Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples – at last?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced today that the government will take the first steps in keeping a key election promise, albeit one that gained almost no media attention. Australians will go to the polls to vote in a referendum aimed at changing the Constitution to recognise the first peoples.

Flanked by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin and Attorney-General Robert McLelland, Gillard noted that the Constitution, the ‘foundation document of our system of government’, currently failed to recognise indigenous Australians. Although the Apology to the Stolen Generations was a critical step in healing the relationship between the first peoples and those who came to Australia later, she stressed that it was only one part of the process.

The government is putting a great deal of work into reforming early education, housing and services such as medical and mental health care (particularly in remote indigenous communities), but ‘More dollars are not enough,’ she said. It was necessary to reform the way those dollars were used, to help rebuilding the positive social and economic norms of family life. The next step, while continuing those practical measures, was constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

There was widespread community support and bipartisanship in the Parliament for this measure, she said. Former Prime Minister John Howard had spoken about it to the Sydney Institute in 2007. Tony Abbott supported it – in fact, it was part of the official policy suite the Coalition took to the last election, as did the Greens and Independent MPs. The notable exception in her list was Bob Katter, although Gillard did not elaborate on whether he opposed constitutional recognition or had simply not made his views clear on the subject.

As Robert McLelland pointed out, only eight referenda have ever been passed, out of 44 put to the Australian people to date. Crucially, he added, one of those that passed was the 1967 referendum recognising indigenous peoples as citizens, allowing them to vote. That constitutional change passed with around 90% support.

Part of this low number stems from the particular rules surrounding referenda. A proposition must first pass both Houses of Parliament, then be put to the people. In order to pass, it have the support of both a majority of the people and a majority of states. Territorians’ votes only count towards the national total. In at least five cases, failure to gain a majority of states defeated the referendum, even with overwhelming support from most Australians.

Gillard and McLelland were clearly aware of this potential problem. ‘If this [referendum] is not successful, there will not be another like it,’ Gillard warned. In order to head off any looming difficulties, she announced the establishment of an expert panel by the end of the current year. This panel will work throughout 2011 and report back to government by the end of that year. Made up of both indigenous and non-indigenous people, community leaders and constitutional experts, the panel will work with organisations such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, and Reconciliation Australia.

Part of the panel’s remit includes the actual wording of the proposed constitutional change, but a major task will be to build consensus throughout the Australian community. ‘This conversation needs to involve all Australians, and we look forward to their input,’ Gillard said. Asked if this would include town hall-type meetings, she replied that the panel would largely determine its own methodologies. ‘We want to encourage debate and discussion in as many different forums as possible,’ Macklin added.

Macklin went on to say that the Prime Minister would be writing to the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Greens leader Bob Brown and the Independent MPs, inviting them to participate in this process. She said the government also welcomed suggestions from all members of the community as to who could be invited to serve in this capacity.

‘Respect is critical to close the gap,’ she finished up. Australia must improve practical issues such as health, education and jobs, but respect and self-respect were critical to the success of these reforms. It was necessary, she said, that the place of indigenous peoples’ place in Australian society ‘should be understood to be that special place that many of us already understand it to be’.

Gillard quashed the idea that this was mere tokenism. ‘There’s a false divide between working practically and working to increase trust,’ she said. ‘In fact they go hand in hand … building trust can make practical things possible. To make a life you do have to feel that you are recognised and respected.’

Undoubtedly there will be those who see a parallel between this expert panel and the one formed to investigate options for placing a price on carbon. They are identical approaches to different problems – both are designed to bring about a desired end, while seeking consensus from the Australian community. Whether people will raise the same objections, however, is debatable.

John Roskam from the Institute of Public Affairs, speaking on Sky News, was the first to raise public objection. The Constitution was ‘not a place for symbolism’, he argued, nor to ‘make important moral sentiments’. Australians could respect indigenous peoples, but were likely to be ‘very wary of tinkering with the Constitution to achieve a symbolic outcome’. Worst still, he suggested that the ‘practical implications’ of this proposal had not been considered. What if it created ‘two Australias’?

The ‘two Australias’ argument is particularly insidious. It plays on fear of difference – in effect, is indistinguishable from the arguments against multiculturalism during the Hawke/Keating years. If we recognise ‘they’ are different from ‘us’, then ‘we’ will be divided. ‘They’ might get special treatment, and ‘we’ will lose out.

Reconciliation Australia has some very good answers to these fears. Canada has long recognised its indigenous peoples in its Constitution. Treaties exist between the United States and around 390 indigenous tribes, and the Waitangi Treaty has been in force in New Zealand since 1840. None of these nations are splintering apart due to this recognition.

As for ‘special treatment’, Reconciliation Australia notes:

Acknowledging Indigenous Australians in the preamble in a way that recognised and valued their special place as the first Australians would not give them more rights than other Australians. Changing the body of the Constitution to include equality and protection from discrimination would give all Australians the benefit of better rights protections. (my emphasis)

Then there’s the question of whether changing the Constitution is ‘appropriate’. Roskam there did exactly what Gillard had warned against – created a divide between symbolic and practical measures. As Gillard pointed out, constitutional recognition is a matter of respect, and directly affected the relationship between first peoples and those colonists who arrived later. In reducing this proposition to ‘mere’ symbolism, he’s implying that the issue is too trivial for such an important document.

I imagine that those who voted against the 1967 referendum thought granting citizenship to indigenous peoples was ‘trivial’, too.

It’s absolutely outrageous that Roskam should treat the issue in this way. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda wrote passionately of how important constitutional recognition was to him.

Throughout school and civic life we are taught that the constitution is the fabric that holds us together. So what sort of message does it send when there is no recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our constitution? What message does that absence send after Australia lent its formal support in April last year to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

The potential, almost subliminal, messages people take away from it – especially younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – cannot be good for our self-esteem, sense of self-worth and value.

That pretty much sums it up, I think. This is far too important to be pissed away by xenophobia and racism disguised as ‘respect for the Constitution’.

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4 Responses to Constitutional recognition of Australia’s first peoples – at last?

  1. […] one week ago, Prime Minister Gillard announced that she would hold a referendum with a view to changing the words of our Constitution to acknowledge the first peoples, who have long been wrongly disenfranchised by our society. This […]

  2. Aradia Weaver says:

    It’s a pity there even has to be any kind of debate about this. Seems like a no-brainer to me…

  3. […] Constitutional recognition of Australia's first peoples – at last … Posted in Politics | Tags: Alpha Conde, Election Officials, Electoral Commission, June 27, Provisional Results […]

  4. heath says:

    Missed the press conference. Thanks for the summary.

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