A poor man’s treaty: the ‘con’ in constitutional reform

Issue 

I was browsing the “Recognise” site recently – the hip, new rebranded “You Me Unity” organisation tasked with promoting constitutional recognition of First Nations Australians – when I came across this curious fact: “Research by Auspoll in late 2012 found strong Indigenous support for constitutional recognition.

“Three-quarters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people surveyed were in favour of recognition, and only 8% opposed it. The same overwhelming majority felt recognition would help protect against a loss of culture for future generations.”

I’m not suggesting Auspoll, nor Recognise for that matter, deliberately diddled their poll, but I am suggesting that the Aboriginal people surveyed didn’t have all the facts when they were quizzed. And I’m also suggesting that we haven’t been given all the facts either.

One of the other reasons I’m so skeptical is a disclaimer that Recognise includes after publishing the result: “As with the entire Australian community, there are diverse views among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Well, no. According to the Auspoll result, there aren’t diverse views at all. The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal Australians support it, and only 8% oppose it. So I interpret that qualifier as meaning “Recognise” didn’t entirely believe the poll results either.

Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped Recognise from spruiking it at every available turn, including in a press release in October last year, when they were still called “You Me Unity”.

They lost me at the headline: “Pollies join the people’s movement for recognition”.
Simply calling something the “people’s movement” doesn’t make it so, and particularly not when you consider the people behind it – they are almost exclusively political players of some description.

On that front, I should acknowledge that I have enormous respect for many of those involved in the campaign. Aboriginal leaders such as Pat Dodson and Greens such as Rachel Seiwert, for example, have led the push at the local and parliamentary level.

Young upcoming Aboriginal leaders like Tanya Hosch and Jason Glanville have led the push behind the scenes.

But Opposition leader Tony Abbott, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former prime minister Julia Gillard have also attached their name to it. The three combined have done more to frustrate the aspirations of Aboriginal people than any other politicians in the last half decade. And they’ve done the least to advance Aboriginal interests as well, despite being in positions of enormous power and influence.

It’s not just my personal dislike of whitefellas playing politics with black lives that underpins my opposition to constitutional recognition at this point in history. I think the arguments against it are also compelling.

If Aboriginal people sign up to this, political players and governments who have a history of being actively hostile to Aboriginal interests will use it on the world stage to fudge the fact that on virtually every other front, Aboriginal rights and interests are being trashed.

That’s how the national apology was used by Rudd. That’s how constitutional recognition will be used by the national parliament.

I understand why some people might believe constitutional reform represents progress, but I think those who do, respectfully, might like to rethink what progress actually looks like.

The strong desire for a way forward is perhaps because we’re going backwards in so many other areas. But we can’t simply have it both ways.

You can’t extend the Northern Territory intervention for another 10 years; you can’t deny compensation for stolen wages; you can’t deny compensation for Stolen Generations; you can’t quarantine people’s basic welfare entitlements; you can’t do less than the bare minimum to alleviate Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage; you can’t play politics with the lives of Aboriginal people; you can’t have people living with trachoma in a First World nation; you can’t have people suffering the world’s highest rates of curable diseases; and at the same time pretend that a preamble acknowledging prior ownership of the land is meaningful.

Basic human rights are not divisible. You can’t have some rights and not others. It’s an “all or nothing” deal.

Nor can you deny Aboriginal people the fundamental right to self-determination, but give them a warm fuzzy constitution and call that progress.

I accept that the intent of people like Siewert is honorable. But not for one millisecond do I believe that people like Gillard and Abbott see it as anything other than a cynical opportunity to advance their own political interests.

It’s worth remembering, while the major political parties have pushed the notion of a tightly written preamble which affords no legal advantage to Aboriginal people as the true owners of this land, they’ve been far more muted on the issue of reforming sections of the constitution which still allow governments to discriminate on the basis of race.

I think their comparative silence on this front speaks volumes about their real motivations.

So just as you can’t negotiate with terrorists, you shouldn’t negotiate with a government that still refuses to extend to Aboriginal people basic human rights and respect.

Constitutional recognition is a poor man’s treaty. It is another national apology, without compensation.

I think Aboriginal people should hold out for a better deal.

[Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine. This article was first published at his blog, Chris At Large.]