Budget back in black — and the white blindfold

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Budget 2019-2020 makes a lot more sense when interpreted in the light of Scott Morrison's first speech. Like most first speeches, it's about how his personal values manifest in his political actions. And what those values expose about the current prime minister's understanding of Australian history is quite telling.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is congratulated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison after delivering the budget in the House of Representatives. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)'Australia is a strong nation,' said Morrison in that 2008 speech. 'It is the product of more than 200 years of sacrifice — most significantly by those who have served in our defence forces ...' More than 200 years? Most significantly?

Most significant to the government's recent cultural commitments has been the record-breaking half a billion dollars for the Australian War Memorial, at a time when no such investment is necessary and no monuments exist to the frontier wars that violently dispossessed Australia's First Nations.

Following widespread outcry from veterans, budget 2019-2020 has now committed around half that amount — $278 million — towards improve the wellbeing of veterans and their families. Elsewhere in the budget papers we find a much smaller amount — the already committed $85 million — towards an Aboriginal Art and Cultures Gallery in Adelaide as part of its City Deal.

How does the prime minister understand our contemporary responsibility to First Nations sovereignty and culture? And how is this articulated in the budget? Let's go back to that first speech.

Throughout the speech, Morrison contrasts First Nations people and culture with 'modern Australia' and 'the modern world'. The dispossession of a land whose sovereignty has never been ceded is described as the 'arrival' of that 'modern world' and its violence is dismissed as 'inevitable'. For our prime minister, this was simply the 'inevitable clash of cultures that came with the arrival of the modern world' and therefore not comparable to the 'sacrifices' made by defence force personnel.

Setting that 'modern world' apart from First Nations displays no understanding of the world's oldest continuing culture. What about its future? 'The government remains committed to the process of constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples,' the budget papers tell us, and $7.3 million is committed for 2019-20 only to fund 'the co-design of options for a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples'. The papers also make the commitment to 'conduct a referendum once a model has been settled'.

 

"You can't give a voice while denying histories. You can't give a voice without listening. And you certainly can't give a voice that was never yours to give in the first place."

 

The term 'co-design' is key. Rather than funding a respectfully self-determined approach that's First Nations led, the government is committing only to 'engagement and consultation' with organisations and communities across Australia. And while the budget papers claim this approach is consistent with one of the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, the other recommendations advocate truth-telling and the establishment of a Final Resting Place in Canberra.

Engagement and consultation are complex words, full of the kinds of ambiguities that can preclude real commitment. Budgets make commitments by documenting future investments. Seeing no amount budgeted for that future referendum across any of the budget's four-year projections does not inspire confidence in that commitment to constitution recognition.

When, after countless hours of rigorous discussion, hundreds of Elders present a Statement from the Heart to the prime minister, and that person dismisses it, what's needed next is not more engagement and consultation. Especially when that gesture is received as more than just dismissive and more like an attack.

The next government has not only opportunity but also the weight of responsibility to act. This will mean speaking a language that doesn't descend into buzzwords, but that listens with respect. You can't give a voice while denying histories. You can't give a voice without listening. And you certainly can't give a voice that was never yours to give in the first place.

'I do not share the armband view of history, black or otherwise,' says Morrison. 'I like my history in high-definition, widescreen, full, vibrant colour.' The white blindfold is a persistent affliction of our political leaders, obscuring both historical and contemporary Australian life in ways that remain closed to so much learning.

 

 

Esther AnatolitisEsther Anatolitis is Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts. Author photo by Sarah Walker.

Main image: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is congratulated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison after delivering the budget in the House of Representatives. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Esther Anatolitis, Budget 2019, Aboriginal Australians

 

 

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Existing comments

Yep: “You can't give a voice while denying histories. You can't give a voice without listening. And you certainly can't give a voice that was never yours to give in the first place.” When will we all learn to respect the ancient cultures of our indigenous people and admit the horrors of the frontier wars?
Peter Johnstone | 05 April 2019


Memo to S. Morrison, PM of Australia: You say "Australia is a strong nation". Are we thoughtful enough to say "First and foremost Indigenous people matter". Don't you know that in weakness there is a profound strength. And that's what Indigenous people have that you don't display. Think about it and get back to me. I'm always happy to listen. Yours sincerely, Pam.
Pam | 05 April 2019


I migrated to Australia in the early seventies. I feel for our Indigenous peoples who have been forced to live, not their way of life, but others’. In the name of progress? They were blamed to be responsible for all that’s happening to them without examine the real impact of the ill-thought of policies of governments. When will Australia wake up to honouring the Indigenous peoples of Australia? Give them a chance, or what Aussies say a FAIR Go.
Lerma Ung | 05 April 2019


I'm not a fan of Morrison, but this article smacks of desperation in sifting through his speeches trying to find some implication that he's somehow anti-aboriginal. If this is the worst you can find about him, he's doing OK.
Peter K | 05 April 2019


Try comparing $50m for upgrading and refurbishing a statue/memorial of Captain Cook with $5m provided over 4 years [1.2m pa] for Aboriginal youth suicide prevention. Now I will be accused of being selective. The list goes on, no matter which way you look at it - the Budget continues to sideline a particular group of Australians. I was a member of a ministerial committee on the prevention of youth suicide for several years and suggest that this $5m over four years for these remote community children is the modern version of blankets and beads.
Tony London | 05 April 2019


Thank you, Esther, for your clear-sighted appraisal of what are glaring inequities in our society. The nation as a whole cannot really achieve maturity, integrity and spiritual well-being until the tribulations that are one group's legacy of the actions of another, opportunistic faction are fully and justly addressed.
Jena Woodhouse | 05 April 2019


Not only absence of foresight, but also absence of hindsight.
Peter Horan | 05 April 2019


Many of our governments have lost the ability to make farsighted decisions. There is or appears to be no effort given to mapping out the issues raised by potential actions, to exploring a number of possible choices working out their consequences, to challenging each thoroughly and then selecting a suitable action. The solution proposed in many cases is to throw money at a problem as if that alone solves everything. It is just waste. Effective decision making processes involve the stakeholders fully.
Peter Horan | 05 April 2019


EUREKA seems to be having trouble looking at some of the ridiculous promises made by Bill shorten in his reply to the Budget. He proposes hitting retirees and others with taxes and taking away benefits and then proposes a scheme for electric cars which would bankrupt the nation
BERNARD TRESTON | 07 April 2019


I read the subtext of this budget allocation for more engagement and consultation as being: they got it wrong so now we'll help them get it right. 'When will they ever learn' as the song goes, The ones who cused the problem and profit from it now see themselves as the ones to fix it.
Philip Theobald | 07 April 2019


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