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Racial protection is essential

Posted: Thu, July 09, 2015

The electorate supports a constitutional change to outlaw discrimination*

WITH other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from around the country, I have spent this past weekend attending a seminar on constitutional recognition organised by the National Congress of Australia's First Peo­ples – a prelude to a meeting of Indigenous leaders called by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The choice of venue, the Museum of Sydney, the site of Australia's first government house, could not have been more poignant. Just outside the museum 's theatrette was a display of models of the 11 ships of the First Fleet that landed at Botany Bay on January 11 and 12, 1788. The panel text reads: "...to the Aboriginal people looking on, the arrival of the ships marked the beginning of an invasion that would catastrophically affect their lives". That catastrophe metamorphosed as European settlement spread, and government policies – some enabled by our Constitution – continue to have disastrous impacts.

Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution, as considered by the report of an expert panel in January 2012 and recommended last month by a joint select committee of parliament, would go some way towards acknowledging that history.

But Indigenous peoples are owed more than this gesture. The committee found they want explicit protection from racial discrimination enshrined in the Constitution so governments can no longer single them out for adverse treatment. Indigenous people thought they had won that in the 1967 referendum, but sloppy wording and artful government policy undid that ideal.

But if politicians cannot support constitutional reform that honours the recognition of our position as first peoples, protects us from discrimination and accommodates reasonable requests for representation through an advisory council, there is no prospect a referendum would succeed, because Indigenous people would not give their necessary support.

Racism continues to blight the lives of indigenous people. My Northern Territory home town, Katherine, has been but one example. Its colonial occupation in the late 1800s was an iteration of conquest the Dagoman, Jawoyn and Wardaman peoples did not consent; they did not cede their country. Violence prevailed for decades; overt racism was rampant way into my childhood.

I can remember as a boy the real and ugly racism that played out publicly on the streets of Katherine in the 1970s and 80s after the Commonwealth enacted the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act and the Jawoyn won ownership of  Nitmiluk National Park.

Racism like that was born out of ignorance and blind prejudice. But, however hurtful those mem­ories, I know behaviours have immensely improved in the decades since, and not just in Katherine.

The joint select committee found overwhelming support across the country for some mechanism in the Constitution to prohibit racial discrimination by governments. Aboriginal people in my hometown still bear the scars of the most recent egregious example of discrimination inflicted by the Howard government, with unanimous support from Labor, when in 2007 it imposed the Territory intervention and suspended the Racial Discrimination Act – because  the Constitution allowed such licence. So, if the electorate can find it in its heart to accept constitutional change that would prohibit discrimination, why cannot their elected politicians? What's so scary about the prospect of a government making peace with its people? Why would politicians want to yield to conservative constitutional lawyers who hold that such change is unattainable, when polling informs them otherwise?

But these are confusing times for Indigenous people. Those same communities that want to be free of discrimination say the push for constitutional reform sits incongruously with other government policies – like the closure of remote Aboriginal communities, or the havoc wreaked by budget-­hacking under the flawed Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

That confusion tells me that if a referendum for constitutional change that embraces recognition of Indigenous peoples and prohibits discrimination is to succeed, a huge program of conventions across the land must be resourced. Proponents of change see a unique opportunity of success while Mr Abbott is Prime Minister. But he and other political leaders will have to work hard to foster the same spirit the cross-party members of the joint select committee, with a nod to Australia's history, found within themselves when they produced their report last month, without dissent.

And Indigenous people must present a common front as the real work begins to formulate the referendum question.

Any question absent a provision that would break the shameful record of discrimination is bound to fail.

And if the referendum ultimately succeeds, it will still be just one step towards a greater justice that will be achieved only by a comprehensive settlement.

*This opinion piece first appeared in the July 6 edition of The Australian