A GREAT many of us who do not have indigenous heritage feel a gnawing discomfort when discussing issues that pertain to Australia's first nation people.

We worry what we say might be rude, or insensitive or - worse - culturally offensive.

And those in decision-making positions go where angels fear to tread in telling indigenous people what they need rather than asking them.

This is the way of the past, and it has not done much to build bridges or help to improve our First People's lives.

In this vein, the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull managed to inelegantly place his foot on to very sticky paper on ABC's Q&A on Monday night.

In response to a measured and pertinent question about the need for an indigenous voice in law and policy making, he suggested that Aboriginal people were represented very well by federal indigenous Members of Parliament Ken Wyatt, a Liberal, and Linda Burney, of Labor.

Noel Pearson signs the Uluru Statement which was dismissed out of hand by the government. (Pic: James Croucher)
Noel Pearson signs the Uluru Statement which was dismissed out of hand by the government. (Pic: James Croucher)

The questioner's response was absolutely on point: while they may well do stellar jobs they, like all politicians, represent their parties primarily. They are not there to speak for indigenous people, but for their electorate and it is rude to suggest otherwise.

Turnbull's haughty and condescending response to lawyer Teela Reid was the cream on the cake for a year of dismissiveness in matters of giving our indigenous people a voice.

It started with so much positive potential. And the need is so great.

But the landscape continues to be, generally, bleak. Indigenous Australians are at a serious disadvantage in health, education and employment.

Among other things, they have the highest incarcerations rates of any First Nation people on the planet. Their children are disproportionately taken from their family homes and placed with non-indigenous carers.

Australia promised to close the gaps but this year, again, it was found to be failing in all key measures except one.

Indigenous people need a direct voice in the political processes that affect them directly.

Malcolm Turnbull’s response to indigenous lawyer Teela Reid’s question on Q&A was condescending and haughty. (Pic: Brad Hunter/The Australian)
Malcolm Turnbull’s response to indigenous lawyer Teela Reid’s question on Q&A was condescending and haughty. (Pic: Brad Hunter/The Australian)

This year, they found a way to bring about that change, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart won consensus among the many delegates and experts from regional dialogues, in working groups and the convention at Uluru - something politicians should admire.

The Uluru statement sought a constitutionally enshrined voice to Parliament and the establishment of a commission to investigate a treaty.

Rightly, the dialogues had rejected symbolic recognition, like a constitutional preamble or statement of acknowledgment; it called for something that was to be built in, such as constitutional recognition, not that could be waved off.

But the resolutions were dismissed out of hand.

The Government bent the intent and meaning, saying it was tantamount to calling for a third, indigenous house of Parliament when, clearly, what was proposed was a constitutionally enshrined indigenous voice, which would have the ear of Parliament, not be part of it.

In a year when our public loudly called for same-sex couples to have the right to marry, we continue to make decisions on our First People's behalf.

We learnt from the same-sex marriage journey that it takes a lot of noise to bring about change. It is time to use our now well-oiled voices to correct this other injustice.

Incidentally, indigenous people have suffered grave discrimination on the marriage front too.

Until the 1960s, they could only marry with government permission if they lived in certain states, including Queensland.

That change was partly driven by a media campaign that fought for a couple's right to marry: an indigenous woman Gladys Namagu and white drover Mick Daly had been denied permission by the Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory.

Their story captivated the Australian media and attracted coverage overseas and they became known as the Romeo and Juliet of the outback.

The couple was eventually allowed to marry in 1960 and the Menzies government ultimately gave an assurance that no form of discrimination would ever be written into any marriage legislation.

That promise was clearly non-binding.

Within Australia, indigenous people's claims have been predominantly addressed through citizenship rights, which most Australians think were granted through the 1967 referendum.

But in that year, the majority of white Australians voted in favour of a referendum that did not give indigenous people citizenship rights.

The referendum led to changes to the constitution in two sections: one enabled the Commonwealth to make laws on behalf of any racial group and the other was removed to allow indigenous people to be counted in the census.

Making decisions for indigenous people is churlish and patronising and has not had a positive outcome.

The time has come to do better, and put the power in the right hands - those outstretched, capable and wanting.


Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalism lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

News Corp Australia

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