The timing was awkward. In the week that Washington police attacked a television crew from the Seven Network covering the Black Lives Matter protests outside the White House, a NSW police officer slammed an Indigenous teenager face-first into the pavement in Surry Hills in inner Sydney.
There is no shame for Australia in being a white victim of state violence on American soil. The shame comes in the second encounter, and the perception it reinforces of state violence against Indigenous Australians in what also happened to be Reconciliation Week.
The footage may not tell the whole story. But it’s hard to avoid the link with the crisis in the United States at the moment. The Indigenous youth taunts the officer, the officer replies with intimidating force. Fortunately for both sides in this unequal argument, the slamming of face into pavement did not end in serious injury to the 16-year-old. Otherwise the mobile phone clip would have been weaved into the global indignation that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Australia’s reputation on race relations is fragile at the best of times. Nonetheless, it is wrong to conflate the US experience with ours.
The American legacies of slavery, lynching and segregation do not have their precise equivalence here. Retro-fitting any of those stories into the Australian context risks missing the underlying problem hiding in plain sight: the legacy of dispossession.
While it is true that Indigenous Australians suffer similar disproportionate rates of imprisonment as African Americans, the comparisons do not all run in the same direction. For instance, African Americans don’t suffer the same life expectancy gap relative to white Americans that Indigenous Australians do relative to non-Indigenous Australians.
In the US, the life expectancy for a white man at birth is 76.6 years; for a black man it is 72.2 years. In Australia, the figures are 80.4 years for a non-Indigenous man and 71.6 years for an Indigenous man.
One way of reading that data is triumphantly: Our health system is clearly superior to the US for the white population, while Indigenous Australians are only slightly worse off than African Americans.
But the life expectancy gap between white and black in the US has narrowed from six years in 2005 to 4.4 years in 2015, according to the Centres for Disease Control; a period which coincided with Barack Obama’s presidency.
In Australia the gap remains where it was a decade earlier, even though we had a Labor government committed to both symbolic and practical reconciliation in that time. As the latest Closing the Gap report said: “Over the period 2006 to 2018, there was an improvement of almost 10 per cent in Indigenous age‑standardised mortality rates. However, non‑Indigenous mortality rates improved at a similar rate, so the gap has not narrowed.”
Scott Morrison was on firm ground on Thursday this week when he told 2GB’s Ray Hadley that we shouldn’t be “importing” American narratives to Australia.
“I'm not saying we don't have issues in this space that we need to deal with,” the Prime Minister said. “But the thing is, we are dealing with it and, you know, we don't need to draw equivalence here.”
However, the Prime Minister runs the risk of overcompensating in favour of the status quo; a problem that has plagued conservative leaders since John Howard with their insistence on practical reconciliation only.
Last Friday, Morrison delivered an unusual response to a question on the destruction of 46,000-year-old rock caves in the Pilbara by mining behemoth Rio Tinto.
“I haven't got a brief on that particular project, or the circumstances surrounding it. So it wouldn't be wise for me to go venturing opinions on things that I have not received detailed briefings on the detail.”
Strange, because the story was already two days old at that point. If Rio had blown up a non-Indigenous artifact by mistake, say a monument to an early explorer or settler, the Prime Minister would have hopped onto the debate faster than you could say "Captain Cook".
Conservative politicians had been quick to call for the sacking of Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen over a single, historically dubious tweet linking Cook’s landing in 1770 to COVID-19. Morrison himself thought the tweet was “very disappointing” although he didn’t join the pile-on of MPs who wanted her dismissed.
This is not meant as a criticism but simply to observe that Morrison wasn’t moved to find out what happened in the Pilbara. The episode didn’t draw his curiosity, or raise his ire, in the same way as the Cook tweet. The backlash against Rio grew louder through this week, and the company was forced to apologise. Still Morrison felt no urge to volunteer a statement.
On the other hand, it is to his credit that he didn’t bluff his way around the question with platitudes for Indigenous Australians. But it was revealing that he had nothing of substance to say in either direction. It was one more dot ball in his long inning in public life of avoiding questions he doesn’t want to answer.
Yet Morrison may surprise Australians on reconciliation. He has quietly left the door open to a referendum to enshrine a Voice to Parliament in the spirit of 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. The idea retains broad public appeal, even though the previous prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had dismissed it, without evidence, as a third chamber.
Every prime minister unconsciously seeks to one-up a predecessor on their own side on reconciliation. For Paul Keating, the native title legislation of 1993 proved he had a bigger bleeding heart than Bob Hawke, who had reneged on his promise for a treaty a decade earlier. Similarly, Tony Abbott wanted to demonstrate more empathy than Howard, although he undermined his own cause with savage cuts to Indigenous programs.
The temptation is there for Morrison to show up Turnbull, the most socially progressive Liberal since Malcolm Fraser. Uluru is a political fight Morrison doesn’t need to have. The coronavirus has offered him the perfect excuse to ditch the Uluru Statement.
But the pandemic also taught him the value of thinking beyond party lines. He sought the advice of health experts to flatten the infection curve. He listened to economic experts, and even the unions to protect jobs. It should not be beyond the realm of possibility that he listens to Indigenous people on constitutional reform.
This is not to discount the police harassment, the burden of jail time for relatively trivial offences and the deaths in custody – all the practical issues that both sides have tried, and failed to resolve over many decades.
But the problem hiding in plain sight is one of belonging. This is a spiritual crisis. The first peoples had their country taken from them. No amount of police, or prison, or welfare reform can address that loss.
The genius of the Uluru Statement from the Heart is it gives non-Indigenous Australians a chance to move on without guilt; and to transfer a modicum of power to Indigenous Australia without losing their own place.
The Voice to Parliament is popular, in part, because it fulfils the most Australian ambition of all – that everyone has the right to be heard, and to a say in the policies that affect them.