Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal Australians was always doomed. Nobody in government wanted it badly enough, especially in the midst of a federal election.
Just as you can’t negotiate with a terrorist, you can’t negotiate with an Australian government in the lead-up to a federal election. At least, you can’t if you’re an Aboriginal Australian, because you’re likely to find yourself on the wrong end of a dog whistle.
And that’s why the shelving of the plan to reform our constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is welcome news.
The efforts of organisations such as the Australian Greens, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, Reconciliation Australia and You Me Unity to drag Australia in to the 21st century and help positively shape the future of this nation should be acknowledged. But the fact is, in the current political climate, the best Aboriginal people could have hoped for is a bit of fluffing about the edges, something that ultimately would have harmed their longer-term interests.
First, it was being progressed in an era of unprecedented political toxicity: on the one hand, our leaders are talking about delivering constitutional equality to Aboriginal people; on the other, they’re promising to repeal key sections of the Racial Discrimination Act. Talk about mixed messages.
Secondly, there was never any intent, neither on the part of the government nor the opposition, to do anything other than window dress Australia’s past and present. Sections 25 and 51(26) of our constitution — the provisions that were constructed to enable politicians to discriminate on the basis of race — had a snowball’s chance in hell of being abolished. Neither political party was prepared to lead Australia out of its racist past on this issue.
Indeed, neither political party was prepared to do anything other than acknowledge via a preamble that Aboriginal people once occupied this land. In the words of Ghandi (more or less): “Whoop-dee-doo!”
Thirdly, much of the discussion — and ultimately the reason the process has been shelved — has been around the belief that the Australian people aren’t ready yet. Which speaks volumes about our nation. Because what the Australian people aren’t ready for is to amend our constitution so that it’s no longer racist.
If you get the time, google the constitutions of Japan and South Africa, two nations that committed some of the great atrocities of the 20th century. Both have re-written their constitutions not only to acknowledge their dark pasts, but to ensure that it can never be repeated.
Australia was a world away from that. We weren’t even going to give up our constitutional powers to be racist, let alone honestly acknowledge our past.
So the truth is, we weren’t ready. We remain a backward nation. Better luck next time.
It all raises the question, why would our lawmakers go to so much effort to achieve so little? Because in truth, from its outset, both major political parties saw the process as an opportunity to serve the broader interests of white Australia.
As a First World nation, we have the distinction of being repeatedly smashed by the United Nations for policies and laws that breach numerous international conventions. On the global stage, we’re not alone, of course. But as First World nations go we’re coming first, and daylight comes second.
From the two-party perspective, constitutional reform was another half-baked symbolic gesture to which we could point the next time the international community condemns us for our world-beating racism. Just like the national apology.
Constitutional reform — were it done properly — may have been a very small step towards genuine equality, but it was the bare minimum.
White Australians want to look good in the eyes of the world. Black Australians want a treaty, and sovereignty. Oh, and maybe some of their land back. They should expect — and accept — nothing less.
In the interim, Aboriginal people should not engage with government on issues that promise the world and deliver an atlas. Because while our elected leaders continue to pass laws such as the Northern Territory intervention and “Stronger Futures”; while they flirt with ultra right-wing columnists and promise a weakening of racial discrimination laws; while they speak only with Aboriginal leaders who tell them what they want to hear; then any negotiation is pointless.