IO – In Part I of my article about Perth I explained that recently, I was invited to visit an old friend to celebrate 40 years of friendship in Perth. As an Indonesian, the trip left a deep and lasting impression on me. I learnt so much.
One of the things I discovered on a visit to the Western Australian Maritime Museum, was that the Australian dingo is in fact from Asia and had crossed over to Australia nearly 4000 years ago. “Another invader,” I remarked to my friend for he holds very strong views on the colourful rainbow lorikeets that crossed over from the east coast of Australia in the 1960s and are now an invasive species threatening Perth’s native birds. He refers to them in no uncertain terms as ‘Invaders!’ However, when I mentioned the dingo’s origins to him, he merely looked thoughtful but said nothing.
Perhaps, the dingoes mellowed his views a little. My friend does like dogs. The next day as we were walking past a beautiful white oleander bush, he remarked that oleanders were also an introduced species but, “They are beautiful. I’d probably let them stay because I’ve never seen them growing in the bush or open country. They don’t appear to be an invasive species here.”
This time, I said nothing. I had begun to realize that invasions are a complex issue which many nations are trying to sort out. Here, it is an Australian matter which they are sorting out for themselves and an Indonesian really has no say in it at all. Good regional diplomacy would dictate a sympathetic silence. Nevertheless, as an Indonesian it was fascinating for me to see how Australians are dealing with the many intricate issues of new species and especially new peoples coming to their vast and beautiful land and I admire how Australians are trying to deal with the brutal past and how they are trying to make amends and find healing with Australia’s native First Nation Peoples.
So, I was very pleased to have a chance to listen to Cim Sears, an Australian woman who has Aboriginal blood on her mother’s side. Cim exudes warmth and kindliness. She explained to me that at the moment, Australians are preparing to vote in a referendum about what is known as ‘Voice’.
This goes back to the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ which was read aloud at the National Constitutional Convention in 2017. It is a historic consensus of Indigenous leaders seeking constitutional change to recognise First Nation People’s rights, especially land rights, through amongst other things, a Voice to Parliament. Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble Cobble Aboriginal woman from south-west Queensland was the first Indigenous Australian to sit on a United Nations (UN) body as Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples. She was the leading constitutional lawyer in the development of the Uluru Statement, and she explains that one of the most important issues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia are fighting for is constitutional reform. At the time Australia’s constitution was first being created, they were excluded from the process. When White settlers came to Australia, the First Nation Peoples were dispossessed, and they suffered human rights abuse. This has never been properly talked about, acknowledged, and addressed including the issue of reparations. First Nation Peoples want this in the constitution as opposed to normal legislation because of the insecurity of legislation which can more easily be changed.
They have been struggling now for almost a decade for constitutional recognition of their rights as the first people to have inhabited Australia. For this, they held 13 regional dialogues, attended by over 1200 delegates appointed on behalf of their First Nations. This was followed by a national convention. They produced the ‘Uluru Statement of the Heart’ which consists of three main elements namely ‘Voice, Treaty and Truth’. For this, a consensus law reform proposal was submitted to the Australian Referendum Council.
Cim Sears explained that by ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice,’ Indigenous Australians mean a right for Australia’s Indigenous Peoples to have a strong presence when the Australian parliament discusses laws and policies regarding them and their communities. This can be in the form of a permanent parliamentary committee or panel with direct community links which may also make recommendations to parliament. “They would like this right to be in the Australian constitution for which there will be a referendum. But some people are opposed to this as they think that the other two elements of the Uluru Statement should be carried out first namely, ‘Treaty’ and ‘Truth.’ There are about eight Indigenous Peoples currently holding seats in the Australian Senate and three in the House of Representatives. One of them, Lydia Thorpe recently resigned from the Green party as the party supports dealing with ‘Voice’ before ‘Treaty’ and ‘Truth’.”
Cim then said, “‘Treaty’ is about recognizing that Australian Indigenous Peoples were here first and that they have sovereignty meaning that they basically own the land. Under the English legal system all land belongs to the Crown but some of it has been allocated to private ownership or leasehold, for example. In Australia there are still undivided Crown lands.
The Indigenous Peoples of Australia should hold sovereignty over this and over some of the allocated lands not in use. However, for this Indigenous Peoples must be able to show a continuous relationship with that land and it takes years to gather all the information and evidence needed for this. Often, the elders who begin a Native Title fight, die before it is given. “
Apparently, even on Crown lands tied up in freehold or leases, Indigenous Peoples may still have right of access for hunting and gathering traditional food and for camping – but for this they must enter into an agreement with the freeholder or leaseholder. “They have a right, remarked Cim,” but they must use courtesy and enter into an agreement about it. And as regards Australian Indigenous Peoples’ heritage sites, they will be in charge and looking after them.”
Meanwhile ‘Truth’ is about exposing the true history of the First Nation Peoples and what happened to them including the dispossession and human rights abuse. “There is a lot of information available in the state archives,” discloses Cim, “But many of these are still restricted including the archives about my great grandfather which have a 100-year embargo on them.”
Richard Payne, a Perth lawyer interested in the development of First Nation People’s rights explains that many Australians are confused by the referendum for ‘Voice’ and many think that in order to make this all clearer, there should be legislation created first about ‘Voice, Treaty and Truth’, and that only then should a referendum be held. He says, “No referendum has ever passed in Australia unless the two major parties supported it. In 1966, a referendum was passed almost unanimously to give the Australian Indigenous Peoples the vote. At present however, the Liberal party has not yet given its support, but I think they will. Former Chief Justice, Bob French has said that most Australians agree that there should be a clause in the constitution guaranteeing Indigenous Peoples a voice or presence in parliament with reference to indigenous affairs and communities.”
And why is all this, interesting to an Indonesian? Well, I think that if Papua is to remain a part of Indonesia, we too will need to find healing with the Papuans and a way of living together that they feel is fair. Many of them see Indonesians as invaders and there has been human rights abuse in the past. So, I feel it is interesting and important to observe and perhaps even learn something from how our neighbours are dealing with such issues.
I find Australia’s deliberate efforts towards truth and reconciliation very moving. The government has taken many steps towards acknowledging the wrongs of the past and the existence and rights of Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, their history, and their cultures. Not enough steps some would argue angrily, and it is good that there are angry people arguing that or the process might simply stop here and not continue. However, as an outsider returning for a visit after 40 years, I see so much progress. One thing that several White Australians however commented on to me and which seemed to puzzle and perhaps even hurt them was that the reaction of some of the First Nation Peoples was not happiness, gratitude or forgiveness but rather anger. A friendly Australian lady with whom I chatted during the long flight from Melbourne said to me, “But it has not made the Indigenous Peoples like us more. They seem to be so angry. They say that we are not allowed to play the digeridoo and that their culture is none of our business.”
She sounded hurt which was understandable. Cim agreed that there is anger amongst many Aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders and my friend in Perth remarked, “Well, there is ample reason for it.”
I thought about that anger. It seemed to me that many native Hawaiians had a similar reaction after the United States government apologized and began to take steps to reinstate the Hawaiian language and culture. Perhaps, on a psychological level such anger makes sense. For years, their societies were decimated, and their culture and way of life destroyed. This must have created great anger as well as anguish in both Australian Indigenous Peoples as well as Native Hawaiians but in the past, they were not in a position to express that anger as society would not have tolerated it and it would doubtlessly have gone badly for them had they tried to express it. It reminds me of the rage expressed in Richard Wrights’ book ‘Black Boy.’
Now, both the Native Hawaiians and the Indigenous Australians are in a far better and more protected position, to have the freedom to be in touch with that anger. It needs to be expressed but I also believe that under that anger lies a wound with pain, hurt and sorrow and ultimately in order to heal that wound, there needs to be forgiveness. Only then can a new and better society truly be created – but this takes time.
On the last day as the sun was preparing to set, my friend brought me to what for me was the most magical spot of all in Perth. He took me to Lake Claremont which was full of birds with many of them sitting on dead stumps protruding from the water. There were black swans, ducks, coots and many other water birds I did not recognize. Overhead, flew what appeared to be flocks of white doves but which were in fact white corellas settling into the giant Moreton Bay fig trees for the night. Their raucous shouting ceased once they were settled down and then they made a strange, self-soothing sound rather like that of a very softly moving lawn mower.
We walked around the lake where bush had been planted on the side of the lake and green lawns with giant white trunked gum trees on the other. Slowly, it all became bush with the orange of sunset visible through the trees. There was a sign announcing bandicoots had been released into the bush on the lake side but although I could hear rustling sounds, I saw nothing. Moving forward I heard the rustling once more but again saw nothing and so it went on as darkness descended.
It finally occurred to me: could it possibly be that the bandicoots were stalking us? Perhaps, just perhaps they found us as interesting to observe as we did them.
I looked gratefully at my friend. I had learnt so much on this trip and he had shown me such beauty. The only bird still missing was that king of kingfishers, the kookaburra. It was then that my friend pointed to a dear, furry-looking, brown shape on a branch, adding that kookaburras apparently also originated from the east coast of Australia although not as an invasive species. “But anyway, how could anyone object to kookaburras?” he asked. “They are such likeable birds.”
In the darkness of the bush, a kookaburra broke into gleeful laughter. Its amiable burst of hilarity trailing after us in the darkness… (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about A visit to Australia by the same writer in: