This week is Reconciliation Week and to mark the occasion Stan Grant has written two essays talking about the Uluru Statement from the Heart – one that appeared at the ABC and the other at The Conversation.
I think Stan Grant is trying to reconcile indigenous reconciliation with liberalism, and argues that the threats to liberalism from populism and authoritarianism is crowding out the possibility of such a reconciliation. I agree that rising populism and authoritarianism is a problem in the world – but I’m not convinced by the second leg of his story.
In his ABC piece, he writes:
If Australian politics cannot meet Indigenous demands for justice, what does it say about the strength and legitimacy of our own democracy?
But what is happening here is not a case of Australian politics not meeting Indigenous “demands for justice”. Australian politics is saying “No” to a very specific proposal. Stan Grant knows this – it is in his The Conversation piece:
What should have been a high watermark of Australian liberalism became instead a victim of Australian liberalism.
It poses an existential question: can liberal democracy meet the demands of First Nations people?
For classical liberals the answer is no, if it means privileging group rights over the individual.
The answer is “No”. Liberalism by its very definition cannot privilege the group over the individual.
Australia’s most small-L liberal prime minister said so at the time, and discusses the issue in his recent autobiography.
The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ left me deeply conflicted. It was a beautiful piece of poetry, a cry for a say, for agency, for respect. But it contained no detail at all about how such a Voice would be designed.
And how could there be any real limits on what it advised on? After all, every piece of legislation affects Indigenous people. It was unrealistic to say that parliament could, or would, simply ignore the Voice’s advice, or decline to give it time to consider that advice.
In practical terms, such a Voice would effectively evolve into a third chamber.
It is not populist or authoritarian to say no to a deeply illiberal idea. Group rights over individual rights is an idea that has a long history and almost uniform bad outcomes.