Why Aboriginal Australia should reject constitutional recognition

Chris Graham: A poor man's treaty: the 'con' in constitutional reform
Constitutional recognition for First Nations peoples seems to have captured the imagination of many white Australians but are the motives really all pure?


By Chris Graham
Tracker Magazine 11 July 2012
Republished by Crikey July 25, 2013

I don't normally agree with anything George Brandis says, but in a piece in The Australian last week it finally happened.

The story was on the likely failure of a 2013 referendum to amend the Australian constitution to recognise Aboriginal people in the preamble, and to remove racially discriminatory powers. Reports The Oz:

"Senator Brandis said conservative politicians would make it a priority and achieve a successful vote because Mr Abbott had the capacity to convince the most reluctant conservatives to vote for change. He said a vote led by Ms Gillard was doomed to fail."

In other words, conservatives are so bloody-minded that they'll only vote for something if Tony tells them to, regardless of its merits. Which is, of course, correct. Of course, you might equally argue that if the political winds suit, Abbott will seek to wreck support for constitutional recognition, because that's what he does.

Whatever the reality, that's where George making sense started and ended: "Senator Brandis said one of the recommendations of the panel's report was that the referendum does not proceed until there is bipartisanship. 'The report itself creates a mechanism where it itself says until there is bipartisanship this should be delayed, and at the moment there isn't bipartisan agreement'".

And if I may translate once more: "Bipartisanship is when Labor understands that they need to be reasonable and do things our way." Ah, George. You can take the boy out of Queensland ...

The debate centres around recommendations from the 22-member expert panel, which delivered its report in January. It recommended, reported The Oz, that "the Constitution be altered to remove racist sections and create power for the advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the protection of language and culture. It also called for a clause against racial discrimination".

The detail, of course, is important. The original intent of constitutional reform is, broadly speaking, three-fold.

To amend the preamble to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's special place in Australian society as the original custodians.

To amend section 25, which specifically allows for the disqualification of any race of people from voting in an Australian election. It's never been used, but given the current political direction in this country, it's not a bad idea to curb these powers sooner rather than later.

To amend section 51, known as the race powers, which enable the parliament to make laws both for the benefit of, and detriment of, any race of people. Unlike section 25, 51 has been used, and on every occasion it's been to harm the interests of Aboriginal people. It's section 51 which was tested in the Hindmarsh Islands affair, and which affirmed the power of parliament to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act to specifically disadvantage Aboriginal people (this was done in Hindmarsh, in Wik, and in the introduction of the NT intervention).

So the panel's work, and recommendations, is all very sensible and edifying stuff. And unfortunately it's about as likely to succeed as a gay, black refugee running for Liberal Party pre-selection in the seat of Fisher.

It has nothing to do with bipartnership either. Labor isn't keen to amend the race powers either, because Labor has also been relying on them to beat the crap out of Aboriginal people (Labor, you'll recall, supported the passage of Wik and the NT intervention).

That a first world nation like Australia in 2012 actually has to "debate" the merits of removing racially discriminatory powers from its founding document speaks volumes about us as a people. It begs the question: why would a nation which claims to respects basic human rights need constitutional powers to discriminate on the basis of race? George of the Parliamentary Jungle might like to ponder that one when the party room ballot comes up.

But none of it, of course, matters much to Aboriginal people, because while opinion is diverse in black Australia on the need for constitutional reform, the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people have better things to do.

Firstly, Aboriginal people don't expect Australia will wake up to itself and do the right thing. They've become very good at setting their expectations very low in order to avoid disappointment.

Aboriginal people understand very well that the chances of an Australian Parliament in this day and age leading the charge to dilute its powers to discriminate is zero. If anything, this Parliament is heading in the opposite direction. (The recent extension of the Northern Territory intervention laws for another 10 years is a case in point. So too is the asylum seeker debate.)

Knocking out change to the race powers leaves only a new preamble, which is akin to throwing a drowning man a brick, and which is view by Aboriginal people as a "warm and fuzzy" designed to ease white guilt and boost international tourism. To borrow a phrase from renowned Aboriginal artist Richard Bell, it is "a white thing".

Secondly, Aboriginal people want to talk about other stuff, like treaty, sovereignty and land rights. So why the lack of interest? Bitter personal experience with the gratuitous exploitation of symbolism by cynical white politicians.Exhibit A is Kevin Rudd and his 2008 apology.

When the apology was delivered, Aboriginal people united in celebration. Many genuinely believed that as a nation, we'd entered a new era in black/white relations. And then Rudd's Labor got back on with the business of eroding the rights of the nation's most disadvantaged. The NT intervention continued unchecked, and was recently extended for another 10 years. Rudd's promise in opposition to provide reparations and a comprehensive response to the Bringing Them Home report was abandoned. He also broke his promise to move Australia Day to a more inclusive date.

At virtually every public event at which Rudd now appears, he's introduced as the former prime minister who delivered the "apology". He's been milking it for all its worth for four years. He even had the gall to present the Pope with a bound copy of the apology, despite the fact that by then, the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people had begun to reject it.

For her part, Gillard has been no better. She used her first Close the Gap report card to Parliament in 2011 to blame Aboriginal people for their poverty. And it was her office earlier this year which engineered the debacle at the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Tent Embassy (where, it's worth remembering, Aboriginal people gathered not to discuss constitutional reform, but treaty, sovereignty and land rights).

My personal view is that Aboriginal people would be well advised to join with Brandis and the other wreckers, and knock the notion of constitutional reform on the head.

While I acknowledge that symbolism is important, it is only worth embracing when it's in the hands of politicians who will use it responsibly, and back it up with practical measures and outcomes. Otherwise, it is simply another mechanism for Australian leaders to strut the world stage and try and portray this nation in a light that it does not deserve.

In short, while the Northern Territory intervention laws remain on our books; while the jailing rates of Aboriginal people are world-beaters; while Aboriginal children die of rheumatic heart disease; while governments deny Aboriginal people basic land and human rights ... there should be no engagement with government by Aboriginal leaders on constitutional reform.

The 'Recognition' debate deserves better than this political jostling
When the time is ripe for discussion, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott just throw jibes at each other over who is the mosty committed to Aboriginal issues.