Recognition to bridge the gulf of respect

Australia has made great strides in recognising its disadvantaged and its minorities, but it cannot be a complete commonwealth until it recognises the most disadvantaged and overlooked of all.

Our first peoples are humanity's longest continuing civilisation and confer a unique status on our country, and also a unique responsibility.


Yet they are excluded from Australia's success. They live in a parallel land of Third World conditions, when they could be included as the completing third part of our unique nation.

The three parts as Noel Pearson of Cape York brilliantly explains them: "There is our ancient heritage, written on the continent and the original culture painted on its land and seascapes.


"There is its British inheritance, the structures of government and society transported from the United Kingdom fixing its foundations in the ancient soil.

"There is its multicultural achievement: a triumph of immigration that brought together the gifts of people and cultures from all over the globe – forming one indissoluble commonwealth."

In Pearson's words, "we stand on the cusp of bringing these three parts of our national story together" by giving constitutional recognition to Indigenous Australians to make "a more complete commonwealth". Except that he said that in 2014. And Australia is no closer.

Addressing the material and social suffering of the first Australians is necessary, of course. But insufficient.

Some of the finest moments in Australia's Parliament occur in February each year when the two sides of politics come together in the annual review of the Closing the Gap project, an effort to lift six key indicators of Indigenous health, education and employment to those enjoyed by every other part of our society. The deadline for achieving this is not a far distant one – 2030.


The usual hysterics and hubbub of the House of Representatives fall away as the two leaders enter a serious and sincere bipartisan discussion of the year's progress. But progress is halting and uneven. Overall, it is failing.

The effort is bedevilled by the same problem that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy has suffered for centuries – it is driven by the urge to do things to Indigenous Australians, not to do things with them.

Our first peoples two years ago proposed the creation of an Indigenous advisory body to the Parliament. It would be established and legitimised by an amendment to the constitution.

The Indigenous "Voice" would have no executive or legislative power. Its function would be to offer Indigenous views on Indigenous policy.

Yet even the request for a voice was strangled by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who falsely described it as a "third chamber" of Parliament, implying that it was some sort of danger to the prerogatives of the Parliament. This was a straw man, a false argument that was really just an excuse for inaction.

The new Parliament that is to convene in the next few weeks has an opportunity to fix this failure. By giving our first peoples a voice, the Parliament would give them their best opportunity to help a united country Close the Gap. Successfully. That is necessary, but insufficient.

Even if Australia can manage to close the gap on practical measures of Indigenous quality of life, our country is still blighted by the less tangible gap – the great gulf of respect, recognition and self-esteem that has trapped Indigenous Australians at the lowest level of the system of social order.

This is not some waffly concept but a central tenet of the human spirit. The ancient Greeks had a word for it. Thymos – the part of the human soul that craves recognition. With it, we are empowered and ennobled. Without recognition, we are less than fully human.

By establishing the Voice to Parliament in the constitution, Australia will acknowledge the first Australians' right to recognition and respect, and improve the effectiveness of the efforts to Close the Gap at the same time.

Labor campaigned on a promise of a "fair go for all Australians" while the re-elected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, said that "if you have a go, you'll get a go". Both parties have a new opportunity to give substance to these sentiments.

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Our first Australians are at a special disadvantage and need unique recognition and unique help. But on their own terms, guided by their own voice.