Andrew Bolt, Indigenous Australian? Come off it

I support Bolt’s right to participate in the constitutional recognition debate, but he should avoid inflaming prejudice against Aboriginal people while doing so

Andrew Bolt
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Right wing commentator Andrew Bolt is at it again, this time arguing the sky will fall in if there is any constitutional recognition of the fact of Aboriginal people being here before whites arrived. Everyone knows Indigenous people were here, so what’s the great fuss? Bolt’s view is an attempt to revive the Terra nullius doctrine which, for 200 years, fictionalised that the British came to an empty land and settled peacefully. That myth was discredited by the high court of Australia with its Mabo ruling 22 years ago, but people like Bolt are still yet to catch on.

Bolt also plays mischief-maker, claiming to be an Indigenous Australian. Like Pauline Hanson did in her maiden speech to the parliament in 1996, Bolt makes his claim based on a technical view that everyone born in Australia is legally, but not socially, an Indigenous Australian. His mischief is to ignore common sense and community normality which distinguishes between Indigenous Australians on the one hand, and white Australians like Bolt on the other. Bolt wants to lead his followers through the chaos he ferments.

As part of the scare-mongering tone of his article, Bolt gets it wrong about the aim of the Aboriginal provisional government (APG), claiming it is a separatist movement. The APG wants an Aboriginal assembly of elected Aboriginal people with legislative power, returned land and a budget – in the same way different states do. And this aim is within the federation of Australia. How is that separatism?

Bolt also claims the courts lean “too far” towards Aboriginal people. This is a case of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Aboriginals make up 26% of the prisoner population, yet only constitute 2.5% of the Australian population. In 20 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, Aboriginal imprisonment rates have climbed from one in seven to one in four. Too far? Come on.

There is a big difference between theoretical equality – a belief that 20m Australians all live the same and have the same opportunities – and real equality. Rich and poor cannot be treated alike for stealing bread. Sentencing courts across Australia acknowledge that people are not all the same. A woman suffering domestic violence who strikes out because she’s had enough should not get the same penalty as an alcohol fuelled king-hit merchant. Nor should the background of people suffering daily discrimination, leading to family dysfunction, be ignored as Bolt would have it. Yet Bolt implies that the courts should consider everyone’s background except that of Aboriginal people, and claims that is equality.

Bolt claims “Australia is now under threat” from just talking about constitutional reforms – but then again, he is very prone to exaggeration. What is really at stake is whether constitutional recognition will benefit Aboriginal people or merely warm the hearts of middle-class Australians – that’s the nub of the debate.

This national discussion can be robust if the views of all – including the alleged beneficiaries of constitutional recognition – are to be heard. I support Bolt’s right to participate in the debate, but he should avoid inflaming prejudice against Aboriginal people which leads to personalising and dismissal of Indigenous opinion. Sadly, Bolt is secure in the knowledge he can regularly attack fair skinned Aboriginal peopleas not being eligible to speak for their people (the federal court found Bolt breached racial vilification laws), and thereby deny them the same freedom to participate in public debate that he enjoys.

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