Indigenous recognition deserves serious debate. Andrew Bolt shouldn't be part of it | Paul Daley

The ABC has missed an opportunity to explore the many complex arguments from within Indigenous Australia itself
• Recognition: Yes or No review: Bolt’s barney with Burney an exercise in cheap spectacle

The ABC television documentary Recognition: Yes or No is an opportunity lost.

It features the Aboriginal activist and politician Linda Burney and the self-declared “Indigenous” (though non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander) conservative polemicist and staunch ABC critic Andrew Bolt.

They are, the voiceover tells us, “two people with passionate views on a journey to challenge each other’s beliefs” about the undefined proposal to constitutionally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It’s just an hour long but still feels like a meandering, marathon road movie absent of coherent plot.

Recognition: Yes or No could have seriously scrutinised the costly Recognise campaign for its arguable capacity to improve black lives. It could have challenged the largely bipartisan insistence of the political class to afford recognition precedence over treaties and sovereignty resolution. Instead we were offered a formulaic reduction: yes (black) v no (white).

“Soon you will be asked to vote in a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution,” the voiceover reads. “This referendum will unite or divide our nation – how will you vote?”

Yet there is no proposed form of words for any constitutional amendment and no clear timetable for a referendum. Politics appears to have stymied plans to coincide one with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Indigenous citizenship referendum.

Choosing Bolt for the program – a man who describes as a “myth” the stolen generations (one of many malevolent products of assimilation, itself directly consequential of European invasion and dispossession) and apparently determines Aboriginality by skin colour – rendered it a laughably inadequate vehicle to tackle the questions relating to the desire (or otherwise) for recognition within Indigenous Australia – which is, after all, where it would impact most.

Burney, a lifelong activist, more recently the first Indigenous woman to sit in the House of Representatives, is a leading public proponent of the official Recognise campaign. She is an articulate advocate who, with others, believes that even fundamental constitutional acknowledgement might improve black lives (a proposition just as many, if not more, Indigenous people vociferously challenge). It is, however, legitimate to ask Burney why and how she ever saw fit to appear opposite Bolt and, in doing so, add legitimacy to his stance.

Bolt for the no vote explains that recognition is “an attempt to address racism by imposing an even more explicit racism”.

He says: “To resist this new racism is to be defined as racist yourself, which is perverse. There wouldn’t be many Australians more against racism than me.”

Good-oh then.

They travel around. And, yes, they meet (mostly highly recognisable) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people including Stan Grant and Mick Gooda, both key Recognise supporters. And there’s Wesley Aird, too – embraced by the right as a “conservative Indigenous adviser” and opponent of recognition.

Linda Burney and Andrew Bolt meet Murrumu
Linda Burney and Andrew Bolt meet Murrumu, who has abandoned Australian ‘citizenship’ to form his own Yidindji sovereign nation. Photograph: Mark Rogers/ABC

They catch up, at Bolt’s request, with my old mate Murrumu in Cairns. Something of a living, breathing cryptic crossword, Murrumu – who has promoted considerable debate around the constitution by abandoning Australian “citizenship” to form his own Yidindji sovereign nation – apparently bamboozles Bolt with his presentation of visitor ID cards and with his stated desire to negotiate agreements and treaties with the Australian state.

They visit the Yolngu in wondrous north-east Arnhem Land where Mr No seems most pleased that Indigenous culture exists outside museums.

The ABC sees fit, meanwhile, to indulge Bolt’s pet assertion that he, too, is “Indigenous ... because I was born here”.

There’s barely a cutaway, unfortunately, of the remarkable Jenny Munro, the face of the recent Redfern protests, in which she declares: “Recognise will not stop police killing us in jail cells, will not stop welfare authorities taking our children.”

It’s quite a critique. But one that’s not adequately developed.

Instead, this show complies with a general mainstream media failure (with some notable exceptions) to explore the many complex arguments against Recognise within Indigenous Australia – arguments that bear no relation whatsoever to Bolt’s assertion that recognition addresses “racism by imposing an even more explicit racism”.

Indeed, many fear Recognise is merely part of a bipartisan process that assuages non-Indigenous guilt and reassures a horrified global community that Australia is at least cognisant of its Indigenous disaster space.

Tens of millions of dollars are being spent on Recognise, with much more in the pipeline, at a time when the Abbott/Turnbull governments have cut at least $550m from Indigenous programs. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander opponents of Recognise are not motivated by a concern it might discriminate against privileged white men; rather, they worry it may either have a negligible – or, conversely, profoundly negative impact on the lot of some of the world’s most underprivileged people.

They are concerned Recognise will impede a dramatically re-energised treaty movement and the ongoing fight to have sovereignty (and not just the people to whom it belongs) rightfully recognised and appropriately – finally – reckoned with.

This is but another reason why choosing Bolt to represent the “No” case was remiss. Why not reflect the nuance and complexity of argument and concern within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia by having Indigenous proponents on both sides of the debate?

How easy would it be for non-Indigenous Australia – especially its federal politicians – to say, after a minimalist act of constitutional recognition, that, having done “the blackfella referendum”, treaties can wait a bit longer still than the 200-plus years that have already passed. Just look at what politics has done lately to the prospects of gay marriage in Australia.

Governments insist that poor literacy rates and remote living accounts for an estimated Indigenous voting enrolment rate of 58%. I’m told that as few as 30-35% of Indigenous Australians actually bother to vote. Many I know abstain on ideological/political grounds – a protest against legitimising and acknowledging what they view (in the words of Megan Davis, a member of the Recognise movement’s consultative committee) as the “settler state”.

Will they turn out in greater numbers to vote on – never mind support – any Recognise constitutional amendment? I doubt it.

Meanwhile, the Recognise consultation panel keeps hearing Indigenous voices crying out not, foremost, for recognition but for a truth and reconciliation process to deal with the horrific legacies of continental occupation and violent dispossession.

Which of course brings it all back to land and the pressing need for treaties. And that’s something recognition alone can never deliver.

• Recognition: Yes or No is available to stream on iview


Paul Daley

The GuardianTramp

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