Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Recognise - Their response to the IndigenousX survey, and my response to some misrepresentations

Tim Gartrell last week posted a response on the official Recognise site to the findings of the IndigenousX survey. I was on the road with work at that time, and didn't have a chance to read it until I got back. When I finally did read it, I was struck by a couple of things within it that I wished to answer. They are as follows:

1. I was referred to as "blogger Celeste Liddle". Considering that Gartrell was present at the panel on Constitutional Recognition at the ACTU Congress (though he doesn't make clear the details of the panel he refers to in his response) and therefore got to hear exactly what my roles are and why I was there, I am unsure what his purpose here is. For the record, I am the National Indigenous Organiser for the NTEU, I am a member of the ASU, I am a regularly published freelance opinion writer and I am an incredibly engaged public speaker. All this was stated at the panel. All this is easy to Google.  Perhaps this description was an attempt to diminish my standing (not that there is anything wrong with being a blogger, and indeed, I am writing on a blog right now) as an Indigenous commentator with background to her views. I am unsure. But it was limiting and inaccurate and people are welcome to read a copy of my speech from that panel here. If the piece on the Guardian is the "blog" Gartrell is referring to, then the correction here is that this piece was an opinion piece which was listed as such and filed as part of the IndigenousX series because I had been the guest Tweeter on IndigenousX in the preceding week.   

2. It is stated that I accuse "the Recognise movement of not listening to dissenting voices" in my piece on the Guardian. Actually I don't. In the very first paragraph of the piece, I level my criticism at the media, and it remains the source of my criticism throughout many of my writings. I had seen the media consistently replicate the statistics released from the Recognise poll yet continually fail to report dissenting views from the Indigenous population. I feel it is pertinent here to state that I did not write the headline for my piece, as editors do that, though I did rather like it because it is non-descript in its focus for "you'd know that if you listened". I then move on to level criticism at the parliamentary system which continually denies appropriate space for Indigenous voices in any real legislative sense while it continually goes public telling the rest of Australia what it is that the Indigenous people really want. The record of engagement from most parties is appalling and this has been the case throughout most of the history since Federation. Finally, I issue a challenge for the general public to engage with the Indigenous debates and make an informed decision if they are going to go to the polls and vote on our rights.

The reality is that I know damn well Recognise itself listens to dissenting voices. After all, they sat on a panel and listened to my one. Additionally, if you're going to travel the country talking constitutional recognition to mob, you're going to hear dissenting opinions from mob. My view here though is that while Recognise hear these views, it is not their job to absorb and promote them. They are workers with a brief which states on their own website "Our role has a very specific focus. It is to raise awareness of the need to end the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the Australian Constitution and deal with racial discrimination in it". They are not funded to promote Indigenous views opposing Constitutional Recognition, nor is their driving force the centring of Black Nationalist and/or pro-treaty views. So no, I don't really feel that Recognise, considering what it is and what it is receiving government funding to do, has a responsibility to listen to and reflect Indigenous dissent. I do feel very strongly though that the media and the politicians have this responsibility and they have continually neglected to do so. I am also highly suspicious of their motives for doing this and I am indeed cynical that a Recognition standpoint is the only one the government deems necessary to fund.

3. I have continually been centralised in Gartrell's response. I expected this to an extent, as I did write the Guardian article, and I did do the analysis on the IndigenousX survey response. Yet this is a misrepresentation of my role. I may be a consistently dissenting voice on CR, but to centralise me is, I feel, an attempt to take this away from the fact that this survey was in fact a collaboration which had its genesis during discussions from a number of IndigenousX people. The views amongst this group on Constitutional Recognition are actually quite diverse. Not all of them are "of my ilk", so to speak, and indeed a couple state that they are still on the fence on this issue. What's more, the IndigenousX account has played host to commentators from a number of political viewpoints and prides itself on doing so. So how did this survey come about then? Well, it's as simple as the fact that regardless of the different views of the people involved in the discussion, we all refuted the findings of the Recognise poll that 87% of our community were in support. We agreed that it had no basis in the communities which we each knew and were a part of. We were also aware that there had only been one question asked of the Recognise poll respondents, according to the media release anyway, and we wanted a more diverse scope for response which examined the different parts of this issue.

Gartrell is right when he states that it went via many networks on social media, some of which were indeed "like-minded networks of activists". It also went via individuals and non-affiliated groups. The fact that there may be some skewing of results because of this was acknowledged both in the analysis and in my article, though again I feel it is necessary to not underestimate the extent of Indigenous engagement with social media. Here's the thing though: it was an online survey and it was available to be shared readily. Recognise themselves could have shared it. Yet despite some of their supporters actually filling it out, Recognise did not promote it. Why not? It could have been an equally interesting activity for them to engage with and contribute to and it was certainly a form of "grassroots communication". There were no limits to the IndigenousX survey; the only purpose was an alternative means to gauge community views.

4. Finally, just to pick up a point in Gartrell's post for further discussion: he states towards the end "And some who declare themselves to be opponents of this coming referendum allow that they would vote to clean up the race discrimination in Sections 25, and 51 (xxvi). I’d note very respectfully that there’s only one way to do that – and it’s by having a referendum". 

As I wrote yesterday in response to this one point on my Facebook page: 

This statement couples the removal of the discriminatory sections of the Australian Constitution with the push for Constitutional Recognition. While the removal or amendment of these sections formed part of the expert panel's recommendations, and while these sections have been used to the detriment of Indigenous people, these sections are not specifically about Indigenous people. They are "race powers" and therefore carry the potential to be used against any racially marginalised group in this country.

If the government was remotely interested in running a referendum to remove racism from the Constitution, it could do so without the addition of a question on Constitutional Recognition. Indeed, it could run and fund an "End Racism in the Constitution" campaign and draw on visions of multiculturalism to achieve this. Yet they are not doing this. They are instead funding Recognise. This paragraph links the removal of racist sections directly to a referendum on the Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous people as if they are inseparable entities. Cynically, I can't help but feel that this is coercive. Indigenous people are being told that it is our responsibility to support a CR referendum going to the public in order to have a shot at removing racist sections. We are being held responsible for whether racism is an ongoing issue in this country, and not a government who has little intention of addressing it in any real way.

I don't feel I need to say any more on this point except that the government has made their choices as to what they're driving and it is our responsibility to question these choices.

Again, I would like to take the opportunity to thank IndigenousX for carrying out this important work, for providing a diverse community voice, and for giving me the opportunity to analyse the results of this survey. I would like to also thank the Guardian for continually supporting my writing, as well as Daily Life, for I never thought a voice like mine would ever get out there and create discussion. Perhaps that's the real gift: I am seeing more discussion. When I am hearing both Noel Pearson and Nova Peris - two people whose views differ from mine in many ways - noting the importance of the work of this survey, I feel buoyed and I know I am not the only one. The challenge is now for the government to find better ways to foster this continuing discussion.


Friday, June 19, 2015

My music - A reflection from a week on IndigenousX

I just finished a week-long stint of being the guest tweeter on the IndigenousX account. It was a busy week, in which much was done. Opinions were aired, articles were posted, bonds were made. I also, though, posted a lot of music. Music is my life, it is my soul, and considering how heavy shit has been of late, I thought I would post up a few of my favourite tunes. Both from IndigenousX, as well as a couple of others, just for fun.

Manic Street Preachers - If you tolerate this

This is a stock "social justice warrior" song. I'd like it to be our national anthem. This country could surely learn such a lesson, good and proper. Still as awesome and as poignant as when it was released.

Cocaine Socialism - Pulp

This was Pulp's critique on the "new left" in the UK. I feel this one constantly, when I see the ALP lurching to the right on their policies, or even the Greens not being as grassroots as they claim. The perils of the left being a fashion statement rather than an ideology.

Hairspray Queen - Nirvana

Kurt was a brat who liked to write nonsense lyrics to fuck with people. He was also held strong feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-homophobia principles which he referenced regularly. He was an anarchist. He hated fame. He was an ex-street kid. He was an enigma. He died too young and still is on high rotation on all of my CD players.

I wanna be your dog - Iggy Pop

What can you say about Iggy? He is "the real Iggy". He inspired Kurt and so many others. He just messed shit totally up, and his tunes hold up. As do the bangin' sounds of the rest of the Stooges. That a bloke can go from this to singing an entire album in French, proves his genius. Plus, this song is so damn seedy.

Rebel Girl - Bikini Kill

Part of the 90s riot grrl movement. "When she talks, I hear the revolution". Enough said.

Doll Parts - Hole

Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do. This is a vengeful song. The other CL wishing a great big karmic bite on the arse to a bloke who wronged her; apparently Kurt in this instance, before they ended up properly together. After his death she apparently cried these lyrics. Courtney Love has been the victim of some vicious misogyny over the years, mainly because she married a grunge god, and I love the fact that this woman flips the world the bird.

Many Waters Rise - Archie Roach

I was recently asked for my favourite Archie song, and this one is it. He has so many more famous songs, but I love that this tells the story of three clans near Weipa, with shared history, living and working together since time began.

(Getting Away With It) All Messed Up - James

Nearly five years ago, I was in a head-on, high-speed car accident. I was lucky to walk away from it, but the injuries I sustained haunt me to this day. This song, which is about life going to shit and being able to move on from it, became one of my theme songs at this time. I listened to it for comfort. It's still a mainstay. 

That's about it. Thank you for having me on IndigenousX again. Hope you enjoyed my stay!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Speech from the Constitutional Recognition Debate - ACTU Congress 2015

The below text is a transcript from a speech I gave at ACTU Congress on the 27th of May 2015. The session was a panel discussion on Constitutional Recognition and was attended by about 60 delegates. Chaired by former Vic Premier Steve Bracks, and also featuring Tanya Hosch and Larissa Behrendt. The speech was 10mins and therefore does not go into great detail, so I recommend further reading on the topic.

My name is Celeste Liddle, I am a proud Arrernte woman whose traditional lands are in and around Alice Springs. I am the current National Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union and a proud ASU member. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the ACTU for providing this forum, particularly because, as I stated in an article yesterday, I believe that this has been framed as a black versus white issue with ultra-conservatives holding the "no" view by the government and the media and I therefore welcome this opportunity to discuss our various views, as Indigenous people, in this forum.

Following feedback from our membership at the NTEU, we have been one of the few unions to maintain a broadly questioning view on the idea of constitutional recognition. Our membership views have been vast, ranging from members who support Constitutional Recognition, or at least believe it could be a good thing, all the way to a sizeable number indicating complete opposition to the concept – usually on the basis of sovereignty. With a diverse caucus such as ours, we expect differing views and as a sector, we celebrate this trait of our membership. In 2002, the NTEU developed a “10 POINT PLAN FOR A POST TREATY UNION”. Enshrined in this document are “The rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members to exercise their sovereignty within Union structures” – rights which, as will be explained later, are felt to be in conflict with the current proposal for CR. There are other reasons though why the NTEU has maintained a questioning stance. One is that the referendum questions themselves have not been finalised and without knowing what it is that we are being asked to endorse, there is no good reason to endorse it. I am not here to speak completely about the NTEU stance, but rather to look at the “no” side of this question from an Indigenous perspective and to highlight some of the concerns, as someone whose own stance is on this side.

Resolution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty is important one and I believe it needs to be addressed. The 1992 Mabo decision should have served as a catalyst for this political resolution. That Australians are the beneficiaries of stolen lands which were never ceded by the original owners is an “unfinished business” and the impacts of this colonisation continue to affect our lives today. Yet despite community indicating that the issue of our sovereignty is incredibly important – 88% of National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples according to the expert panel report on constitutional recognition – it is not an issue that gets prioritised by the governments.

There is a definitely a view among opposing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that to agree to recognition within the Australian Constitution is for us to submit to the rule of the crown while there is nothing in place to protect our rights as sovereign peoples. The constitution was a document written with our purposeful exclusion and imposed upon our lands without our consent. The act, therefore, of righting this wrong by simply writing us into the document is interpreted by some Indigenous people to be a mere act of assimilation which would not address the fundamental issues with the document.

My views are in line with those who state that a treaty first between First Peoples and Australia is crucial. I believe that our rights need to be enshrined first. I am a unionist, I believe in the power of negotiation. I have seen examples of what can take place when governments have negotiated obligations to their Indigenous peoples. While I am yet to see a perfect example across the globe, the fact that the dynamic would switch from imposition to obligation is an attractive proposition. So many times I have heard non-Indigenous people deride Indigenous people by claiming that so much money has been "thrown at Aboriginal affairs” without these people realising that most of the programmes implemented involved paternalistic “top-down” approaches, not collaborative approaches designed to address community needs on an equitable basis. Our ability to self-govern is currently non-existent. We hold 3% of the electoral power yet only half of us participate in the process. There are few seats across the country in which views on policies regarding Indigenous affairs need to actually be considered by the candidates in order to ensure their electoral success. In short, we remain powerless in the system as it currently exists. The system therefore needs to change.

At this juncture, it is important to note the findings of the expert panel on constitutional recognition on the question of sovereignty, for the detail contained here is crucial at gauging where Australia sits currently in relation to its first peoples. Within the conclusion of this section it states, and I quote:

Any proposal relating to constitutional recognition of the sovereign status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples would be highly contested by many Australians, and likely to jeopardise broad public support for the panel’s recommendations. Such a proposal would not therefore satisfy at least two of the panels principles for assessment of proposals, namely ‘contribute to a more unified and reconciled nation’ and ‘be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the social and political spectrum.

There is a lot more contained within this chapter, but this one paragraph gives me pause. For starters, it pretty much highlights that Constitutional Recognition is a conservative goal by its reference to the fact that any proposal needs to be capable of being supported broadly by Australians therefore not centralising Indigenous needs and stating that including provisions on sovereignty would be divisive and lead to electoral failure. There is, therefore, currently no space for our sovereignty to be acknowledged within the Australian constitution. It also frames “reconciliation” as something that is not possible at this point in time if an acknowledgement of Indigenous sovereignty is included – a point which reinforces to me that reconciliation is still seen as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people assimilating into mainstream Australia, not the country transforming.

As an aside, it has also been pointed out to me that writing us into the constitution as “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” homogenises our identities rather than recognises our own sovereign nationhoods and identities. The terms “Aboriginal” and “Torres Strait Islander” are not our terms but rather ones which have been imposed upon us. It was therefore argued that to recognise these terms in the constitution is reductive and could have serious consequences for our claims as a diverse people in the future.

Additionally, at this point in time we have state-based examples of how including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in these constitutions has not led to an increase in our rights and the esteem in which we are held by society. Here in Victoria, for example, an amendment to the state constitution was passed in 2004 acknowledging our “unique status as the descendants of Australia’s first people”. Despite this, our infant mortality rates in this state are still double those of other Australians and Welcome to Country ceremonies at government events were referred to by previous Premier Bailieau as “nnecessary”. When you think about the other states which have recognition contained within their constitutions – NSW, QLD and SA – and you reflect upon the status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, can you honestly say that this acknowledgement has improved things?

I feel one final point is warranted on this part: it bears repeating that while we currently have the recommendations of the expert panel available to us, we do not have the proposed referendum questions themselves. What has been touted in the media has ranged from just a statement in the preamble to a broader recognition within the document including the removal of the provisions which discriminate on the basis of race. The idea of us being included in the preamble has actually already gone to referendum as a part of the Republican referendum under Howard. This is an important point, as quite a few Indigenous people are concerned that should the proposal for change be watered down to just a preamble, it is just a repeat of this Howard era plan. Funnily enough, John Howard is not really seen as a key warrior in the fight for Indigenous rights… I feel that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people support the proposal for the removal of section 25 detailing the right to exclude people from voting in elections based upon their race as this racist section has utterly no place in a country looking to move forward. Likewise, I feel that an amendment or even the removal of section 51 point 26 would be supported by most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and my preference would be that it is amended in deference to provisions within a treaty agreement. I don’t argue against these proposals, my only real concern is that should the referendum take place, these changes will not be on the table because we have a government content with symbolism as opposed to real outcomes.

Finally, I do feel that going to referendum in the first place has the ability to jeopardise aspirations for a treaty and the resolution of Indigenous sovereignty. Why? It has taken us almost 50 years since the referendum recognising us as citizens to get around to the point of addressing whether we also have a special status as First Peoples. My concern here is straight-forward: regardless of the outcome of the referendum, will we be waiting another 50 years before we see moves toward a resolution of our sovereignty. If the referendum is successful, will we get responses similar to what followed the Apology claiming that Indigenous people are never satisfied when we push for the resolution of sovereignty? If it’s unsuccessful, will that mean our recognition, in any form, is seen as a non-issue for this country, never to be visited again? I believe these are real concerns held by a lot of Indigenous people, for and against the proposal, and with good historical reason.

In conclusion, I believe that a transformative approach when it comes to Indigenous Affairs is long overdue in this country. Australia has a lot to gain from a more educated and collaborative relationship with the First Peoples of this great landmass. The statistics highlighting our disadvantage as a people, year in and year out, prove that things cannot continue the way that they are. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the life expectancy gap, the incarceration rates, infant mortality rates. We cannot continue to deny land rights. We need to strive to achieve a more equitable future. I don’t believe recognition within the constitution as a first step will achieve this, though I strongly do believe that there are ways forward which our governments are not currently willing to address. And I do believe we, as a movement dedicated to equity, have a responsibility to challenge this. Thank you.

PS As an additional note, I recommend reading the following: