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

November 8, 2010

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’.


Ozvote ’07 – Foreign Affairs & Education debates

November 16, 2007

The debates are coming thick and fast. So is the increasingly strident rhetoric. Sadly, the policies are pretty thin on the ground.

Good examples of this came in yesterday’s two debates – between Alexander Downer and Robert McLelland on Foreign Affairs, and Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith on Education. Far from anything concrete which the voter could use to assess real prospects for the future, we got a combination of lies, damn lies and insults.

You’ll have to forgive me if my tone gets a little flippant or scornful. What I saw yesterday was – unequivocally – the low point of the campaign. So far.

First, the Foreign Affairs debate.

Downer opened with some stirring nationalism – our single pillar is Australia. (He didn’t explain what this meant.) After asserting that Labor had 3 pillars (again, not explained), he went on to give us the now-familiar Shiny List of Good Stuff the Howard Government’s Done. We have good relationships with countries in the region. We have doubled our exports. We have Free Trade agreements with the US, Singapore and Thailand, which helps us lift people out of poverty in other countries.

Then came the whoppers. According to Downer, the following can also be listed among the great Coalition achievements. We have secured our borders. We are fighting effectively against terrorism – in fact, we are dealing major blows to Al Qaeda in Iraq, and we have caused a ‘dramatic decline’ in terrorism in Indonesia. (In an aside, he mentioned offhandedly that he wouldn’t be making submissions to the Indonesian government to have the condemned Bali bombers’ death sentences commuted.) And we are leading the fight against climate change.

(I pause for the picking up of jaws from the floor.)

Labor, in Downer’s view, doesn’t like trade. It doesn’t like helping foreign governments. Its priorities are wrong. Labor wants countries to be dependent on us. It’s inexperienced. It’ll send us into an uncontrollable decline on the world stage. Only the Coalition can save us now.

McLelland’s opening–- again, now familiar with Labor speakers – was delayed by his detailed thanks to the Chair, the audience, his opponent and Mrs Downer, who was apparently present to support her husband. He commented on how governments of both ‘persuasions’ had helped build Australia’s international reputation. Pleasantries over, the knives came out.

The Howard government acts contrary to Australian values. We don’t lead the way in climate change – in fact, we are international pariahs for our failure to ratify Kyoto. We are not succeeding in Iraq – it’s a disaster, said McLelland, and rolled out the appalling statistics of civilian deaths, military deaths, displaced people and overall cost. He quoted former Australian commander in chief Peter Cosgrove and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, who have both said publicly that they believe our involvement in Iraq has increased the likely threat of terrorism.

McLelland warmed to his subject, condemning the Howard government for never clearly defining our objectives, for not supplying clear direction to our troops, for being the only government in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ without an exit strategy, and for using the excuse that sanctions had failed to invade Iraq – when in fact, the Australian Wheat Board (whose export license was granted by Downer) was undermining sanctions with its kickbacks and rorts. Having delivered this indictment, McLelland used the last minutes of his speech to say that Labor would lead in global negotiations on climate change, and implement an exit strategy on Iraq.

Question time followed, whereby Downer repeatedly stated that the Iraq war is succeeding – or at least, getting rid of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, that he didn’t ‘deep-six’ a proposal for worldwide nuclear disarmament, that the techniques used by our intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies in interrogating detainees are ‘consistent with our human rights standards and civil liberties’–- and that his government objects if they see others not applying the same standards. (He did not, of course, mention the US government’s redefinition of ‘torture’.) McLelland reiterated his Message of Doom – the Asia-Pacific region is self-destructing, Iraq is a disaster, Iran has been emboldened by our meddling in the Middle East, and the sky is falling.

A moment of levity relieved an otherwise tedious debate of ‘is so! is not!’, when a journalist asked Mr Downer to speak French (a sly poke at Downer’s previous criticism of Kevin Rudd’s greeting the Chinese leadership in Mandarin at APEC). Downer obliged by introducing himself. McLelland, not to be outdone, quipped, “I can’t speak Mandarin – although I have eaten one or two in my time”.

The only other moment of interest was the question that utterly blindsided Downer – did he now accept that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war was a mistake, and did he accept that there were parallels with the situation in Iraq as regards military action based on deliberately distorted intelligence? Knowing what he knows now, did he regret Australia’s involvement in Iraq?

Downer, clearly unprepared for the question to come in that form, floundered for a bit, laughing about ‘Oh no, I’ll be asked about the Battle of the Somme next!’. When he did answer, however, he reiterated his party line – Saddam=bad, invasion=good – without once answering the question.

McLelland’s response was stronger. On Vietnam, he was unequivocal – it was a mistake. On Iraq, he pointed out that even the US Secretary of Defence had questioned the decision to invade – and then he repeated his party line – invasion=bad, Iran=scary.

There was very little in the way of policy announcement during the debate – in fact, nothing we didn’t already know. The Coalition will stay in Iraq, and pursue Free Trade Agreements with many more countries, including China and India. Labor will pull 1/3 of our troops out of Iraq, leaving the rest in ‘overwatch’ and ‘support’ positions, but out of combat. Downer was self-congratulatory, McLelland was the Voice of Doom. And so it went.

Commentators noted afterwards that the two had been ‘playing for a draw’. The only difference was that Downer simply couldn’t avoid scoring an ‘own goal’ on Iraq – after all, he was hardly likely to undermine the party line.

The Education debate wasn’t much better.

Julie Bishop opened with the Shiny List, and the Dream for a Better Tomorrow. Mixed in with the ‘imagine this’ motif were the lies. In this case, however, her lies were even more outrageous than Downer’s. Australia is ranked in the ‘top handful’ of OECD countries that invest in their education system. The Coalition has increased funding for schools and universities every year since gaining power. It has ‘rekindled an interest in Australian history’. Universities are in the best financial situation ever.

(I pause again – are your jaws getting sore yet? Mine were.)

Bishop segued effortlessly from happy-fluffy land to warnings of Teh Evil on the horizon. ‘We’ must get away from ‘state parochialism’. ‘We must break the nexus between unions and schools and the “one-size-fits-all’ approach to teachers”’. ‘We’ must liberate universities from the Dawkins/Labor ‘straitjacket’ of mediocrity. Most alarming of all, ‘we must move on from the fads and ideologies of the past twenty years’.

Smith’s opening, too, followed the predictable path. Thanks Chair, thanks Opponent, thank you linesmen, thank you ballboys. (Dear me, I am getting flippant.) Like Bishop, he rhapsodised about the Possibilities in Our Future – and immediately followed it up with the counter-statistics. Australia does not lead the world in education in any way – in fact, we’re either stagnating or going backwards. Our secondary school retention rate has not increased from its current figure of 75% in the last decade, we have rated last or equal last for investment in early childhood education in the OECD for the last six years, university funding is down while HECS costs are up, teacher qualifications are declining, etc.

With all the sledging, it was hard to pick out the policies – more often, both debaters criticised each other’s ideas or challenged their figures. This is the best I could do.

Bishop – technical colleges will be increased by 100. Universities will be encourage to seek sources of funding from business, so they are not ‘dangerously reliant’ on one form of revenue. The ‘progressive curriculum’ developed to date in secondary schools will be systematically removed and a national curriculum, controlled from Canberra and approved by Federal politicians, put in its place. Teachers will be paid using ‘innovative salary models’ that ‘reward excellence’. And she reiterated the ‘parents deserve a choice’ rap – adding, this time, the nasty implication that applying a means test to education-spending tax rebates would prevent parents from choosing private schools for their children.

(I’m just going to break in here. This is an utterly outrageous lie. Means testing would not prevent any parent from making the same choice of schools. What it would do is prevent the wealthiest parents from gaining yet another tax break on something they’d be doing anyway. To suggest that means testing would somehow hurt ‘ordinary Australian parents’ is nothing short of deceptive.)

Smith – full-fee domestic places at university will be abolished. Absolutely no deregulation of fees with low-cost loans schemes to fund universities. A national school curriculum is absolutely necessary, but must not be written by politicians – under a Labor government, the curriculum would draw on the existing good programs and be mutually agreed to by State, Territory and Commonwealth governments as well as representatives of Catholic and independent schools. Existing teachers will be retrained and upskilled, and the image of the profession will be rehabilitated.

Smith also did something that rated highly with many commentators. When Bishop brought up the notorious ‘hit list’ of the Latham leadership (in which Commonwealth funding would be taken from private schools and given to government ones), Smith unequivocally stated that he accepted the policy was ‘wrong’ and ‘divisive’ – and guaranteed it would not be reinstated.

(Breaking in again. I liked the Hit List. I thought it was a bloody good idea for government funding to go to government schools, rather than supplementing the already comfortable financial position of private ones. Nonetheless, a willingness to own up to past mistakes counts for a lot.)

Yes, those were the highlights. Sad, huh?

The stand-out from both these debates was the level of lying that was undertaken by the Coalition speakers. Both Downer and Bishop flew in the face of all reports about the dire state of both our education system and the war in Iraq – and they did so without apology and without regard for the Australian people. Whatever the intended message, I think it’s fair to say that viewers came away from those debates with a sour taste in their mouths. No one likes being lied to – and no one likes being taken for a fool.


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