Robert Manne
Dawning of Abbott’s belief in Indigenous constitutional recognition

Tony Abbott is the most right-wing prime minister in the history of Australia. No prime minister since Sir Robert Menzies has been so deep an Anglophile. Even John Howard was surprised when Abbott decided to bring back knights and dames. No prime minister – not Menzies, not Howard – has offered more unconditional and automatic support for American military action. No democratic leader has expressed more conspicuous indifference to the international struggle against catastrophic climate change, as witnessed in his decision, effectively, to boycott this week’s New York meeting of world leaders. And yet there is one dimension of Abbott’s political character that does not fit with his wall-to-wall conservatism – his interest in the wellbeing, according to his lights, of Aboriginal Australia and his personal “crusade” for Indigenous constitutional recognition.

This dimension of Abbott’s politics first became apparent in February 2013 when, as the leader of the opposition, he spoke on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill. According to Abbott, Australia was a “blessed country” except for one thing: “We have never fully made peace with the first Australians.” Abbott described this failure as “a stain on our soul”. Until it is accepted that Australia was once a “fully Aboriginal” country, “we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people”. We have to do now what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago: “acknowledge Aboriginal people in our foundation document”. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this speech was Abbott’s unambiguous praise for the “moving” words Paul Keating had delivered in 1992 at Redfern Park. Redfern remains the most unflinching recognition by an Australian prime minister of the tragedy of the dispossession.

When he became prime minister Abbott showed that these words were not an aberration. He began to prepare the ground carefully for a referendum on constitutional recognition. He appointed a parliamentary committee led by the two Indigenous members of the parliament, Ken Wyatt and Nova Peris, to consider the report of the expert panel that had reported to the Gillard government. And he let it be known that success at a referendum was one of his most heartfelt prime ministerial ambitions. Clearly there is something peculiar in the Abbott discrepancy – the hidebound conservative genuinely interested in reconciliation – that needs to be explained.

My explanation begins with two words: Noel Pearson. In 2005 Pearson delivered the Mabo Oration on the place of Indigenous Australians in the nation. His speech concluded with these words: “The political truism that only Nixon could go to China is pertinent here. Only a highly conservative leader, one who enjoys the confidence of the most conservative sections of the national community, will be able to lead the country to an appropriate resolution of these issues. It will take a prime minister in the mould of Tony Abbott to lead the Australian nation to settle the ‘unfinished business’ between settler Australians and the other people who are members of this nation: the Indigenous people.” This was remarkably prescient. It was also part of what Pearson describes as his political “long game”. At the time, Abbott was no more than a middle-ranking member of the Howard cabinet.

Under Julia Gillard, Pearson joined the expert panel considering the question of Indigenous constitutional recognition, established in the compact with the Greens. For him, however, the planets only began aligning favourably as it became obvious that Abbott would become the next prime minister. For Abbott, as he admitted recently, conversion to the cause of Indigenous constitutional recognition was long in coming. There is every reason to believe that it came primarily because of Pearson’s friendship and tuition.

Over the years, it is Pearson who has made a case for recognition that might have some prospect of success. Its gradual development can be seen in the anthology of his writings, Up from the Mission. It has now been brought together in his Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place. In essence, the argument goes like this. Australia is a “triune nation”, formed of three parts: Indigenous heritage; British cultural, political and legal foundation; and successful immigrant integration through the philosophy of multiculturalism. Pearson rejects the conservative anxiety that the retention of either Indigenous or immigrant identity threatens to splinter the nation. In contemporary societies individuals have what he calls layered identities. Part of the identity of Indigenous Australians is traditional culture, language and love of homeland; another part, the education that will allow them to operate effectively in the modern economy. As Pearson puts it in A Rightful Place, like other peoples Indigenous Australians can live under the influence of both the liberal economist Adam Smith and the cultural pluralist Johann Herder. There is no need to choose between economic participation and fidelity to tradition.

There was once, according to Pearson, a time when Indigenous Australians had no place in the nation. This time has passed – through citizenship, the franchise, legal protection from racial discrimination and limited common law access to their lands through native title. Yet full acceptance as part of the triune nation still awaits recognition in the constitution. Until that recognition, Australia will remain an incomplete nation.

As Pearson understands, constitutional change in Australia is dauntingly difficult. In left–right politics, 51 per cent support is sufficient; in constitutional politics, support must approach 90 per cent, as it did in the 1967 Indigenous referendum. A long time ago, when thinking about political support for his plans to tackle the alcohol, drug and passive welfare breakdown in remote Aboriginal communities, Pearson became convinced that friends of the Indigenous peoples could be found among the conservatives of rural and regional Australia. In thinking now about Indigenous constitutional recognition, this idea, about a broad coalition including conservatives, has been extended. To garner the 90 per cent support required, the only possibility is an Australian version of the Nixon-in-China phenomenon. The leadership of a trusted diehard conservative such as Abbott is vital.

What are the prospects of success? In A Rightful Place Pearson quotes a comment made in 1959 by the great anthropologist, W. E. H. Stanner: “To the older generations of Australians it seemed an impossible idea that there could be anything in the Aborigines or in their tradition to admire. The contempt has perhaps almost gone.” Unhappily, Stanner was wrong. In recent years, the old contempt has returned. One source is the editor of Quadrant, Keith Windschuttle. His revisionist history of the genocide in Tasmania not only minimises the number of deaths but also argues that Aboriginals had no attachment to country and were the “agents of their own demise”. Another source is the former Labor minister Gary Johns. In postwar Australia no writer has treated Aboriginal culture with greater contempt. Here is a typical passage from his book Aboriginal Self-Determination: “What if the [Aboriginal] culture is no more than people behaving badly, a result of blighted environments, poor incentives, awful history, and an historic culture best relegated to museums and occasional ceremonies? … Aborigines did not prosper in Australia. They merely survived.” A third source is Australia’s most influential tabloid columnist, Andrew Bolt, who regularly attributes the contemporary malaise of life in the remote communities almost entirely to traditional Aboriginal culture, and derides any warm-hearted description of the world of the Aboriginals before the arrival of the British, while apparently blind to the racism. 

As Pearson understands, writers such as these are influential on the right of the federal parliamentary Coalition. Come the referendum it is hard to estimate how many will side with Bolt rather than Abbott. Even more troublingly, such writers have created a public opinion of uncertain size contemptuous of Aboriginals. Pearson’s political logic is based on the idea that the hard right can be isolated from Abbott-led conservatives and everyone to their left. But if the hard right cannot be contained to a rump of 10 per cent, and if right-of-centre opinion is, on balance, opposed to recognition, then the referendum will most likely fail. 

There is a different kind of problem with relying on an arch-conservative to lead the campaign for recognition. The Gillard-appointed expert panel favoured the removal of the idea of “race” from the constitution but also advocated constitutional protection against racism, recognition of Aboriginal languages, and a generous declaration acknowledging and respecting the Aboriginals as Australia’s first peoples. As soon as their report was tabled Abbott opposed the idea of constitutional protection from racism as a mini bill of rights, a classic expression of contemporary Australian conservatism. Eventually, conservative opposition to any mention of Aboriginal languages also became clear.

A referendum question doing little more than removing references to race in the constitution would be a far from satisfactory outcome. Arch-conservative leadership on constitutional recognition might in the end reduce the scope of recognition so radically that the question put to referendum might actually be opposed by a sizeable number of Indigenous Australians. Such an outcome would be of course grotesque. Pearson has tried to overcome the problem of diminishing hopes by floating the idea of a stirring declaration outside the constitution, and the creation inside the constitution of an Indigenous body restricted to providing the parliament with advice. Whether such ideas will be supported by other Indigenous leaders or by conservatives is presently unclear.

There is a final problem with this whole question. During the 1990s, under Keating and Patrick Dodson, there existed an atmosphere of intense hopefulness about the role reconciliation might play in the creation of a better nation. In May 2000, at its climax, hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across the bridges of Australia in support of a reconciliation ceremony at the centenary of Federation, an idea which, unforgivably, the Howard government quickly killed. The mood of hope was still not extinguished, however, as the passions stirred by Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations demonstrated.

More than anyone, Noel Pearson was responsible at this time for turning Australians’ attention from exclusive interest in symbolic reconciliation to the crisis of life in the remote Indigenous communities. This was an act of high political intelligence and courage. But it was not without risk. As Pearson understood, concentration on community dysfunction might revive the oldest Aboriginal Australian stereotypes lying just beneath the surface of national consciousness. In the past years the old stereotypes have indeed resurfaced, encouraged by both the hard right’s advocacy of assimilationism and their expression of unconcealed contempt for Indigenous culture. If the referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition is to succeed, the partnership of Abbott and Pearson will somehow have to rekindle at least some of the hope of the Keating–Dodson years. This will not be easy. For perhaps the deepest problem facing Indigenous constitutional recognition is not the old Great Australian Silence concerning the dispossession but something even older: the Great Australian Indifference to the fate of this country’s first peoples.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 27, 2014 as "Dawning recognition".

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Robert Manne is the author of Left, Right, Left and Making Trouble. He is emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University.

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