EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Gillard's proposed constitutional referendum
, February 4, 2012
A proposed referendum to entrench Aboriginal identity and rights in the Australian Constitution is fundamentally flawed and would waste millions institutionalising the very racial stereotyping it purports to condemn.
A 300-page report recommending such a referendum was released by the Prime Minister Julia Gillard on January 19.
Every major newspaper and TV network throughout Australia gave front-page coverage to the proposal, enthusiastically endorsing its recommendations and the statements by the Prime Minister that it was time to amend the constitution to remove its allegedly discriminatory provisions, and to recognise indigenous Australians as the original owners of the land.
Ms Gillard also promised to conduct a referendum — at a cost of between $50 and $100 million — before or at the next election, to incorporate the proposals in the Constitution.
Before considering its recommendations, it is important to note that this was no independent report: it was the product of a well-organised campaign by an organisation called You Me Unity, which would be known to fewer than one Australian in a hundred.
You Me Unity’s web site (YouMeUnity.org.au) describes itself as “the national conversation about updating our constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and culture for the benefit of all Australians”. In other words, it is a lobby group to achieve the result recommended in its 300-page report.
The report is based upon the belief that Aboriginal disadvantage in Australia is a consequence of the lack of recognition of Aboriginal people in the Constitution. This is, of course, a fantasy.
Even before federation in 1901, there were laws across Australia which sought to address the problems of aboriginal disadvantage. After federation, every state had such laws, and very significant improvements occurred in advancing the interests of Aboriginal people, in employment, health, education and assimilation into the Australian community.
In 1967, the Australian people overwhelmingly supported an amendment to the Commonwealth Constitution to give the Commonwealth Government power to enact laws for Aboriginals, and to remove a clause which did not include them in Australian censuses, a legacy of the time when many of them were nomadic and illiterate.
It is a sad fact that since this time, improvement in the condition of most Aboriginal people has virtually come to a standstill. This is despite expanded legislation, federal and state land rights legislation, innumerable state and federal inquiries, national and state apologies to the “stolen generation”, High Court judgements such as Mabo and Wik which found in favour of Aboriginal land claims, federal intervention into the management of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, and the spending of tens of billions of dollars.
Nothing seems to have changed since the Henderson Inquiry into Poverty in the 1970s found that the expansion of funding on Aboriginal welfare had yielded little or no benefit to disadvantaged Aborigines.
The frustrated expectations of many Australians have undoubtedly fuelled the belief that amendment of the Constitution will solve these problems.
The You Me Unity panel’s recommendations are for the insertion of a new section recognising that Australia was first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, acknowledging their continuing relationship to their traditional lands and waters, respect for their continuing cultures, languages and heritage, and acknowledging the need to secure their advancement. Other recommendations are a clause prohibiting racial discrimination, and removing a clause in Section 25 which, allegedly, would allow states to discriminate against people on the basis of race.
Not one of these measures deals with a real issue in the Australian polity, as state and federal law already cover them exhaustively.
They are token gestures which will have dramatically adverse consequences for Australia as a nation and provide no benefit to Aboriginal Australians. Australians need only look at the unresolved conflicts which exist in New Zealand, as a result of the institutionalisation of separate Maori rights in New Zealand’s foundational documents.
Further, the panel’s recommendations are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Commonwealth Constitution which is not a charter of rights, but rather, the foundational document which sets out the division of powers between the Commonwealth and the states, to bring about Federation in 1901.
By attempting to entrench Aboriginal rights in the Constitution, they will perpetuate the claim that Aboriginal disadvantage is the result of oppression and victimisation, and will institutionalise the racial stereotyping which they purport to condemn.
It is pathetic that a Government which has wasted billions of dollars in extravagant make-work schemes, pushing the country deep into deficit, should now waste more money on proposals which would divide Australians on racial lines into the indefinite future.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.