What rhymes with colonial theft?

It is striking that this week, NAIDOC Week, the most substantial government discussion of Indigenous rights was the New South Wales premier proposing we change the word “young” to “one” in the national anthem, as if the legacy of colonial theft could be solved in half-rhymes.

“I feel for Indigenous Australians who don’t feel the national anthem reflects them and their history,” Gladys Berejiklian said. “I think if we say ‘we’re one and free’ it acknowledges that we’re not really young as a continent, we’re tens of thousands of years old when it comes to human inhabitants.”

The premier’s concern was triggered by rugby league players who chose not to sing along to the anthem, as if they were protesting against a single word and not a history of dispossession. “I’ve been mulling over this for a while,” she said. “It’s not the kind of issue I normally speak out on but when you’ve had a difficult year and see the resilience and strength of our people, we’re capable of so much more.”

A day earlier, the senate voted down a motion to fly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags in the chamber. Fittingly, the Coalition depended on One Nation to block the move. Rejecting symbolism often creates it.

Lidia Thorpe, one of three Indigenous senators to sponsor the motion, spoke to it before the vote. “I remind you all that we are on stolen land, and the Aboriginal flag represents the oldest continuing living culture in the world … The Aboriginal flag is what we identify with and connect with, just as you connect with the colonial flag that you love and appeal to. You appeal to the colonisers that colonised these lands and that’s why our–”

She was cut off. Her minute had elapsed. The manager of government business in the senate, Anne Ruston, had already made her statement: “The government believes that the Australian national flag, which represents all Australians, is the only appropriate flag to be flown in the senate chamber.”

This would look like pettiness, were it not obviously something worse. The noes are from the same government that rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart without consultation. This is the government that lied about the largest consensus project in Australian history and claimed it proposed a “third chamber” of parliament for Indigenous Australians. It did not.

This government is so afraid of Indigenous recognition that its leader cannot acknowledge Country without also thanking servicemen “on behalf of a very grateful nation”.

Berejiklian’s substitution came after the Australian Rugby League Commission briefly considered not playing the anthem at State of Origin. The idea so incensed the prime minister, Scott Morrison, that he called the commission’s chairman to ensure it didn’t happen. Matt Canavan says Berejiklian’s nibbling proposal “unfairly seeks to tarnish our ancestors”.

This government will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid engaging with the reality of our country’s past. It is not just about voting down a motion or pressuring a sporting code: it’s about resisting any culpability for colonisation – in our history or as it continues today. What they don’t see is how much it holds back the country, how much it forces us to live within a lie.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2020 as "What rhymes with colonial theft?".

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