Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Aboriginal opinion more than black and white

This piece was posted in the most recent edition of Tracker (vol 4, issue 31, March/April 2014). Tracker is unfortunately ceasing operations after its next issue and therefore I am making the move to share my contribution here. When this piece becomes available on the Tracker website, I will update this post to reflect the Tracker published version and I wish to make it known that I am incredibly proud to have been associated with this ground-breaking and progressive publication, however brief my association has ended up being. I am bitterly disappointed that the NSWALC PTB have elected to remove it from circulation

Constitutional Recognition. We all want it. Tony Abbott states that it is really important to us to be recognised in the Constitution of Australia. This issue forms part of the official policy platforms of the Coalition, the Labor Party AND the Greens. It is supported by many lobby groups such as the ACTU, Oxfam and ANTaR. The Recognise campaign is moving from one end of the country to the other, engaging with Australians on this issue and highlighting why it is important. There are many photos showing prominent Australians lending their support to this campaign. In short: Indigenous Australia want to be recognised in the Australian Constitution, and they want it now.

Or so we’re being told anyway. The truth of the matter is that this issue, like many other issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, has attracted a variety of opinions. Opinions which, for the most part, are not being conveyed to the general public whom it is hoped will make the right decision on our behalf if this does go to the polls. Opinions which are actually being ignored by our politicians as a way of avoiding any real engagement with our communities or pretending they have a sound policy position on our affairs.

My own position on this issue is irrelevant here, but I do wish to highlight that right now one of the key oppositional voices to Constitutional Recognition in the media is none other than Andrew Bolt. Bolt has stated that recognition would be “racist” as it would divide the country by highlighting a specific group of people rather than focussing on all just all being considered “Australians”. The thing is I don’t particularly care what he, or the many other non-Indigenous commentators (including the so-called “Constitutional Conservatives”) have to say on this issue. Not when there are oppositional voices coming from our own sovereignty movements, such as some Tent Embassies and Idle No More. There is a rich and diverse debate going on within our own communities from some incredibly intelligent and active people on this very topic and it has been going for a long time. So why is it that most Australians are not being exposed to Indigenous debate on this topic, and how on earth can they make an informed decision about whether being constitutionally recognised is the best thing for us when they go to the polls?

At this point in time, I feel the diversity of our views are being curtailed more than ever. The politicians and the media telling the general public what it is that First Peoples want is not remotely a new phenomenon, but whilst this is going on our ability for participation in democratic process has been systematically eroded. Take the Indigenous Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, for example. Unlike preceding bodies such as the ATSIC or the National Congress, there was no process during the formation of the IAC for community to have a say in who represents us at a parliamentary level. For any perceived flaws of either ATSIC or Congress, at least both held community elections. The chair of the IAC was hand-picked by the Prime Minister. The members of the IAC were then picked from a small pool of self-nominated applicants. I am certain some of the people who put their names forward are good people who work in a variety of fields, but this doesn't change the fact that we did not select them. Democracy is supposed to be a core value of the Australian political system yet this value does not seem to apply when it comes to our community and how we're represented at the highest level of governance in this country.

It’s a shame that we are about to lose one of the consistently hard-hitting and progressive news sources when it comes to Indigenous issues. I write for the mainstream media on occasion but generally, I have found that voices like mine are an anomaly within it. The mainstream media plays a huge part in the homogenising of Indigenous voices.  They do this by printing pieces by Indigenous commentators whose views are most aligned with their readership and their corporate values. In this country, where the conservative NewsCorp holds such a majority, the population tends to be most exposed to conservative Indigenous opinion. I am not saying that conservative Indigenous voices are not important. They are. I just strongly believe that we need voices across the entire political spectrum so that we can curtail racism wherever it's encountered and expose the population to broader views. There are only so many times that mainstream Australia can read how Aboriginal people just need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and stop “playing the victim” before this becomes the only accepted truth and attempts to critically examine structural barriers to Indigenous success are given no space at all. It’s for these reasons why we have trouble highlighting racism when it is encountered. After all, we’re all responsible for ourselves and need to just get over it, don’t we?

Perhaps in the past it was deemed important that our debate was held behind closed doors as it was important to portray a united front to the broader Australian community. Certainly, that’s what I was told growing up. Unfortunately nowadays, with the amount that our voices are being twisted to suit mainstream population agendas rather than the other way around, this method no longer works. We have our representatives being dictated to us, our policy positions being dictated to us; all to be absorbed by the mainstream with little-to-no engagement with broader Indigenous opinion. We’re diverse, educated and intelligent people with a long and proud history of autonomous decision making in this country yet we are being told over and over again that this is not the case. We deserve so much better.