The Uluru decision highlights what’s so wrong with Indigenous policy
21/4/16; Helen Davidson for the Guardian, Harry Hobbs @HarryUNSW; Aboriginal
Constitutional recognition will be null and void if non-Indigenous Australians continue to ignore what Indigenous Australians are saying
On 12 April, environment minister Greg Hunt announced his decision not to ban the Uluru climb. On Tuesday, Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles declared his support for this decision.
While Hunt has not yet explained his decision, his reasons can be presumed. Fairfax Media report that in 2009, Hunt argued that closing the climb would “end one of the great tourism experiences in Australia”. Similar concerns were raised by the Northern Territory government and the tourist industry during the negotiations that led to the return of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the Anangu people, the traditional owners, in 1985.
Read More – Uluru: Northern Territory’s chief minister opposes climbing ban
Giles, who has Kamilaroi ancestry, appears to agree. He said on Wednesday that continuing to allow the climb is “consistent with the [NT] government’s Indigenous economic empowerment strategy” and would see “a great opportunity for local Anangu to participate in a lucrative business”. He stressed that this was a conversation for the Anangu people, and not something “bureaucrats in Canberra should be making kneejerk reactions to”.
Giles is correct. However, the Anangu people have spoken, and continue to speak. At the base of Uluru is a sign erected by the Anangu people. It reads:
We, the Anangu traditional owners, have this to say. Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted. This is our home … Please don’t climb. We invite you to walk around the base and discover a deeper understanding of this place.
The difficulty in reconciling instances where economic interests clash with sites of religious or spiritual significance is not rare in relations between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. However, as part of what Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt has termed “psychological terra nullius”, too often western interests mischaracterise Indigenous claims, or ignore them completely.
In May next year the Australian public is scheduled to vote on whether our constitution should be amended to recognise Indigenous Australians. Serious concerns surround the feasibility of that date, the precise form of recognition, and whether recognition is even appropriate given the recent moves towards a treaty in Victoria. Much of this analysis has – quite rightly – focused on the views and interests of Indigenous Australians.
However, the fate of the referendum will ultimately lie in the hands of non-Indigenous Australians who constitute almost 97% of the country. The broader question therefore, is whether non-Indigenous Australians are ready to treat our First Peoples with the equal respect they deserve in Australian society.
In recent weeks, non-Indigenous Australians have been presented with a number of opportunities to demonstrate that we are – unfortunately we have failed. The Uluru decision is just one these failures.
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In March, the parliamentary joint committee on human rights released its review into the Stronger Futures legislation, which replaced the Northern Territory National Emergency Response (full disclosure, I was part of the secretariat who assisted in writing that report).
Notwithstanding some successes, it found that a blanket application of policies, absence of consultation, and an inability for Indigenous peoples to effectively challenge or seek review of particular measures, both infringed human rights and weakened the effectiveness of the measures.
In particular, the committee found that the compulsory income management regime and the linking of welfare payments to school enrolment and attendance are racially discriminatory. No plan to remedy these problems has been announced.
Two weeks later, the Daily Telegraph “exposed” the “whitewashing” of Australian history that was occurring at UNSW. The Telegraph’s outrage? A four-year old Diversity Toolkit which noted (correctly) that Australia was not “settled” but “invaded”. Radio shock jocks used this as an encouragement to denigrate Indigenous Australians.
More recently, last week marked the 25th anniversary of the ground breaking report into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Despite the promise of this major report, a majority of the royal commission’s recommendations have never been implemented and research indicates that Indigenous incarceration and police custody rates have increased, from 14% of the prison population in 1991, to a staggering 27% today.
Incoming Western Australia senator Pat Dodson urged the parliament to focus on rectifying this injustice rather than attempting to reconstitute the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Why did I wait so long to see the magic of Uluru? Australians, see your country now
Despite the parliament reconvening on Monday, the House of Representatives notice paper for Tuesday indicted no government business to be debated and the House adjourned in the early afternoon. Would this be the case if the non-Indigenous prison population was 2.5 times the rate in the United States?
The common factor in each of these recent examples is a simple one. Non-Indigenous Australians should listen to what Indigenous Australians are saying. If we do, we may find that resolutions – and reconciliation– are achievable.
The case of Uluru is simple. Just as non-Indigenous Australians would not countenance destruction of a Christian church in order to promote tourism, nor should we allow the desecration of a site sacred to the Anangu people, no matter what the apparent economic benefit.
Greg Hunt should reconsider his decision, and Adam Giles should listen to his constituents. Failure to do so suggests that even if constitutional recognition is successful, nothing will really have changed.