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A nation with unfinished business can take inspiration from Mabo

Real-world poverty, the Fourth World reality endured by so many First People, fired Eddie and Bonita Mabo’s passionate support for the long campaign towards the successful 1967 referendum, when more than 90 per cent of Australian voters expressed our belief in equality. But our political leaders failed to carry this momentum into a sustained effort to end deep disadvantage.

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Over lunch one day at James Cook University in Townsville, yarning with the historians Henry Reynolds and Noel Loos, Eddie Mabo was told that the Crown held title to the place of his birth. There began his nine-year battle that led to the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992. It changed Australian history. It recognised native title where there was continuous relationship to country.  It ended the long-held delusion in law and history about a so-called “land without people”. The extraordinary legal fiction and racist conceit underlying the doctrine of terra nullius were swept away.

In the last years of their lives, I asked two former prime ministers, one Liberal and one Labor, why our nation had failed to make the most of these seasons of hope?

Malcolm Fraser answered that it was the collective lack of political will and the limitations of the experience of working with Indigenous people across several governments, as well as key ministerial appointments, that led to so many disappointments. Bob Hawke told me that the promise he had made after accepting the Barunga petition from elders in 1988, that pledge to negotiate a treaty, was yet to be fulfilled and remained the most important social justice challenge Australians faced today. These formidable leaders agreed with Indigenous people that Australia still has very serious unfinished business. This should be motivation for us all.

Australia’s 30th Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, unquestionably has an opportunity to achieve what none before him has done and lead the nation to enshrine the legal rights of the First Peoples in the constitution. This is the missing foundation stone on which can be built a just nation.

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When Morrison states that his immediate priorities will be educating Indigenous kids, reducing Indigenous suicide and creating jobs that give them a future, I have no doubt he is expressing his own beliefs as well as a realpolitik. But as past prime ministers remind us, expectations fade when governments fail to transfer trust and decision-making authority to the communities that carry the burden of making change.

All of the global evidence on how to end the crippling poverty within nations such as ours is that we must enable the most deeply disadvantaged.

Look to communities around Bourke that have reduced violent crime and domestic violence. Be inspired by the Yarrabah community’s lead against youth??(ful) suicide, Fitzroy Crossing’s reforms on alcohol damage, Kalgoorlie’s pioneering work on renal illness and Mt Druitt’s national leadership on tackling the social damage linked to Ice.

Morrison has said his government is “committed to getting an outcome” on constitutional recognition that all Australians can get behind and that it will “take as long as is needed to achieve that”. Yet the Coalition – despite two years of work by an array of constitutional lawyers – has resisted the proposal for an Indigenous Voice, enshrined in the constitution, to inform the Parliament. Senior government figures fear it becoming  a third chamber of the Parliament.

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If this is to be a Mabo-like season of possibility, clearly someone like Koiki has to unify people. For this reason, huge expectations are now focused on the appointment of Ken Wyatt, the Noongar man who made history this week when he became the first Indigenous person to become the Minister for Indigenous Australians.

Wyatt, echoing the Prime Minister’s caution, has signalled that it is not likely to be a rapid run up to a referendum to match Labor’s pledge of a vote within 12 months. He argues it would better to have a delay even beyond this term of government than risk defeat of these initiatives for another generation.

Equally burdened with responsibility and opportunity are Senator Pat Dodson, who would have held this same ministerial power if Labor had been elected to government, and his Aboriginal colleagues, Linda Burney and Malarndirri McCarthy.

Can these voices inside “the machine” create a nation-wide chorus of bi-partisan agreement? This is where we all come in. We need to raise our voices.

Jeff McMullen is a journalist, author and filmmaker. This is an edited version of the Mabo Address, which he delivered at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences at Ultimo, Sydney, on Friday. The full address can be read at www.jeffmcmullen.com.au.

Jeff McMullen has been a journalist, author and filmmaker for 50 years, including long-running positions as ABC Foreign Correspondent and reporter for Four Corners and Sixty Minutes. ​

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