The attachment to official secrecy has deep roots. It took the High Court four score and eleven years to discover an implied freedom of political communication in the Australian Constitution.
Even then the right was not a personal guarantee of freedom of political speech. It was limited to the effective operation of responsible and reasonable government as befits a nation with a bureaucratic, not revolutionary, foundation story.
Censorship regimes operated by all governments prevented tens of thousands of books, journals, movies and reports being made available to the public until the early 1970s, when they collapsed under the weight of public opinion and legal challenges.
Secrets are the currency of the intelligence services, including the state Special Branches that were used for years without impunity against political opponents.
Culture was the chief target of these censorship regimes. Novels, films, paintings and magazines were caught in the web. First editions of James Joyce's Ulysses and T.E. Lawrence; number 26 of the Kama Sutra on parchment; books banned for their blasphemy, erotica and politics. The censorship regime eventually imploded and the books were forgotten.
Culture is, to hark back to its original meaning, a form of cultivation that nurtures the mind and spirit-the soul. It is not something that responds well to a utilitarian public domain. It needs space and time, creativity and openness, skill and thoughtfulness.
Cultivation transforms seeds into plants, which nourish and sustain; similarly, culture transforms lives, turns the shadows of insight into meaning. Its restlessness is dangerous, and it is not comfortable with the status quo.
Sense-making mugs us by surprise - the painting that distils a dimly perceived truth, the music that captures emotion, the play or film that forces you into the experience of another, the novel that allows the unspeakable to be written and its impact explored.
All produce stories that break the silence.
Culture is more complicated than the prevailing commercial framework allows, its value less easily quantified but its absence easy to spot. Political attempts to control and limit cultural expression and inquiry have a history that dates to Governor Philip Gidley King's decision to raze Sydney's first theatre in September 1800.
The governor, like many of his successors, sensed the danger was real. It is through culture that authority is challenged and meaning is made.
Culture grows from language. Without language, stories are lost and knowledge disappears. Culture depends on language. Criminalising the use of the languages of the First Australians, requiring immigrants to pass a language test and treating new arrivals who had not yet mastered English with disdain were all part of the scaffolding of silence.
As people began sending the painful, shameful, secret and joyous stories of their lives to the Royal Commission into Human Relationships, the public wall of silence around lives as they were actually lived began to break.
Twenty years later, in 1995, when the Labor attorney-general Michael Lavarch prepared the terms of reference for a national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, the dyke burst, and painful, shameful, humiliating, distressing stories have gushed out in official inquiries ever since.
Over the following two years, the inquiry just scratched the surface as it heard the stories of 535 people who had been removed from their families as children.
Sometimes not telling was a necessary part of survival, sometimes that cost was impossible. As the novelist Melissa Lucashenko observed, "All over Australia there are elders who won't tell young people what happened because they don't want anger and hard feelings stirred up. I think we need both."
Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann had known for a long time that she, and the Ngangikurungkurr people of the Daly River in the north-west of the Northern Territory, had a gift for the nation. For a nation where the habit of secrecy was deeply ingrained, the 2021 Senior Australian of the Year knew the gift her people had to offer may not be easy to accept.
She knew it would take time, but she was accustomed to waiting and challenging accepted norms. The first Aboriginal person to qualify as a teacher in the Northern Territory was convinced that despite centuries of policy that had sought to make the First Australians "traumatised outcasts in their own land", her people were not the problem captured in the seemingly intractable statistics of disadvantage, but the key to the future.
Dadirri is a word from the first of her six languages, one that survived the bans and punishments that pushed many languages to extinction. It encompasses deep listening and hearing, and a respectful contemplation that seeks to understand, becoming a way of life and informing action.
There are similar concepts in other First Nations languages. In the Dharug and Dharawal languages, it is ngara. It is a concept that makes it clear that listening is not passive; to really hear, one needs to hover over and listen. Its anagram is silent, and listening the key to the secret code.
In workshops and retreats around the country, Atkinson worked with Ungunmerr-Baumann to apply dadirri- using respectful listening, talking and contemplation to inform action and transform lives and communities. Breaking the silence was the crucial first step.
She soon realised that its benefits did not only apply to First Nations peoples living with multigenerational grief, but more widely in a nation marinated in trauma. "There is an anger across this nation that we choose not to acknowledge," she told the full house at the Sydney Opera House in 2017:
It is time we started the work of deep listening. We, all together, the 'I's coming to 'we'. Working with each other for transformation. Listening. Listening deeply to one another in contemplative reciprocal relationships, a mindfulness to the multiple stories embedded in the lands we call home . . . Miriam- Rose said, "Dadirri is the Aboriginal gift to this nation, a gift that we all have been waiting for. It is this gift of listening." If you accept this gift, as a nation we can all grow together.
Secrecy is a difficult habit to break; it hides shame and masks grief, it makes a virtue of silence and leaves individuals isolated. Even in the blather of internet chatter it is deeply ingrained, a protective mechanism.
Secrecy, silence and the desire to wipe clean the slate of the past have taken many forms since those prison ships first made their way between the cliffs of Sydney Heads.
Despite the revelations of many royal commissions and other inquiries, the public response was most often an attempt to deal brusquely, but not conclusively, with these essential, often defining truths.
Victims were blamed. Apologies were made but invariably compensation lagged, and lives were needlessly and painfully lost by those who were reminded they were victims.
We shouldn't feel guilty. We didn't do these things, some in power shouted when the finger of responsibility pointed to them. Ignore them. It will go away.
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