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.



  1. Great piece Celeste. I love your "proud bias"!

  2. Stunning clarity from an extremely busy unionist and commentator; Gartrell should take notes.