“We are a much unloved people.” The recent words of Indigenous leader Noel Pearson should cut to the heart of all Australians.
Historically, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has been understood through various frames. Health, education and employment outcomes have correctly taken their place as areas of focus.
With some exceptions, conservatives tend to lean towards top-down measures like stronger policing and alcohol restrictions while progressives generally prefer bottom-up measures such as investments in health and education.
However, the seeming intractability of the challenge has resulted in more bipartisanship than we’re used to. Labor supported the Howard Government’s Northern Territory Emergency response in 2007 and the Coalition supported the Gillard Government’s Stronger Futures package in 2012. Its expiry last year and the recent deterioration of conditions in and around Alice Springs and other parts of the country reflect the relentlessness of the challenge.
Children remain subject to abuse and neglect. Economic opportunities remain inadequate. And perhaps most sadly, hope is scarce.
The public debate around the upcoming referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition provides us with an opportunity to take stock – not just of our fiscal strategies and policy solutions – but of our moral imagination.
Australia is ranked among the wealthiest nations on the planet – recent data places us in the top 10 in the world in GDP per capita. However, life expectancy for Indigenous Australians is around 8 years lower than that of non-Indigenous Australians, and Indigenous Australians are two to three times worse off than non-Indigenous Australians on most poverty indicators.
Whatever the problems are, the solutions are clearly about more than money. There is an important difference between strategy and culture. And a preoccupation with the former can negate the latter.
According to leadership theorist Pete Drucker, ‘culture’ can be defined as shared beliefs and attitudes. While strategy centres on what’s in front of us, culture centres on what’s within us. Strategy concentrates on the physical. Culture addresses the metaphysical.
How do we build a society where justice, decency and respect are baked into our moral fabric, not just garnished over our laws and policies?
The Prime Minister’s recently announced $450 million package of measures reflects strategy. However, his call for justice, decency and respect in the debate on Indigenous constitutional recognition is a question for culture. Who we are is just as important as what we do.
How then do we build a society where justice, decency and respect are baked into our moral fabric, not just garnished over our laws and policies?
From Shakespeare to Beyonce, humankind has been writing, singing, dancing and talking about love. We all know that we need and want more of it in our societies, our families, our hearts. What we rarely do – however – is talk about what it actually consists in.
A favourite at weddings and one of the most famous pieces of poetry in history is the Apostle Paul’s treatise on love in his first letter to the Corinthian church. The brand of love of which he writes ‘is not easily angered, it doesn’t dishonour others, it always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres.’ It’s a vision of love that resonates with people regardless of our religion, culture or background.
It’s also – on any measure – an unusually penetrating prescription for the challenges we face in ‘closing the gap’. With respect to all those brides and grooms, Paul is not writing about romantic love, but about a brand of love for communities, and therefore for societies, for nations. He shines a light on our national need to think about love qualitatively.
Love is not like money. We don’t only need more of it (quantity). We also need the right variety (quality). The love Paul writes of is underpinned by a commitment to the other. It is anchored in sacrifice, not mere affection. Beautifully suited to meet the challenges we face as a nation, it is tough, gritty, costly and relentless.
The external cultivation of our laws, policies and symbolic practices of respect and acknowledgment are all important and continue to play their part. However, unless they are accompanied by the work of cultivating our hearts, they may be – as per Paul’s words – little more than a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
We may be able to outsource the policy work to our parliaments, but fostering our capacity for compassion and empathy is both an individual task and a team sport.
No Australian should feel unloved by their country. Regardless of which way we vote on The Voice, our national project of inclusion is one we should all be able to sign up to. There are Indigenous children who will not have the opportunity to read this article or vote in this referendum. Nonetheless, they deserve to be safe, secure, healthy, educated and hopeful for their future. They also deserve to be loved by their country.
Max Jeganathan served as a political and social policy adviser in the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. He is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and is undertaking a PhD on the ethics of human dignity.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.