Features Australia

Doing the Makarrata

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

10 August 2019

9:00 AM

So here we go again. What I will call ‘Atsic mark II’ is currently getting pollies, journos and lawyers in a tizz. Respected writers such as Chris Kenny in the Australian recently came out in support of some sort of ‘constitutional recognition’ of Australia’s first people (‘Uluru plan could not be fairer’). A large number of very senior members of the legal establishment including two former chief justices, (Murray Gleeson, Robert French) also support the creation of an ‘indigenous voice’ which will have some sort of constitutional recognition and an unspecified relationship to Parliament.

Janet Albrechtsen, also in the Australian, took a contrary view pointing out that Atsic wasted hundreds of millions of your dollars, achieved nothing and had to be euthanased by parliament (‘Voice gets louder but no clearer’). Unlike the ‘change the date’ debate about Australia Day, which gets an annual airing and then is dropped for another year, this one is not tied to a specific calendar event and will probably keep running for a while to come. Both the proponents and opponents of the various schemes being considered will get a lot of time on the talk shows pushing their wheelbarrows. The opponents will, not unreasonably, argue that they cannot agree to any amendments to the Constitution until they know the details. The advocates for the plan are fond of using phrases like ‘statement from the heart’ but are vague as to exactly how a change to the Constitution will help indigenous people.

I can put at rest the minds of both the ‘for’ and ‘against’ groups concerning the proposed constitutional amendments as I can tell them both exactly what will and will not happen if we change the Constitution to recognise a body which has the status of a third chamber of parliament.

What will happen is that the government will put its hands into your pocket to collect the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to get this amorphous body up and running. It will then give the money to the bureaucrats running the new body to disburse among their acolytes.

What will not happen is a reduction in the incidence of syphilis among under-age kids in remote Northern Territory settlements. The adverse impact of alcohol and drug dependency will not be ameliorated. Wives will still present in casualty wards due to domestic violence and kids will still be taken into custody due to parental dysfunction.


The problems in Australia’s Indigenous communities have not changed in the past century. One hundred and fifty years ago the ‘blacks’ as they were then called were treated appallingly. The so-called Protector of Aborigines had the same job as the Indian Agents in Canada and the USA. They had to act as the interface between defeated, depressed, Indigenous communities consisting mainly of pre-industrial hunter-gatherers, and a hostile group of expansionist white men who wished to exploit the lands on which these unfortunate natives had lived for thousands of years. The ‘Protectors’ handed out blankets and rations and (sometimes) tried to prevent white men from sexually abusing desperate indigenous women for a bag of flour or a bottle of rum.

In Australia, Canada and the USA, things are not so grim now but the demoralisation of the Indigenous communities, the alcoholism and general collapse of social cohesion has not changed substantially. In all three countries, government has failed to solve the problems of indigenous disadvantage not because of lack of will, but because no one knows how to repair the damage caused by the dispossession of the Indigenous populations.

But political parties that admit that they have no remedies for long-term problems won’t get elected. So instead, governments of all persuasions adopt various strategies. Sometimes they provide us with solutions such as a ‘war on drugs’.  Remember how effective that has been in the USA?

Sometimes they pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. The biggest problem in the world today is not global warming. It has to be the 70 million displaced persons and refugees. There are 195 nations in the world. Only 19 have a population greater than 70 million. The number of refugees who will live and die in wretched poverty in tents and semi-permanent townships is greater than the individual populations of the other 176 nations. When was the last time that this issue was front and centre at the talkfests which the G7, the G20, the IMF or the OECD are constantly having? But more and more, governments are employing a third way of addressing, or more exactly not addressing, intractable problems. They are using obfuscation and untruth.

We are living in an age where people with penises can call themselves women, where people with vaginas can call themselves husbands and where people who are white can call themselves black. We are living in a Humpty Dumpty world where words can mean whatever those who are in charge want them to mean.

A shining example of this is the way that Australian governments, of the left and right, attempt to solve what, one hundred years ago, was called ‘the aboriginal problem’ by developing more talkfests in which ‘Makarrata Commissions’ will develop feel good sentiments revolving around ‘voice, treaty and truth’.

How anyone today can believe that creating a new government branch in Canberra can have any useful impact for the people living in remote settlements in the far north mystifies me. There are thousands of healthcare professionals and teachers working in the remote settlements who are trying to bring about effective and permanent change and to close the gap between the lifestyles and opportunities most Australians enjoy, and the conditions in the remote camps.  All we hear in the southern cities is tales of failure and despair as evidenced by the recent accounts of youth suicides in the Kimberly.

There must somewhere be success stories. There must be communities which are prospering. Communities where kids are well-fed and cared for. We should be studying those communities to see why they succeeded when so many others failed. We should be applying the lessons learned from the success stories to the dysfunctional communities we are constantly reading about.

If we cannot identify successful communities then we must accept that a century of effort has failed. I do not see what another elected body can achieve and the level of debate we have witnessed around the third chamber nonsense suggests to me that we are in for more of the same for another century.

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