Linda Burney Andrew Bolt

What a shame that Andrew Bolt was pitted against Linda Burney as the headline acts in Recognition: Yes or No?, the ABC’s attempt at a civil and balanced debate on the question of indigenous recognition and constitutional reform. I was left longing for more Stan Grant or Mick Gooda than we got, because Bolt had mostly free rein with his simplistic line of argument while Burney lacked the firepower to make the obvious counterpoints.

In truth I’m glad I endured the full hour because I finally understand where Bolt’s coming from. He yearns for a world where each of us is just “Andrew”, the post-racial utopian dream of colour-blind equality. His claim that “there wouldn’t be many Australians more against racism than me” is his literal truth.  

Bolt appears to lack any empathic qualities whatsoever, which isn’t his fault but does lead to his terminally tedious flaw: obsessive rationalisation of deeply emotional social issues. Simply, he lectures on discrimination with the fully assured authority of a person who has never suffered from it. The depth of his moral/philosophical objection to constitutional recognition stops at “why can’t we all just get along?”.

The importance of this lack of insight is that Bolt’s measured tones represent a gaping chasm between the two sides of the recognition debate. As I’ll explore next time, the complex legal issues have to be understood in that context. First, though, a couple of Boltic red herrings need to be dealt with.

Bolt and Burney visited a man in Cairns who, according to Bolt, illustrates this existential risk:

“If you say you want the constitution changed, and put in a new version that says we gotta respect Aboriginal culture, that leads to treaties, this is the logical outcome where some groups will say ‘We want our own nation.’”

Murrumu (formerly Jeremy Geia) has seceded from Australia and declared his property to be the sovereign Yidindji Nation. His legal ground for this is Australia’s accession in 2009 to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which (he argues) recognises indigenous Australians’ entitlement to declare their own identity and participate in their own government. All he’s done is take up those rights to declare independence, and he is keen now to sign a treaty with Australia.

How the hell did Linda Burney allowed herself to be so sucked in by this crap that she actually told Murrumu “I think this is an extraordinarily brave and fascinating exercise … yeah, I do approve of it”? No, Linda, it is delusional, self-indulgent tripe. Bolt got to make his killer point — “if we go down this path, this is where we come to” — but spare me. The ABC might as well have wasted its money flying Bolt and Burney to visit the Principality of Hutt River in WA, a proudly sovereign nation since 1970 and equally full of shit.

To address the legal non-risk posed by Bolt: the UN Declaration has no legal force in Australia, and it never will. It’s an aspirational statement of admirable intent, but no government, anywhere, will ever import its provisions into domestic law. The Yidindji nation does not exist in law, and none of the mooted reforms to the Australian constitution will change that.

A second detour followed, to New Zealand. There, Bolt found a kindred spirit in former National Party leader Don Brash. Brash made a speech in 2004, from opposition, described by Bolt as “a brave speech, where you warned about this tendency to divide in New Zealand Maori from non-Maori”. In it, Brash said that the principles of the Waitangi Treaty, as interpreted in modern times, “are the thin end of a wedge leading to a racially divided state and we want no part of that. There can be no basis for special privileges for any race, no basis for government funding based on race.”

The nub of the argument, enthusiastically applied by Bolt to the Australian situation, is that New Zealand’s deadly mistake was to take the step not just of recognising its own indigenous people as a political entity, but making a legally binding treaty with that entity. Cue Bolt’s deep conviction that race is nothing but a fictional construct and that, therefore, no law should ever tacitly endorse its existence.

The New Zealand analogy is every bit as instructive as Bolt contends, but not in the direction he’d prefer. The history of English colonisation of New Zealand has as many confronting and unpleasant elements as that of Australia; the outcome, however, was very different.

The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, recognising all Maori as British subjects and extending theoretical equality under the law to them. The treaty was ignored for a long time in practice, but today forms the legal foundation for a constructive, long-term attempt to redress the historic wrongs of forceful dispossession and wanton disregard for a longstanding cultural attachment to land.

There remains a big argument in New Zealand about what Brash helpfully referred to as the “entrenched treaty grievance industry”. The practical application of a principle of recognition and redress is inevitably difficult. Former NZ prime minister Jim Bolger (also of the National Party) acknowledges this, but he speaks to a subtler understanding of legal philosophy than Bolt and Brash seem capable of grasping. Consider this argument, about the connection between recognition and advancement of indigenous people:

Bolt: The question is whether the one is necessary to achieve the other.

Bolger: Why are you fearful of your history? You’re putting your whole emphasis, Andrew, as I read it, that there are these issues to resolve, but we don’t need to resolve the founding document … but it does reach a hurt, and I’d imagine a very deep hurt within a person, within a society, within a community, which is your indigenous community.

The fact is that New Zealand, unlike Australia, once upon a time recognised with the force of law that it had previous owners. It took a long time for this to turn into momentum for accepting the lived consequences of that historical reality for an indigenous people who lost everything in the wake of white conquest. But at least they’re trying to deal with it.

In Australia, we face an equally complex inflexion point, with a powerful difference. By constitutional amendment in 1967, we recognised indigenous Australians as equal people. By High Court judgment in 1992 (Mabo), we accepted that the indigenous Australians living here in 1788 had legally recognised rights to the land of which they were then dispossessed without treaty or compensation.

What we haven’t yet done is take the logical next step, of recognising the historical facts of dispossession and denial of human dignity to the custodians of a culture pre-dating all others by tens of thousands of years.  

Bolt is right, and completely wrong. Race is a scientifically debunked concept, and wouldn’t it be lovely if none of us gave a stuff about colour, creed or ethnicity? Yes, it would. Truth is, though, many modern-day Australians do not share Andrew’s blissful inexperience of discrimination because of how they look  Reality bites like this:

Andrew Bolt: I want less of the “our people, your people, us and them” – more of the us.

Stan Grant: So do we, Andrew, so do we. But you know what, we were told forever, “You are not us.”

The hurt, until it is finally and completely acknowledged, will remain.  Small ask, in my view.