Remember Australia Day 2012, when PM Julia Gillard was bundled into an escape vehicle and whisked away from a crowd of cranky Aboriginal protesters? The protesters had been conveniently recruited from a nearby commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which could explain why the angry mob contained an unusually large proportion of senior citizens, and perhaps why they appeared to be having an absolute blast. They had assembled to reminisce about the glory days of protest and biffo, and instead got to re-enact some of the best bits. While the whole business was absurd, it was hard to begrudge those elderly agitators their jolly rampage down memory lane.
We have another bunch of ageing Aboriginal activists making public mischief, having fun and reliving old times. Beneath the official Recognise campaign’s attempts to portray Aboriginal recognition in the constitution as a youthful, radical, ‘grassroots’ cause, the push is propelled by a decidedly geriatric political arm. Aboriginal recognition in the Australian constitution would be the culmination and the vindication of the careers of some Big Men of Aboriginal politics; more accurately, some Big Old Men. Perhaps the sense of urgency surrounding the campaign is driven by a sense that their own time is nearly up. If voters were to give veteran Aboriginal activists their own victorious ‘1967 moment’ before they drop off the perch, it would complete a narrative arc in Australian politics in gloriously cinematic style. However, all sentimentality aside, sheer persistence in pursuing an idea for decades does not necessarily mean the idea itself was ever a good one. Anyway, these geezers are having such a good time right now that they just might live forever if Tony Abbott can stall the referendum indefinitely.
Is that too harsh? Insensitive to the suffering of Aboriginal people, perhaps? Shamefully disrespectful of a lifelong struggle? I would argue that fiddling with the constitution will do nothing to alleviate – and may even exacerbate – the suffering of our most disadvantaged and vulnerable people. I would further argue that more than enough time, money, intellectual talent and goodwill has been frittered away on constitutional fiddling, while disadvantaged and isolated Aboriginal communities have been left to burn.
As for any obligation to be nothing but respectful of the Aboriginal gerontocracy, I ask: What makes them so special? Many other characters in the political landscape who cherish a stubborn attachment to incoherent, nostalgic ideals are fair game, after all. Whether it be crusty hippies who can’t let go of their utopian dreams, or weather-beaten feminists envisioning a man-free Xanadu for Womynkind, our elders are subject to cheerfully merciless mockery if they refuse to keep up with the times. And yet we are more willing to make tentative fun of the Islamists dour prescriptions for a good life than we are game to take the piss out of the Aboriginal leadership’s ambitions, even though the latter are far less likely to blow us up. Is it not possible to be both an Aboriginal leader, and a vain, obstinate blowhard at the same time?
Given that journalists are supposed to be the most hardboiled of cynics, our national newspaper’s enthusiasm for the cause of Aboriginal constitutional recognition is hard to fathom. Perhaps the Australian is banking on being front and centre when the news of a ‘Yes’ vote drops, to capture the perfect image of grizzled old campaigners doing victorious high-fives all around. The Australian’s support for the recognition push appears in two guises, both of which would be familiar to readers of such balanced and considered publications as the Green Left Weekly. One is to invoke the bogeyman, aka Andrew Bolt, as Nasty Naysayer incarnate, official representative of the ‘No’ case. In essence, if you are sceptical of the proposal for recognition in the constitution, you have fallen under the spell of Bolt, which indicates that you are really a bit dim and should be ashamed of yourself. In reality, people such as James Allan and Gary Johns have engaged with the issues in substantial detail, and concluded that the campaign for Aboriginal recognition is full of bad ideas. There are plenty of people who are both informed and sceptical of the case not in thrall to Andrew Bolt.
The Australian also likes to tortuously explain why proposals for Aboriginal constitutional recognition are not really as bad as they seem. A great deal of editorial energy is devoted to selling ideas that have trouble selling themselves, despite lavish government funding for the Recognise campaign. For example, Legal Affairs editor Chris Merrit doggedly asserts that the push for recognition is not actually about ‘race’, it’s about indigeneity, which has nothing to do with race, but rather, it’s about a group of people who are the descendants of the original inhabitants; people with a shared ancestry and heritage, which isn’t about ‘race’ as such, but… uh… look, Andrew Bolt is just wrong-diddly-dang-wrong, and that’s all you need to know, alright?
As boosters for the ‘Yes’ case, the Australian can hardly delve into awkward questions such as: Why has millions been spent supporting ‘Yes’ without a clear explanation of what we are saying ‘yes’ to? Why have no commensurate resources been provided for a negative case? What was the point of all that community consultation, only to decide that Noel Pearson’s recent compromise is the solution? Does that mean that any previous ideas we were asked to embrace were actually unrealistic and unworkable? And would our national newspaper accept so uncritically such bizarre contortions in any other publicly-funded political movement?
The media’s critical faculties tend to shrivel in the presence of Aboriginal leaders, allowing the cultural significance of Aboriginal recognition to expand to mythic proportions. If we are to debate Aboriginal recognition in a sensible way, we need to entertain the possibility that the venerable greybeards pushing for recognition are not infallible. The seniors chasing their own ‘67 moment won’t be the ones living with the aftermath, and the ideals they have long supported might not be shared by those who come after. Perhaps the challenge for the PM is not how to make good on his promise to deliver Aboriginal recognition, but how to provide the present Aboriginal leadership with a satisfying, face-saving, last hurrah.