Stan Grant: The Queen is Dead
We are not just history, we are what history produces.
In this timely talk, leading journalist Stan Grant shared insight from his new book, The Queen is Dead – building an impassioned argument on the necessity for an end to monarchy in Australia, the need for a republic, and what can be done to reckon with our past and negotiate a just settlement with First Nations people. Stan appeared in conversation with George Williams.
This event was presented by the Sydney Writers' Festival and supported by UNSW Sydney.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast – a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. The talk you are about to hear, The Queen is Dead, features journalist Stan Grant with UNSW Sydney’s George Williams, and was recorded live at the 2023 Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Audience Member: We love you, Stan!
Stan Grant: Thank you, thank you. Someone does!
George Williams: Well, thank you. Thank you for such a warm welcome for our guest, Stan Grant, who's with me in conversation today. We're here to talk about his really interesting, eye-opening book, The Queen is Dead. My name is George Williams, I'm Stan's discussant today. And, of course, Stan is a proud Wiradjuri Kamilaroi Dharawal man. He's been much in-demand as a journalist since 1987. He's worked for the ABC, SBS, the Seven Network, Sky News – he worked for CNN for over a decade as an anchor and senior correspondent in Asia and Middle East. And I must say, as a constitutional lawyer, I've been very lucky to have been interviewed by Stan on a number of occasions, so it's nice to turn the tables today. I'll see how I go, I'm sure I'll get a few tips at the end.
Stan’s someone who's won many awards for his work. He's won a Walkley Book Award for his Talking to My Country. He's also won a Walkley Award for his coverage of Indigenous affairs. He's a really prominent thought-leader when it comes to issues such as Indigenous justice and the Voice. And so, he's a perfect person to talk to today as we are at this critical moment, I think in our history, as we approach a referendum – a referendum that needs to be informed by the issues that Stan has explored in his book. So, I'm going to ask Stan to talk to us for a while and then we're going to open up a conversation about his book, about the issues we're facing today. So, Stan, I'll pass over to you.
Stan Grant speaking in Indigenous language.
Stan Grant: I want to start with just a little bit from my book, and then I don't know what I'm going to say.
The white Queen is dead. It is dark outside, still, silent and dark. There is the hum of the road. Headlights illuminate the edges, throwing just enough light for me to see where I'm going, but I'm transfixed by what lies just beyond the light – the hills and trees, the empty fields, just as it always was. How I love driving at night. When I can lose myself. Alone. I can feel the earth and I know, I know what is out there.
Endlessness. Not time invented, but time permanent. Time that does not run in a straight line. In my car, in the darkness, there is life out there, all around me. We don't see it in the daylight. At night, I can hear the murmur of old songs, of voices, of footfall, eternity. I see a boy in the back of a car huddled in with his brothers and sisters. It is me when I was young. It is night. It is always night. I look outside at the white fence posts as we passed by. This is the safest place in the world for me. Inside that car. Nothing can touch us. The rest of the world is out there and in here there is us, a little family with no home except the one we have made together. For hours, I watched my mother and father in the front seat. Silence mostly. The quiet broken by a soft word here or there. Dad sings to himself and keeps time by holding a bottle top and running it across the grooves of the steering wheel. He hands a packet of cigarettes to my mother. She takes one out and lights it, the red tinge piercing the darkness and shrouding her face as she takes a drag and passes it over. These are moments of love. Soft intimacies. Sometimes she reaches across and gently strokes the back of his neck. This was the rhythm of my early life.
My childhood was a blur of small towns. Each of my siblings was born in a different one. We were never in one place long enough to call anywhere home. Today, we might say this was homelessness. Back then, it was just life, it was all we knew. We bedded down in cars or by the side of the road. We lived in tiny gypsy caravans, sometimes sawmill shacks. There was never a place to plant a garden, or pin a poster to a wall. Friends from that time, today are mostly just a blur of faces, sometimes only a name. I was rarely in one place long enough for many to stick. My heart aches for that boy, he is always with me. I'm always there in those little towns. I feel sometimes as though I could close my eyes, open them and be back there as if time has stood still. I can hear my grandfather coughing as he always did – his lungs were damaged when he was a boy and he was always gasping for breath or heaving up phlegm. I can see my mother making porridge. I can see myself toasting bread, stuck on a long fork over an open fire. Dad has gone to the mill and my brothers are curled up next to each other in bed. The stone floor feels cold. But there is warmth in the love in that little shack. I have been around the world and back. And yet a part of me, maybe it is the truest and best part of me, has never lost and never left that place – love. Just this evening, only weeks after the white Queen's death, I was talking about love, about hope. Hope and love in a world where those things can seem like false promises. But what else is there? Why else am I here? I was talking about love. I was hoping that the people in the room could find it in their hearts, to love us too…
Stan Grant: Thank you. I was wondering today what to talk about. My mind is just so blank. And the past couple of weeks have been just so bewildering and bruising. And I don't know if I've got anything left to say. And then this morning, I was sitting on the rocks at the beach near where I live. And I was doing as I always do, I was praying and sitting in nature, and thinking of my ancestors, and letting God speak to me in the way that God has always spoken to me since I was that little boy – lost and wandering from one town to another. And then it occurred to me – that words get in the way. Words are just not enough. I've written 80,000 words in this book, I've written hundreds of thousands of words in other books. Sometimes words just hold us apart from each other. We can talk about things, I can write about things. But what are people hearing?
I've tried to talk about truth. I've tried to talk about justice. And I've tried to talk about those things with love and respect. But people hear love, and they respond with hate. People might hear the word respect but respond with spite. Words are not enough. We're here at a festival to celebrate words. And yet we know that words fail us all the time. Words are not like food. Food is reliable. You eat a sandwich, it fills you up. And words can sometimes leave us so empty. I've really wondered about that these past weeks. The words and how the words land, and what people do with those words, and some words shout so much louder than others. Evil, hate – they are the words that shout the loudest, they are the words that seem so attractive to us.
Toni Morrison, the great African American writer, said that “Evil wears a cape, and a cane and a top hat”. It's always entertaining, always attractive. The evil character is always attractive. But what about goodness? What about love? Goodness is harder to find. Goodness whispers, love whispers, evil and hate shout. So, where do we find the words to speak to the gentle things of our soul? And that's what's bruised me the most. Because I know that working in the media, I'm complicit. Yes, we are. And that's why I say sorry to even the people who may hate me so much that they will bombard me and my family with the most filthy, vile, racist abuse or even threaten our lives. But have I failed? Yes, we've all failed. All of us. And as a Wiradjuri Kamilaroi Dharawal man, I know that what happens on this earth, on this land that I am from, happens to me, and happens because of me. We cannot just be responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for the worst that others do as well. Because we've created a world where those things are possible. And when confronted with hate, I've got to reach for even more love and ask myself, ‘have I failed to give love, enough love, to conquer those people's hate? Have I failed?’. That's what it means for me to be a Wiradjuri person, because I look at my mum and dad and I see just this endless, bottomless, uncut, unconquerable, unfathomable love, and a humility that they would never turn anyone, anyone, from their door.
And so, I wonder about words. Because words were never enough to capture that cigarette that my mother passed to my father, or that little touch on the back of his neck, or the feel of my siblings, and their skin against mine. We can't find words big enough for that. And the moment we speak of that, even to speak of the intimacies of that love, others are going to hear things to hate. And we all have to ask ourselves how we created a world for this. I don't know what words I can bring to what has occurred over the past couple of weeks. But I need to take the time out now to breathe and try to find words, to go back to the well and get as close as I can to the love in that car. And if I can't find it, then I know there's somebody who will. Because I came home the other day, and there was this little note on my bed.
My kids have, who have deserved nothing of what has happened to me and to them – Lowanna Elizabeth Anne Grant, John Cameron James Grant, Dylan Samuel Grant and Jesse Martin Justice Grant – they'll have the words and they'll find the words that I can't find. And this little letter was waiting for me on my bed, written by my youngest son, Jesse.
“Dear Dad, since the moment I was born, and you would carry me on your front, I have looked to you for both strength and purpose. You've always been like a superhero to me. You have fought every day for yourself, for us as your family and for this country, and done so without complaint or even as much as a second thought. It hurts me to see how this country, the world, and even us at times, have abused your strength and mistreated you. But with this letter, I want to make a promise to you that you won't have to fight much longer. I will use the lessons you have taught and shown me to begin carrying more weight and begin fighting. In the coming years, I'll start providing more for all of you, and allow you to finally find peace in this world. Thank you for showing me how to be a man of respect and purpose, as well as how to fight. But most importantly, with yindyamarra. I love you, Dad. Jesse.”
George Williams: Well, thank you, Stan, for sharing such a beautiful passage in your book. And I must say, an even more beautiful letter from your son. That was very, very moving. When I read your book, I couldn't help be moved by the words and your book, your book was very confronting for me in many ways, and forced me to think more deeply about the colonisation of Australia and things that I had assumed to be true. And those words were powerful to me, they were also very uncomfortable to me, in many ways. And you talked a bit about how you want your words to land. I just wonder if you can tell us, in writing these 80,000 words, how are you hoping that they land? How are you hoping that these words are received in our community?
Stan Grant: It’s a big question, George, because I wonder if they can be. I wonder how many times we can say ‘love’, how many times my people can give love to this country, and to see people return with spite and hate. How many times? What have we done? What have we done, except go back to the well for more love? I don't know, I don't know, George. I mean people read, people hear, and they respond from something inside them. But you know what you have to do? The only thing is to go back and find that love and come back again. Just keep coming back again with it. Because that's all we've got. The alternative is unspeakable. The alternative is what's happened to me, but worse. What happens to our people every single day. What have we done to be the most impoverished and imprisoned people in this country? This country that has so much, that is such a remarkable country! What have we done to be locked out of the best of the country? What have we done to die 10 years younger than everybody else?
I can't find any more words. People will read the book, people will listen to what you say, and they turn it into a debate. Into a discussion. We've lost the ability to just sit. But for me, all I can do is sit and write. And when the Queen died, something broke open in me. It wasn't the death of the Queen as an individual – I've met her, and I have love and respect for everybody. But what that crown represented, and the way that we would mourn the crown in ways that we don't mourn our own people, as Mel Pearson has said, the “Most unloved people in Australia”. Unloved. All I could do was write. Write to free myself from the history. Write to speak of justice, but write to find my way back to a place of love and not to be swallowed up by the hatred.
George Williams: And so, Stan, I mean, you're someone who uses words in many different ways, whether it be in an event like this, on the page. I mean, is there something special for you about writing a book like this – that, because the book is cathartic in many ways, it has love, hope but a searing anger, a searing anger and a sense of betrayal and injustice.
Stan Grant: Yeah, and we should be angry. If you're not angry at the way people are treated, then you don't have a soul. You need to be angry, but what are we going to do with it? I think, for me, writing is the place that my ancestors and God are waiting for me. That's what I find when I sit and write. I can't possibly find those words, those words don't exist in me. They're waiting for me, in the world that my ancestors are holding safe for me. And yes, in a world that God is waiting for me, because this is an important part of why I write the things that I do. Now, there are people in the room – maybe people of no faith, and people in the room of other faiths – but for me, the sense of, an abiding sense of God, to walk through God's cathedral, my country, every day, to sit by the water, to feel the touch of my parents, to know that we are forsaken, to know that God's not there, sometimes, often, that we pray for an end to the suffering, and it doesn't end. But does that mean there is no God? Not for me. We know love when love is absent. We know love by its absence because we reach for love. For me, I know God by God's absence, and I reach for that. And I then I find that God and my ancestors are waiting there for me whenever I sit down to write, that's the only thing. It's a place where I can go where they’re waiting for me. But after that, it's not mine anymore. It's part of what you bring to it, and what your ancestors have breathed into you.
George Williams: One of the really striking things for me about your book is how, on the one point, it's deeply personal. And the passage you read to us explores that with your family, your background – but at the same time, you are using that to explore the very structures of power that define much of the modern world, the white Queen, the concept of whiteness, the sense of symbolism and power that pervades the societies in which we live. And I wonder in bringing those two things together, you talk about this idea of a ‘reckoning’, the idea that we can perhaps learn from the personal to break down these power structures. And I'm wondering whether you do see hope, whether you do see possibilities for us to a better place on the other side of what you see is these really destructive colonial structures.
Stan Grant: I think, again, these are words and we can throw those words out there – hope and reckoning and justice. And like so many things, ‘all that’s solid melts into air’ as they say. These things can just disappear. These things are like wrestling with a column of smoke. But you've got to find something else in it – the soul in it, the lives in this history, the lives in this history.
My mother and father are not just Aboriginal people, they are human beings who are Aboriginal people, in a world where the worst can be done to us and clinging to love in the face of that anyway. We are not just history, we are what history produces. So, you know, words like ‘hope’, or, or even ‘love’ can be so empty in so many ways, until we breathe something into them. There's a beautiful passage that I talk about in here from W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American scholar, and he talked about hope and to paraphrase him, he was looking at his son being born and he wondered about the life under the ‘veil’, as he described it, the ‘veil of whiteness’. And he looked into that little hand, and he wondered about the suffering of his people and clinging to a hope – hopeless and yet not unhopeful, hopeless and yet not unhopeful. That's my parents.
We have to bring something to that. And I think for me in writing the book, is to locate the personal, the blood, the soul, the skin and bone into history, into politics. We talked this year about the Constitution. The Constitution is just words on a paper. But what are we going to breathe into it? Nations are not constitutions. They are not laws, they are not flags, they are not anthems – all of those things can be changed. They are us, the breath that we breathe into this country, the story that we bring to this country, that's what a nation is founded on. Just puts me in mind of something if I could just read a little bit, because I think sometimes – no, not sometimes, all the time – I'm, I'm better here than I am, anywhere else. If I am? I don’t know, I don’t know. There is a story that has haunted me since I first read it. It is written by the man the Nobel Prize Committee said, “Wrote the Australian continent into world literature” – as if the stories of eternity that my people spoke, the stories painted on our land, didn't matter at all. And they didn't. That's the truth, not to white people. This man was white. And he told a story of a land becoming white. I think of how absurdly apt it is that his name was White. Patrick White. And his story was a genesis story of a new Australia. It begins in a forest, and Eden. It is the story of Stan Parker, who takes his new wife Amy into the Australian wilderness to hack out a new life, to build a new people.
As he wrote, “Then the man took an axe and struck the side of a hairy tree, more to hear the sound than for any other reason. The silence was immense. It was the first time anything like this had happened in that part of the bush. The first time, the first gunshot, the first foreign words swallowed into the silence. The new people with their axes, they can't live in the silence. They need noise, they cling to the places where the trees are cleared. After two centuries, Australians fear the bush. It is where they disappear. The places where people die of thirst and hunger. They write stories of death in these places, of people who venture too far and never return. They fear evil out there. But the evil is in the noise – the crack of an axe striking a tree just because it had never before.”.
Thank you. That’s, there’s two Australia's here. There’s the noise we bring, the destruction we bring, that creates something new and something remarkable. And yet, there is this other quiet story that my people keep speaking over and over. And somewhere amidst the noise and the axes and the trees falling, there is a way to hear ourselves. But in the past couple of weeks, that's what I’ve felt like – that as much as I may want to use the words of yindyamarra, respect – it's the sound of an axe hitting a tree and we're not hearing each other. And that's what I really wanted to capture, George. I wanted to capture what it is to live with the noise of our history, of colonisation, of empire. What it feels like to us, but to invite us to try to hear above that noise as well.
George Williams: And, and as a reader that's certainly something that connected with me, I could connect with that story. And in fact, it was the stories for me that were powerful, they were very powerful. Another thing that really struck me in reading the book is in talking about this concept of whiteness, this concept that orders the society in which we live, that it's a facade.
Stan Grant: Yeah, it’s a myth.
George Williams: I mean that we have not become, we have not become a ‘white’ country. We live in a world where the rise of China and other developments you speak about, speak of a different world ordering – where most of this globe are not white. And yet, ‘the Queen is dead, long live the King’. There's an enduring sense of perpetuity and whiteness. So, why is it so difficult to get to the truth? Why is it so hard to get past the facade?
Stan Grant: Because I think people hear the language of race and it… The first thing it does, and it’s designed to do this, is that it separates us. That's what it's designed to do. There is no such thing as race. There are peoples – and I belong, broadly, to the First Nations peoples of this land – Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Dharawal specifically. My grandmother was what we would call a ‘white person’, but who lived with us, had Aboriginal children and was rejected for it. Whiteness is an organising principle, a way of ordering our world. But it is not white people. And that's why I talk about the white Queen and I return to this refrain throughout the book – the ‘white Queen is Dead’ – to separate what that whiteness represented, from the beating heart of the mother and grandmother, and person of love, like all of us. But the idea of whiteness, the invention of race as a reflection of whiteness.
And the fact that these ideas did not apply only to people who may have had what we consider darker skin. But in Ireland, people were deemed to be ‘not white’ as a political representation. The Latin phrase for the Irish was hibernicus, that’s what the British used. Hibernicus – the unfree, land-taken, language silenced, children taken, persecution of people, religion banned. All the things we've seen exported elsewhere to people who we may look at today and think of as white, but have not always been. The idea of race is constantly reordering and reinventing our world. But the idea of whiteness is centred.
Whiteness is centred and it pervades all of our language – how can we even begin to speak without reference to these antiquated, divisive, hatred ideas of race? I heard a news report – it was about a shooting in America – and a gunman, white gunman, had killed black people. And the news reporter, very well-meaning no doubt, said, “These people were killed just because of the colour of their skin”. No, they were not. There was nothing in the colour of their skin that determined whether they should live or die. They were killed because of what someone believed about the colour of their skin. What someone thought, the evil someone had, about the colour of someone's skin.
Barbara and Karen Fields, two African American scholars, talk about race as race-craft. So, that’s like witchcraft. Its power comes from our power to believe. “Racism creates race”, they said, not the other way around. Racism creates the idea of race. So, I, I struggle with this to try to tear apart these ideas and yet except that it is very real now. The social construct is very real, because we have made it real. And we hear this with the Voice, and one of the issues around the Voice, one you hear from opponents is, ‘we can't put race in the Constitution. We should not racialise the country’. That's ceaded in the very birth of modern Australia. The Divine Right of Kings, the Doctrine of Discovery, the whiteness that can inherit the universe, Terra Nullius.
In our Constitution, as you know George, section 25 still says that a person can be banned from voting on the basis of their race. It's overridden by the Racial Discrimination Act, but it is there in our Constitution. The Constitution said when it was written that “Law shall be made for any people other than the Aboriginal race”. Then, in 1967, we changed that and struck out the Aboriginal race and said that laws can be made for the people of any race, and those laws are being made about Aboriginal people. The Racial Discrimination Act set aside to impose laws against Aboriginal people. And now, people say you shouldn't put race in the Constitution. And we've never talked about race. We've talked about ‘a people’, the first peoples of this land, so it is so difficult to try to escape these ideas, they are so pervasive. And it requires us to invent a whole new language.
There's a little game I play and if some of you buy the book, you'll see this, I don't want to spoil it for you. But sometimes ask people, ‘how many white people are there in the world?’. Caucasian people, as we define people. And some people, you know, ‘25-30%’. One person said 70%, I don't know what planet. It's about that 600 million out of eight billion people. So, about 7.5 – 8%. But look at the order of our world, and ask where the world, how the world was ordered in that way. And as you say, George, the tensions around this now with the rise of China, and the blowback against those organising principles. And those principles, if democracy and freedom, and these principles are going to survive, then they can't survive ordered around a racial hierarchy. They can't survive ordered around an idea of whiteness, that hurts white people, as well. That separates all of us. So, it's, it's complicated. It's not easy to approach this. And the only way that I could approach it in the book, again, was to bring the blood and bone to it – to look at my grandmother, and my grandfather, my mother's Mum and Dad, and what the idea of race meant in their lives. You'll have to buy the book to find out what that means. My publisher is here, I can't give it all away.
George Williams: And there will be a book signing afterwards too, where you can buy a copy! Stan, it's great to hear that my constitutional law words cut through in some of the interviews we've had over the years.
Stan Grant: Oh yes, paying attention, George – and I've read your books!
George Williams: Because you're right. I mean, race doesn't exist. It's a scientific nullity. Yet it's written into the very DNA of this nation.
Stan Grant: And George, what you have said time… and again to go back to the idea of how words fail us. You're a constitutional lawyer – words and the specificity of words, the legal specificity of words, is your bread and butter, this is what you do. But how many times have you said, “This is not about race”? How many times have you said that race is in our Constitution? How many times have you said that this is about the recognising of peoples, and the ordering of our systems of government for a better outcome for a particular group of people? And yet people have come back and said, “But well, you’re putting race in the Constitution”. How do you deal with that?
George Williams: Well, and I think it's, you feel as if you're fighting against the tide, and that's really where your book cut through for me as well, because it helped me understand why it's so difficult to cut through on certain issues and for people to understand what we're talking about, because it goes the grain of their, goes against the grain of their worldview.
Stan Grant: And I think that's why, when I was on the King's coronation coverage, and, you know, I sat there with Julian Leeser, who I consider a friend, and we've had wonderful conversations over the years and respect him. And we had a really respectful conversation and I said, specifically, “Please don't take this as an attack. I say this with love. I say this with yindyamarra and respect. But there's another story here about what the crown, the crown represents”. No one shouted over anyone. No one abused anybody. And then to hear day after day after day, people say hateful things, that this was a hate filled hour of television, that I hated Australians, that I maligned good, hardworking Australians. My parents are good, hardworking Australians. I spoke of my grandfather who fought in a war for this country when he wasn't even recognised fully as a citizen – his humanity was not recognised. He came back to a country where he couldn't go to the pub and have a drink with the men he had fought alongside and yet never, ever, ever responded with hate. And to see people depict me in that way, was a cultural violation. I am not allowed to be that person. I was not raised to be that person.
But it goes back to what you said, George, it’s that people are hearing things because they’re reading into this, or that when they don't listen to you as a lawyer. That if, if a white person had been on air, and had talked about martial law being declared in the War of Bathurst – which led to, what was considered at the time, the extermination of the Wiradjuri people – if they talked about the invasion of the land, they would not have been abused in the way I was, but race crowded out everything. It wasn't just what I was saying. It was the fact that I was saying it – and the racial abuse, and the attacks began, before I had even uttered a word. So, it had nothing to do with the words – words fail us in the face of race and our history.
George Williams: No, and I think there are some things that we’re not meant to say. And there are some people who are not meant to say certain things. Yet, on the other hand, we tolerate other things being said that can be vile, can be racism. And there's a double standard that you've described as seen often in the media. I mean, it's been a really tough time. But I wonder if you see, is there a way out? Or is there a way that you, or we, can contribute that actually enables to talk about truths and to have the sort of honest, respectful conversations you would like us to have? Or do you think with social media and other changes in the media that this is almost beyond us?
Stan Grant: I'm not sure the media is up to it. And even the response, you know, I've been asked to do interviews and outside of things like this, where I'm talking about these words – which is all I have to offer – I'm not doing any because I don't trust it. And I don't think you should too, either. I don't know that, as I said the other night on Q&A, I don't think we've got the language or the love for what's required of us. This adversarial, conflict-based, hate-filled ‘us and them’, ‘you against me’ – I don't think we've got the capacity. And that's why, you know, I said the other night, “I'm sorry” – and people wondered why I'd be saying sorry to people who hate me, because I am sorry. I'm sorry that we live in a world where these things are possible. And what exists in them, exists in me, exists in all of us. We're all capable of these things. And we're kidding ourselves if we think we're not – we're all capable of these things. And I am sorry that I am a part of a media that has so utterly failed. And we have failed.
As I said, we are far too often the poison in the bloodstream – you see it, you see it all the time. A so-called debate about an issue that takes one person from one extreme, and a person from another extreme, and they yell at each other – and that's not a debate. That's not where the people are. Or, we'll take someone who may get, may represent a tiny minority view, a hate-filled minority view, and put them on with someone who may be speaking for more broader representation and say that that's balance. I write in the book about, at the time when the Queen died and we were told not to talk about these things and it wasn't appropriate, it wasn't the right time – and finally, we came around to doing it on Q&A. And I had Sisonke Msimang, a South African brilliant, beautiful, brilliant writer and stunning human being, and Teela Reid a Wiradjuri lawyer and my cousin. They were on talking the truth, just the truth. And yet for balance, we have to have someone who will deny the truth or reduce the truth. So, I'm not sure the media is capable of it. And I don't know that I am capable of doing it either, in the media.
But I do believe in the power of poetry. I do believe there is a place that can touch us. It's why I'll still read books that are old, you know. It's why James Joyce will still speak to me. Why Toni Morrison would always speak to me. It's why Simone Veil will always speak to me. It's why James Baldwin will always speak to me. It's why, in my case, the Bible speaks to me. You know, why Jesus on the cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” will always speak to me and then to say, “Forgive them, they know not what they do”, will always speak to me. There's a beautiful phrase that hangs over the Scottish Parliament, written by I think Andrew Fraser, the poet and politician. And it says “If I could write all the songs, I would not care who write the laws”. Songs outlast laws. Poetry is bigger than politics. That's where I put my faith – in the song and the poetry, not the laws and the politics.
George Williams: Well, I want to ask you about 92 words, in particular, that's the number of words it will take to insert the Voice into the Constitution – they’re words of hope that come from that gift to the Australian people from the Uluru Statement from the Heart, but it's a tough road, as you know, I mean, what prospects do you see? And what do you think can be done to give these 92 words the best chance of actually becoming part of this Constitution that otherwise has race so embedded within it?
Stan Grant: I think we've allowed, well, we haven't allowed, it was always going to happen because the media does this constantly, is we've turned it into a political process. We've spent so much time talking about justiciability, whether this will end up clogging up the High Court – more time talking about justiciability than justice. We've spent more time talking about the Constitution, and not enough time talking about the people for whom the Constitution is written.
I fear whenever we get too close to politics, we lose the ability to talk to each other. And I think that's part of what we've seen in this. I entirely understand in a democracy, and it's welcomed the need for vigorous debate. Ideas are important and the right ideas can destroy a nation and we can vote for the wrong ideas. Adolf Hitler was elected. We can vote for the wrong ideas. We should debate them, but not with lies, not with people who want to bring hatred to it. I can understand, and I've had great discussion with people that I fundamentally respect, who say because of a particular philosophical belief, that they can't support the Voice as it is, I understand that. I understand amongst Aboriginal people, there are different points of view as there should be. And some people say, “I'd rather have a treaty first”. We'd all like to have a treaty. But the Voice was always voice, treaty, truth – was never just about the Voice.
But for me, the focus on the Voice has obscured something that I think is even more important, more important than the 92 words. And they are the words of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, of which the voice is just one part. But what a sublime gift to a nation. I have spent so much time in the worst places on earth. I've spent time in places where we don't get together like this, and we don't have these conversations, but people slaughter each other. I've covered the great wars of our time, and I've seen how history can metastasize like a cancer. That phrase that Jacques Derrida used, the ‘bread of apocalypse’, people who have the taste of the bread of apocalypse in their mouths because of the bitter aftertaste of history.
I lived in China where they talk about the 100 years of humiliation. I understand that because I am from that too. But look what our people did with it. We gave back a gift of love to that. And the Uluru Statement was a sublime gift of love. A people who are saying “We don't want to burn the Constitution. We want to be in the Constitution”. And there are many reasons, as I said, there are many reasons that I particularly respect on my people’s part, those who hold a view that we'd rather something else first or it's not gonna be meaningful enough, but when do we stop saying no and start saying yes? That’s what it comes back to for me. We know in our own lives, ‘no’ is the end of a conversation. We know that in our own lives. ‘I love you’. ‘No’. Child comes and ask the parent a question: ‘No, I'm too busy’. No is so often the end of something. Gotta say yes to something, to say yes to love. And I think that's the essence of the Uluru Statement – is to say yes to love.
And can I just finish by reading something that I wrote towards the end of the book? Because this book for me was a way of working through that question of ‘what do I do with my history? What do I do with this thing?’. Because I know I have the capacity for the vengeance and the resentment in my soul that anyone else could have. I know that the taste of the bread of apocalypse, I know that, what do I do with it? And I look at my father, my father saw his grandfather jailed for speaking our language, a language that I spoke earlier – jailed, charged with offensive language and taken to jail for speaking it to his grandson, my father, in the street. My father grew up, and he wears the scars of Australia on his body. He has lived with the coalface of the worst of what the country can dish out. And he gave back later in life, he was given an opportunity to work with a linguist and give back the gift of our language. They wrote the first Wiradjuri dictionary. It's taught in schools. White kids learn it as well because my father says, “You are us too”. He has given this gift back.
And there was a graduation ceremony at Charles Sturt University, for a new graduating class. My daughter and my sister were amongst the graduating class of our language. My father can't walk anymore and he was wheeled in, this old, battle-scarred Wiradjuri man, wheeled in by one of my big cousins who sat on the stage with him like he was protecting him with every bit of love that he had in him. My uncle got up and he gave the welcome in our language. And I sat there and I watched this, and it was the answer. It was the answer.
Stan speaking Wiradjuri.
Listen to those words. Each night I would drive past the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, wind down my window and yield those same words.
Stan speaking Wiradjuri.
My father was in the neurology ward. He had lost his speech and his movement. He had taken a heavy fall and suffered a severe brain trauma. The bleeding had formed a clot. He was 80-years-old and there was no guarantee he would come back from this.
Stan speaking Wiradjuri.
The bumudani are our warriors. My father is my babin. Somewhere in that hospital, I knew he could hear me. COVID-19 restrictions meant that I could not see him in the intensive care unit. Only my mother was allowed in, but my babin, my father could hear me. I was sure of that. Our language would find him, and he would fight. Because that's what Wiradjuri warriors do.
He'd been sick before. He'd already undergone brain surgery for a cyst. He'd been in deep pain. Every part of his body ached and he suffered blinding headaches. In his quiet moments, he told my uncle he didn't know if he could go on or even if he wanted to. Then the magpie came. Garu. He saw it in a dream, there was a flock of them on the front lawn of his house, and they were talking. The garu were dad's father and his grandfather. They spoke to him in our language and they told him it wasn't his time, there was more he had to do. This is what he lives for – moments like this, a dream that our people would speak and stay alive. Drive across this part of the country now and there are signs reminding us that this is Wiradjuri country. In that graduation hall, white people spoke our language too – as it should be, as my father wants it to be. When my father talks about his people, he's not just talking about Wiradjuri people, but anyone on Wiradjuri land – our language, our strength, our culture, our kinship comes from place, a deep connection to place.
I have searched the world over for an answer to that question I can't shake. What do we do after catastrophe? Here is my answer: we give back love. We find words to speak love. Vengeance, resentment. What does that do? Evil begets evil. The victim today is the perpetrator tomorrow and on it goes. That's where we are different. If there is one thing I would say to those people who asked me what it is to be Aboriginal, I would tell them it is love. When hope seems lost, and it often does, there is love. It is a love that is not sentimental. Not just love for enemies but love because love lives inside us. This rescues me from the word games of whiteness. From nihilism – nihilism comes easy on a full stomach, but in the burning hunger of our despair, that's when we find the true meaning of our love.
The Australian anthem is played in the graduation hall. This song doesn't speak to me. I stand for it, I show respect to others, but I don't sing it. How could I? What is there for us to rejoice? We change the words “From young and free” to “One and free” as if they would make it all right. But are we free? Can we say we are one? No, not yet. Maybe we should not pursue it at all, I know where that leads – to create one out of many, so easily falls into tyranny. Anthems are more often performed than felt. But today there is something different. It is like I am hearing this anthem anew. The people I hear do not sing it with triumph in their voices but with humility. Because in that room, there is something more enduring than an anthem or a flag. Our words have joined with these words and in that space, we are joined – all of us people who come from so many lands. I watched my Uncle Pat sing and I feel churlish for not joining in – my silent protest, which I tell myself is so righteous, now just feels petulant.
It was the day after the graduation ceremony that I came to sit by the river near my parents’ house. There I took it all in. I breathed it in, in the quiet, with my heart still, I came alive. I said to a friend of mine, “The world makes sense for me here’’. It does, in a profound way, and if sometimes it doesn't, then that's okay too. It doesn't always have to make sense. It is enough that I can breathe here. Given I struggle for breath when I'm away, coming home fills me up.
Stan speaking Wiradjuri.
I am a Wiradjuri man.
Stan speaking Wiradjuri.
Proudly Wiradjuri. This is what it means to have a voice – a voice that comes from my people. That comes from my father, and all of our fathers and mothers before them. From those people in that graduation hall. The Voice has become such a political thing. I hear words of politics and I want to dive into the river and wash myself clean. Politics shrinks us. No one I heard today speaks of politics. No one. I am in a place bigger than politics. This is a place of love. Love of language, love of people, love of country.
Stan speaking Wiradjuri.
Without language, we are not a People. Until we can speak to each other in this land, this place Australia, can we ever call ourselves a People?
George Williams: Um, let me let me just say thanks personally from me to Stan, for sharing so much and for bookending this with love and love. There's not a better way of having this conversation and thank you, Stan, for coming. We really appreciate it. Thanks.
Stan Grant: Thank you.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival. For more information, visit centreforideas.com and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Stan Grant and George Williams on stage
Stan Grant is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man. One of Australia’s most respected and awarded journalists, he has worked for the ABC, SBS, the Seven Network, Sky News Australia and from 2001 to 2012, he worked for CNN as an anchor and senior correspondent in Asia and the Middle East. Over the course of his career he has received a string of prestigious international and Australian awards. In 2015, he published his Walkley Award–winning, bestselling book Talking to My Country, and also won a Walkley Award for his coverage of Indigenous affairs. He had since published another two books, Australia Day (2019) and With the Falling of the Dusk (2021), both also national bestsellers. In 2016, he was appointed to the Referendum Council on Indigenous recognition. Stan is the ABC’s International Affairs Analyst and host of Q&A, and Professor of Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University. Stan’s next book The Queen is Dead is out in May 2023.
George Williams AO is a Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Law at UNSW Sydney. He has written widely on constitutional law and public policy and recent books include, Everything You Need to Know About the Uluru Statement from the Heart with Megan Davis and How to Rule Your Own Country: The weird and wonderful world of micronations with Harry Hobbs. He is a media commentator on legal issues and a columnist for The Australian.