The newly elected President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Tony Bartone, has stated that the AMA will push for Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution, after the AMA endorsed the Uluru Statement. This might mean that materials supporting Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution might appear in doctors’ surgeries. Why is the AMA doing this? According to the ABC, Dr Bartone said that ‘we can’t really seek to close the gap when it comes to health outcomes until we address the fundamental building blocks… [The Uluru plan could improve] the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.’
With all respect to the new President, this is to draw a long bow indeed. The AMA could move to intervene in the Peter Ridd case, on comparable grounds: the restoration of Professor Ridd could improve the mental health of very many academics, and their families as well. Or it could appear in the current banking Royal Commission, on the ground that what happens to people hardly done by through the decisions of bank staff affects the health of families everywhere.
The news item pushed me to read the Uluru Statement again. Short and moving, it is a year old, and made quite a noise when it appeared. But, rather in the fashion of Dr Bartone’s belief that a treaty, and all that goes with it, is a necessary stage in the improvement of health, the Statement itself invites the belief that Constitutional change will bring about all sorts of marvellous things: ‘When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish’. It is not clear to me what ‘power over our destiny’ means or could mean, or why children would flourish in consequence. The significant requests in the statement seem to be some kind of Treaty, the establishment of a ‘Makarrata Commission’ that will both supervise the process resulting in a Treaty and lead to ‘truth-telling about Aboriginal history’, and ‘a First Nations voice in the Constitution’. These goals are Constitutional in nature, and don’t obviously lead to an improvement in the quality of life of Aboriginal people, though they might make some Aboriginal people feel better.
Maybe they could lead to a significant improvement in quality of life in the very long run, for the future is unwritten. But what has happened in South Africa, which had its own version of ‘truth-telling’, and where the formerly oppressed native peoples have political power, does not suggest that the Uluru Statement’ goals are likely to be effective even in the long run. I would not be at all surprised to learn that a substantial proportion of non-Aboriginal Australians would have sympathy with the aims and the tone of the Statement. I have some sympathy myself. It would be relatively easy for such sympathisers to vote Yes at a referendum. Some would.
But I do not think this is the way to go. I don’t think it will deal with the problems of domestic violence and child abuse in Aboriginal rural settlements, about which we know a good deal. These are real problems, right now. While I am not sure that it is in fact the case that Aboriginal people ‘are the most incarcerated people on the planet’, it is true that young Aboriginal men are in prison in disproportionate numbers. That is another real problem, right now.
Yes, there is some rejection of Aboriginal people in the big cities, where 70 per cent of them actually live. But there is also a good deal of acceptance, and of course most of them have jobs like everyone else, and co-exist in their workplaces like everybody else. Aboriginal faces appear in advertisements in television. Young men with nothing to do are a problem in any society at any time. The cities provide opportunities for sport, creativity and work, which are central aspects of living in any city in any Western nation. Bringing those central aspects of life to remote settlements strikes me as an endeavour that is worth trying. It would have more immediate effects for good, I think, than the proposed Makarrata Commission. Ending the provision of ‘sit-down money’, in the context of new opportunities to work, develop one’s creative skills and play sport, seems another linked possibility.
The early parts of the Statement arouse in me a protest about language, in particular the appropriation of words that carry the kind of emotional loading one wants to bring to a debate. One is the conscious use of ‘First Nations’. I think this is a borrowing from Canada, as is the use of ‘tribes’. All my reading of Australian prehistory tells me that there were no ‘nations’ present on the continent when the English arrived. What Europeans encountered were small extended family groups that moved around what they saw as their territory. They negotiated with other like groups for trade, wives, salt, precious things. Some of their elders would have had a good grasp of some neighbouring languages and dialects. They had no strong sense of private ownership equating to ‘freehold’ in our culture. They could not sell their land, and saw themselves as stewards, if we need to find a familiar term in English culture.
They were not tribes, as the term is generally used. A tribe is much larger than an extended family. If the tribe is large enough, and covers enough land, you can see in it an emergent nation. It will have a single language and rules and responsibilities that apply to all members. North America had hundreds of tribes, and you can see a map of them here. And they were able to bring together impressive numbers of warriors as well. One website refers to 14 major battles between US forces and native Indians. The Maoris in New Zealand also had large tribes, and they too were able to wage war, often successfully. At the peak of these hostilities 18,000 British troops were used against about 4,000 Maori warriors.
There simply is no comparison with the Australian experience. What Australia had was a great collection of small extended family groups, with more than 250 distinct languages, established trade routes and traditional meeting areas. Common estimates for the number of Aboriginal people living in Australia in 1788 range from about 300,000 to a million, about as many as there now. They were never able to provide a strong force of warriors, and had no way of enlisting large numbers of other Aboriginal people to their cause, wherever they were.
So a bit of home-based ‘truth-telling’ in the Uluru Statement would have made it more acceptable. Some of the Statement revolves, predictably enough, around the notion that Aboriginal people were here first and therefore have some status, and perhaps rights, thereby. Alas, any knowledge of 19th century history points at once to the overwhelming probability that European powers would have taken over the continent by 1900. The Portuguese might have acquired Australia in the 16th or 17th centuries. The British, French and Dutch all landed here at different times, and the Germans were a bit late on the scene, but managed to acquire a slice of Papua New Guinea. For what it’s worth, my guess is that the British were probably the best bet for the Aboriginal people, given what might have happened. Something was going to happen, and no European power was going to take any notice of the claim that ‘we were here first’. That the claim can be voiced now simply shows that Aboriginal people actually have some real status in this nation of some 25 million people. They can make such a claim, and people will listen, and many will nod sympathetically.
But Constitutional changes as set out in the Statement need approval through the referendum process, not just sympathy. I think the Statement proposals have no chance at all. It will be hard to develop sensible questions to put to the voters, and no less easy to show what all the effects of such changes would be. In the meantime, to repeat, there are real and serious problems involving a small proportion of the Aboriginal people, those who live in remote settlements. Fixing them will be difficult and time-consuming, and governments of both major parties have given up and put them in the too-hard basket. It’s time, well past time, that they were brought out again.
Yes, that will require some bravery. No, there is not a lot of political bravery about. But Treaties aren’t worth much — and without a real ‘nation’ there is no one to have a treaty with anyway.