With Australians unlikely to vote on any constitutional change to recognise Australia’s first peoples until at least 2015, campaigners need to take greater control of the issue and its destiny.

For indigenous leaders it’s probably the greatest test of leadership since the native title negotiations over two decades ago. They need to campaign, inspire and alliance-build in a hazardous environment, where their own constituencies can be sensitive and divided, and public and political interest is fickle.

The new National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples — which represents the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — has been grappling with concerns such as whether constitutional recognition would rule out the scope for broader aspirations like a treaty. To its credit, it has dealt soberly with these issues.

You Me Unity, a new outfit dedicated to building community support for constitutional change, has begun to gather pace with over 120,000 online supporters. But it hasn’t grabbed the attention of unconverted audiences through social media, corporate advertising, sporting clubs and schools.

The Australian government has invested $10 million through Reconciliation Australia for community awareness raising — hopefully to be distributed in a strategic manner to leverage partner contributions (unlike most small grants schemes). Popular personalities need to guide the Australian people on a journey starting now (Deborah Mailman and Hugh Jackman, for example).

The last few years have shown we can’t wait for, or expect, any of our political leaders to bring a popular beat to this cause. Instead, campaigners should plan a number of interim goals and uplifting “public moments” that get politicians doing what they would like to see them doing.

The 1967 referendum, the most successful referendum in Australian history, made the word “yes” synonymous with a fair go for all Australians, including Aboriginal people. It tapped into a sympathetic mood and a desire to be a fairer and more grown up nation. Decades later, with our national identity and character being tested with issues like the treatment of asylum seekers, the global financial crisis, terrorism, the rise of social media, and our more diverse population, will the same approach work?

What really drives people in uncertain times is the desire to be happier human beings, better parents and better role models. We also want a more closely knit and safer sense of community. That is where a campaign should focus itself.

“The risk for campaigners is they will get caught in a reactive stance rather than daring to alight a vision within the Australian people.”

Indigenous academic and expert panel member Marcia Langton recently made a compelling case for why race needs to stop being used by everyone, whether on the left or the right of politics, as a marker to distinguish indigenous people and frame policy. I agree wholeheartedly.

New provisions should be included in the constitution to recognise these lands were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to recognise indigenous languages as the original Australian languages. Langton’s arguments deal head on with potential punter questions about how such a new focus on one race can be consistent with other proposals such as removing the “races power” and enshrining equality among all Australians in the constitution.

Why recognise Aboriginal people but not Greeks, English or Irish? While it’s true Australia is made up of many cultures and races, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the only people who have no other homeland or vestige of their heritage. They were here before and are still here. Their cultures and languages are unique to this continent. This is not highlighted on the basis of their race, but on the basis of history.

Some members of Parliament (from the opposition) are concerned that removing the “races power” in the constitution could jeopardise future government actions to target Aboriginal people “for their own benefit”. Racial discrimination is lawful in specific circumstances under the Racial Discrimination Act, which was born from the constitutional power of the Parliament to ratify international instruments (the “external affairs power”).

The bottom line is we can do away with the “races power” and enshrine the principle of non-discrimination in the constitution without unleashing a new can of worms.

It’s much harder to argue for maintaining the constitutional power. Most Australians would agree it’s unsound and outdated.

The new Joint Select Committee formed to build cross-Parliament support for a model of reform will become one forum for settling arguments about the substance of any changes. Campaigners should focus on nurturing the political relationships and popular support needed to inspire visionary steps from politicians, who for the most part can be an overly cautious lot.

The risk for campaigners is they will get caught in a reactive stance rather than daring to light a vision within the Australian people.

Some of the most moving influences on mainstream attitudes have come about through the explosion of indigenous characters and storytelling on big and small screens. Stories like The Sapphires, Mabo and the critically acclaimed Redfern Now. They warm hearts and inspire unengaged audiences, dwarfing the actions of politicians, leaders and campaigners. If the campaign isn’t grounded in the spirited, authentic, humorous, creative, serious, profound and light-hearted stories and voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it won’t have the depth, the confidence or the character to carry a nation.

*Rita Markwell worked as an adviser to federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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