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Contents
Essay

No republic without a soul

Exorcising the ghosts of colonialism

ABORIGINAL PEOPLES AND Torres Strait Islanders have just marked two hundred and thirty years of patience with displaced Europeans. We choose patience because we still see and feel white people’s humanity, despite their inhumanity directed at us daily. We choose patience because we know only together will we survive climate change. Like Bourke and Wills and other failed ‘explorers’ before them, today’s European-Australians choose to simultaneously ignore and exploit Aboriginal Peoples and our knowledges: they like Aboriginal art because they can consume and own it on Western neoliberal terms, but they don’t really like Aboriginal people in their homes. They like Aboriginal knowledge in universities (for example: astronomy, bush medicines, family kinship), but only if it builds white academics’ careers and, importantly, if it does not challenge the Western canon. This is otherwise known as white supremacy. We Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and our knowledges are usually only ever acknowledged if we can make white men rich, or if we can save them from their foolery.

If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time…
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine,
then let us work together.
Aunty Lilla Watson, 1990

I believe a republic will be good for Australia, but not if it is simply an act of recolonising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples under normalised white supremacy. Instead, we should consider three distinct changes in Western notions of democracy and the organisation of political power that can direct us to a newer and more effective formulation of a republic.

 

WESTERN POLITICAL POWER is based on shaky foundations and, at worst, is grotesquely bastardised. One of the deeply held cultural and social values Australians have is one of ‘a fair go’. As a nation derived from convicts, rejected from their own mobs, most Australians today rail against plum-mouthed authority and snobbery. We dislike anyone getting ‘special treatment’ because we believe ‘everyone is equal before the law’ and already has a fair go with one vote each. The problem with this is it depends on who is setting the rules, and on whose terms and using what values.

Currently, most Australians believe equality is about treating everyone the same: that an equality of inputs will automatically translate into an equality of outputs; that if you don’t ‘work as hard as everyone else’, it’s your own fault for landing on the streets or in jail. Yet if equality is about ‘sameness’, it only works if everyone starts from the same level. If equality is about is about ‘fairness’ it means adjustments need to be made. If you treat everyone the same you are actually guaranteeing inequality, as not everyone will have equal access or opportunity. This is how political power works in ‘modern’ Western democracies.

We should be careful about notions of inclusion, lest they belie benevolence and charity while those with more power and privilege hide behind the myth of meritocracy. Our notion of egalitarianism is admirable, but our understanding of what it really means and who is really in power is woefully naive.

There is another name for this bastardisation of equality, power and money: colonisation.

Colonisation is real and continuing and is deployed daily in Australia through the values of whiteness. Whiteness does not refer to people’s ethnicity or their skin colour, but to habitus or mindset. Mostly white men set the rules based on their values (money, power, competition, individualism, binary thinking and so on), and then tell everyone else Australia is the land of the fair go. Colonisation is deployed when white male genome researchers think Aboriginal people could only ever be included in an Aboriginal genomic research project as participants or advisors, but not as chief investigators because ‘they’re not ready’. Colonisation is deployed when the federal government apologises to Indigenous people for ‘past’ mistreatment while simultaneously deploying the military under the guise of child protection: ‘it’s good for the Aboriginal people’; ‘they can’t look after their children or communities’. Colonisation is alive and well when the Uluru Statement calls for considered change and the truth, and the Prime Minister immediately rejects it, as if to say say: ‘Blacks can’t get more than us.’ As if levelling the playing field is somehow not a fair go. When people, particularly white men, are accustomed to power and privilege beyond their fair share, equity feels threatening.

 

AND IT IS here that I describe the contemporary Australian soul. We embrace authoritarianism from the UK or the US or China, paralysed in their embrace. How can this be? The answer lies in us not being rooted in our own social and cultural traditions. Displaced, fearful, lost: we are a country not sure of who we are and what values we hold dear. And so we cling, holding on for dear life to the psychological mother in the embodied Queen Elizabeth II for emotional sustenance, and sucking up to the psychological father in the embodied US President and military corporations for physical protection. We do this while surreptitiously and nervously trading with our biggest fear, China, trying to manipulate the mythical scary ‘other’ into believing our two faces.

There can be no republic without a soul.

To understand how we might free ourselves from this malady of displacement and impatience with nature, we must also understand the human dynamics of power. As a violent drunk man will bash his female partner and then blame her for it, white Australia abuses Aboriginal people and blames us for not accepting their benevolence and favour: ‘We’re being good to you.’ Like the bashed woman who no longer thinks she’s got other options, or that she’s worth more, and manipulates back for survival, Aboriginal ‘leaders’ sometimes sell themselves to white media and political structures and say what they want to hear to get basic services for their communities. We sometimes feel we have no choice other than to manipulate white people to get a fair share. And white people manipulate us to make us feel guilty, fight each other and usurp our own cultural mores if we want to ‘get anywhere’. This game of power is of course conducted in the arena of ‘democracy’ and under the myth of a fair go – a nation-state disconnected from true sovereignty and from its true purpose and promise. Whiteness and white Australia affects us all. It’s the hangover of colonisation.

Domestic violence can be healed when one partner walks away and chooses another set of rules. The sick entropic system of a false fair go holds no fresh air for either party. The only way is out; to say no.

 

SO HERE I say no. No to the false belief that the Australian nation-state cares for Aboriginal or even white citizens. Watch them choose corporate greed and mining welfare over the good of citizens. I say no to the lie that a bank-mortgage-controlled life equals happiness, that we couldn’t make money off a green economy. That Aborigines are primitive. That we can and should be simultaneously ignored and exploited for our knowledges, art and vitality. That those Aboriginal leaders who succumb to neoliberal lies speak from Aboriginal social and cultural traditions – why don’t we invest in renewable energy on our lands instead of believing mining’s lie?

I say yes to peace-making. After the war waged for two hundred and thirty years – genocide, dispossession, extermination, protection, assimilation, reconciliation, intervention – I say yes to Aboriginal people saying no. I say yes to walking away and starting again. Presuming that white people want to stop abusing us – and that’s a big presumption – we could sit down after the nightmare and talk truth. Therein lies our dilemma: are we big enough to stop abuse and manipulation? To stop colonisation in its tracks? Are Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull up to it? Reconciliation, liberation, decolonisation – whatever your goal – cannot be achieved if the abuse is continuing. Are we big enough to admit things are bad? Are we big enough to say no to the old way, to walk away and heal? Are we big enough to talk truth?

 

BY CONTRAST, RWANDA, a relatively small nation, has already implemented a national truth and justice process to overcome genocide. Germany has outlawed denial of the Holocaust and made sure genocide is memorialised in the national curriculum and museums. South Africa has liberated its soul partly through a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and built a museum that addresses apartheid. Japan has reluctantly but surely admitted its role in atrocities against ‘comfort women’ during World War II. And Canada has implemented a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Australia still denies genocide took place here. We refuse to put it in our school curricula. We only want ‘the right kind of Aborigine’ in our curricula – the romantic one who dances and paints in dots. We want to simultaneously ignore (the truth) and consume (exploit) Aboriginal cultures, art, sports and knowledge on white terms (economic). The more we deny genocide, the more we are adrift from our own soul.

Most Australians cannot understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures because of their own whiteness, their belief in the lie of democracy as oligarchy, and of Aboriginal people as the problem. In educating medical students about Aboriginal cultures and histories, researchers have found that there is a necessary precursor before students can fully embrace Aboriginal history and culture. This step is about ‘unlearning’ white supremacy, or being educated out of racism that some don’t know they have.

Most white Australians don’t wake up in the morning and decide to be racist. But all white Australians benefit from the theft of Aboriginal land, and most have racist attitudes without knowing what they are. Most are stuck with their own whiteness. Unlearning this belief system is a serious shock to one’s sense of self, and students often experience emotional reactions akin to a grieving process – shock, anger, hostility, denial, minimal acceptance, withdrawal and, eventually, an a-ha moment followed by acceptance and integration of the new reality into life. This process of unlearning racism and learning self-reflection is called transformational unlearning. Before students can fully embrace Aboriginal history and culture, they have to unlearn what they didn’t know they learnt: whiteness. And why are we surprised if we still don’t teach the truth of genocide and who Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in our schools and universities as standard curricula? If we continue to teach Aboriginal history and culture without transformational unlearning and dealing with genocide, we will continue a situation where some white people will only want to know Aboriginal history and culture so they can steal and exploit it.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples do not wish to ‘harp on about the past’ forever: we’re sick of it too. We want to move on. But we know the nation cannot live peacefully in this land if we do not know its story.

 

IF AUSTRALIA WERE big enough to look in the mirror, we should begin with the work of a genuine Truth and Justice Commission – properly funded and respected, like the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse. Then, having faced the truth, we might grow up. Only then can we begin to change.

If we were willing to invest in this harder psychological, spiritual and emotional meditation, we would come out the other side stronger for it. When the hard work of truth-telling is complete, only then could we sit down as a nation and properly talk about the values and social and cultural traditions we would want to renew and pursue, without turning the process into a festival of white men’s ideas and white supremacy.

When the serious national dialogue of values and tradition is complete, only then can we begin to form an equal healthy relationship and discuss the terms of power of a new equal union. We would need to negotiate who makes decisions, and how and when, and what structures are necessary to give power to Aboriginal and white voices equally, and to ensure the genuine sharing of money – the fat of the land.

When all of that is complete, then it would be appropriate to talk about symbols of the new union, like flags and where our head of state is born. This is where Australian republican groups have gone wrong: they have started public discussions about the republic by talking about symbols and structures – the ‘what’ – but they haven’t told the story of ‘why’. In the Queen, Australians see stability and tradition, ceremony and meaning. Even though we loathe ‘the Poms’, we fear that ‘losing’ the UK will mean losing identity and meaning, our social and cultural identity. Yet if you’re looking for stability, ceremony and meaning in someone else’s crown, then you’re lost. If you want stability of meaning and identity, sixty thousand years of ceremony is pretty strong. I have told Australian republican movements that Aboriginal issues are not ‘a part of’ the republican debate, they are the republican debate. The story of Aboriginal people surviving genocide, of ongoing deployment of white privilege, colonisation and domestic violence, and of our current confusion and displacement is the story of why. We need to become a republic not because we should ignore white heritage, but because black heritage will set us free. We are a nation of the rejected. We understand how it feels to be left out. To be ostracised. Attacked by one’s own mob. Taken to the other side of the world. Ring-fenced on a vast island. White Australia’s biggest fear and justification for denying Aboriginal prior ownership and brilliance is not only because they are jealous of it, and cannot comprehend it, but because they fear this land won’t ever be their own true spiritual home – that we might tell them to go back to Europe.

But our Elders are not that cruel. We are not people who reject others who are different. We are patiently loving white and other peoples while they find a way to love themselves. We continue to love the earth and our families because we are related to them and depend on them, while we wait patiently for white and other neoliberal people to see that individualism, isolation and greed do not work. There is no survival or sustainability in that.

We in Australia have a lot to be proud of. Our Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal scientists, artists, sportspeople, diplomats, intellectuals and musicians have made their mark. Yet we have never fully realised what sixty thousand years of human science and brilliance can teach us about climate change and humanity. Aboriginal people should not give up this knowledge to universities, researchers and art and tourism companies who simply seek to exploit it while maintaining white supremacist power structures. We should share it when Australia has done the work. Do the work on the truth and the why, and the how will become clearer.

Constitutional recognition is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples being included on white people’s terms into a white constitution and power structure – it is the crumbs off the white men’s table, while they stay in power. A treaty is stronger, and we should argue for it, or for many of them, but it is still only a seat at the white man’s table: ministers and parliaments can and do ignore them at their whim, because they still control the terms of power. A republic is our chance to negotiate joint ownership, power and resource between black and white Australians – to make things right. The even stronger option is the full truth – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are the landowners, and white peoples and their parliament’s lease is up for renewal: how would you like to start re-negotiating?

I want the Australian republic to be about freedom for all humans, plants, animals and the earth and sky. This is not fanciful. It existed before white people got here. It can exist again.

 

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From Griffith Review Edition 60: First Things First © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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