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Why won't Australians give Aboriginal people a voice in Parliament?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt. Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand is a shining light, writes Bernard Lagan, as a plan to give indigenous Australians more say is rebuffed by the Government.

After weeks in New Zealand, I returned to Australia to an unsettling truth: home is a land shrivelled by its dispiriting failure to find a lasting accommodation with its first inhabitants.

Missing is the enriching reconciliation New Zealand has been working towards with those who came first to Aotearoa: their elevation, their centrality within its public life. Even small actions such as the easy Māori greetings, gestures and farewells on the national airwaves and in public forums; the familiarity my (white) whānau have with a culture that was less encouraged a few decades ago.

Of course, New Zealand’s squaring remains incomplete; higher Māori imprisonment rates and poorer health and economic outcomes tell us as much. Yet, Australia, by comparison, has barely begun.

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What monetary recompense Aboriginal people have obtained for centuries of dispossession and injustice has mostly been extracted by decades of litigation. It took until mid-July for an estimated 10,000 indigenous workers in Queensland, who had their wages stolen more than half a century ago by state-appointed white “protectors”, to win a $190 million settlement.

They were plunged into welfare by a system conceived in the late 19th century to hoover up cheap tribal labour for the developing beef industry in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Hans Pearson, the 80-year-old stockman who was the face of the stolen-wages campaign, is now widowed and alone in a state house. Of the £7000 (A$235,000 in today’s dollars) that Pearson believed he’d amassed when he went to his policeman Aboriginal protector to collect his stored wages in 1963, he got £28. He never bought the small home he and his wife so wanted. There’s no legacy for his children.

If you want to know why Aboriginals are still hurt and angered by the pillaging unleashed by European settlement, it is because of recent, soulless acts such as the stolen-wages saga. The grinding effects remain, as seen in the lost opportunity to expand an Aboriginal working class.

Pearson’s nephew, highly regarded Aboriginal lawyer and thinker Noel Pearson, told the Australian: “We have become mired in the welfare problem over the past 40 years because rather than offering us a place in the economy, the accommodation was reached that we were given a place in the welfare system.”

Which is why it is dismaying that Australian politicians are having another mean-spirited, ill-informed spat over what is surely a moderate and reasonable request from Aboriginal people.

It is that they be given a voice in the national Parliament – possibly enshrined within the Australian Constitution – that would influence law and policies affecting their people.

Why? Because despite the billions of dollars spent by taxpayers on making good Aboriginal disadvantage, there’ve barely been any genuine partnerships with Aboriginal people themselves. A permanent voice in Parliament was a key part of a pathway laid out at a historic meeting of Aboriginal leaders at central Australia’s Uluru in mid-2017.

When Australia’s first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, chanced his arm early this month and made a speech broadly supporting the creation of a new Aboriginal body that would convey Aboriginal views to Parliament, he was rebuffed by his Prime Minister and others in Cabinet, who implied that it was intended to override the will of Parliament.

Conservatives in Scott Morrison’s Government claim the “voice” proposal would divide rather than unite Australians.

New Zealand gives the lie to that. Its many acts of reconciliation have surely drawn its peoples closer.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.