• NITV"s Stan Grant on the ABC's Q&A. (ABC)Source: ABC
Respect lies at the heart of solving the deep, unresolved tensions in this country, writes Stan Grant.
Stan Grant

2 Feb 2016 - 9:55 AM  UPDATED 5 Feb 2016 - 5:07 PM

Respect: it is a word that has lamentably fallen from fashion. Bigots can hide behind nom de plumes and hurl abuse on social media with no accountability or even a passing acquaintance with fact. This bile now often finds a home in the mainstream media with lazy journalists publishing anonymous Twitter posts as if they are representative or scientifically valid.

The tone of the national discussion has been lowered, far too often analysis and considered opinion give way to character assassination. Opinions, debate, disagreement which are the lifeblood of democracy are too readily dismissed as divisive when protagonists line up at either end of the spectrum and flail away.

Respect, emerged as powerful theme in Monday night's Q&A program on ABC television. I was privileged to share the platform with distinguished Australians recognised in our Australian Of The Year awards. 

'I want action on a treaty and sovereignty, and a full and frank discussion about constitutional recognition. I want empowered political solutions.'

It was an hour of discussion mostly focused on our national identity and the challenges confronting a remarkably successful country - racism, sexism, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, the question of becoming a republic.

There were blunt questions and at times vigorous to-and-fro, but no one was vilified or dismissed, there were no raised voices or heckling. It was civil yet embracing discussion, and I would suggest informative. Everyone gave name and face to voice, this was no coward's castle.

Australian Of The Year David Morrison - former head of Army - was the subject of much of the discussion. It has been a tough week for the General. He has dedicated this year to using his honour to raise awareness about equality and domestic violence. Morrison has pledged to engage in a national conversation about the republic issue. In his speech accepting the award he stressed respect - listening to and engaging in a dialogue with those who disagree.

He has not always received respect in kind. He has been personally targetted and his record as a military leader maligned. This is a man who has served this country with distinction and who comes from a family steeped in military service. It is one thing to challenge his views it is another - and in my view utterly unacceptable - to sleight the man.

But this is becoming a national sport. Recent Australians Of The Year have endured similar personal criticism. Rosie Batty who endured unbearable grief after the tragic death of her son at the hands of his father seized the opportunity to challenge us on domestic violence but has found herself at times under attack. Adam Goodes - footballer and Indigenous man - lit a fuse that still burns after he raised questions of race and reconciliation. What happened to Adam has been well documented but it reopened old wounds and revealed Australia to itself.

Should the Australian Of The Year honour be a political platform? Are the recipients worthy? Does the award process need overhaul? Should we be a republic? Are we a sexist or racist nation? All of these questions deserve debate, people are entitled to opinions and should be heard, but surely these issues should rise and fall on the strength of argument not who can shout the loudest or hurl the more vicious insult.

This applies to us all. For Indigenous people - my people - this is vital. We know we are bruised and vulnerable from a legacy of two centuries of suffering and injustice, and at times brutal discrimination. The Q&A audience pursued the issue of Australia Day - what it means, its relevance and inclusiveness, our anthem, our flag, the very date itself. I spoke to the hurt and pain that the national celebration can provoke in Indigenous people. We come to it with mixed emotions sometimes outright rejection - we mourn the invasion and the suffering that continues, but we celebrate too our survival and the resilience, love and strength of our families.

But I can acknowledge too the strength of this country, it's achievements and the greatness of its people. I have reported from some of the worst countries on earth torn apart by war, natural disaster and political division, and I can say Australia is a remarkable country. Australians of all backgrounds are right to celebrate the best of this country and January 26 marking the arrival of the first fleet is unarguably the bedrock of modern Australia and all it has become.

I can concede that, and recognise the pride of Australians while also arguing that as a celebration the day still falls short. We have still not found the synthesis of our ancient traditions, British settlement and the diverse migrant experience. The day can too easily degenerate into belligerence.

There is still seething anger among many of our people. We see this on Australia Day with acts of protest - flag burning or refusing to stand for the national anthem. This is valid, in a democracy we have the right of lawful dissent.

'The tone of the national discussion has been lowered.'

But if we burn an Australian flag, then can we expect that someone may exercise their right to burn one of ours? I would be as outraged, and insulted at that, as some Australians no doubt are at the actions of some of our people.

We have deep, unresolved tensions in this country. The original grievance that lies at the heart of the Australian settlement cast a pall still over the lives of far too many Indigenous people, and we see this in the litany of miserable statistics that can define our lives.

I want action on a treaty and sovereignty, and a full and frank discussion about constitutional recognition. I want empowered political solutions. I want our communities to be able to chart their own course and build strength around shared responsibilities. Our people do this everyday - going to work, raising children, supporting each other. 

I also know we need to be able to speak to the rest of Australia, not as voices of protest from the margins of the country, but from the heart of the nation with the power and place that come from being the First Peoples of this land. 

Will Australia listen? Yes, I believe so. I am heartened by what I hear and see. And where they don't listen, our people have shown time and time again we can bust down the door. But it begins I believe with the very first word of this article - it begins with respect.

Stan Grant is NITV's Managing Editor and presenter of The Point, a national news and current affairs program commencing February 29, 2016 at 9.00pm.