Tyranny and truth
Truth-telling in Australia should not be rendered as a singular moment waiting to 'happen'. Instead, the truth and its telling need to be empowered and protected through a pathway towards justice.
“By alchemy of greed, we have changed the blood of the blackfellow into the change we toil in our pockets.” – The Bulletin (17 July 1886).
In the darkened cinema, the screen swallows us whole. A brutal barrage of gunfire explodes from invisible speakers – left, right, and above. It’s a macabre soundtrack to a massacre in surround sound. I look down but that does not save me from the unrelenting assault. This is a blood theatre that can be seen through closed eyes. Next to me, a Bundjalung woman shifts in her seat. She shields her face. It’s as if the bullets are showering down on her too; as if the screams are her own, in her blood as much as her mind. I glance back up and the screen consumes me once more. Black bodies are strewn out on the golden sand. The camera focuses, pauses. Blood and ripped flesh are offered up on the screen, lingering as a grotesque symbol of truth. Look at it, the film asks, and do not look away. The scene wraps itself around my mind and it clings to my heart. But I wonder: how long must this linger, this Tarantino-like massacre in ultra-HD?
An hour later, when the lights of the cinema return in a warm glow, I remain seated. The popcorn carton, once full on my lap, is empty. The plastic Coca-Cola can, wedged in the holder, is now dry. If unease were a taste, it would be the dull sweetness on the tip of my tongue. Once bubbling and fizzing, it is now a stale aftertaste. A regret? Maybe grief? The feeling within me is not one that is easily pinned. It’s not like outrage or disgust. Not something that falls into simple articulation. Maybe that is the point.
The film, High Ground – billed as a frontier revenge tale – has a marketing tagline: ‘Australia’s untold history’. But I am left with a persistent thought: What is untold about this history? The frontier warfare and violence, the massacre, Aboriginal warriors and resistance? This history has been told. It is being told, always. Against the tide of colonisation, this truth has been articulated by communities, Elders, and writers across hundreds of First Nations. It has been there in plain view, etched in the record as historical fact. It’s written in newspapers, state-funded reports, histories, reviews and royal commissions. It’s lived experience passed through generations. It is told along the streets, in protest, the sound of marching feet in their thousands. Does it truly take Hollywood shock-and-awe for this history to be considered ‘told’? A more accurate film tagline would be: Australia’s denied history. Perhaps this is why the stale taste is stuck in my mouth.
This is not a film review1. Nor is it a criticism of more accurate, even if fictionalised, storytelling of Australian history in popular culture. There is indeed a beauty to be found beyond the film’s brutality: the local Arnhem Land communities and cast, the stunning landscape, strong Aboriginal characters (Gulwirri is a shining light), and the long scenes in language to name a few. But, this is not about the film at all. Instead, these words are a mediation on the feeling the film ignited within me. It is about the stale taste stuck in the back of my mouth. A feeling, a barb in my side, that I struggle to fully articulate. But it is there, on the tip of my tongue. A word. Tyranny.
Once it is in my mind, I cannot shake it. The word rests, silently, mulling like old wine in the corner of my thoughts. Suddenly, it falls into place, this feeling, this stale taste. It all boils to the surface. It is the tyranny of the truth. It is the demands for truth’s telling without substantive change. A tyranny that is borne from truth-telling in the face of the persistent and perverse mechanisms of apathy and denial, alive in Australian mythos, national discourse and polity. It is the resulting symbolic gestures offered up by the political elite as some kind of progress. A syllable change in anthem here, maybe there?2 These are unwanted toys with a fake plastic shine, ready to be added to the heap. Void of substantive change, these types of platitudes merely sustain the unconscionable status quo.
This is a tyranny found in panels, committees, reviews, and commissions – their findings and recommendations of self-determination and legal reform, only to be ignored, misinterpreted or politicised once again3. It is the retelling and representation of colonial violence in a way that reproduces trauma for those who still live with its consequences. It is, ultimately, the possibility of a better tomorrow – one that is predicated on structural change and justice – being squashed by a nation grappling with a sustained past.
The truth about Australian history, and its present consequences and manifestations, is powerful. The acceptance of this truth is also necessary. Suppressed by a climate of racism, active denialism, and colonial myth, the truth has been disregarded and largely erased from the national consciousness. This is not because this truth is untold, rather it has been denied and rejected – a nation intoxicated by collective amnesia. This means the truth, and truth-telling, can be weaponised by those who seek to run from it. This manifests through an unrelenting demand placed on those who have been subjugated by this truth to retell it with no outcome. Time again, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are made to speak, rolled out to articulate their trauma into a void of wilful ignorance. Expose your flesh and blood with no remedy; speak and we will not listen. This demand also often requires relinquishing power over this truth too – a handing over of the stories and realities that have for so long been trampled by fabled nationalised myths, with no guarantee of any kind of justice or change.
So who gets to tell these stories and who is heard? Who bears the burden of the truth and its perpetual recital? Truth-telling, while vitally important, can be a tyranny that the powerful use to shackle real progress and restrain substantive change – to buffer against a move towards justice. This persistent denial of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reality and truth, sustained even more so in an age of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’, and a uniquely Australian brand of Trumpism – which all act as incandescent fuel to the existing fires of racism and white nationalism – can be used to push reform to a future with no date. A hypothetical place where the elite finally determine that ‘Australians are ready for change’. This logic, one that is perverse and pessimistic in its foundation, permits the ‘something is better than nothing’ argument to thrive, even if the status quo simply gets a new name. As my colleague, Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble woman, Professor of Law and Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous at University of New South Wales, says: “Truth-telling is used as a can-kicking exercise by politicians'' – a strategy to “avoid the hard work of legal reform”4.
This reflects an often neglected reality: without any kind of justice, the truth is left as an open wound, weeping without the sutures needed to stitch it up. Healing is impossible with only truth. Truth-telling, in this way, is a necessary but not singularly sufficient condition on which a better future of this nation can be found. Justice and truth must be wedded, interlocked. Meaningful substantive change must be enacted to embolden truth. Change that speaks to power. How can the truth flourish and be sustained if the structures that created a false reality do not change first?
What is the truth? For Blackfellas, the truth is written into our family trees, our bloodlines tracing back to the land, to a time before time. The truth is found with a British colonial and nation-state founded on the dispossession, denial and subjugation of sovereign peoples. It is warfare and massacre with no treaty.
This is a truth that is written on state documents with our ancestors' names adjacent to their Blackness, noted by a blood quorum, a measure of imagined savagery. An imperialist mark of sub-humanity; the manufactured currency for violent dispossession and subjugation. The Queenslander newspaper put this colonial project in clear terms in an 1880 editorial: “That they [Aboriginal peoples] must suffer is certainly an ‘inevitable consequence’. They must be subdued. It is the law of the whole world that the inferior race must submit to the stronger.”5 Australia’s national foundation in black and white.
This is a truth written in ‘the Act’. Enforced through the law, at the turn of a new century, in different yet similar forms across several of the colonies, the ‘Protection’ era of legislation is an unavoidable element of Aboriginal families’ stories and history. This legal framework of state-control and forced racial segregation, based on the widespread racist belief of ‘the dying Aboriginal race’, was a mechanism of forced removal, attempted cultural eradication, and then assimilation.
Which mission or reserve was your mob and family moved to? Cherbourg. Yarrabah. La Perouse? For some, like my direct lineage, it is tales of how they escaped the removal to missions through labour on stations (with any pay controlled by the state) or moving to different more remote communities. In Queensland, where the Frontier Wars were some of the most violent, and the control of the Act perverse and strict, this took shape through different forms of survival – on and off reserves and missions. It is no wonder that the colony that became notorious for the horrid acts of the Native Police was also the destination of one the most insidious of the so-called ‘protection’ acts.
Queensland’s Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 would become the framework for similar legislation across the country. Dehumanising racial pseudo-science and eugenics was the language of the colonies and then the Federation. Stolen land, stolen wages, Stolen Generations. Blackbirding, criminalisation and policing, over-incarceration, and deaths in custody. The destruction of Country at the hands of greed. Where does it stop? This is where the narrative around truth-telling is often muddied. Truth-telling is not solely within the purview of history and the past, but it is for today too. Our nation’s dark history has a modern face. That this is the reckoning that our nation also needs.
Tyranny thrives in a world that has lost grip of the truth6. But what happens when the truth has never been grasped, or accepted, in the first place? How entrenched would it be, this false lullaby that allows a nation to sleep at night? Tyranny wearing the face of ignorance is tyranny all the same. That is why truth without substantive structural change is merely an exercise in state-operated diversion. It is also why any truth commission, while playing an important role in a process of truth-telling in this nation, can not be viewed as the end of the truth’s story7; nor can it be seen as a replacement of, or a prerequisite to, the move towards tangible justice.
The truth this nation needs to accept can never be summarised in a few paragraphs on a page. Nor can this truth manifest through a single individual’s experience. The truth is not a destination. It is not a box to tick. The truth is living and breathing, and it is screaming. Can the truth liberate? Only if that truth is told under a new relationship. Only if a structural change occurs and the path to justice is set.
The roadmap towards a better future – a starting point
The Uluru Statement from the Heart – formed from the voices of 250 First Nations delegates at Uluru in 2017; the culmination of months of regional dialogues across the country with 1200 First Nations peoples – recognises this political and social reality: how in the realm of Indigenous affairs, truth-telling is often operationalised to dampen, delay, and obfuscate meaningful change. As Toni Morrison famously said at a keynote address in Portland in 1975, which has now taken on a renewed life on the internet as a quote attached to many social justice memes:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is…Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
The sequencing of the Uluru reforms (Voice, Treaty, and Truth), and its explicit outline of the structural change needed to protect them in the Australian Constitution, is a sophisticated reform proposal in recognition of such mechanisms. Truth-telling – a critical ingredient, as mob around the country continually emphasise – is strategically placed last so that it cannot be used as another political can-kicking exercise at the cost of the reforms needed for lasting change. Perhaps this is the reason why, in recognition of this political reality, the film described at the open – a film which ignited the feeling within me that inspires these words – actively and publicly supports the Uluru Statement. After all, Uluru represents a clever reform design that works directly against the tyranny I speak of, a tyranny that exists without any shift in power.
A Voice to Parliament also precedes Treaty, or agreement-making, between the state and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for this reason. Makarrata, coming together after a struggle, has the best chance of success if structural change comes first – that is, constitutional reform to enshrine a mechanism for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. As Associate Professor Sana Nakata, a Torres Strait Islander and political theorist at the University of Melbourne puts pointedly in the Indigenous Constitutional Law blog:
“If our continued screams are silenced by bureaucracies, then for what will our truth matter except for the continued performance of our rage and grief for a third century and longer.
To make our Truth count, we must have Treaty. And to have Treaty, we must have Voice. And if our Voice is not to be silenced when it becomes too hard to listen to, it must be constitutionally enshrined.”8
It is clear, then, that the Uluru Statement is not just poetry, although it is poetic. It is not simply a beautiful painting, though the Anangu Uluru-Ku Tjukurrpa story on its exterior is indeed beautiful. The Uluru Statement is much more than the symbolism that envelopes it. It is a strategic road map, a call to all Australians to join First Nations people to bring about substantive change, to start on a journey towards a new relationship. It is a rallying cry to vote yes in a referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the constitution. It is a mandate to then establish a Makarrata Commission to oversee agreement-making (treaty), and an on-going process of truth-telling; to break the never-ending carousel of repeated policy and political failures in Indigenous affairs.
The Uluru reforms do not pretend, nor do they seek, to be a panacea for all the long-sustained maladies of the nation and its dealings with its First Peoples9. It is not a Reconciliation Action Plan to be ticked off like a to-do list. Instead, the Uluru Statement represents a recalibration of the nation, a structural shift towards a new path. A mandate to move towards a better future. And yet, as the ‘co-design’ Interim Report on Voice is made public, and it opens to public feedback, tyranny raises its head once more.
Co-design and the need for a protected voice
In January 2021, the Voice co-design group – made up of government-appointed members, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – released the Interim Report into the design options for what they call an “Indigenous Voice”10. Following the release of the report, several public consultations have taken place. At several of these ‘town halls’, you could be mistaken to think that this whole notion, that is a First Nations Voice to Parliament, was willed into existence from a speck of dust in the halls of the bureaucracy.
While the co-design process came directly from recommendations of the Joint Select Committee led by MP’s Patrick Dodson and Julian Leeser – a committee formed to respond to the constitutional reform proposals of the Uluru Statement and the Referendum Council – the public consultations represent a strategic distancing of the current process from the Uluru Statement11. There is no proper recognition of the 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that participated in the Regional Dialogues on constitutional recognition, who called for constitutional protection of a Voice to Parliament. Nothing of the unprecedented consensus reached at the Uluru Constitutional Convention, where 250 First Nations delegates signed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, endorsing its calls for Voice, Treaty and Truth. There is a dismissal of the groundswell of support for the reforms across the nation12.
Of course, the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt did hamstring the co-design group in the construction of their remit. The consideration of “constitutional recognition” was explicitly made “out-of-scope”. The result is a report which does not speak to what First Nations peoples have called for. In real-time we are watching as the government, and many of the co-design members, attempt to dislocate a Voice to Parliament – and in the case of the report, a Voice to Government – from constitutional recognition and reform. The arguments have already filtered into the media and into seminars run by some of the co-design members: ‘A referendum will fail’; ‘The Australian people are not ready to vote yes’; ‘Voice is a different issue to constitutional recognition’; ‘You shouldn’t muddy the waters of a Voice with mentioning constitutional change’.
So here we are again – the weaponisation of the “better than nothing” logic, used to buffer against the opportunity for lasting change. This is a logic that fuels the sentiment: Perhaps we need to begin truth-telling before all Australian’s are ready? Maybe then, in some distant ill-defined future, substantive change might be enacted? Tyranny reigns, the status quo continues, and the truth is contested. Rinse and repeat.
Professor Davis, who has led the scholarship and legal work on constitutional recognition and First Nations peoples, and was the architect for the Uluru Dialogues deliberative process, writes in The Monthly of the moment that we now face:
“The Uluru statement did not ask Australians to walk with us on a journey to a legislated voice controlled by the government of the day. So, do we endorse a legislated voice to parliament – which no one asked for but which serves the retail politics of Western liberal democracy (incrementalism) and a retreat to the status quo – while chanting “anything is better than nothing”? Or do we, as a nation, provoke a constitutional moment, and endorse a constitutionally protected voice to parliament, recognising that the lack of progress and the billions of dollars wasted on Indigenous affairs each year occurs because there is minimal Indigenous input into laws and policies aimed at First Nations?”
This speaks to the fact that dressing up the status quo is positioned as a “step in the right direction”, even if this step is no real step at all, even if this step has been rejected by those who it supposedly empowers13. Truth loses its power to liberate if the powerful can silence that which it does not want to hear. We must move forward on the path to a better nation – to work towards building a new relationship, one not predicated merely on symbolic change but on substantive reform and justice too. We must begin with a protected voice.
Before the coming of COVID-19, before lockdowns and social distancing, before the summer of fire and smoke, before the defining year of 2020, I stood under a small tree in Yarrabah. I think back to then, on the edge of the new year, to the northern Queensland water, a sharp crystal blue, lapping up to shoreline in a calm beat.
I think about that moment under the trees. I think about the truth. I can see myself standing there in Yarrabah like I am watching a film from above: I see a group of people huddled under the trees next to me. Dogs run from a house nearby, tackling each other, rolling in the dust and sand. And then, suddenly as if by mistake, my vision from above drops, and it is as though I am there again, standing under the hot Queensland sun. Before it all.
In Yarrabah, we stand in a small knot. I feel the humid air wrap its sticky film around my body. Dogs are barking, I can hear them playing on the sand near the water's edge. In front of me, the Uluru Statement from the Heart waves slowly in the soft breeze. I look up. The sun hangs, almost hovers, in the blue canvassed sky.
“It is time for you all,” a voice says, “to continue the work of your ancestors.” I look down from the burning sun. Alfred Neal, known as ‘Pop Alfie’, stands and gestures to a tree to his left. “This is the Tree of Knowledge,” he says. He tells us of the importance of the spot where we stand. The place where the local people would gather to yarn, share knowledge, and where Pop Alfie and his colleagues would meet and carry out planning for the 1967 referendum. I am too young, like those who stand around me – a group of fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth from across the country – to have been witness to that moment in history: the resounding yes vote to have the constitution amended. Yet, its significance is not lost on young minds, on young hearts yearning for change.
Yarrabah, situated just outside Cairns – a former Aboriginal mission formed in the ‘Protection’ era, and site to many terrors – is now one of the biggest Aboriginal shires in the country. Although small, the township proves that political organisation is not merely the cause of the big cities. I wonder if, at the dawn of that referendum in 1967, some said: “now is not the time”, if there were those that argued that “the nation is not ready”? Would have they predicted the highest yes vote in Australian constitutional history? Would those political organisers simply accept the status quo in fear of failure? In 1967, we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.
Later, in the town hall, we are sitting in the large semicircle. Local kids have joined us. They sit on plastic chairs, joking with each other as they cradle large red slices of watermelon. Their smiles and giggles echo in the hall. A sound of innocence. I think about the path that lay ahead of them, about what kind of nation they will grow up in. What will their future hold? In their faces, their wide smiles – a glow of pride in who they are, where they come from – I see a glimpse of what is to come. I also see how within their joy is our duty to them. A duty to build the structures for them to thrive; for all First Nations people to be able to live and celebrate their truth without any tyranny. Within their smiling faces is strength. It is a strength I cling to and grapple with – one that strengthens my belief that systems and structures can change because they must change. Because too much work has come before, and too much work lay in the future. We cannot demand anything less.
Truth-telling occurs every day. It is lived every day. The truth has been told since colonisation and will continue to be told in the future. No longer is the idle excuse of “Why wasn’t I told?” a legitimate position. The truth is there. Read, listen, and most importantly, hear. Truth-telling should no longer be used as a weapon against meaningful change. Substantive change can instead bring about the structures to support truth, amplify truth and embolden its telling. To tear us away from its tyranny. It can be the opportunity to build a new path, allowing a nation to come to grips with itself, its past, its present, and ultimately, its future, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people take a rightful place in their Country.
It is not an imagined dream, but a current policy and political reality. All it takes is you. Democracy should function through the will of the people. That is why the Uluru Statement is addressed to the Australian people, not politicians; for the gears of governance and power do not shift towards progressive change through an epiphany of goodwill from elites. It is instead through the chorus of the masses that change is realised – through a clear call to those who purport to represent us to do what must be done. To start work on unfinished business. Democracy in Australia was envisaged by its forefathers as one without First Nations people in it. Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty, voices, law, lives and cultures are still here. We always will be. It is time for the nation to sit, listen and hear. It is time to begin Makarrata, through a protected Voice and a process of justice that upholds the truth.
It’s time. It has always been time.
For a more detailed examination of the anthem change, read: A one-syllable change to the anthem is hardly something to celebrate
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was a significant truth-telling body and process. Some recommendations are still collecting dust - namely, on the reports overarching theme of self-determination - despite the continued deaths. Recently, we are reminded of the devastating impact of this status quo, with five deaths in just over one month. Many Aboriginal scholars do important work on Aboriginal deaths in custody, coronial inquests and more. I recommend reading the work of Aboriginal scholars Alison Whittaker, Amy McQuire, and Amanda Porter.
Professor Davis’ tweeted on this subject also, which is worth reading in full: “Remember land rights, treaty & rights movement in the 80s and remember the settler state kicked it into a decade long process of truth-telling in 90s? And we emerged from that early 2000s with no rights, no structural reform but a bridge walk? That can is being kicked again, folks.”
What makes this quote even more perverse is the fact this was taken from an editorial (by The Queenslander newspaper) that was decrying the acts of the Native Police. So it was, in essence, agreeing that First Nations peoples must be subdued and are by all measure an “inferior race”, but the horrors of the Native Police are even too much by their racist reckoning. The recent digitalisation of Australian newspapers shows how events contested today (such as slavery and massacre) were central in the public discourse of colonial Australia.
Ironically former President Bill Clinton once said something along these lines too: “The road to tyranny, we must never forget, begins with the destruction of the truth.” Although it is not from Bill Clinton that I take inspiration.
The announcement of the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission is welcome news for many in the Victorian Aboriginal community. It will likely play an important role in truth-telling for Victoria. However, the state-based processes, namely seen in Victoria (a state that has set up a voice-like Indigenous advisory body and began a treaty process) are limited by the power and scope of the states in Australia’s federal system with the power residing largely with the Commonwealth.
All recent posts to the Constitutional Law Blog, hosted by UNSW Indigenous Law Centre, is insightful including those by A/Prof Nakata, Prof Davis, Dr Dani Larkin, and Prof Gabrielle Appleby.
The Uluru reforms are not a replacement too, nor do they work against, any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights work, justice work, or any current processes. As mentioned previously, there is much work from mob on Aboriginal deaths in custody and justice reform (see note 3, with readings from Aboriginal scholars on this important issue). A constitutionally protected Voice to Parliament, for instance, can be a support to - and an amplifier of - such work and it could help mitigate against Australia’s willingness to make these issues (and the lives it impacts) “invisible”. As Amy McQuire has written, “In order to break this cycle, we must bear witness”. It’s my belief that a Voice can play a role in that. The Uluru Statement sets out a path towards justice, but justice does not stop (nor is it wholly fulfilled) with Voice or with Treaty. Instead, it sets up structures for the long road ahead.
The shift in language from that of a “First Nations Voice to Parliament”, as described in the Uluru Statement, to the more vague “Indigenous Voice” is telling and emblematic of the bureaucratic mechanisms at play.
Within the Interim report, the co-design group make recommendations for the messaging and framing of a Voice in the public consultations. One recommendation was to: “separate out constitutional recognition from the discussion”. With further explanation, that “… this Indigenous Voice consultation process needs to focus on the detail of the Indigenous Voice and not focus on Constitutional amendments”.
Moreover, they recommended, “Framing messaging will be important to explain the relationship with and differences between the co-design process and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.”
Within several public consultations that I have attended, this messaging has evolved from that stated in the report (above) to one which actively argues against constitutional enshrinement - see this seminar as an example. There have been consultations that make the more direct link between Uluru Statement and the current process, however.
It should also be noted that the written report does note the link between the Rereferdum Council report, Uluru Statement, Joint Select Committee, and the current co-design process before distancing itself.
Reconciliation Barometer 2020 found 81% of the general public support a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous body. Other polls have also found solid support. Yet, there have been several messages in consultations that have stated, as a matter of fact, that a referendum will fail. I am unsure what they are basing this on (outside previously failed referenda).
Symbolic constitutional recognition has been widely rejected by First Nations peoples, as reflected in the Uluru Dialogues, the Referendum Council report, and the Uluru Statement. The only form of consensus on constitutional reform is a Voice to Parliament.