A matter of respect

The photo is red earth and a line of bodies, snaking the length of the frame. Climbers locked shoulder-to-shoulder in a desperate push to summit.

They fill the surrounding campgrounds, and every motel for a hundred kilometres. Their rubbish on the roadside, their black waste dumped in the backyards of unsuspecting properties.

For so long, the Anangu people have asked visitors not to climb Uluru. They never banned the practice, asking only for respect, “that, as a guest on Anangu land, you will choose to respect our law and culture by not climbing”.

Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima.

The message is clear: to climb is to disrespect, to desecrate sacred earth.

But too many have not listened. And so, in October, after years of back and forth, the route will close to the public.

And so, the tourists flock, before it’s too late.

For the Anangu people, this land holds the deepest cultural significance. It was in this place that more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from across the country chose to gather and commit themselves to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The site was marked as base camp, as the framers invited the Australian people to walk with them on their trek – not up, but out, “across this vast country … for a better future”.

If the right question can be found, that future will involve a constitutional referendum on a First Nations voice to parliament, as Ken Wyatt confirmed on Wednesday in his NAIDOC week address to the National Press Club in Canberra.

And so, it begins – the debate.

Still sharp in memory is the ugliness of the same-sex marriage postal survey, a vote that showed Australia remains a deeply homophobic country. There is little doubt the racism in our culture, the particular venom directed towards our First Nations peoples, will come out of the woodwork over the next three years.

To change the constitution requires this vote, but not the hateful rhetoric. Not least when all that is being asked for is respect.

In Wyatt, there is the hope of a figure who can usher this through, limiting the damage done. Perhaps, as we move towards this referendum, non-Indigenous Australia can stifle its desire to trample, to dominate, and instead see a moment to listen. Content to sit at the base of this ancient and awe-inspiring history we have inherited and to pay our respects.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 13, 2019 as "A matter of respect".

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