The “Uluru statement from the heart”, produced by a meeting of several hundred Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in late May, put the final nail in the coffin of the billion dollar bullshit of the “Recognise” campaign.
This rejection – most forcefully by the minority of radicals who walked out of the process entirely –made clear what anyone who bothered to listen to Aboriginal voices could have known from day one: Indigenous people will not countenance cheap symbolism instead of real rights and compensation for the wrongs done to them.
To revive the now dead process, Noel Pearson and other Aboriginal (and non-Aboriginal) conservatives came up with a proposed “Aboriginal voice to parliament”. Yothu Yindi’s iconic song “Treaty” begins with the line, “Words are easy, words are cheap”. But apparently even mere words are not cheap enough for Turnbull. The “voice to parliament” recommendation of the Referendum Council has proven too much for the racists of the Australian government. Last week, with Turnbull in the lead, federal cabinet rejected even this tokenism.
There was a sketchy attempt to blame the mass of the population for this – the idea allegedly was “not capable of winning acceptance in a referendum”. But the real reason hid in plain sight in the government’s statement: even having to listen to Indigenous people is not “desirable”.
The rejection of his great idea produced a wave of heroic self-pity from Pearson, writing in his vehicle of choice, the Australian. “I will never get those hours and days and weeks and months back. Am I a sucker for hopeless causes? Why would anyone put their life’s work in the hands of people who possess the power to dispose of the subject of your work with only a cursory and fleeting consideration?”
Throughout his article, Pearson emphasised how meaningless and powerless his scheme would have been, as if this was a good thing. His hand-wringing about how little he’d asked for was very revealing: “a non-binding say in our affairs. Not a veto. Just a voice. Not radical, as the government falsely claims, but modest”. In Pearson’s view, this is how to get things done: ask the powerful very politely for very little.
But far from weakness making the powerful kindly deign to give a few crumbs, it signals to them to be more ruthless. Further proof – not that there was any lack of it previously – that the oppressed and exploited in this world get nothing without a fight.
The famous words of 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass (who had abolished his own slave status by escaping) are very relevant here:
“If there is no struggle there is no progress … This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”
Being moderate has never got Aboriginal people anywhere. To add further insult to the 229 years of injury, the government’s statement rejecting the “voice to parliament” said: “Our democracy is built on the foundation of all Australian citizens having equal civic rights”. Actually it was built on precisely the opposite – dispossession so that the profoundly unequal system of capitalism could be developed on this land.
All the big changes that have broken through the apartheid structures of Australian society, that have gained some recompense for genocide in all its forms, have come from Aboriginal struggles that have been radical and collective, and that have engaged the solidarity of sections of the non-Indigenous population, most powerfully the rest of the organised working class.
The well-known struggle of the Gurindji for equal pay and land rights in the 1960s and 1970s, and the working class support it gained across the country, illustrate this solidarity perfectly. It is a tradition to be rebuilt, in opposition to that of asking our oppressors nicely.