We are led to believe that there is overwhelming public support for indigenous recognition in the Constitution. All that remains is for a formula to be developed that is acceptable to both indigenous Australians and the Australian population at large. This we are told will “reconcile” the two groups. All sides of politics have subscribed to this view, the general idea being bipartisan but, Labor in particular is unable to resist politicking around the edges such is the febrile nature of our body politic at the moment.
But reading Stephen FitzPatrick’s piece in the Weekend Australian is instructive.
He starts off by telling us that:
Indigenous leaders have issued a united challenge to Malcolm Turnbull to back a constitutionally recognised Aboriginal “voice’’ to parliament that would influence legislation, and a separate process leading to treaties.”
Which leads one to ask, why is it a “challenge”? Why such confrontational language? Why not “invited”, “recommended” or “requested”? Have not both the Coalition and Labor pledged bipartisan support for some form of recognition? Why did they not issue the “challenge” also to Bill Shorten, given the hideous prospect that he may be the Prime Minister by the time anything comes of this?
He then goes on to say:
Indigenous leaders called for a referendum to be put to the Australian people to provide “constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country”.
Which leads one to ask, in what way are they not empowered now? They can vote, they can stand for Parliament, they can attend school and university, they can freely travel to wherever opportunity beckons, they can say whatever they like without fear of persecution, they can marry whom they like, they have access to grants and programs not available to others and so on.
One could argue that many are not economically empowered but that applies equally to the general population. And failure to redress this problem is not for want of money and good intentions over many decades.
And what is “their rightful place” in their own country if it is not defined as full citizenship?
In what way is Stan Grant, for example, disempowered? What is Professor Marcia Langton’s “rightful place” in our country?
Are we, in fact, talking about the same country? According to the official Statement issued by the Referendum Council “sovereignty has never been ceded or extinguished” (pdf). In this context, sovereignty is defined as the authority of a state to govern itself or another state. Even if we accept that diverse aboriginal groups had a primitive sovereignty over their own tribal lands (a doubtful proposition), that sovereignty could be extinguished by an overarching sovereignty established initially in each colony and eventually by the Commonwealth. And the need for an overarching sovereignty may have been arguable in 1788 but it is beyond doubt that today it is imperative and, one way or another, it would have been imposed, by now, by some external power. There is nothing to suggest that aboriginal groups would have come together of their own volition to establish a nation as we know it today. And, in any case, Keith Windschuttle, in his excellent book “The Break Up of Australia”, argues convincingly and in great detail that such “sovereignty” as existed was, in fact, ceded.
The Statement also “calls for establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”. What does this mean?
And what are we to make about the proposal for an indigenous body set up “to scrutinise proposed legislation and make recommendations”? The example given in the Statement is native title legislation, which sounds rather benign but what about legislation such as the “intervention” legislation? What chance would there be of getting any agreement from the advisory body on something such as this? Or legislation, for example, that imposes penalties on parents for not sending their children to school? And what would be the upshot of government ignoring the recommendations of such a body in the interests of good policy?
Interestingly, Turnbull and, surprisingly, Shorten have both been circumspect in their response to the Uluru Statement.
One of the stated aims of this process was “to unite us”. Tellingly, this is not a phrase we have ever heard from the indigenous protagonists.
Whatever this process is about, it is not about reconciliation.