This was a piece I submitted to The Age in response to an editorial they ran championing CR. As it has not run, and as I have since been quoted in other forums as well as been asked for radio interviews, I have made the decision to finally publish it here, unedited. My sole purpose for doing so is to assist in the diversification of conversation. My view is not absolute; there are plenty of others with views on this issue and the Australian public needs to be engaging with these views - CL
On Monday this week, The Age ran an editorial calling for support of the inclusion of Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution. This was particularly in response to Tony Abbott's comments that Australia was not settled (quickly corrected to the equally appalling “barely settled”) before the British arrived. These comments had many in our community reeling and questioning his suitability as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs”.
Unfortunately, his statement also illustrated views Indigenous people encounter socially every day and have been fighting to change for a very long time. In my opinion, his statement should have indicated a need to stop and listen to Indigenous voices, but this hasn't happened. Indigenous people are not a homogeneous group and our views reflect this diversity. This diversity is, in fact, reflected in the community responses to Constitutional Recognition yet to date, Australia has not seen a lot of these diverse views.
Part of the reason the discussion on Constitutional Recognition is being held is that sections of the constitution were written specifically to exclude Indigenous people. This is evident from the race power that it includes; the amendment of which has been recommended by the expert panel. Therefore, a question arising from sections of the community is this: do we wish this historical example of institutionalised racism to be rectified simply by our inclusion within the constitution, or are there other moves that we should take to ensure that we are coming to the table as respected original peoples and negotiating the way forward for this country on equal footing?
It was found by the expert panel following extensive investigation that most Australians would not support the concepts of sovereignty and treaty being included within the constitution. Whilst work has been done educating the community on how our sovereignty would not be negated by recognition, the fact that these concepts themselves are so oppositional to a great majority of Australians is of concern. If Australians take issue with these items then the argument that recognition would not negate sovereignty and could further the discussions on negotiating a treaty doesn't hold. Indeed, it shows that the national psyche really hasn't shifted since discussions of treaty were front and centre in our political movements.
Many in the community see the push for Constitutional Recognition as a watered-down position following the calls for a treaty between white and black Australia up until the late 1980s. The Hawke government, after being presented with the Barunga Statement in 1988, promised that there would be a treaty negotiated by 1990. This was later reneged upon by the government and the discourse changed with “reconciliation” becoming the main alternative.
The idea of Constitutional Recognition was initially championed by the Howard government. In the unsuccessful 1999 Republic referendum, a second question on the inclusion of a preamble in the constitution was put to Australian voters. Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for their “deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country” formed part of this proposed preamble. Howard reinvigorated the proposal to recognise Indigenous peoples in the preamble as part of his election promises in 2007, stating that should his government win power again, a referendum would be held 18 months into their term. The Howard years are generally not looked upon fondly by many Indigenous peoples. His time marks continual refusals to apologise to the stolen generations, the reinforcement of the “White Blindfold” view of history, and the Northern Territory Intervention. A good portion of the community still actively question anything Howard felt was a good idea.
Our oppositional views have mainly been championed by grass roots Indigenous organisations, Indigenous commentators and social media conversations. Such organisations include the Tent Embassies, Idle No More and the National Unity Government. Interestingly though, the oppositional views that the general public have most been exposed to have come from non-Indigenous commentators. Andrew Bolt, for example, has written columns arguing against recognition on the basis that he feels it would be divisive. The pro-recognition view has also come from independent Indigenous voices, but greatly by the Recognise movement – of which former secretary of the Labor Party Tim Gartrell is the campaign director. Additionally, Recognise will receive ten million dollars over two years in funding by the federal government. The alternate views don't have funding, have received little airtime, and therefore the general public is not being exposed to our debates on this issue.
The discussions on the matter of recognition within the Constitution are far from over within the Indigenous community. External to our communities though, there remains a view that we wish to be included and are waiting for the Australian public to come on board. The reality is far more complex. The media could draw on these diverse views and facilitate debates openly so information is circulated and informed decisions at the ballot can be made. One thing is certain though: recognition will not stymie future unfortunate comments from our Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
PS. Since I wrote this, the Interim Report has been released from the expert panel and there has been subsequent media coverage. The report is available here.