Derision and contempt

History is unpleasant to read, often because of who wrote it.

In 1977, working for The Bulletin, Malcolm Turnbull wrote a piece describing First Australians as “a Stone Age people”. He wrote about colonisation as the “seizure of a whole continent from a primitive people”.

After visiting Alice Springs with members of the Australian Law Reform Commission, he wrote: “As one large drunken black woman yelled obscenities at us across a park I decided the Aborigines could do no worse than us in governing themselves.”

These are the thoughts of a different time. It would be unfair to use them to claim a person’s hypocrisy. But it is a different argument if they show how little a person has changed, how they still have the high-handedness they possessed at 23.

Turnbull’s biographer, Paddy Manning, chose to leave out these clippings when he published his book, Born to Rule. He has since changed his mind.

“Now, however, more than two years into a prime ministership that has let down Indigenous Australians, those references seem more revealing,” he wrote in The Monthly recently. “I fear that when it comes to Aboriginal sovereignty, disadvantage – anything – the prime minister has a tin ear.”

When Malcolm Turnbull walked out on the release of a new report into Indigenous disadvantage this week, he walked out on a decade of failures. He walked out on the appalling disparity between black and white Australia, on education, employment and health. He walked out on a report that found First Australians had been “effectively abandoned” and that targets for betterment had been destroyed by budget cuts and political myopia.

Pat Dodson said Turnbull’s decision to leave the launch of the Close the Gap report was “indicative of the deafness, of the absolute derision and the contempt, which this government is meting out to the Aboriginal people”.

It has become part of a pattern in this government’s relationship with Indigenous Australia. It is there in the refusal to have a good faith discussion about Australian history and the celebration of January 26 as a national day. It is there in the dismissal by press release of years of consensus in the Uluru statement.

Paternalism is rife, with its associated hectoring and condescension. Targets move backwards, as do debates. There is no willingness to spend political capital on this, no willingness to even try.

The refusal to take the Uluru statement to a referendum, or even to a national conversation, was a clear indication of this. “History will ever remind Australians that at a crucial juncture of our history the prime minister lied,” Noel Pearson wrote of this decision, “and his lie was a slur on the country’s most unequal people – its First Peoples.”

The report on which the prime minister walked out this week found that the Closing the Gap strategy “persists in name only”. Targets have become fragmented, leadership is absent. “It is almost a full retreat …” the report said. “The nation is now in a situation where the Closing the Gap targets will measure nothing but the collective failure of Australian governments to work together and to stay the course.”

It is 40 years since Malcolm Turnbull “decided the Aborigines could do no worse than us in governing themselves”. His government has done everything in its power to make this true.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 10, 2018 as "Derision and contempt".

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