recently read Melissa LUCASHENKO’s book – and another by Marie MUNKARA (Stolen Generation – of sorts) and I really admire the essays in The Guardian of Paul DALEY!

      • Thanks, WG: Glad to know all my effort was not entirely wasted – the time with playwright/Dancer (NAISDA) Henrietta BAIRD was so important! And I loved this review from your attendance at the Festival – Fiona Katauskas a particular favourite. And you really know how to tantalise with your coyness re what was said/happening during this recent political musical scramble for the ultimate PM chair.

  4. It was an interesting discussion wasn’t it Sue? I really liked Melissa Lucashenko’s fiery blunt approach. It’s good that she says it like it is and more Australian need to listen. The politics of making change are somewhat depressing, though. I don’t know how we will ever get something suitable enshrined in the constitution!

    • Oh, well said Karen. Yes, I nearly used the word “fiery” for her. Fiery but respectful. I really loved the way they all navigated that – but presumably they knew where they stood in advance.

      But yes, the politics of making change is depressing. As they said, it’s currently stalled. I mean, how frustrating for them all. Now wonder Lucashenko said she just gets on with it, exerting her own sovereignty.

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