In the wake of the recent news that the Federal government may be pulling the funding for essential services to over 140 communities, effectively forcing them to close, many Australians are looking for ways to show support to Aboriginal communities.
Some are looking to the Recognise campaign, which aims to amend the Constitution to include Aboriginal people. It is a well-meaning concept and it has the support of many prominent Aboriginal Australians, including Archie Roach and Adam Goodes.
However, many non-Aboriginal Australians would be surprised to know that Aboriginal people are not united in wanting constitutional recognition. In fact, many are vehemently opposed. The problem is that one side of the argument has millions of dollars worth of funding for advertising and marketing – and the other does not.
So, here are three reasons why we should not be so quick to ‘Recognise’, if we are wanting to support Aboriginal rights.
- Constitutional recognition is not the same as Treaty.
There are fears that including Aboriginal people in the Constitution will make void all chances for a potential Treaty or recognition of sovereignty, something Aboriginal people have been fighting for for decades. The campaign was immortalized by Yothu Yindi’s famous song ‘Treaty’, which many Australians can sing along to but may not know the history of.
While the experiences of Maori people in New Zealand are by no means perfect, the existence of a Treaty is one of the reasons Maori people have so many more rights and opportunities to participate in every level of society, including politics, than Aboriginal people do here in Australia. Constitutional Recognition is a poor shadow of the strength of this type of document.
- Some see this Constitution as illegal
Some Aboriginal people do not want to legitimize this Constitution, especially after the 1992 High Court decision. In the case of Mabo vs. Queensland, the High Court ruled that at the time of invasion, Australia was not Terra Nullius. According to International Law, an Indigenous nation’s sovereignty is only null and void if the invading nation wins by conquest, if there is a treaty, or if there is no Indigenous nation to start with (‘Terra Nullius’ – land belonging to no-one).
In the Mabo decision, the High Court found that Australia was never Terra Nullius, meaning that sovereignty still belonged to Aboriginal people. However, instead of seeing this as an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past, to write a Treaty or have our Constitution re-written on solid foundations, there was an extremely aggressive effort from government, from corporations and from media to demonise Aboriginal people as land-grabbing, out-of-control activists who were coming for Your Backyard next.
What should have been an opportunity for land rights legislation based on justice and recognition of Aboriginal peoples’ legitimate ownership of land, was hijacked by the worst kind of fear-mongering. The result was Native Title legislation that only provides the weakest form of land tenure, which is extremely difficult to obtain in any case.
In other words, there is a great deal of unfinished business. Treaty has never been signed, sovereignty was never ceded by Aboriginal people, and many feel that being recognized in this Constitution would legitimize an illegal and immoral document.
- Constitutional recognition does not necessarily strengthen land rights, protect funding for Aboriginal programs, or protect communities from closure or from being leased to mining companies.
In fact, it may just be a very clever distraction, a way for Australians and governments to feel good about themselves and proclaim that they have ‘done right’ by Aboriginal people.
After Kevin Rudd famously said “Sorry” to the stolen generations, I don’t know how many times I’ve had to hear this complaint from non-Aboriginal Australians: “We’ve said sorry, what more do they want?”
I shudder to think how future protests for Aboriginal rights will be met with, “We changed the Constitution for them, and they’re still not happy?”
Also, let us pause for a moment to reflect: The same government who made $500 million worth of cuts to Aboriginal programs in the last budget, and is threatening to withdraw Federal funding for essential services to over 140 Aboriginal communities, is actively supportive of Constitutional Recognition.
This in itself should warn us to take another look.
So how should we respond? If you are a non-Aboriginal person, the best way to respond is to actively make space and promote a variety of Aboriginal voices and perspectives on this issue. Don’t be afraid of diversity of opinion – I have often heard non-Aboriginal people lament, “The problem is that they can’t seem to agree on anything.” Whenever I hear this, I wish I could change the direction of their gaze to have a look at Australian politics – definitely not what I would call a beacon of unity and togetherness!
Perhaps, instead of signing on to the Recognise campaign and promoting it, it might be good to step back and listen, and point others in the direction of Aboriginal resources, perspectives, writers and commentators. There are some who make a strong case for Constitutional Recognition, and others that promote alternatives. And if you love singing along to Yothu Yindi but don’t know what the song is referring to, spend some time brushing up on the campaigns for Treaty and land rights from the end of the last century. The history is fascinating, though disappointingly it rarely gets airtime.
State President of the Australian Democrats (SA Division) Jeanie Walker has highlighted that perhaps non-Aboriginal Australians need to stay out of the decision altogether.
“There are calls for a referendum, but I believe that if one does take place, only those who identify as Aboriginal should be allowed to vote,” Ms. Walker says.
“As a non-Aboriginal person, I should not have the power to make a decision of this magnitude, about something that does not affect me. Aboriginal people should have the space to discuss whether or not they want to be part of this Constitution, and they alone should have the ultimate power to decide.”
What arguments have you heard for and against Constitutional Reform?
What have your experiences been of land rights and Native Title?
New Zealanders – what have your experiences of Treaty been?
While all people are welcome to share ideas and opinions, please be respectful of those who have a personal connection to these issues and be open to their experiences and expertise. Questions are also welcome, for those who would like to learn more about the issues.
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