Far-right forces threaten progress for Indigenous peoples in Australia and Aotearoa

Mar 11, 2024 | Article, Media

Originally published in the NZ Listener.

From the very first time I visited New Zealand, as it was then called, on Midnight Oil’s first, exhaustive tour of Aotearoa’s towns and cities some 40 years ago, the omnipresence of Maori culture was palpable albeit still peripheral to the casual eye.

This was in stark contrast to the situation across the ditch, where Australia’s Indigenous peoples were then rarely sighted, other than on the sporting field.

Fast forward to today and in both countries much has changed: Indigenous issues are mainstream, the contribution of Indigenous people is substantial.

To the regular visitor from Australia the ‘land of the long white cloud’ is notable as a place where Maori stand at the core of the nation; central to to it’s identity, prominent in sport, politics, arts and community and clearly referenced in language and the cultural expression of the successful, tolerant nation that New Zealand is widely acknowledged to be.

For many Australians, including the six million who voted in favour of an Indigenous Voice to Parliament last year, there has been an uncomfortable awareness that in comparison, the progress of recognition and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – with the indices of health and well being significantly below the national average – has been painfully slow.

It is true that for Maori and Pacifika there remains similar gaps, and that this situation ought to be successfully bridged.

Yet in your country, partly due to the existence of a treaty between the original occupants and the British crown who attempted to take control, you are further down the track towards embedding Indigenous rights and aspirations.

Add to this the absence of states within a federation – anyone watched our State of Origin rugby league competition recently? – which renders national initiatives easier to implement, and the impediments to political progress are not as great in NZ as in Australia.

In the recent unsuccessful referendum on the Voice in Australia the far flung states of Queensland and WA were significantly opposed. And the politics of localism, alongside the emergence of a dishonest, far right social media push financed by business elites, likely played a role in the failure of the proposal.

This is not to excuse the obvious lack of progress in Australia, and whilst it might not seem apparent for Kiwis when there is now discussion about rolling back some initiatives that support Maori, the analysis above rings still true for me.

Yet, having recently returned from playing a well attended Waitangi Day concert in Auckland, where there was much contention around the issue of Maori rights, and reflecting on the failure of the Yes campaign in Australia, notwithstanding the large numbers of people who ticked that Yes box, it seems clear that our joint journey toward a better shared future is in danger of being interrupted by extreme politics, and the utilisation of social media to introduce scare campaigns and racist commentary.

One of the greatest inheritances both nations possess is the relative absence of religious, sectarian or ethnic rivalries imported from the histories of countries in distant lands.

Indeed many people flee ‘trouble spots’, as they are called, to start new, peaceful lives in peace on the basis that the commitment to equality and opportunity, free of rancour and stigmatising is genuinely held down under.

What a tragedy it would be if in both countries we allowed those voices of envy and stereotyping to drown out the calmer voices wanting to continue our joint forward movement toward greater equity and national harmony.

May reason, compassion and clear headed conversations guide our path. And may we continue to value and promote Indigenous

culture and aspirations that so fundamentally embodies our national identities.