It’s not black and white, we need to talk

By Meike Wijers

Frank Brennan

Frank Brennan

A lady with grey hair tied in a bun settles into her chair in front of the Curiosity stage at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and looks at the program. The audience this Thursday afternoon is overwhelmingly white and the average age is about 60. “Should be an Aboriginal to talk about this, not a white man,” she says to the lady next to her, who nods in agreement.

Frank Brennan is many things; Jesuit priest, professor of law and advocate for social justice and reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians. He chaired the National Human Rights Consultation in 2009 and has published a number of books on Indigenous issues and civil liberties.

But he is not an Indigenous person. “I am a white middle-class priest. I do not pretend to understand what it is to live life as an Indigenous Australian,” the well-meaning whitefella says on stage. “I do not envy any Indigenous leader the difficult, discerning task of deciding which way to go at this fork in the road.”

Father Brennan moved to Canberra seven years ago and dove into the archives to find out how the successful referendum of 1967 came about. Now nearly 50 years later, as we await a new referendum, he considers how far we have come in his book, No Small Change – The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia.

We are at a crossroads in the discussion about Indigenous recognition in the constitution of Australia, Father Brennan says. “I have watched from the sidelines what I regard as an increasing mess in Indigenous policy. The tragic irony is that though there is an increasing recognition of Indigenous entitlements to land, that doesn’t seem to be working any magic. Indigenous leaders have told me, ‘We are land rich, but dirt poor’.”

His thesis is that the referendum in 1967 was successful because a very modest change to the constitution was proposed, but the public gave it overwhelming support. This created the political imperative for actual change.

At the time, a Council for Aboriginal Affairs was set up. “They were three very wise white men, some of the finest you could find in Australia, but there was no Indigenous person there.”

Father Brennan was close to the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner and public servants Barrie Dexter and H.C. Coombs, who comprised the council. “These three men were a major catalyst for two really big changes that took place in indigenous policy,” he says. “The move from terra nullius to land rights, and from forced assimilation to self-determination.

“The changes were not done overnight with bold, symbolic statements. They were in the corridors of power in Canberra, day in and day out, doing battle with the mindset that existed in the Department of Interior.”

Father Brennan has dedicated his book to Liam Marrantya, a Ngangi-Wumeri man from Nauiyu Nambiyu, who committed suicide in 2009 while in his early twenties. He was caught between what Father Brennan calls the Dreaming and the Market. The Dreaming is the connection to land, culture and language. The Market is a place in modern Australia. “Those who lose a foothold in the Dreaming and never found one in the Market are caught between the two.”

While he respects the people he calls “the sovereign purists” – Indigenous people who say they never surrendered their sovereignty so all laws are imposed and illegal – he sees an increasing acceptance of the fact Australia is a post-colonial society.

So what can a worried, well-meaning white Australian do? “We have to wait. It is important to wait and listen to Indigenous leaders,” he says. “Once we get an indication of what Indigenous aspirations are, we can have a public discussion and work on constitutional change.”

But until then, the well-meaning whitefella has to wait. Because, Father Brennan says, there is no point in seeking any constitutional change other than that which is sought by Aboriginal leaders.

It will not be an easy ride. “I have experienced first-hand the complete lack of appetite and agnosticism on both sides in the political arena for any recognition of human rights in the constitution,” he says. “One must tread very cautiously in seeking meaningful change.”

He ends on a hopeful note. “The lesson from the ’67 referendum is even very modest change, if it is carried over well, is no small change. It is substantial change, which we should embrace; and bring Aboriginal Australians to the table as they negotiate the terms of their living in a way that respects their land rights and their self-determination.

“So that in the future they might not only be land rich but have the prospect of an enhanced place and foothold in (both) the Dreaming and the Market.”