The extremely thorough report of the expert panel examining options to recognise Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian constitution lays out an important project of constitutional modernisation. It is incontestable that any reference to the antiquated notion of “race” should be deleted from the constitution and that any suggestion that the continent was not previously inhabited needs to be rectified. Assuming that the need for these two tasks is accepted, then the recommendations to repeal sections 51 (xxvi) and 25 make sound sense.

Similarly, given that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders have long experienced the adverse impacts of racial discrimination, it is hardly surprising that the expert panel has recommended a new section that prohibits racial discrimination (although the reference in the report is to race, colour, ethnicity or national origin, but not religion) while at the same time seeking the allowance of special Commonwealth laws or measures to assist in the overcoming of disadvantage, ameliorating the effects of past discrimination and protecting the cultures, languages and heritage of any group (not just Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders). Here the expert panel is looking to allow the targeting of special measures to groups on a needs, rather than ethnicity, basis while also ensuring that such special measures are only beneficial.

Finding the right words for new sections in an amended constitution was always going to be the major challenge and by and large it strikes me that great care has been taken to ensure that words proposed carry symbolic gravitas, while ensuring that attention is not diverted from amendment goals by unnecessary debate over semantics.

And so like others I am surprised that the word “advancement” is included in a recommended new section 51A: “Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. These words are referred to as preambular or introductory, rather than operative, words and they are justified in the report for various reasons: their prior use in the preamble to the Native Title Act 1993, their value in legal contexts, and their use in discussion leading to the successful 1967 referendum.

There is, however, reference in the report to concern being expressed about the varied possible interpretations of both “benefit” and “advancement”, but no discussion of the basis for such concern or how it was addressed.

The dictionary tells us that advancement refers to the act of advancing, or the state of being advanced. The term carries connotations of progression or improvement. Benefit has different connotations, it is (again in the dictionary sense) an advantage, help or aid in overcoming something — in the case of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders historic neglect, discrimination and dispossession? And so benefit carries some notion of compensation, whereas advancement implies progression to some goal.

The term “advancement” is problematic because so much harm, knowingly or unknowingly, has been wrought on Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in the name of advancement. One only has to consider the taking of children from their natural parents for their protection and advancement; or the centralisation and sedentarisation of the nomadic in missions and colonial government settlements as wards of the state for their civilisation and advancement; or most recently the project of normalisation, in the name of “advancement”, in the Northern Territory.

Problems abound with the use of “advancement” in the contemporary political and policy and now proposed constitutional contexts.

First, the term advancement is inextricably caught up with unfortunate social Darwinian notions of evolution and the Enlightenment as well as classical liberal ideas of progress. And so indigenous individuals travel on a road from socioeconomic marginality to prosperity and all that is required is to adopt Western individualising norms and join the mainstream. This could be a convenient way to maintain the power status quo and ignore the many politico-structural reasons for disadvantage that need to be recognised and addressed.

Second, advancement is all too easily conflated with the current approach to indigenous policy, encapsulated in the Closing the Gap framework and subject to much contestation. As Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, wrote on the day the report was released on The Drum“I want all Australians to get involved in building a movement for change, to help us close the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.” Here it is clear that advancement can be understood as pre-determined for indigenous Australians by government-set goals.

Third, the notion of securing advancement is preceded by reference to respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. Are these two aims compatible?

In 1967, the year of the referendum, sociologist Norbert Wiley coined the term the “ethnic mobility trap” in relation to minority groups in North America. (Note that Wiley referred to ethnic not racial mobility.) This term encompasses a dilemma that is faced by many indigenous peoples globally: is it possible to maintain distinct cultures, languages and heritage while participating in the mainstream?

Clearly for some it is, and I count the indigenous members of the expert panel among those for whom this dilemma can be resolved. But for others there is an inevitable trade-off between living in distinctly indigenous ways and joining the mainstream.

The expert panel aspires to insert a critical principle in the constitution: that Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders should enjoy the right to be the same as other Australians, in terms of socioeconomic status and enjoyment of citizenship rights, but to remain different, if they so wish, in terms of identity and cultural matters.

Many Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders experience a real tension in seeking to maintain two different forms of identification as part of a local or regional community and as a part of the national community. Some have had such traumatic colonial experiences that they may even be reluctant to identify as Australian. While it is undeniable that all indigenous people are inter-culturally encapsulated in the wider society, some continue to question the universalising Western norms of the settler majority society, instead asserting a right to be different — at one end of the spectrum, living at very remote homelands on their ancestral lands, speaking Aboriginal languages, practising distinct forms of livelihood and custom.

In such particular circumstances, socioeconomic sameness will be impossible, either because current policy settings refuse to countenance delivery of citizenship entitlements in remote contexts; or because of sheer economic realism. The ideal of being the same and different is just abstract utopianism divorced from reality and economic possibility.

In August 2007, the then chairman of the Northern Land Council, John Daly, raised a rhetorical crucial question with Senators reviewing racist intervention laws: “Does every Aboriginal person necessarily want to be like you guys?” This question very evidently encompasses the problem with “advancement”: it connotes a universal desire to be Westernised rather than this possibility being just one among many livelihood and lifestyle choices for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders.

*Jon Altman is a research professor in economic anthropology at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. This article was originally published in Tracker.