This discrepancy reveals that Indigenous history and culture has no serious purchase on the national imagination, and no particularly grave place in the reckoning of government.
When the ministers give permits to mining companies to destroy these sites, they’re assessing whether the economic benefit outweighs the cost of lost heritage. But it’s not Indigenous communities that determine that cost, and in some cases the law doesn’t require them even to be consulted.
That’s a problem because lost heritage is something you feel in your bones. Remember the ritual public mourning that overcame the world when Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire? That registered with us as tragedy because we value that expression of history and culture instinctively.
It’s impossible to imagine us tolerating a mining company destroying something like that for money. But when it comes to our Indigenous history, we’re so systematically separated from it that we lack those instincts. Many of these sites don’t even have heritage listing. Their routine destruction can only be possible because, on balance, we see that history not as invaluable but as an obstacle to profit.
That, I suspect, is partly what’s driving these protests against colonial commemoration. That official celebration of explorers and governors, with no mention of the Indigenous people they killed or the slaves they drove, obscures not just the oppression of our First Nations, but the very notion of them as fully-formed peoples with history and culture.
And you can’t be very well connected to a culture you won’t let yourself see. In that sense, I suspect this isn’t really about statues at all, which are probably a sideshow. It’s more about the idea that the commemoration of these figures is an extension of the colonial attitude itself, where Indigenous populations become unpeople: obstacles to enrichment, much like their culture before mining companies.
What’s being defaced in the case of those statues is not history itself, but rather commemoration. That’s quite a different thing.
The protestors’ complaint, as far as I can grasp, isn’t that the people these statues sanctify failed by today’s standards. It’s that the legacy of their world view lives on, that the standards of their day still persist in subtle ways. Whether Australians are inclined to accept that argument or not, the trouble for us as a country is that we seem to have no real way to engage with it.
We might acknowledge the facts of Indigenous disadvantage and declare some targets for “closing the gap” which seem never to be met. But that approach might give the impression the problem is a technocratic one, to be solved by tinkering with policy settings. That rather sidesteps the point of the protests, which is to bring the whole colonial project into focus. That’s exactly why it won’t be seriously considered by people in power.
As things stand it can’t be, because its challenge is inevitably existential: the logical extension of saying Captain Cook should be torn down is to question the legitimacy of the nation itself. Not many countries respond well to that kind of thing, which is why these arguments so often produce a visceral response.
What we perhaps euphemistically call “settler societies” demand nothing as fundamentally as the acquiescence of the people they dispossessed. Without it, the questions become too big to process. That means the more these questions are asked, the more stuck we seem to become. It’s like we lack the political technology to come to a resolution.
That impasse will only change when we feel less existentially threatened by the fundamental objections of our Indigenous communities. That means finding a way to incorporate the grievances of dispossession into the very idea of Australia, somehow reconciling the modern nation unto its ancient ones.
That’s the role a treaty might play, for instance, because –in theory at least – it would mean some basis for coexistence has been agreed, making honest conversations about history less existentially loaded.
But more broadly, it’s the national project of reconciliation, which strikes me as so important but which I hardly recall being discussed in the fury of this past fortnight.
Perhaps that’s because it has fallen into such disrepair that it doesn’t inspire people any more.
Perhaps that idea died when a previous version of our government took the Uluru Statement from the Heart – a map for coexistence and the result of extraordinary effort, collaboration and sincerity from Indigenous leaders – and then blatantly misled the public about what it meant and dismissed it without even leading a national conversation on it.
Perhaps that act of astonishing bad faith blew up the project of a reconciled Australia like so many sacred sites before and since. Perhaps our crowning failure is to recognise that reconciliation isn’t some gift to give magnanimously to Indigenous people, but is rather something the nation as a whole needs for its own sake. And perhaps in its absence there is nothing left any more but protests, anger, and statues.
Waleed Aly is a regular columnist.
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Waleed Aly is co-host of Ten’s The Project and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.