Ken Wyatt, a man in the crosshairs of history

 theage.com.au  07/12/2019 14:00:00 

Black Australia has already spoken. The Uluru Statement from the Heart remains the clearest expression of the aspirations of Indigenous people, emerging out of an exhaustive and emotional process of negotiation and consultation. It is itself a compromise, a conservative position, achieved in spite of understandable hostility from some Indigenous people who have no faith in Australian politics. Now they are being asked to compromise again.

What was all of that for? Where is the trust? The previous Turnbull government rejected the key recommendation of the Uluru Statement, that there be a constitutionally enshrined "voice"  a representative body allowing Indigenous people to advise and inform government policy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was among many who called it a "third chamber" of Parliament. He reportedly has not shifted from that view.

Wyatt has already framed future negotiations by indicating that he may prefer some symbolic words of recognition in the constitution and a legislated statutory voice. He is testing the resolve and agility of Indigenous leadership. Will they walk back their demand for a constitutional voice? Can they accept symbolism? Hes already sought to recast constitutional recognition as the preserve of urban Indigenous elites, disconnected from impoverished remote black communities.

Ken Wyatt is also on a collision course with the Labor opposition. Senior Indigenous ALP figures Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson have reasserted their commitment to the spirit of the Uluru Statement and full constitutional recognition. It sets up a divisive political battle, which would scuttle any hope of a successful referendum.

Constitutional lawyer George Williams knows how difficult referendums are. He has previously laid out a roadmap to a yes vote. It requires political bipartisanship and popular ownership. It cannot be perceived as political self-interest. The public must know what they are voting for, so it requires popular education. Referendums, Williams warns, are a minefield of misinformation.

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And there must be a sound and sensible proposal.

Professor Williams has cautioned that the referendum process itself may be out of date  not suited to contemporary Australia. He says referendums should be expected to fail if there is political opposition or if the people feel confused or left out of the process.

On that basis, as it stands right now, an Indigenous constitutional voice looks a forlorn prospect.

But there is a glimmer of hope and it comes from our history. In 1967, Australians voted in overwhelming numbers  more than 90 per cent, the most resounding yes vote ever  to count Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Parliament to make laws for First Peoples.

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Ken Wyatt is invoking the spirit of 67, but he also knows its lesson: it was a victory of fairness over difference. Australians are wary of difference, suspicious of questions of rights. Australia has no bill of rights; our constitution is a rule book, not a rights manifesto. Australia is a triumph of liberalism where people are not defined by their race, religion, ethnicity or culture. Australia is a place where migrants are encouraged to leave their histories and old enmities behind. Nationally we are more comfortable mythologising our own history than probing its darkest corners.

Indigenous people live with their history; they carry its scars; it defines them. In a country founded on terra nullius  empty land  where the rights of the First Peoples were extinguished, where no treaties have been signed, this  as the Uluru Statement says  is the torment of their powerlessness.

When it comes to Indigenous recognition  symbolism or substance  black and white Australia speak with a very different voice.

Ken Wyatt, a man of history, is now in the crosshairs of history.

Stan Grant is professor of Global Affairs at Griffith University. He is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man.

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