My father, in his more despondent moments, will say to me: “Son, they don’t care about us.”
“They” are Australians, and “us” are Indigenous people.
My father is not a man of bitterness, nor without hope. He says it with resignation and sadness, not with anger.
It comes from hard experience. My father has lived a life of struggle. As a Wiradjuri man he was born in to the harshness of Australia’s frontier. Raised on missions and fringe town camps, he has seen family taken away, felt the sting of poverty and exclusion and lived at the whim of the state.
He has worked to keep alive our culture and our language. He helped lead a revival of Wiradjuri language and established a post graduate language studies program in Wiradjuri culture at Charles Sturt University. It is open to all: Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. My father believes in love and reconciliation. He has kept our language alive as a gift to this nation. He knows there has been some progress, progress that has been hard won and led by us.
Yet, care? When we remain the most impoverished and imprisoned people in the country, where is the care?
What matters to Australians?
This federal election campaign has reminded us what matters to Australians. Interest rates, inflation, housing, defense and security.
We even managed to find time to devote two weeks of headlines to nasty, vilification of trans women in sport. Whatever the pros and cons of that issue, it is hardly an existential crisis. The numbers are so small, yet the vitriol has been so intense. But that’s what Australians and our politicians and the media apparently care about.
Where are we, First Nations people? In the only leaders debate thus far in the campaign not one question was posed about Indigenous issues.
Seriously, ask yourself whether any Australian will change their vote because of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
We are just 3 per cent of Australia’s population, yet 33 per cent of the prison population. Indigenous youth suicide is among the highest in the world.
Will we vote for our own hip pocket when, after two centuries, the socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people remains as wide as ever and worsened by some measures?
Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have said barely anything. Even the teal independents who apparently offer an alternative to the tired politics-as-usual have not made Indigenous people a priority. The environment yes, but us no. Green is in, black is out.
Albanese’s nice sentiment is light on detail
In his campaign launch last weekend Labor’s Albanese said he was proud to “share” this continent with the world’s oldest living continuous culture.
A nice sentiment. But Indigenous people don’t feel as though we “share” the land with other Australians. You can’t “share” something that was taken from you. And doesn’t sharing imply some equity? Where is that? After the obligatory welcome to country, do we disappear back into the shadow?
Albanese did commit to implementing in full the Uluru Statement from the Heart which calls for truth-telling, agreement-making and a “voice” – a representative body that can help shape policy directed at First Nations people – enshrined in the constitution. Albanese says Labor will take it to a referendum. But when? Where is the detail? How long do we wait?
It is easy to say in an election campaign but in office buried under the weight of 24/7 news and endless crisis, clinging to a slim majority (if even that), facing an obstructionist opposition, can we count on that commitment then?
Pardon the skepticism but Indigenous people have heard this all before. Bob Hawke led a Labor government that promised a treaty and then walked away in the face of opposition. As Yothu Yindi sang, Indigenous people know that “promises can disappear just like writing in the sand.”
Morrison asks: ‘Why would I?’
Scott Morrison this week made it abundantly clear where he is on a referendum. “Why would I?” I have asked. It isn’t government policy, he said. The Coalition wants to build a “voice” up from the grassroots. He has offered more consultation and more discussion. More waiting.
But the Uluru Statement emerged from just this grassroots process. Months of discussion with First Nations people all around the country. Not all agreed, and there is righteous opposition, but the Uluru Statement does reflect a broad consensus.
That was five years ago. Here we are again, still waiting. Still a second order issue. Or is that a third, fourth or fifth order issue?
Why would I? Morrison was likely speaking what many people think. Obviously he calculates there are votes in blocking the constitutional voice. Well, let’s flip that question: why should you?
Morrison is a Christian. He should know well the teachings of scripture. The book of Job, the book of suffering, that Indigenous people can well relate to. Job tells us about those who look away from us. Job 12:5:
“Those who are at ease have contemplated for misfortune, as the fate of those whose feet are slipping. The tents of marauders are undisturbed.”
We, First Nations people of faith, also read Job, we know our scripture. Job 13:2: “What you know I also know; I am not inferior to you.”
Where is our morality now?
Are we at ease in this country to turn away from those who suffer the greatest? Can we not recognize the inherent humanity of First Nations people? If not faith then what about the foundations of Western thought: modernity itself?
Political conservatives are fond of quoting Enlightenment philosophers as the bedrock of modern liberal democracy. Well, how about Immanuel Kant? His categorical imperative of him placed good will above all. We must not forsake our own moral goodness whatever the price. We do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
In this way we create a universal maxim. We act as we would like to be acted upon. Kant said we should not treat humanity merely as a means to an end.
Let’s fast forward a few hundred years to someone considered among the greatest political philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls. Building on Kantian ideas, he proposed ordering society around a veil of ignorance. We should, he argued, construct a system of justice not knowing whether we will be born white or black, male or female, rich or poor, or any other categorizations.
What would we consider fair and moral? How would we feel if we were born Indigenous? Would the world look just to us?
Rawls said if there should be any benefit in society then it should flow to those most without. I doubt John Rawls would ask, “Why would I?”
There are real discussions to be had about Indigenous constitutional recognition. About justice and morality and fairness. They are discussions for people with good faith. We do not have to agree but these conversations should not be ignored. In this campaign we are not even having the conversation. People like my father are beyond being disappointed. Little more is expected.
Why would I? Because maybe it is about you. Is Australia failing its own morality? Is it failing the test of its faith, of its liberalism and democracy?
I’d hate to think Australians don’t care about us. The question, though, is do they care about themselves?
Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and presents China Tonight on Monday at 9:35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on the ABC News Channel, and is a co-presenter of Q&A.