History matters

It could be made no clearer that Australia needs a formal process of truth-telling than when the prime minister says “there was no slavery” in this country.

Is it possible that he does not know? Could he truly be ignorant to the legacy of blackbirding, to the fact that Aboriginal people were forced into indentured servitude well into the 20th century?

If we respect our history, it is time to tell the truth. But respect for history involves knowing what happened.

And our leader is a man who said he wanted to spend $6.7 million commemorating the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing with a “re-enactment” of the Endeavour’s circumnavigation of Australia – a journey that never actually occurred – claiming only once corrected that it was a gaffe.

And our country, by and large, is comfortably locked in a wilful unknowing.

When discussion flares up, it’s quickly tamped down to the semantic. There are endless arguments about the definitions of slavery, of genocide – and definitions matter, of course. Accuracy matters.

But there is a pattern in the way Australia deals with the concerns raised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It comes back to the same tactics: isolate, minimise and dismiss. Make the issue seem as small as possible, relatable to as few people as possible.

A makarrata commission is the opposite of this cycle of denial and disregard. It forms part of an ongoing commitment to telling the truth about our country’s history, establishing a treaty with First Nations people and working towards self-determination.

Such a commission was offered as part of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and summarily rejected by the Turnbull government. Despite repeated statements about the need to work in partnership with First Nations people, Scott Morrison has not reversed this position.

He should do so immediately.

The truth is some 62,000 Pasifika people were brought to Australia to work in Queensland’s sugar fields in indentured servitude.

The truth is that Aboriginal people were bought and sold by pastoral landowners, treated cruelly and forced into labour.

The truth is that many states had laws on the books to allow the enslavement of Aboriginal people, often framed as being “for their own good”.

Just last year, Queensland settled a class action lawsuit over stolen Indigenous wages, agreeing to pay $190 million.

It came 13 years after the senate’s own standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs published a report acknowledging the truth of Indigenous stolen wages entitled “Unfinished Business”.

Scott Morrison’s ignorance to history stands as a reflection of Australia’s inability to reckon with itself and what it is built upon. But he is a leader of a country that needs to hear the truth.

Accepting the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for a makarrata commission is the right way to start that process.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 13, 2020 as "History matters".

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