Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Australian Constitutional Recognition for Aboriginal Peoples

Some of you may be aware that last year the government installed an expert panel to advise on the possibility of a referendum to change the Australian constitution to recognise the Aboriginal nations and people of Australia.  The panel is due to report back to the government in December this year with a proposal for a referendum question to be put to the Australian people in 2013.  You can find all the necessary information including a discussion paper at www.youmeunity.org.au Submissions to this panel can be made by anyone and are due by the end of the month.  It is clear that the Australian constitution is woefully and unacceptably out of date on this issue and in essence the constitution continues to enshrine the terra nullius perspective that dominated European thinking as they settled (or more accurately invaded) this country in the late 1800s and which has done so much damage culturally and environmentally to Aboriginal people and their lands.  It is absolutely essential that such a major national document as the constitutional, even if rarely referred to outside of legal circles, reflects reality. This is particularly so given that Aboriginal peoples have called for such changes on multiple occasions over many many years...  I suspect many Aboriginal peoples and communities have lost patience with the ongoing lack of recognition and the oppression this breeds.  Recognition is code for affirmation, something every single person needs as a basis to social justice and quality of life. 

In light of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 and the increased use of Acknowledgement of Country by many sectors of the Australian population the constitution must now back this up more effectively.  I wonder whether a statement of recognition and rights could become a bit like acknowledgement of country accept at a national level for all the various Aboriginal nations.  This may be one further way of helping us to get in touch with the reality of Aboriginal presence in this land.  Or in other words rather than the implicit or actual terra nullius of the constitution we acknowledge that the land is filled with human -Aboriginal- presence and with the Great Spirit.  Importantly this Aboriginal presence is to be seen as being in relationship with the land something we recognise everytime we acknowledge the traditional owners of an area.  This may mean a letting go for white fellas but it may also be another little step (let's not get too carried away there is so much more to address!) in the healing of this land and it's peoples.

Apart from constitutional recognition there are important issues of constitutional racial equality and non-discrimination which you can find out more about at the website I mentioned above.  Many of us would love to see the country progress towards a treaty which would set a firm foundation and commitment and vision for right relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.  My understanding is that the constitution can set the tone for this to occur by providing provision for agreement making.  However it is unclear at present in my mind whether the Australian population would be well informed enough and compassionate enough to begin to consider this possibility.  The expert panel I mentioned above have the unenviable task of discerning what is achievable in a referendum and not just what might be the best vision.  Failure at a referendum would be disastrous and demoralising for Aboriginal peoples and those who care about this issue.  It might be that the idea of a treaty does not yet have its time but all this work will reflect where we are up to as a nation whether we like it or not.  Patrick Dodson has a stirring address on the youmeunity website which you can find here on the topic of the imperative of reconciliation.

My workplace has started to consider what submission we would like to make.  I learnt in talking with my Aboriginal colleagues yesterday that there are a few attitudes and actions that should be included from their point of view in these considerations: a willingness to listen, consultation with Aboriginal peoples regarding any developments that will affect them and a commitment to keep going beyond constitutional changes to address issues like access to land and fair distribution of wealth etc. Gees we have a long way to go but this is another bit in the process. 

n.b. artwork by Richard Campbell (stations of the cross)