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Hope for mabu liyan, a healthy national spirit, at last

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The Albanese Labor Government features an unprecidented number of Indigenous representatives including Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson (Image by Dan Jensen)

Several recent developments have raised expectations for substantial progress for the First Australians, as Alan Austin reports.

“I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, I commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.”

Those three brief sentences were the first from Anthony Albanese on Election Night, 21 May, as he claimed victory after former Prime Minister Scott Morrison had conceded defeat. The first two were predictable. The third wasn’t. It was of immense encouragement to Indigenous people across the nation and their non-Indigenous supporters — as evidenced by the enthusiastic applause.

Of course, supporters must wait for the fulfilment of that commitment, which will take time. But they can be mightily heartened by this and other recent developments.

Strong Indigenous representation

Ten First Nations people will serve in the new Parliament, an all-time high. Labor has six — Linda Burney, Pat Dodson, Marion Scrymgour, Gordon Reid, Malarndirri McCarthy and Jana Stewart. The Greens have two — Lidia Thorpe and Dorinda Cox. The Coalition has just one — Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. The tenth is Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie.

Linda Burney is the first Aboriginal woman to serve as Indigenous Affairs Minister and will oversee all the challenges inherent in this complex portfolio.

Yawuru Elder Senator Patrick Dodson is Special Envoy for Reconciliation and for the Implementation of the Uluru Statement, which will enshrine a voice to parliament in Australia's Constitution. 

Truth-telling returns

Australia’s history has been riddled with falsehoods ever since the arrival of the first fleet. Underpinning colonisation was the fiction that Captain Cook in 1770 “discovered” a terra nullius, an empty land. These have been slow to debunk.

Prime Minister Albanese’s remarkable speech last Tuesday in the Indonesian city of Makassar on Sulawesi Island bolstered hopes for rebuilding regional ties as well as reconciliation within Australia, beginning with telling the truth about Australia’s history. 

He honoured the centuries-old relationships between Makassan sailors and the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory. He recalled how the Yolngu would look out to sea each December, “waiting for the horizon to fill with the sails of Makassan vessels”. He noted these encounters were recorded in rock art and bark paintings in Arnhem Land.

Sulawesian fishermen, Albanese said, were the first Muslims to visit Australia, “writing the first chapter in the story of all that Muslim people have contributed to our nation”.

Coalition MPs count themselves out

The Liberal Party under Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley has signalled an unwillingness to collaborate with the incoming Albanese Government on Indigenous issues. Or on anything else, for that matter.

In a televised speech on 30 May, Dutton declared that the Albanese Government was a failure, that “they are breaking promises”, that by the next election it “will have made life more difficult” for Australians and that the Coalition will have to “clean up Labor’s inevitable mess”.

Harsh judgment. Tough assessment. That was two days before the Albanese Government was sworn in.

Dutton has shown his contempt for Indigenous matters more than once since assuming the Liberal leadership. He tried to justify his conspicuous walk-out on the 2008 formal apology with a pathetic excuse.

More seriously, Dutton has not appointed a dedicated shadow minister for Indigenous affairs. He simply flicked that role over to the Shadow Attorney General, who will have plenty to do without bothering about the First Australians.

Still, at least he didn’t handball it to the shadow minister for immigration and border control, as John Howard did in 1998. The symbolism of Howard giving the Indigenous portfolio to Phillip Ruddock, the despised “Minister for People We Don’t Want Here”, was not lost.

The Nationals under David Littleproud may be more supportive of reform in Indigenous matters than the Liberals. Early indications are positive, but it is still early.

Fortunately, the Coalition parties are effectively irrelevant for the next three years and probably much longer. The Albanese Government has a clear majority in the lower house and could rely on support from the Greens, the teal Independents and other cross benchers for Indigenous bills, if required.

In the Senate, Labor needs 39 votes to pass legislation. With 26 Labor senators, 12 Greens, two Lambie Network and three others, this is achievable. The Coalition with 33 senators (maximum, if they win the two seats still in doubt) cannot block Labor’s reforms without crossbench support.

Second term prospects

The encouraging news from detailed analysis of the 2022 Election results is that seats the Coalition would likely win at the next election under Dutton, they already hold. It appears unlikely, even at this early stage, that the Liberals or Nationals will gain seats at the 2025 Election — provided, of course, the Albanese Government averts catastrophe. The Coalition may lose several now-marginal electorates such as Deakin, Sturt, Menzies and Moore, which would greatly strengthen the authority of the reformist parties.

For this reason, voters should be patient if reform in the first term appears tempered. This may reflect strategy rather than lethargy.

There is hope at last that Patrick Dodson’s dreams may be realised, that we achieve mabu buru — a strong country and mabu liyan — a healthy spirit that comes from mutual respect.

Alan Austin is an Independent Australia columnist and freelance journalist. He made more than 150 visits to Aboriginal communities between 1976 and 2005. You can follow him on Twitter @alanaustin001.

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