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Jan 20, 2012

Removing race from our constitution

We don't collectively identify as racist. And yet there is the undeniable reality that our constitution as it stands still contains two sections designed specifically to discriminate.

Some critics have voiced concern and confusion over the report by the 22-person panel on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples released yesterday, namely how the issue of race (or racist elements of the constitution) can be removed and yet seemingly emphasised at the same time by introducing a section on the role and importance of indigenous Australians.

But the panel contends that they’re suggesting the subject of race is removed entirely from how we view and talk about Aboriginal Australia. As one of the chairs of the panel which presented the report, Mark Leibler, wrote in The Age:

“Some people might question why you would want to remove race from the constitution and then replace it with a power to legislate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I would say we have to get away from this 19th-century idea that Aboriginal people are members of a ‘race’. Their identity is based on ancestry, ethnicity and belief systems, not race. We need to have laws that relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people just as we do for many groups in society — women, the elderly, the disabled, veterans, people living in remote areas — but these laws should be based on need and the national interest, not race.

“Need because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain Australia’s most disadvantaged citizens. The national interest because their cultures and languages are unique to this country to be celebrated as part of our common heritage.”

And there’s the rub: this mooted change extends beyond benefiting the first Australians, the nation as a whole has much to gain. As we continue to remain ignorant about the plight of indigenous citizens, so too do we miss the chance to learn from and value their vast knowledge. We are all the poorer for it.

As a nation, we don’t collectively identify as racist, or uncaring, or ignorant. And yet there is the undeniable reality that our constitution as it stands still contains two sections designed specifically to discriminate against non-Caucasian races. Add the appalling incarceration and suicide rates amongst Aboriginal people, the demonstrably lower standard of living, and in many instances a lack of basic human rights. This constitutional change, if the referendum is framed correctly (and that’s a big if) is a chance to reject that legacy and, to use the PM’s favourite phrase, truly move forward.

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30 thoughts on “Removing race from our constitution

  1. shepherdmarilyn

    The constitution is still in effect the white Australia policy and we use it to beat up innocent people of different ‘races” every day.

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    And this case is one reason we need to change the constitution and get rid of the race powers.

    It was a disgrace then and it is a disgrace now.

  3. drsmithy

     women, the elderly, the disabled, veterans, people living in remote areas

    These can all have an objective, measurable benchmark placed against them to judge whether or not individuals fit into those categories.

    What proposed measurements of “ancestry, ethnicity and belief systems” will stand as the objective benchmarks for whether or not someone can be considered “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander” ?

    More importantly, when did it suddenly become ok to discriminate based on “ancestry, ethnicity and belief systems” ? Does this mean it’s ok for me to insist at least 50% of my employees must be Catholic Irish immigrants ?

    Why on Earth would we consider changes to the constitution that explicitly define an “us” and “them” division in Australian’ society ?

  4. shepherdmarilyn

    DrSmithy misses the point = the constitution is already us v them with all aliens excluded.

  5. Peter Ormonde

    Gee I like Pat Dodson.

    It was nice to him back on TV again the other night handing the report over to the PM. Everyone was smiling. I think it was ticking.

    They’re dead right of course, this panel. To have real meaning this change should be more than an act of tokenistic respect to a mob of previous (purportedly “extinct” if not conveniently remote) owners. It should be a bold assertion of principle and a rejection of those darkly white notions and fears set in stone by our colonist founding fathers.

    So in the hands of Pat Dodson and the team it becomes not just about righting a historical wrong – sorry recognising it (whatever that means) – it is now modern and current – it is about Iraqis and Afghans, it is about leaky boats and borders and who we are now. Who we will be. An SBS sort of future. Tops I reckon.

    My only concern is that such a referendum will take serious long-term campaigning and a broad consensus to have any chance of success. That means a majority if not a consensus of states, the support and involvement of political leaders past and present, lots of community panel persons – you know TV chefs, singers and publishers… churches, you name it.

    So for me the important thing is that the government undertake the necessary strategic steps to build on and develop this idea…to have a dinkum discussion – hopefully to build community support and understanding. Get onto Good Morning Australia or whatever those things are called. 3 years I’d reckon. For a start. Deep spade work.

    It is only by carefully convincing people and placing the responsibility for the outcome in their hands – that this constitutional change will have meaning at all beyond mere words.

    Worth making sure we win.

  6. drsmithy

    DrSmithy misses the point = the constitution is already us v them with all aliens excluded.

    I don’t see that “point” being argued by anyone except you.

  7. shepherdmarilyn

    Well read the bloody constitution then you twit.

  8. Captain Planet

    How about you quote, or summarise, the relevant sections for us, ShepherdMarilyn, I for one do not understand in what manner the Constitution can be considered racist.

  9. Peter Ormonde

    Aw struth….

    Google up race powers and you will be drawn to Section 51 xxvi of the Constitution.

    Lazy lot.

  10. Peter Ormonde

    Did youse av a look? OK … there it is – in Black and White… quite literally.

    But this power to make specific laws about any race they so choose was not just about Blacks. It was about Yellows, and Browns and swarthies of all persuasions. It was about “border protection”.

    Now some of youse out there might not like to admit this, but when our bewhiskered founding fathers from our respective colonies did this merger business they built in some ugly stuff.

    It was the time of White Australia – of the Yellow Peril – of “Australia for the White man”… half a nose-hair away from Suid Afrika.

    It was a deep cultural and political issue then this “race” business. It transcended class and gender, town and country.

    It’s not uncommon where a new mob move in and pinch someone’s country. It’s a characteristic of the colonial settler state. It’s all about us and them innit? About hanging on to the stuff we’ve found.

    It was a huge deep ugly selfish ignorant issue then – I don’t think it is now. Only with the ugly, selfish and ignorant. I don’t think there are too many of them left actually. We will see.

    But the journey starts with accepting the reality of both the history and the present. Then we can start to discuss what we want to be doing and saying in the future. And none of it should have anything to do with this archaic bogus notion of “race”.

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