First Nations senate candidate exposes the con in Constitutional Recognition

Issue 
Photo: National Unity Government

The federal Coalition government is planning to hold a referendum in 2017 on Constitutional Recognition of Australia's original inhabitants. So far the campaign consists of establishing the Recognise campaign, in a bid to educate Australians about the importance of the recognition referendum.

The government has already funded the Recognise campaign to the tune of $15 million, and promised another $15 million in this year's budget. At the same time, it has cut funding to Aboriginal medical centres, Aboriginal legal services and other Indigenous programs and services.

The federal Coalition government is planning to hold a referendum in 2017 on Constitutional Recognition of Australia's original inhabitants. So far the campaign consists of establishing the Recognise campaign, in a bid to educate Australians about the importance of the recognition referendum.

The government has already funded the Recognise campaign to the tune of $15 million, and promised another $15 million in this year's budget. At the same time, it has cut funding to Aboriginal medical centres, Aboriginal legal services and other Indigenous programs and services.

The exact questions for a constitutional recognition referendum are yet to be determined. In 2012 the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians gave a series of recommendations depending on how extensive or minimal this recognition could be. These recommendations included everything from a full recognition statement including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's relationship to land, the recognition of and the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and cultures and the removal or amendment of current racist provisions in the constitution.

This means that recognition would:

• Remove section 25, which says the states can ban people from voting based on their race;
• Remove section 51, which can be used to pass laws that discriminate against people based on their race;
• Insert a new section, 51A, to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to preserve the Australian government's ability to pass laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
• Insert a new section, 116A, banning racial discrimination by government; and
• Insert a new section, 127A, recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were this country's first tongues, while confirming that English is Australia's national language.

Chris Graham said: “On every occasion section 51 has been used, 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.”

But none of it matters very much to Aboriginal people because, while opinion is diverse in Black Australia on the need for constitutional reform, the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people do not want it and do not believe it will change anything.

Aboriginal people understand very well that an Australian parliament will never dilute its powers to discriminate. Cast our eyes back to 2012, when both Labor and the Coalition voted to extend the NT intervention laws for another 10 years.

If we take out a change to the race powers, this only leaves a new preamble. But Black Australia wants to talk about treaty, sovereignty and land rights.

In February, 300 members of the Aboriginal community in Victoria attended a state government forum where they voted unanimously against pursuing Constitutional Recognition on the basis that they were “sovereign peoples”. It is encouraging to see the Victorian government has listened to this meeting and is now talking to Aboriginal people about a treaty.

IndigenousX, a community driven social media site run by Luke Pearson, conducted a survey on constitutional recognition after the Recognise campaign claimed 87% of Indigenous people would vote yes in the Recognition referendum. The majority of respondents in the IndigenousX survey said they did not feel that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's lives would improve if they are recognised in the constitution; 75% of respondents said they would vote No if the final model proposed was symbolic.

A recent survey by the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples reveals a variety of views on constitutional reform, with 70% of respondents preferring a treaty. Co-chair Geoff Scott said: “We are never told what the question posed is. What are Australians supporting? Are they supporting the mere concept of recognising, which is far from what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will support? The campaign and the polls are an exercise in smoke and mirrors, funded from the Indigenous affairs allocations.”

Aboriginal journalist Amy McGuire said: “In the absence of a model or question to take to a referendum, its claim that a majority of Aboriginal people are in favour of 'recognition' is ridiculous”.

Teela Reid, a law graduate now working in the Supreme Court, calls for a “treaty, a bill of rights and a republic” as opposed to the “one-sided government agenda”.

Given the uncertainty around what exactly the referendum would involve, it is not surprising there is concern that the final referendum question could be a vastly diluted version of the expert panel's recommendations. The final question could be reduced to recognition being a mere symbolic statement in the preamble.

But why should we think that constitutional reform would be anything but symbolic? Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations in 2008, but did anything change for Aboriginal peoples after the apology? Even the Closing the Gap initiative has been a huge failure! There are more Aboriginal children being forcibly removed from families today than ever before.

The NT Intervention laws remain; the incarceration rates of Aboriginal peoples are disgraceful; governments deny Aboriginal people basic land and human rights. Will this change with constitutional recognition? What we need is our sovereignty recognised, land rights and treaties with all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations.

[Sharlene Leroy-Dyer is a descendant of the Guringai/Gadigal/Wiradjuri/Dhurag peoples of New South Wales and an academic at the University of Newcastle. She is running for the Socialist Alliance in the NSW Senate in the federal elections.]

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