Geoffrey Blainey’s post-referendum revelations of ‘real truths’ in the Weekend Australian sits jewel-like in a pave of findings illuminating the darkness of the Referendum failure. But be warned, dear reader, that when following the path of ‘truth’, a misstep will plunge you into the waters of Lethe and Alethia — to endlessly weave a mythscape, to endlessly flee inescapable nightmares.

Paul Kelly, the Australian’s Editor-at Large, writes that the Referendum exposed two distinct nations within Australia, ‘divided by age, education, location and probably more significantly, morality and what constitutes virtue.’ Reduced to a binary, it is the ‘elites’ versus the ‘forgotten people’. I was under the impression that the middle class were marginalised because neoliberalism was gutting it, just as it had the ‘forgotten people’ of the working class. He sees liberalism in classical terms, as equality before the law and opportunity for self-realisation. By contrast, he argues, populist conservatives see it as ‘a prescription for weakness,’ while the left have pushed progressivism in the direction of a ‘utopia of clean energy, racial justice, atonement for colonial history, honouring diversity and securing sexual and gender justice.’  I though this ‘utopia’ was a never-ending search for a vibrant, equitable and inclusive democratic society. I found Kelly a hard read, I think his ‘binding up the wounds’ image not the most appropriate — but he is right in that it is a long road ahead of us. Where Aboriginal people fit into his worldview, however, escapes me.

Steve Waterson, senior writer at the Australian, centres his piece around a humbling meeting with a Kimberley Elder. And while he acknowledges buffoons, racists and white supremacists among the No voters, he also criticises the Yes voters who condemn as ‘benighted troglodytes’ those who had the audacity to vote No. He goes on to suggest that a bipartisan approach is necessary to mend the ‘inequity that inspired this unnecessary referendum,’ and quite concisely identifies the central issue for Australia — that of promoting ‘the principles of fairness and equality that govern (or should govern) our society.’ It is an interesting argument, centred and balanced, but whether bipartisanship can end ‘inequity’ is doubtful. Perhaps this is another dead cat to be carefully stepped around.

Father Frank Brennan has a long history of involvement in Aboriginal affairs. Quite correctly, he points out that referendums invariably fail without bipartisan support. As a member of the Senior Advisory Group set up by Ken Wyatt to design the Indigenous Voice to government, he is in a position to comment on the apparent absence of COPA and NACHHO in the design of the Voice proposal. But I would have thought that Pat Turner, who has had a long involvement in the Voice process and is the convenor of COPA (the Coalition of Peaks) and the CEO of NACCHO (the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations) would have represented them. But if Brennan is pointing out the fractured and fractious nature of Aboriginal organisations and the difficulties of getting everyone to the table, he is right. And while the Morrison Government may have been responsible for the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, he makes no mention of the failure of successive governments to Close the Gap and that many of the targets were nearing their embarrassing expiry date when Morrison flicked it to the Blackfellows with even the most basic structures unrealised.

Perhaps the most revealing facet of Brennan’s piece is his prediction, when Albanese was elected, that constitutional change would only be possible when Pearson and Howard agreed on it. Such an undemocratic proposal only makes sense within the context of the failure to begin the campaign with a foundational truth-telling step. There is nothing new in this. It is a basic step realised by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, when he wrote about the importance of thought, word and action in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But then, do the advocates of Reconciliation really want the people of Australia to look into the waters of Aletheia and see the truth of Australian settlement?

Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘real truths’ piece echoes his pre-referendum essay urging us to get our facts in order. In the latest instalment, he reiterates many worn and threadbare arguments: side-tracking the issue of life expectancy with irrelevant comparisons; revisiting and rehashing old and tired Native Title arguments; claiming that Aboriginal people are better off post 1788, whilst blaming dysfunctional Aboriginal men for high incarceration rates; claiming that Australia is ‘more fruitful’ than it was in 1788; rejecting support for remote communities whilst supporting the taking of Aboriginal children; revisiting the culture wars and claiming that the nation is divided. Perhaps his most interesting claim is that the concentration of Aboriginal people on the eastern seaboard represents their embracing of twenty-first-century ‘opportunities’. Blainey’s ‘truths’ do not include any reference to the cost of settlement. He makes no mention of the extinction of one hundred plant and animal species since 1788, nor of Australia’s contribution to global warming.

I’m not as old as Blainey, but I’m old enough to remember that the full title of Australia is the Commonwealth of Australia. I remember hearing the phrase ‘the Commonwealth Government’ and I knew that the Commonwealth stood for ‘a fair go’, the public good, common well-being. And while the concept of equity was not articulated back in the day, I think most users of the phrase ‘a fair go’ would understand it as doing what it takes to get as many over the finishing line as possible, and not leaving your mates behind. If any politicians or commentators speak of the Commonwealth, I haven’t heard them. And while Albanese uses the phrase ‘a fair go’, I think he needs to speak a lot louder.

Constitutional change is dead in the water. The Referendum has exposed the divides within our society, and the result demonstrates to the world Australia’s unconsciousness of its human rights failures. Sixty per cent of Australian voters have, consciously or unconsciously, determined that ‘bipartisanship’ lies somewhere between erasure and assimilation.

Whilst ever the waters of Aletheia are too painful for settler Australia the waters of Lethe remain an enfolding narcosis of amnesia and nostalgia.


Image: Michael Coghlan

Barry Corr

Barry Corr lives in the Hawkesbury and writes about the ways in which the Hawkesbury’s Frontier War is remembered, or not remembered. His writings on Aboriginal perspectives of settler-coloniality have been published in Meanjin, Overland and Honi Soit. His essay “Knowing Even as We Are Known” is published in Against Disappearance: Essays on Memory.

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