On Human Rights Day in 1992, the Australian Prime Minister, Hon Paul Keating, gave a speech in Redfern to launch 1993 as the International Year of Indigenous Peoples. It set the tone for a new era of relationships with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. He forecast the 90s as the decade to right the wrongs.
Gentrification of Redfern is characterized by the cranes in the skyline. Black pride is pumping in the veins of the locals. Australia is still failing the test, still no recognition in the Constitution, still dying decades younger, still no treaty. There’s been some progress along the way the colonist’s sorry business side of the equation has taken a few steps marked by the apology to the Stolen Generations (13 Feb 2008) but we have not lived up to Keating’s ambition.
Australia will not be grown up, and I would argue, is not ready to be a Republic until we have righted these wrongs. As a non-Aboriginal person I say recognition in the Constitution has to come first and that recognition has to include the sovereignty of Aboriginal peoples in the land the First Fleet of British colonists called terra nullius.
Recognition is an antidote to invisibility, bringing what was hidden in shadows and behind closed doors into the open and into the light. The deep long shadows that stain the soul of the land of Australia can not be erased. A legacy of destruction, disease, displacement … death. As a non-Aboriginal person I cannot pretend it didn’t happen, because it keeps happening … on my watch too.
How do I stand, sit, walk in solidarity?
How am I silent to the past, by not recognizing into the now?
How do I hold the knowledge there was no just settlement?
First things first, recognition. It begins with being able to recognize, to see the signs in the landscape, understand that statistics are people, find the backstory in the pages, being witness to tears, standing still to enable others to go forward. Seeing my own racism and noticing how that unfolds consciously and unconsciously in what I say and what I do. It means learning, relearning and applying the lesson of putting myself in their shoes (one first learnt as advice from Atticus to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird I think, a text from the US not my own land):
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. – Harper Lee
Recognition leads to equity. There can be no justice without equity, it is the foundation for any kind of fair go the heart of what so many of us consider a fundamental Australian value.
Can we imagine an Australia where there is equity and the oldest living culture on the planet is universally recognized and that recognition brings the same health and well-being outcomes, the same chance at making a living, the same potential for education and housing … the same human rights of non-Aboriginal people?
Igniting an imagination for recognition needs the eyes to be open wide, the heart to be vulnerable to face into the horrors of the past and the mouth to bring respect, acknowledgement and deep appreciation of the past, so the wrongs get righted and more importantly stop happening.
When Keating gave his Redfern speech he said he couldn’t imagine that we would fail, but fail we have. He had a big imagination and a belief in Australians being able to imagine equity beyond the ballot box and founded on recognition. There is still so much to do and having an imagination is the first step to making it possible.
Where’s your imagination Australia?
If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.