QUARTERLY ESSAY 69 Moment of Truth



Michael Cooney

I liked a lot about Mark McKenna’s essay – he knows plenty more about Indigenous history than me, so there was plenty to learn; and I was flying into Sydney airport while reading the comical and poignant history of Kurnell’s street signage, so craning my neck through the window was more than usually fun – but I was left unsatisfied by one key point and uneasy about another.

Unsatisfied, because thinking simply as an Australian who’s not Indigenous and who cares about all this, I’m still not sure that this essay came to grips with what I think is the core paradox of reconciliation (and of Makarrata): that the project is predicated on us all being “after struggle.”

I know Mark gets this, but I’m not sure he gets to this. Are we really post-conflict? Not just can we come together, but are we after struggle yet? I’m up for it, but how honestly sure am I that white Australia is done with doing things that will need to be apologised for and for which it will need to make amends? Would anyone consider Don Dale, deaths in custody and child removal historical wrongs?

And maybe even trickier – who answers this? On the one hand, it’s non-Indigenous Australia that needs to decide to make its confession, yes; but it’s only Indigenous Australia that can offer forgiveness and that can assess the white desire for amendment and judge if satisfaction has been or will be made. We should be prepared to wait.

There’s a great force of sentiment to be forgiven, a force felt in a really large and consequential part of non-Indigenous Australia. I feel it. But I’m not sure there’s as great a sensitivity to the gradations of meaning between asking to be forgiven (yes, good), expecting to be absolved (wait, tricky), and an unconscious wish for a new “cult of forgetfulness” in place of the old (stop, bad).

I get that some of us feel the mark of Cain upon us. The hard question is this: are we entitled to ask that it be removed? Because we cannot un-spill our brother’s blood.

(There’s an analogy here with the desperately sincere but unfortunately double-helixed desires of many non-Indigenous Australians that we both abolish an old national day that gives offence to Indigenous people and create a new national day that doesn’t cause discomfort to non-Indigenous people. There’s a lot to be said for the first. But the second – I’m not sure we will ever get there, and I’m not sure we should, and I’m definitely sure we’re not there now. Can we have – and should we seek – a national day which is unproblematic? On one reading, only when we are a nation that is unproblematic.)

This dissatisfaction I felt goes to the paradox of truth-telling and reconciliation about violence and dispossession, and to the paradox of changing the date without forgetting the day. It goes to the paradox of resolving sovereignty, too. Mark argues for the “spiritual notion” of Indigenous sovereignty to “explicitly coexist with the sovereignty of the Australian people in a future republican constitution.”

Okay. How?

I don’t mean through what form of words and force of law (although also how in that sense?). And I don’t mean I’m not sure whether Mark’s argument is that these Indigenous questions have to be dealt with “before” the republic or “with” the republic, although that too.

I mean: how do you get agreement to Mark’s goal?

Do Indigenous Australians want a constitutional settlement that the substantial sovereignty over these waters and lands is that of “the Australian people” (in place of the Crown), while their own “shines through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood”?

Do they want political support for “Voice, Treaty and Truth” to entail political support for an Australian republic – and in turn, are they really offering to bet all their own hopes on a double-or-nothing deal with the public at large?

Should progress on Voice, Treaty and Truth really require not only a successful referendum for an Australian to be our head of state but in turn a successful resolution – which must surely only mean abandonment – of substantive claims against the Crown?

Yes, clearly all that could be consistent with one reading of Uluru and how it would relate to the establishment of an Australian head of state, and I don’t suggest Mark has made this up out of whole cloth, of course not. But I do think we need to ask – and I think we need to listen for a good amount of time.

First, because from my professional political perspective, my head tells me that forcing this kind of very strong legal connection of the question of Indigenous sovereignty to the question of an Australian head of state asks a great deal of a nascent, vital, perhaps even fragile, certainly not inevitable Indigenous project, and it largely asks that to the benefit of someone and something else. Precisely because of the importance of this campaign to Indigenous Australia and to every Australian, I am most reluctant to see miscalculations made in goodwill hitch the weight of the republican wagon to this bright southern star.

And second, because from my suburban vantage point, my heart insists that what’s most important about the project of Voice, Treaty and Truth is that it is Indigenous-led, Indigenous-defined. It’s obviously not the only thing to be done, in Indigenous affairs or in national life, and no one says it is. And what I hear Indigenous people saying to me is that what gives the Uluru Statement meaning, perhaps above all else, is that it presents as a black solution to a black problem.

Since taking up the republic campaign in May last year, I have done a lot more listening than speaking or writing about Indigenous politics. That approach will continue – I come with my ears on – and our campaign will certainly not speak over Indigenous voices or force ourselves onto this vital cause.

So this is the second point – the one about which I’m uneasy.

I’m uneasy when Mark says, “The only republic worth having is a reconciled republic.” I don’t exactly disagree, and I’ll offer something more specific about what that means for the Australian Republic Movement in a moment. But first up, I don’t think that is fair to the idea of reconciliation. Because I don’t think the purpose of the Uluru process was to give my life meaning and I know it was not to give my campaign meaning. I am not asking Indigenous Australia to do the spiritual labour for the nation. And I don’t think this version of the argument helps the campaign for Voice, Treaty and Truth.

This is why I don’t think it makes sense – not only because I don’t think it’s prudent, but because I don’t think it’s even good, really – to insist that these issues are more than just related, more than just connected, but that they have to have a concrete constitutional integration as part of a sequence (much less a cognate set) of constitutional changes set out years in advance.

Quite the contrary. In my opinion, when it comes to thinking about Voice, Treaty and Truth and about the republic, the question isn’t who goes first, it’s what happens when.

I propose holding a national vote in 2020 on the in-principle question (Do you want an Australian as Australia’s head of state?) and the model question (Should an Australian head of state be elected by the voters or by the Parliament?). I argue this should lead to a republic referendum in 2022. I support having a national vote on the Indigenous questions on the date and in the form that Indigenous leadership and community want it held. It is as simple and as complicated as that.

The role of the Crown in Australian life is just not acceptable. And the moment we can cut it out, we should do so. In an hour, if we get the chance. The absence of Indigenous sovereignty in Australian law is calamitous and absurd. Name the date and I’ll vote yes pre-poll so I can help out driving people to the polls on the day.

Let’s get on with it together.


Michael Cooney is national director and CEO of the Australian Republic Movement and a former executive director of the Chifley Research Centre. He is the author of The Gillard Project.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 69, Moment of Truth. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 70, Dead Right.


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