It is possible the National Party’s sudden announcement that it will oppose the Indigenous Voice is primarily about pathetic internal Coalition politics, as the ABC’s David Speers has reported.
But there is a deeper, darker reason the Nationals were always going to oppose the Voice: The inability of much of their country base to come to terms with their heritage, with their families’ pasts, with the source of their wealth.
The psychology of denial runs very deep. Odds are there are National Party Boomer elders whose grandparents were involved in “dispersal” – the euphemism for genocide in Queensland and throughout Northern Australia. If not grandparents, then certainly great-grandparents.
Those forebears had to inculcate values in their children that justified massacres, theft and dispossession. Who wants to be proud of what they’ve built when it has been built on murder?
Values are inevitably passed down, if only subconsciously. Not everyone, not always, but often enough.
The casual dismissal of blackfellas as less human was necessary to murder them and then to live with stolen land soaked in blood.
That morphed into the casual dismissal of blackfellas as lesser citizens and then as nothing special, as not deserving anything whitefellas aren’t entitled to. Cue One Nation.
It remains a means of self-justification, of whitewashing history, of denial of history.
Who wants to think about their father as a war criminal? Or, in time, their grandfather? Who wants to face the knowledge that everything we have in this fabulously rich country, all our wealth and privilege, has been built on a massive crime?
Not only Nationals, of course, or people of any particular political party.
An easy example: Monarchist, former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and Liberal Party leader, Alexander Downer. While complaining about his daughter failing to win his former seat of Mayo, he boasted of his family of nation builders. His grandfather’s role in supporting and defending multiple massacres didn’t seem to matter.
“An examination of the injustices and massacres of the frontier period reveals his name (Sir John Downer) more frequently than any other Adelaide politician,” wrote Tony Roberts.
Judging by Alexander Downer’s Australian Financial Review column in July, he seems to be in “the Voice won’t make any difference to close the gap” camp, the National Party’s official line now.
I’m not suggesting Mr Downer is in any way racist – I’m sure he is not – but doubting that the Voice will bridge the gap seems a particularly weak reason for not supporting it.
Truth and justice
The possibility that it might help should be good reason to back it, but secondary to the simple justice of the thing as part of the full Uluru Statement from the Heart. (Yes, the truth and justice side also is very important.)
Thus it is convenient for the Nationals to have their Indigenous senator, Jacinta Price, leading their case against the Voice referendum. The underlying sentiment of much of the white bush can be left unspoken – best not to let it be painted that way.
I’ve personally had trouble taking Senator Price seriously since reading a culture war’s spray in the Sydney Morning Herald under her name and that of Tom Switzer.
Pre-Senator Price was working with Mr Switzer at the right-wing think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, when they wrote, in the context of defending Captain Cook statues:
“Australia has certainly had distasteful episodes in its treatment of our Indigenous people, especially in the 19th century.”
Yes, you could say that. Quite distasteful.
I’ve since heard Senator Price speak much more strongly about Northern Territory massacres, but I still don’t know how anyone with knowledge of the reality could write that sentence, let alone someone related to victims.
Coalition’s internal conflicts
David Speers posited that: “The real, unspoken reason for the National Party shift was to put more pressure on a weakened Liberal Party to follow suit.”
There will be plenty of grubby politics to play out leading up to the referendum, plenty of strawman arguments. Michelle Grattan believes votes will be lost if the “debate becomes dominated by the negative aspects of identity politics”.
It’s a safe bet it will be.
And that will be a tragedy. The nation will be poorer, stunted, as long as it doesn’t honestly embrace its past, our heritage, good and evil.
To plagiarise myself, I wrote in The Summertime of Our Dreams that the new Germany couldn’t exist, there couldn’t be pride again without the questions of its history being answered from within. The young demanded it of their fathers and grandfathers.
I suspect Germany now officially owns its past better than any country, acknowledges it humbly, truthfully, freeing it to move on while the rest of the world maintains degrees of denial.
The weight of history sits more heavily in Berlin than anywhere I’ve visited. Oh you can stroll the poetic ruins of ancient Rome and breathe Angkor Wat’s humidity and enjoy the pyramids’ pretty son et lumiere, but that is picture book history, viewed from outside. They could be on different planets. Berlin lives a history that shaped and still shapes my world. The centre of the 20th century, the front line of our greatest cataclysms, the ghosts still visible, relics warm to the touch, again the centre of Europe.
The Neues Museum, housing reconstructed ruins of Mesopotamia in the reconstructed ruins of Berlin, the bust of Nefertiti framed by soaring granite columns acne-scarred by bullets and shrapnel.
And what will our children and grandchildren ask us?
The Voice and the rest of the statement is not just for Indigenous Australians – it is for all of us. It is for our soul.