“The time has come when Australia can no longer tolerate legal discrimination against its indigenous people.”
Faith Bandler was right.
That’s why, in 1967, more than 90% of Australians voted to remove two clauses from the constitution. Those sections excluded Aboriginal people from a federal law-making power and from being counted in the population. So complete was the exclusion of my Torres Strait Islander forebears, they didn’t even get a mention.
The remarkable unanimity in 1967 didn’t happen by accident. Nor was it “soft totalitarianism”, as Guy Rundle implies may be afoot now. It was the result of decades of tireless campaigning. Town hall meeting upon town hall meeting. Community leadership. Church leadership. Political leadership.
Now history asks us to complete what we began then.
We need to ensure the constitution no longer discards the vast history of our own country and its first peoples. We also need to fix the capacity for race discrimination that it still enables. The goal of the ’67 campaigners holds just as true today. Take a look at the race power in Section 51 (xxvi) and Section 25. To support the Recognise campaign is to support racial equality.
So let’s meet assertions, from both Rundle and Senator David Leyonhjelm, with facts.
Myth: “The question as to whether this is what a majority of the indigenous population clearly and unambiguously want is being ignored.” — Guy Rundle
Fact: There is long-term and strong evidence of a clear desire for recognition from an overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The expert panel hosted over 200 consultations in 84 places, met 4000 people and took 3600 submissions. The “Journey to Recognition” relay has met 19,500 people at 253 events in 195 places. And the most recent nationwide poll, done in August 2014 and consistent with trend, surveyed 2168 randomly selected respondents, including 450 who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. In it, almost seven out of 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — 68% — supported constitutional recognition. Fewer than one in 10 were opposed (6%). Others neither supported nor opposed. We may never see total unanimity — any more than non-indigenous Australians ever will — but we should hear that overwhelming majority.
Myth: “The campaign … is one of the closest things you will see to soft totalitarianism anywhere.” — Guy Rundle
Fact: Constitutional change in Australia requires remarkable unity. Without it, referenda fail. As a result, individual Australians and organisations have pledged their support to campaign for change, with a grassroots base heading towards 250,000 supporters. The breadth of support and commitment from so many Australians built by tireless effort is cause for tribute, not scorn.
Myth: Recognising would be “divisive”. — David Leyonhjelm
Fact: We’re currently divided. In part, that’s because of the original decision not to recognise the first Australians, and to allow legal racial discrimination against us. The fact there is still no recognition perpetuates the division and distance. Recognition won’t cure every ill. Yet it’s an opportunity to unite us on something important to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Myth: Recognising would be a “perverse sort of racism”. — David Leyonhjelm
Fact: After 227 years of the aftershocks of colonisation — the taking of land without consent or compensation, people being forced from their homes, the killings, the removals of children, the vast disparities in life expectancy, health, jobs, housing and the rest, and the regular experience of racism, you really want to talk about “perverse sorts of racism”? Really? Constitutional recognition — far from taking anything away from any non-indigenous Australian — will be important for all Australians. Recognition proposals have looked at how to fix the existing race power of federal Parliament to remove its potential for negative or discriminatory use.
Myth: Recognising that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were on the continent first would be “conjecture”, and “you can’t legislate a fact”. — David Leyonhjelm
Fact: The constitution of Australia contains facts. The fact that the people of the states agreed to form a commonwealth. The fact this was done with the advice and consent of the British Parliament. The fact that there were “original states” in the commonwealth. Just no mention of the fact that the continent was home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people when the British colonies were proclaimed — and for millennia prior. Take a close read, and you’ll see the constitution already bans some discrimination. Section 117 expressly prevents “any disability or discrimination (against a resident of a particular State in another State) which would not be equally applicable to him if he were the subject of the Queen resident in such other State”.
A referendum is not without risk. Yet we can find courage in the example of the late, great Faith Bandler.
“I don’t think we should take it for granted that there will be a yes vote,” she said. “There must be, but we’re not certain at this particular stage that there will be.”
We can’t take success for granted either. We need each and every supporter.
It is important that this work gets done.
If it weren’t important, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people wouldn’t be working hard on this while they are striving to keep their organisations, communities and families strong and healthy in difficult conditions.