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As we commemorate National ‘Sorry Day’, Kiran Gupta assesses the progress that has been made in achieving justice for First Nations Australians and presents some further changes to be made.
Australia’s treatment of First Nations Australians has been abhorrent. There’s no sugar-coating it. From the Myall Creek Massacre to the Stolen Generations, our history is shameful to say the least.
To refer to Australia’s treatment of First Nations Australians as simply an historical wrong also perpetuates a false narrative that we have worked our way towards substantive equality. This is also categorically false. First Nations Australians make up more than 29% of Australia’s prison population and are incarcerated at more than 10 times the level of the general Australian population. The cycle of intergenerational trauma is continuing. And it is structurally reinforced all around Australia. Can we really truly say ‘sorry’ when not enough is being done to combat these issues?
Some may argue that we have started on the path toward substantive change in the past year through the increased awareness generated by media attention and protest movements such as Black Lives Matter. However, a bio change on social media doesn’t inspire social change. And little has changed at all. Former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Professor Tim Soutphommasane says, “[have the anti-racism protests] changed Australian society, or prompted a stronger stance against racism from our institutions? One year on, [they haven’t].” So much for your black box on Instagram.
It’s perhaps hypocritical of me to write an article on this issue. After all, what difference is one article going to make? But what I want to share today are some substantive ways that we can start towards some semblance of equality. I stop short of using the words ‘reparative justice’. Because nothing can truly be reparative. Certainly not just a ‘sorry.’
So how can we genuinely move forward? The Uluru Statement from the Heart suggests improved parliamentary representation as a concrete way to improve the prospects of equality for First Nations Australians. It states that increased parliamentary representation would allow First Nations Australians to take a “rightful place in [their] own country.” The most popular proposal to ensure this representation and recognition is the ‘Voice’ proposal which aims to enshrine a First Nations voice in the Australian Constitution. This could involve the placement of a First Nations ‘consultant’ in Australian parliament.
Critics such as Malcolm Turnbull have argued that the ‘Voice’ will create a third chamber of parliament. However, First Nations Constitutional Law Professor, Megan Davis states that the ‘Voice’ would provide a more advisory input into First Nations decision making and facilitate greater political participation through a designated forum. By enshrining a ‘Voice’ in the Constitution, there is symbolic recognition but also a conferral of legitimacy on First Nations perspectives. This will ensure that the parliament maintains a more representative character.
Davis emphasises that the ‘Voice’ proposal has a focus on substantive recognition rather than mere symbolism. She notes that previous parliamentary attempts at recognition have been largely symbolic and without legal effect. To this effect, she criticises a number of proposals such as the Howard Government’s proposal to include a preamble to the Constitution that recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in 1999 for being inconsequential and deflecting the focus from substantive change.
This brings us to an important point. Loose bipartisan support for First Nations recognition without any commitment to substantive change is not helpful. In fact, Davis argues that it is actually detrimental as it stifles progress due to a lack of meaningful dialogue. If everyone talks in vagaries, then nothing will be solved. This is a serious issue. Serious discussions need to be had. There is often an anxiety about talking about issues of race in Australia. But that simply cannot happen here.
It’s clear that the importance of ‘Voice’ in parliament extends beyond the political sphere. Davis has argued that a ‘Voice’ would generate greater media traction around First Nations issues, which could potentially contribute to greater awareness. This is another key area where change needs to occur. As long as First Nations voices are not being heard in media, it is going to be very difficult to make change. Stories need to be heard; traditional media narratives need to be upended. If things are to change, journalism cannot simply placate the status quo and those who maintain it. Instead, journalism needs to shine a light on these issues and be the first to inspire social change. There’s a long way to go to reach that point. Perhaps it is unrealistic to believe that could ever happen. But a ‘Voice’ in parliament would be a good way to start.
You might have noticed that all of the things I have raised today stem around one main issue: representation. Because while politicians can ‘talk the talk’ about improved outcomes for First Nations Australians, the statistics only demonstrate one thing: First Nations Australians are still grossly underrepresented in most areas of Australian society. And given our history as a settler-colonial nation, is this really that surprising? In order to promote broader social change, First Nations voices need to be heard. And not in a tokenistic way either. In a real, meaningful way. Until this happens, talk of apologies and reconciliation seems remarkably hollow. It’s just not enough. So, whilst it is certainly important to acknowledge today as an important day in Australia’s history and continue in the spirit of reconciliation, we must remain aware that there is a long way to go still. Of course, commemorating ‘Sorry Day’ is a very good start and is something that is very important for First Nations Australians. But ‘sorry’ is not enough. We need to do more.
The truth may be uncomfortable. But it’s something we all need to address.