In 1788, a month after Christmas, the great southern land that would become Australia received a gift of incomprehensible proportion. When the tall ships spilt the progeny of Victorian England onto our shores, our nation’s newcomers missed the immensity and generosity of the gift, and rejected it. The spirituality and intellectual power of it escaped them. It had nothing, yet everything to do with the land on which they disembarked. When the British claimed Australia as their own, the rush for imperial expansion blinded them. In seizing a continent and erroneously branding it terra nullius – empty land – they denied our modern nation the gift of priceless knowledge, those who’d lived here for millennia had learned. It was as much a travesty as taking the land itself, arguably an even greater loss.
A Referendum on Constitutional Recognition potentially looms in 2017. That year is the 25th anniversary of the Mabo High Court decision overturning terra nullius, and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum which changed the law to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to be counted in the Census. As an Australian of English and Welsh heritage, whose forebears braved the Roaring Forties to make landfall on Australian shores in the mid 1800s, I am embarrassed. That these pieces of historic legislation were needed, demeans our past. To ignore the call to take the spirit of these belated acts of conscience a step further into our Constitution, demeans our future. As the wife of a Yanyuwa man from the Northern Territory, John Moriarty, and the mother of three Aboriginal young adults, I feel confident we are striving for a diverse and fair-minded society.
Soon after I met John, I asked him what his Christmas was like. “Traditional Aboriginal,” he quipped. “Traditional turkey, stuffing, ham on the bone, roast veggies and plum pudding. Oh, and always with custard. Cream and icecream too.” And he wasn’t kidding. In rain, hail or steamy heat beating down, we have eaten an English Christmas feast without fail for thirty four years.
When a thunderstorm cut power one year in Malua Bay on the south coast of NSW, we butchered the turkey and grilled it in pieces on a barbeque. Tasteless and tough, it became one of those frequently dredged up family legends, “remember that foul turkey we barbequed that year in Malua Bay”. The quality of our Christmas tucker oscillates depending on facilities on hand in holiday houses, boats and camping grounds, as summer Christmases always seem wasted indoors. The only given is that none of the trimmings will be missing.
It surprised me that John would hold such traditions close. It was the English who’d stormed his land in Australia’s far north, scattering tribes apart, then herding them into uneasy alliances on crossroad lands where few of them belonged. It was a British boss who’d buried his auntie alive for being unable to carry one more sack of salt at the Manangoora mines on a beautiful stretch of the Wearyan River. And it was the Anglican Church and the government who loaded four-year-old John onto the back of an army truck in the tropics, and transported him 3000 kilometres south to the snowy foothills of Sydney’s Blue Mountains. His mother thought he was going to school for the day, but when she went to pick him up, he was gone. It was ten years before they were reunited, and another fifteen before he could make the trip north to reconnect with all that had been taken from him.
There is a lot of generosity in John’s view of British Australia. It’s there in his love of London too. The Thames, the Tower, the cobbled streets trodden smooth by gentry and convicts alike, before they rolled the dice on the New World, or had the dice rolled for them. There is a puzzling inclusivity in John’s willingness to reconcile with a brutal colonial past, and freely share this place we now all call home. I see it in so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people I spend time with, in business and in life. While our Constitution continues to exclude their story, it is a one-way reconciliation.
My sense is the willingness by John, his family and his people to share this place, Australia, is the same as it was in 1788. It comes from the quiet confidence of knowing deeply, of bringing a gift of immeasurable value to the table. It is not about conceding land, it never was. Boomerangs and spears were no match for British guns, but Aboriginal people fought with skill and valour to hold country that the Dreaming entrusted them with protecting.
The World Bank says the world’s roughly 300 million Indigenous peoples make up 4.5% of global population. Their traditional territories stretch to about 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. Ironically the gift they bring is the thing the urban world now chases. Spiritual meaning, mindful living, treading lightly; caring for the planet for this generation, the next, and the ones in a future we cannot begin to imagine. It is the ultimate gift that keeps on giving. The story of Australian Aboriginal people is front and centre in this narrative. It is the longest continuing culture on Earth, but its maturity, power and wisdom remain foreign to us.
Some of Australia’s best political, legal and social equity brains joined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders this month to prepare the country for the result we must achieve on Constitutional Recognition. The groundswell within Australian business, and amongst ordinary Australians on both sides of the cultural fence, is equally critical to the result, because it is about the numbers.
If the outstanding success in ’67 – just over 90% for a yes vote – can be attributed to particular success factors, it was perhaps clear messaging on a human level: the campaign enabled the populace to identify with the justice of a fair outcome. And ’67 had a clearly defined charter with enormously cohesive support. Recognise has not yet articulated its mission with the same clarity. But the outcome we need is the same. Anything less will diminish us as decent people, cheapen our values of inclusion, and stunt our nation’s capacity to truly understand and articulate who we are. It is more than symbolic. It goes to the heart of finally accepting an extraordinary gift.