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: