is a nation scared. Scared to fully stake out its own flag. Scared to install an n as head of state. Nervous even about bringing into the daylight a more complete account of its own creation.
This is at odds with our strongly internalised ruggedness myth. And it is even more inconsistent with the legendary “fair go”.
The selfless courage made sacred on the Western Front, Gallipoli, Changi and Long Tan, is strangely absent at the official level. And the giant-slaying competitiveness that has seen ns punching above their weight in global sports – literally, in the cases of Lionel Rose and Anthony Mundine – went missing on the offer of republican sovereignty.
A federation drawn from the twin brutalities of penal expulsion of an unwanted underclass and the murderous acquisition of an occupied continent remains huddled, reluctant to disavow the benevolent empire myth at the heart of these crimes.
Yet so riven is the domestic discourse that no issue, certainly not a pointed outbreak of the long-running left-versus-right history wars, can be treated on its merits. Rather, these arguments must be seen as proxies for control – new, more pointed projectiles to be hurled in anger in a contemporary battle putting polemics ahead of people. Fallacy before fact.
History is written by the winners. The erection of statues to great men (invariably) is the standard way of commemorating those victories. Which is why internal uprisings, and invading forces alike, make tearing them down a priority. We’ve seen it from the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe, to Iraq and, most recently, in the American south.
The latter has re-energised a simmering argument here over the statues of Captain Cook, and governors Phillip and Macquarie et al. Some want the statues torn down. Conservatives want them left as is. Neither seems tenable any longer.
This could be a defining challenge for Malcolm Turnbull.
The middle course involves leaving them in place, along with the inclusion of a second plaque explaining the existence, murder, and dispossession of the first peoples.
Assuming the main facts are settled, such an approach should be uncontroversial. It is not, as fuming right-wing critics claim, a “Stalinist” rewriting of history but, rather, the more complete writing of what actually happened.
Turnbull and Bill Shorten have been the voices of civilisation on Indigenous relations. Both have been at their best when acknowledging past wrongs and official denials. Both strongly favour constitutional recognition.
The statues question is simultaneously as symbolic and as substantial as the sculptures themselves. Failure to take reasonable steps to correct these official commemorations would render them officially wrong, while exposing the joint commitment to constitutional recognition as tissue-thin. Mere words.
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