A common praise for a book is that the reader “couldn’t put it down.” But David Marr’s new book, Killing for Country, which documents his family’s history as professional killers of Aborigines in New South Wales and Queensland in the mid-1800s, is a eulogy he must continue to belittle.
It’s not just the brutality of the large-scale murders documented by Marr that requires regular pauses, but also the voices of white people discussing them – either in the coldest pragmatic terms or in terms of horror.
The frightening fact is that no matter what was actually known or protested at the time, the killings did not stop.
Marr’s story documents events that were not just cases of roundups of Native people accused of crimes, or events that occurred in the early years of white settlement, but also systemic shootings and poisonings of people living on land they had lived on for thousands of years. years old, or who have perhaps adapted to peaceful life in train stations, or even to work in the city.
This continued at least until the 1890s.
The immediate horror of history clashes horribly with our self-image and the noble ambitions of those who oversaw the federation and the drafting of our Constitution, as the former judge in Chief Justice Robert French in a speech to the National Press Club this week.
Noting resonances with the current referendum debate, French cited some of the opponents of federation and the constitution at the time, with one contributor observing that “the people are not ready to federate; he does not know what it means; (and) their leaders and their newspapers are not intelligent enough or honest enough to try to teach them what that means.”
He quoted the then Premier of Queensland, Samuel Griffith, observing that “there is no doubt that here, as everywhere, there will be timid men who are afraid to try anything new; but when has anyone ever achieved a great thing without risking something? .
French observed: “The Australian spirit evoked by the slogan ‘I don’t know, vote no’ is but a poor shadow of the spirit which framed our Constitution.” It invites us into passivity full of resentment and lack of investigation.
Connecting the past to the future
Headlines from the former chief justice’s speech focused on his assertion that, in his view, the Voice posed no constitutional or legal risk.
But his speech also manages to connect, in a way that has often not been possible, the past and the future enshrined in the Voice debate.
“It doesn’t take a sweeping view of history to conclude that colonization did not bring absolute benefits to our First Peoples,” he said. “Nor does it take complicated logic to conclude that we are living today with the intergenerational effects of this collision.”
Whatever your opinion on the idea of The Voice, it’s not just about the abhorrent racism revealed by the debate over it – which has seen Indigenous people on both sides of the debate subjected to abuse and threats of death – it is also about the spectacular failure, hypocrisy and opportunism that has repeatedly manifested itself among our politicians and which has already marked this as another ugly chapter in our history.
The willingness of some sections of the media to perpetuate misinformation, and other sections of the media to get lost in attempts to unbalance, has made a reasonably rational debate on what a permanent advisory body to parliament and the government is almost impossible. the executive, whose actual mandate would be defined and controlled by parliament, which could have both symbolic and practical significance for Indigenous Australians.
Once again it seems that our leaders and our newspapers “are not intelligent enough or honest enough to try to teach Australians what this means”.
And it’s not because these leaders didn’t know it.
Conflict over how to help indigenous people
French quotes John Howard – now a staunch campaigner against The Voice – from 2007, saying:
“I believe we must find space in our national life to formally recognize the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the first peoples of our nation. We must recognize the distinctiveness of identity and indigenous culture and the right of indigenous peoples to preserve it. The crisis of indigenous social and cultural disintegration requires a stronger affirmation of indigenous identity and culture as a source of dignity, self-esteem and pride .
Now, Howard said, people should vote no to “maintain the rage” against the Voicewhich he said would create “a new conflict over how to help indigenous people.”
Conflict over how to help people – if conflict was what the Voice produced – is apparently a worse outcome than the possibility of resolving “the crisis of indigenous identity and culture.”
Howard’s self-described political love child, former prime minister Tony Abbott – who has always claimed a special interest and affinity for indigenous people – said this week that, rather than sue The Voice, “We should end separatism, which has beset indigenous politics for several decades now.”
“Aboriginal people are excellent Australians,” he told ABC RN, “and they should be encouraged to integrate into the mainstream of our society.”
What “integration” means is as unclear today as it was when Abbott advocated “integration” of services for Aboriginal people when he was prime minister.
And if there is a model that currently defines how Aboriginal policy is executed at the federal level, it is the one imposed on us by Abbott as Prime Minister when he insisted that Aboriginal affairs be the responsibility of the department. of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – a department with no experience in service delivery.
Block change, whatever the truth
There are no longer any activists who regularly rail against a mysterious bureaucracy that would worthlessly swallow up billions of dollars in wasted funds for the benefit of indigenous peoples.
This would be the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the body created by the Morrison government and resulting from the structure put in place in PM&C by Abbott.
The Coalition also appointed an Indigenous Advisory Council “to provide advice to the government on Indigenous affairs, (focusing) on practical changes to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
The council’s first government-appointed chairman – who appears to have a job much the same as that offered for The Voice – was another prominent No campaigner, Warren Mundine.
The fact that the policies that many prominent politicians leading the No campaign are campaigning against actually come from their own political camp, or are based on their own previous statements and their own political heritage, is simply ‘one more depressing aspect of what has proven to be a very biased debate.
Coalition figures, from Howard to Peter Dutton, insist their difficulty lies not in constitutional recognition but in The Voice’s specific proposal.
Robert French estimated Friday that the very act of recognition proposed by the referendum “is the creation of the Voice”.
“I agree with John Howard that recognition in the Constitution is a strong affirmation of Indigenous identity and culture,” he said.
“A stronger and more practical affirmation will give substance to this recognition through the creation of a constitutional voice in Parliament and the executive government,” he said.
After several months of bitter debate, his words remind us that we are back at a point where it seems that whatever the truth, we will not let it lead to any change.
Laura Tingle is 7:30’s chief political correspondent.