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Nobody was very serious on Aboriginal constitutional recognition

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.

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  • 1
    jchercelf
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Nothing surprises me about lack of understanding of Aboriginal Inequality … Our dreadful shame as a country, supposedly civilised.

    I have been trying to run a campaign about the absolute necessity of educating Aboriginal young , from Kindergarten up to at least age 16, in order to break the vicious cycle of inbuilt hopelessness and often auicide in these young people, this education is their BIRTHRIGHT.

    I have given up on the petition because of the inability of anglonsaxon Australians to do ANYTHING to help the problems listed above. Some of the white ladies,just can’t forget the behavior of the river camp Aborigines on the outskirts of the towns the whites lived in … And it was bad behavior … But we have to fix itmformher the youngest up.

    COME ON AUSTRALIA it is our responsibility to use whatever it takes to Remedy the, at present, hopless future for our Aboriginal Young.

    Joan Croll

  • 2
    Liz45
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Sadly Chris, you’re correct, although it pains me to say it. I can not understand why anyone would have an issue with the just action of changing the Constitution and include indigenous people in it - unlike now, where racist aspects are still in it, and successive Govts have even removed the one Law that outrules racism - the Racial Discrimination Act - how shameful!

    I feel very sad indeed, and ashamed! I’ve read the new Constitution of Venezuela for example. The whole process involved the people; steps were taken to ensure that regardless how poor the people were, they were included. They created it, then it was publicly discussed etc, they voted on the Draft, and then when it was completed, they voted again! I haven’t read all of it, but I do recall those aspects that positively included the indigenous people! It covered marriage rights, rights of women, children etc and the rights and responsibilities of all citizens. I thought it most impressive. I think Equador has either done the same, or is in the process - using the same concept of inclusiveness! It’s impressive! Why can’t we do that?

    Why is it OK, sacrosanct even, to maintain the racist/sexist views of the men of early 20th Century. Their ideas didn’t include the rights of anyone except Anglo-Saxon males in too many instances! We have changed in many ways for the better since then; we’ve grown in attitudes to women’s right to work etc, why can’t we have a Constitution that is flexible and able to be changed with the change in attitudes! Why is it still OK to only mention indigenous people in the sections relating to flora and fauna?

  • 3
    Bob Durnan
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Hurray! more facile drivel from the pompous self-appointed
    non-Indigenous spokesman for Aboriginal liberation. Why does Crikey continue to humour this pompous git by publishing his peacockery?

  • 4
    Modus Ponens
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I can’t believe we have to have a debate, and then postpone that debate about removing racist sections of our 1901 constitution…. Says a lot about our leaders and the population they follow.

    Just to add the coalition’s reasons for not supporting the referendum was because they didn’t think it was a reform Gillard was capable of delivering and should be postponed until Abbot was in.

    Disgusting how George Brandis et al put their own egos and political pettiness before people who deserve far more respect than our polity offers them.

  • 5
    jchercelf
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    and Bob Durnan, do you have an opinion on Aboriginal Inequality ?

    Can you help us to be fair to our Original Australians??

    JCherself

  • 6
    Steve777
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    The coming federal election will be poisonous and there is no point trying to get any referendum up this time around, on Aboriginal recognition or anything else. Anything other than the blandest statement that Aborigines were here first will be opposed and misrepresented by an opportunistic Opposition. History also shows that a defeated referendum tends to kill off the push for change for a long time, possibly for a generation or more.

  • 7
    Bob Durnan
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    In reply to JCHERCELF @ 5:06: I support the recommendations of
    the Dodson committee. My point is, if you give the job of reporting
    these matters to a hardline ideologue like Chris Graham, you are just going to get a partisan account which positions him as the moral and strategic arbiter and prophet of Aboriginal advancement, as you can see from the pretentious, superior approach in his article here. In the process he will sneer at and smear just about everybody involved,
    without providing a fair or useful analysis of the ways we can better work together to resolve the important and difficult issues involved.

  • 8
    Oliver Townshend
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    All I read was the opposition of Aboriginal groups. It was doomed.

  • 9
    wbddrss
    Posted Friday, 21 September 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Macklin cited
    ” citing a lack of community awareness for the decision”
    as being reason for change of strategy. I note the huge resources existing government has over opposition to win election using public service propaganda machine, media units & PR consultants…all timed well before an election. The same ALP expects us to believe a lack of community awareness is a threat when the mitigation is all that public servants & governments do in Canberra. Something smells here!

    wbddrss

  • 10
    minnamurra
    Posted Saturday, 22 September 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Excellent! this is the truth of it in a nutshell. Why does crikey continue to allow Bob Durnan air to breathe on this site? He continually makes personal attacks instead of addressing the issues. At least some of his most vicious personal attacks should be moderated. He is the pompous, puffed up, self-appointed spokesperson for people who barely tolerate him if they are not chasing him with a boondi.

  • 11
    Edward James
    Posted Saturday, 29 September 2012 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    The was a meeting at Umina on the Central Coast of NSW last week. Where the local peoples came together to pursue the mooted changes to the Australian Constitution. They came together in support of a common cause. Even though we had heard Jenny Macklin telling media it is not the best time to have a referendum on constitutional change. The peoples who want to change the racist parts of our constitution are the ones who will make it happen, it has always been that way. By resolving to continue with the citizens push for constitutional change, our political allsorts who are a very small minority of Australia’s population, may realise they have become too openly disrespectful of their constituents. Sure we could understand certain politicians were simply using the prospect of constitutional change to attract to them a hopeful following. Once again putting their needs before that of their constituents. What will they do if we the peoples want to keep increasing the calls for equality in our constitution. Political allsorts need to remember they are their to exercise their influence in our best interest, not the other way around. Edward James

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