Opinion

Thomas Mayor
Getting the people behind the Uluru statement

Recently, I read Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay, Follow the Leader. I was seething with anger at the time, having just read that the member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, had lectured Indigenous leaders about realpolitik from his comparatively comfortable perspective. Tingle’s essay comprehensively and articulately describes the many failings of “leaders” in politics today. Interestingly, though, the essay also touches on our own failings as “followers”.

This article is my perspective as one of the First Nations leaders in the struggle for substantive constitutional recognition. I expand on what Tingle describes as perhaps the most spectacular example of a trend of ignorance from political leaders – “the closing down or ignorance of Indigenous contributions to the debate about Indigenous affairs”.

For more than a year I have travelled the length and breadth of our vast continent as part of the struggle to build a people’s movement for the Uluru Statement from the Heart. To see the Uluru statement’s aspirations delivered in full, we must persuade politicians to give the Australian people the opportunity to vote at a referendum to constitutionally enshrine the key reform in the statement – a First Nations voice to parliament. I am gravely concerned for our hope of substantive constitutional recognition, because both the Labor Party and the Coalition have already shied away from such a great task.

In October last year, the Liberal National Party under then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the call for a referendum on a First Nations voice to parliament. Once bitten, twice shy: Turnbull – who failed miserably as the leader of the “Yes” campaign in the 1999 referendum asking Australians if they would support becoming a republic – was far from the quality of leader required to deliver meaningful First Nations constitutional recognition.

In a joint statement, Turnbull, George Brandis and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said: “The government does not believe such a radical change to our Constitution’s representative institutions has any realistic prospect of being supported by a majority of Australians in a majority of states.” This despite polls indicating otherwise. The dishonesty and/or ignorance continued on morning radio last week, when the latest prime minister, Scott Morrison – who I call the “interim” prime minister – continued his predecessor’s dishonest claim that the First Nations voice will be a “third chamber in parliament”.

On the other side, Labor’s Warren Snowdon indicated a worrying mindset at a hearing of the joint select committee on constitutional recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on September 11. In an SBS article, “ ‘Our mob are dying’: Indigenous leaders urge referendum on Indigenous voice”, Nakari Thorpe reported that in response to a joint statement from Indigenous leaders at the hearing, pressing the urgency of a First Nations voice referendum, Snowdon is reported to have said, “It seems there is no acceptance of the realpolitik here”.

As if First Nations people are unaware of the realpolitik – a realpolitik where First Nations barely have a voice in the decisions that are made about us.

Snowdon went on to say: “It is very unlikely that if we come up with a set of words that we all agreed with that we would get a referendum. That’s reality.”

Do other politicians who claim to support the Uluru statement call for a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution believe this too? Snowdon’s comments caused me to wonder whether the “reality” is that the easiest path – to legislate the voice to parliament, not to enshrine it by referendum – has already been chosen.

Snowdon was cautioning one of the greatest, most-celebrated, stoic and experienced First Nations leaders of our time, Pat Anderson. The comments from the member for Lingiari make me wonder if he understands what Anderson and the more than 1300 First Nations people worked through to achieve a consensus. That process, and outcome, should give Snowdon vigour, not disdain.

First Nations people overcame the mistrust caused by so many hopeful moments, dashed on the rocks of political expediency. We united despite the divisive strategies perpetrated against us by governments and corporates. We gathered at Uluru in the heart of the nation, baring our still weeping wounds, and we passionately participated in the culmination of more than 40 days of regional dialogue across the entire continent and its adjacent islands. We carefully considered the history of our struggle, the many broken promises, and the way the Constitution and political system excluded us. We learnt from the way our representative bodies have been repealed in the past. We contemplated why so many royal commission and expert panel recommendations have disappeared into the abyss in Canberra.

After all we went through, does Snowdon really believe we are so detached from the realpolitik?

Anderson plainly responded to Snowdon’s fragility, “Well, we are doomed then.”

Is this sad response from politicians since Uluru due to arrogance? Is it ignorance? Are they racist? Each of these three descriptors certainly applies to some members of parliament. But I believe there is more to it.

Laura Tingle’s essay highlighted the many problems with political leadership today. In the chapter titled “Popularity contests”, she points to the rising expectations that we place on political leaders to “move in to the moral realm” as other voices are diminished. Tingle refers to the debate on same-sex marriage as one that was dominated by politicians until the “unrelenting pressure from outside the system … forced the paralysed leadership to move at last”.

Tingle referred to the “closing down or ignorance of Indigenous contributions to the debate about Indigenous affairs” as one of the more spectacular examples of a trend where politicians dominate a debate, while not paying heed to voices from “outside the system”.

The joint select committee inquiry continues, with regional hearings almost complete. Co-chairs Pat Dodson and Julian Leeser may have already begun work on the final report that is due on November 30 this year. I wonder if Snowdon will close down more Indigenous contributions. I wonder if Prime Minister Morrison will continue his dishonest “third chamber” argument. Or will we decide to hold them to account?

The essay, Follow the Leader, from my perspective, is ultimately a challenge for those of us who are outside the system to look at ourselves as a fundamental part of the problem in Indigenous affairs. We allow our political leaders to remain comfortably ignorant. And while they are comfortably ignorant, they will fail us as leaders.

In the house of power, built on a hill in Canberra, one major party sits in a comfortable armchair while the other sits at the dining table. Occasionally, lethargically, they both glance across the plush green and red carpet to a door that is nailed firmly shut. Their forebears, more than 200 years ago, nailed the door shut and locked out the First Nations people who owned the hill for 60 millennia. The hill that belonged to First Nations was stolen. Of late, those in the big house of power have experienced a strange new feeling. A feeling of guilt. But the armchair is so bloody comfortable. And, of course, there is the fear that the other in the room will steal their seat, should they be bothered to get up.

From the comfortable seats, on the stolen hill, in the warm house of power, “leaders” in parliament from both political persuasions have cautioned First Nations about “reality”. Our “leaders” in parliament remain firmly in the blissful comfort of the status quo.

“The question I ponder is whether the rest of us are prepared to give leaders like Obama the space to find a compromise, or the support to push through a deal,” Laura Tingle writes in Follow the Leader.

First Nations people have knocked on the door many times before. William Cooper walked up to that door. They didn’t hear him knock. The Yolngu, the Larrakia, the First Nations who gathered at Barunga, they all had a turn knocking on that door. The political class hardly stirred.

But now we have the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This time, First Nations people from all parts of the country have united and are knocking on that door, and we have invited the Australian people to knock with us.

When we all knock on the constitutional door with raucous passion, when we the Australian people are loud enough, we will rouse the politicians and end their comfortable status quo. Then they will use the rusty old referendum key and let First Nations in.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Unlocking political heart". Subscribe here.

Thomas Mayor
is a Torres Strait Islander, Northern Territory MUA branch secretary and signatory to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.