Opinion

Claire G. Coleman
How political fear erodes Indigenous rights

Recently on Twitter – although it wasn’t the first time and surely won’t be the last – former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed responsibility for delivering marriage equality. In reality, he did nothing of the sort: what he delivered was a non-binding postal survey on legalising same-sex marriage, at an eye-watering cost to the taxpayer.

His postal survey was quickly weaponised by far-right and Christian groups, who saw it as an opportunity – in the name of political discourse – to excoriate, abuse and vilify LGBTQIA+ people. Many others identified this risk and tried to no avail to warn the PM off pursuing this divisive approach.

Conscious of his legacy, Turnbull would say he was being pragmatic, that the postal vote was the only way to achieve the necessary outcome, the affirmation of a single word: yes. To me, and to others, he appeared cowardly.

Turnbull is not alone. Most Australian politicians, particularly those in the two major parties, lack the political will to do what the majority, and perhaps even they personally, support. Instead, politicians pander to conservative ideologies, driven by the morbid fear of criticism from a small but vocal minority.

Australian politics is, for the most part, power without passion. And nowhere is this more stark than in Aboriginal affairs.

Each year on January 26, thousands of Australians march in Invasion Day protests against the date, and the very existence of “Australia Day”. We march against Black deaths in police custody and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights.

For years now in Melbourne, at the biggest Invasion Day rally in the country, marchers have broken through the barriers and onto the route for the official Australia Day parade, walking past the flag-wavers and tourists there to celebrate the nation, whatever that means. Every time I have been in the city on this day, I have marvelled at how the size of the march dwarfs the official parade and its onlookers.

Despite the difficulty of protesting during a pandemic, some are predicting as many as 200,000 people will join the Invasion Day march this year.

And yet, there is no push from within government, or from the opposition, to change the date. Scott Morrison has not reversed Turnbull’s cowardly rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and Australia languishes as the only Commonwealth nation without a treaty with its First Peoples.

Part of the issue is the fragility of white folk in Australia. In a manner most befitting a nation infested with white nationalism, the whitefellas here take umbrage at any perceived slight. The reaction to proposed change is so spasmodic, so histrionic and wildly disproportionate, it would almost be funny if it weren’t so often violent.

While it often accuses the left of ignoring logic in favour of feelings, Australia’s right wing seems driven almost entirely by emotion – exploding into paroxysms at the slightest whiff of political correctness.

A perfect example is a cheese with a racist slur as its brand name that is currently being changed to the innocuous, and frankly silly, Cheer Cheese. The discourse on social media has been brimming with people complaining the original name was not a slur and needn’t have been changed. The cheese, they say, was harmlessly named after Edward Coon, the man “who revolutionised the speeding process of making cheese”. But the cheese now known as Cheer never used the “Cooning” process in its production. And the slur was already used in Australia against Black and Aboriginal people when the cheese was first named.

It seems obvious the name should have been changed a long time ago. Nobody should be made to see that word while they are walking through a supermarket. But academic and anti-racism activist Dr Stephen Hagan had to campaign for more than two decades before the cheesemaker agreed to change the name.

In the end, it was a marketing decision by the owners of the brand, made in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. But that did not stop the manufactured outrage, the outcry from white nationalists who think their right to attack Black and brown people has been infringed.

Perhaps they fear the slippery slope – that other slurs may become unacceptable, that they will lose a right they should not have, to abuse and vilify people of colour. And you can rest assured they have saved their most menacing vitriol for Black people, not the brand: it is Hagan who has received death threats over the change.

In the end, though, the renaming of a cheese is a gesture that doesn’t dramatically advance Indigenous rights in Australia.

The same should be said of Morrison’s announcement earlier this month, with great fanfare, that “young and free” would be replaced in the Australian national anthem with “one and free” – the most tokenistic of nods to the fact the cultures of this continent’s First Nations peoples are among the most ancient on Earth. When the prime minister could have announced a new national day that does not insult Indigenous Australians, when a new national anthem could be written, Morrison’s courage extended to only a single word.

Social media went berserk. Many people complained it was “political correctness gone mad” or dredged up some other dramatic grievance. Most Aboriginal people I’ve spoken to simply wondered why Morrison made this change, instead of any of the more important structural reforms for which we’ve endlessly campaigned: treaty, a Voice to Parliament, a makarrata commission, accountability for Black deaths in custody, an end to the mass incarceration of Indigenous people, or raising the age of criminal responsibility. On Wednesday, a review by the United Nations excoriated Australia’s human rights record, with particular attention paid to Australia’s age of criminal responsibility, which sees children as young as 10 imprisoned and Indigenous children jailed at 18 times the rate of non-Indigenous children.

Morrison did not ask Aboriginal people about the anthem change – it was an executive decision, a demonstration that the government can certainly act fast when our leaders aren’t afraid of political backlash. But just like Hagan, it is Aboriginal people who will almost certainly bear the brunt of any anger about the prime minister’s decision.

This is the inevitable status of a political environment whose moods are governed by the fear of noisy, sometimes violent backlash. I cannot remember the last time an Australian politician took a risk on something that showed real initiative. Except perhaps in 2019 when the newly appointed minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, came out in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and was immediately shot down by his own party.

This problem isn’t limited to the Coalition – both major parties have long been guilty of failing to act because they are afraid of reaction from white nationalists. In 1988, after receiving the Barunga statement, Bob Hawke promised treaty to Aboriginal people within two years. He later cried when he failed to deliver on his promise, unable to face down the hard-right Liberals and the resistance within his own party.

In the decades since, the ability of governments to act with moral conviction, particularly on Indigenous affairs, has deteriorated. We are now, essentially, no further forward, not through the actions of federal government at least, and the path ahead is being narrowed.

The Morrison government is holding consultations on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament but has explicitly rejected its enshrining in the constitution. While the Coalition plays lip service to the concept, it lacks the political will to enact actual change. Earlier this month, after a year of consultation, two potential models for the voice were made public. Notably, neither option will have the power to prevent laws coming into force, a clear attempt to assuage those who fear the voice will act as a “third chamber” of parliament.

Our prime minister is not a brave man. One of the few world leaders to fail to condemn Donald Trump over the Capitol insurrection, Morrison seems to believe inaction, silence, is neutral. More than two years into his prime ministership, his convictions remain invisible. As voters, we are responsible for this crisis of leadership – again and again, we vote for this kind of empty politicking and punish courageous action.

When you look at the history books, though, there were times when Australian governments did the right thing, even at considerable political risk. I think of Gough Whitlam pouring sand into the open hand of Vincent Lingiari, a moment captured in an iconic photo by Murri photographer Mervyn Bishop. The gesture was, of course, symbolic, but it was not empty – it made vivid the return of land to the Gurindji people. Supporting land rights was just one of many risks Whitlam took, one of the times he did what he thought was right, regardless of the political consequence.

Even after all this time, Whitlam is remembered and loved. I wonder how people will remember Scott Morrison? Perhaps it will come down to a single word: afraid.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2021 as "A single word".

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Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar author whose debut novel, Terra Nullius, was long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize. Her second novel is The Old Lie.