Hewson's View: Aboriginal recognition should be a priority

Ignored: Thousands of Aboriginal protesters and supporters assemble in Hyde Park, Sydney asking the government to change the controversial date of Australia Day. Photo: Shutterstock
Ignored: Thousands of Aboriginal protesters and supporters assemble in Hyde Park, Sydney asking the government to change the controversial date of Australia Day. Photo: Shutterstock

Today it seems the world is increasingly looking to governments for short-term, almost instantaneous, reactions and solutions to events and challenges as they break. Yet, so many of the major policy challenges have resulted from policy drift, sometimes over decades, and simply can't be "fixed" quickly.

In this environment it is particularly difficult for an issue, no matter how important to our national interest, to be sustained as a front-line challenge for government. The political process sees our leaders able to move on from one issue to the next, from one day to the next, location to location.

However, sometimes an event, or a configuration of events, work to sustain the public/media interest in an issue, demanding a longer-term, sustainable response from government. Currently, the bushfire catastrophe, coming on the heels of probably our worst drought, is a case in point. It has elevated the challenge of climate change to a first-order issue, indeed emerging as the most important issue in recent polls, ahead of the economy, education, health, and so on.

However, a most important issue, that has drifted since 1788, and against which we have made only moderate progress, is the challenge to show proper respect and recognition to our Aboriginal heritage, and to sustain real progress in terms of reducing their relative disadvantage.

By any objective assessment this should be a priority for any Australian government, but it keeps just getting kicked down the road. The poor media coverage of the protests on the recent Australia Day, although well attended with a majority of non-indigenous protesters, was definitive in terms of current attitudes on this issue.

For example, as tragic as it was, a woman dying after choking in a lamington-eating contest on Australia Day was afforded more significant coverage, on a significant media platform, than the protests!

While certainly not wanting to downplay the significance and tragedy of the Port Arthur massacre, there is an important comparison to be made - 35 were slaughtered at Port Arthur, while an emerging study by the University of Newcastle has so far documented over 300 massacres (defined as the killing of six or more people) of our Indigenous forebears, revealing a "state sanctioned and organised attempt to eradicate Aboriginal people".

I have been personally struck by the incongruity in Morrison's boast about "stopping the boats" in his time as immigration minister, while being willing to celebrate the arrival of the First Fleet - the consequences of which have been devastating for our First Australians. Morrison's juxtaposition is particularly hollow, but instructive.

It is also important to recognise the immediacy of the Howard response to the Port Arthur atrocity, namely the "gun buy-back", compared with what is now over a couple of centuries of neglect of the Aboriginal massacres, and the persistence of Aboriginal disadvantage - the contrast is stark!

It is an imperative for our nation, our maturity, and our global standing, to face the reality of our appalling treatment of the First Australians.

It is an imperative for our nation, our maturity, and our global standing, to face the reality of our appalling treatment of the First Australians - the invasion, the massacres, the slavery - and move on to show them basic respect, by acknowledging and addressing the legacies of such treatment, and affording them an appropriate "voice" in our government processes, and recognition in the Constitution.

Unfortunately, there is still enormous ignorance about the ill treatment of our Aborigines. For example, if the massacres were to hit the media front pages as new news today, as was the case with Port Arthur, the protests would have received much more coverage, and the government would be under concentrated pressure to respond.

I had hoped that the Uluru Statement that was the outcome of very broad-based consultation and discussion by Aboriginal communities right across our country, would be the trigger for real action by government. It is a national disgrace that it was so easily and cursorily dismissed by both the Turnbull and Morrison governments, and by the then oppositions.

In large measure, we have to go right back to basics, especially to our education system, and to a more substantive curriculum on our Indigenous heritage.

Ignorance should be no excuse for inaction.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.