“Back in the black” – armband… and the white blindfold

Budget 2019-2020 makes a lot more sense when interpreted in the light of Scott Morrison’s first speech. Like most first speeches, it’s about how his personal values manifest in his political actions. And what those values expose about the current prime minister’s understanding of Australian history is quite telling.

‘Australia is a strong nation,’ said Morrison in that 2008 speech. ‘It is the product of more than 200 years of sacrifice — most significantly by those who have served in our defence forces …’ More than 200 years? Most significantly?

Most significant to the government’s recent cultural commitments has been the record-breaking half a billion dollars for the Australian War Memorial, at a time when no such investment is necessary and no monuments exist to the frontier wars that violently dispossessed Australia’s First Nations.

Following widespread outcry from veterans, budget 2019-2020 has now committed around half that amount — $278 million — towards improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families. Elsewhere in the budget papers we find a much smaller amount — the already committed $85 million — towards an Aboriginal Art and Cultures Gallery in Adelaide as part of its City Deal.

How does the prime minister understand our contemporary responsibility to First Nations sovereignty and culture? And how is this articulated in the budget? Let’s go back to that first speech.

Throughout the speech, Morrison contrasts First Nations people and culture with ‘modern Australia’ and ‘the modern world’. The dispossession of a land whose sovereignty has never been ceded is described as the ‘arrival’ of that ‘modern world’ and its violence is dismissed as ‘inevitable’. For our prime minister, this was simply the ‘inevitable clash of cultures that came with the arrival of the modern world’ and therefore not comparable to the ‘sacrifices’ made by defence force personnel.

Setting that ‘modern world’ apart from First Nations displays no understanding of the world’s oldest continuing culture. What about its future? ‘The government remains committed to the process of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples,’ the budget papers tell us, and $7.3 million is committed for 2019-20 only to fund ‘the co-design of options for a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’. The papers also make the commitment to ‘conduct a referendum once a model has been settled’.

The term ‘co-design’ is key. Rather than funding a respectfully self-determined approach that’s First Nations led, the government is committing only to ‘engagement and consultation’ with organisations and communities across Australia. And while the budget papers claim this approach is consistent with one of the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, the other recommendationsadvocate truth-telling and the establishment of a Final Resting Place in Canberra.

Engagement and consultation are complex words, full of the kinds of ambiguities that can preclude real commitment. Budgets make commitments by documenting future investments. Seeing no amount budgeted for that future referendum across any of the budget’s four-year projections does not inspire confidence in that commitment to constitution recognition.

When, after countless hours of rigorous discussion, hundreds of Elders present a Statement from the Heart to the prime minister, and that person dismisses it, what’s needed next is not more engagement and consultation. Especially when that gesture is received as more than just dismissive and more like an attack.

The next government has not only opportunity but also the weight of responsibility to act. This will mean speaking a language that doesn’t descend into buzzwords, but that listens with respect.

You can’t give a voice while denying histories. You can’t give a voice without listening. And you certainly can’t give a voice that was never yours to give in the first place.

‘I do not share the armband view of history, black or otherwise,’ says Morrison. ‘I like my history in high-definition, widescreen, full, vibrant colour.’ The white blindfold is a persistent affliction of our political leaders, obscuring both historical and contemporary Australian life in ways that remain closed to so much learning.

 

First published in Eureka Street on 3 April 2019. Image: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg congratulated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison after presenting his budget speech. Tracey Nearmy for Getty Images.