The Uluru Statement is a source of hope
The man who loomed up beside me was like the north Queenslander from central casting. He had big canecutter’s hands, and a neck burnt red from the sun, which may also have reflected his politics. “You can have all the government-paid steak dinners you like,” he told me, “but you won’t change anything for blackfellas.” He told me that “your mob” need to work and take responsibility for their lives.
I was in the far north as a member of the Referendum Council, a body appointed to crisscross the country to consult on constitutional change. Our minds were on justice, political rights, self-determination, treaties and sovereignty, but the big Queenslander – who’d likely grown up with Indigenous people and counted some as friends – reminded me that Australia has generally preferred assimilation with a big dose of “fair go”: get a job, work hard, close the gap and become Aussies like the rest of us.
Ultimately the Turnbull government told us the same thing, rejecting the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for a representative Indigenous body – a “voice” – enshrined in the constitution to advise and shape government policy. It was a “third chamber of parliament”, the government said; it gave Indigenous people rights other Australians don’t enjoy. Put simply, our liberal democracy wasn’t big enough or innovative enough to resolve the deep historical wound in our country. We were reminded again that we could not finish the unfinished business.
I have grappled with this in my two latest books, Australia Day and On Identity. I have tried to widen the lens on Indigenous issues, to remove the myopia that often surrounds these questions. There is a stultifying banality to much of the analysis and discussion: as a writer, too often I have found myself walking down an ever-narrowing path that leads to the restrictive boxes of race and identity.
I have felt hemmed in by the revanchist politics of grievance and resentment of one side and the say-no-to-everything conservatism of the other. I have tried to write myself free; to ask if the promise of liberal democracy can work for us. It is a question much of the world is grappling with right now. We are witnessing a return of authoritarianism, fuelled by a resurgence of tribalism, sectarianism, arch-nationalism.
Each year, the independent watchdog organisation Freedom House takes the pulse of liberal democracy around the world, and the prognosis is disturbing. Democracy is in recession; there were fewer democratic states in 2018 than the previous year or the year before. Freedom House says freedom itself – rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of faith – has declined for 13 straight years.
Why should this affect Indigenous political aspirations? Because Australia is caught up in this great unravelling; our liberal democratic project is feeling the strain too. What we see elsewhere, we see here: growing inequality, stagnant wages, deindustrialisation, advanced technology, less workplace security and congestion have all unsettled us. There is a loss of faith in institutions – the law, the church, our banks. Declining support for major political parties has led to more electoral volatility.
As politicians look to exploit the fringes, and governments are reluctant to implement reforms, what chance do Indigenous issues have? Yet these questions are fundamental to who we are as a nation, as a people: identity, the legacy of history, the challenges of diversity and pluralism, whether government can be truly representative.
While other nations – from Britain to the United States, Hungary, Poland, France, Turkey, Russia and many more – face their own tests, this is ours: whether our liberal democracy – from which the First Peoples were excluded – can meet the challenge of our times. In my books I ask: What is it to belong? Have we become an atomised society of individuals, estranged from each other, disconnected from faith and community? Is this why so many are seeking to retreat into their own identities and tribes?
Liberalism was meant to deliver “the end of History”: a world of globalisation, universal human rights, freedom of movement, free trade. But it has unsettled our world and history is back. This is what the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra has dubbed “the age of anger”. There is increasing suspicion and mistrust in our world. There is a blowback against immigration and refugees, as people – quite understandably – feel they have lost their countries.
This is fertile ground for the populist politician who feeds on grievance and anxiety and seeks to pit people against each other. Identity has emerged as the most potent and toxic political issue of our age. Mark Lilla, the American political scientist and writer, says this is disastrous for democracy, societies reduced to “us and them”.
The American political scholar Amy Chua calls this political tribalism a 21st-century law of the jungle, where we are apt to tear each other limb from limb. She says it has already triggered a revolution in American politics, putting Donald Trump in the White House.
Tribalism, identity: this politics of the permanent enemy comes straight out of the playbook of the early 20th-century German political philosopher Carl Schmitt. Conflict, he said, was the lifeblood of politics: a battle of “good versus evil”. Schmitt said we reach “the high point of politics” when “the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognised as the enemy”.
Democracies have become a competition for recognition and power, which risks rendering our polity fractured and unworkable. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls this the “politics of difference” and says it “can inflict a grievous wound”. Taylor contends that equal recognition is vital for a healthy democratic society.
At a time when liberalism and democracy are under strain, the Uluru Statement from the Heart provides a glimmer of hope. It speaks against the age. How remarkable that people historically locked out of the Australian dream can believe in the constitution – can have faith that our nation’s founding document can work for them.
It asks hard questions: can liberal democracy, built on the foundation of the freedom and liberty of the individual, recognise the rights of a group? Other countries – New Zealand, Canada, the US – have met this challenge. The Uluru Statement asks Australia’s political leaders to have vision and courage. It asks much too from Indigenous people. Can we set aside historical grievance? Can we look to a civic unity with our fellow Australians, beyond our difference?
The Uluru Statement is not about the politics of identity; it is an antidote to the toxic politics of our age, which seeks to free Indigenous people from the “torment of powerlessness”. As it says:
“When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.”
We haven’t heard a lot about the Uluru Statement in our election campaign. It is a question too big for the hustings. It tests whether Australian democracy can hold a place for everyone – including those whose numbers are so few, whose history is so unfair and whose burden is so heavy. In the Yolngu word “makarrata” it asks us all: can we make peace after our struggle?
Stan Grant’s new books, Australia Day (HarperCollins) and On Identity (MUP), are available now.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "True democracy". Subscribe here.