Don’t go too far in advocating constitutional recognition for Aborigines

“Not ready to vote” is the phrase the government has been advised to use as the excuse to delay until 2017 a referendum to recognise Aborigines in the Constitution. Could it just be conceivable that, no matter how much of our money governments spend telling us otherwise, Australians will never be ready for further constitutional recognition?

After all, Aborigines were recognised, after a fashion, and certainly with a practical effect, in the Constitution in 1967. Is that not recognition enough?

Expenditure on commonwealth, state and local government programs for Aborigines is $25 billion a year. Is that not recognition enough?

Aborigines are recognised, in favourable ways, in the Family Law Act, in adoption acts, in coroners acts, in sentencing acts, in the Charities Act, in corporations acts, and in a plethora of land rights and heritage acts. Are these all not recognition enough?

My colleague Joe Lane has est­ablished that in South Australia between 1840 and early last century, the total number of full-time staff in the Aboriginal department was one: the protector.

Presently, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet alone employs 1600 public servants in Aboriginal programs. Is this not recognition enough?

Those pressing the issue of recognition force into the light another question; for them, an uncomfortable one. Who is an Aborigine? Noel Pearson, in his Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place, worries about lack of Aboriginal representation in a democratic system where their numbers are so few. He claims there are 600,000 Aborigines. There are not. The most common marriage involving Aborigines is between an Aborigine and a non-Aborigine. By contrivance, children of these couples are counted as Abor­iginal. My children could claim Cornish, English, Irish, German and Scottish ancestry. They are none of these.

Anthony Dillon uses this analogy to explain the consequences of intermarriage. Start with a coffee and continue to add milk. At what point, he asks, does the drink become a milk drink? Just because it’s polite to count the children of Aborigines and non-Aborigines as Aboriginal doesn’t mean they are Aboriginal.

There are, certainly as far as recognition of a distinct group in the Constitution is concerned, far, far fewer than 600,000 Aborigines. As for Aboriginal children being vessels of their culture, it is unlikely many know it or live it.

We can agree with Pearson that race is not a permanent marker of failure or success. But a culture can be. Learned habits, especially transferred through dysfunctional families and insular communities, can be bad. Were culture to be recognised in the Constitution, would it be the bad parts along with the good parts?

Pearson wants to build a case for recognition on the triumvirate of “our ancient heritage, our British inheritance and our multicultural triumph”. Neither the British inheritance nor multicultural triumph is recognised in the Constitution. They are products of multiple political decisions made over generations.

Australia’s democracy was built on many more generations of struggle in Europe over ideals such as liberty, democracy and nationhood.

Our “ancient heritage” did not create these triumphs.

Should “recognistas” overplay their hand, so-called conservatives can only help in a very limited way to save their cause. Many regard the chances for recognition as viable only if three conditions are satisfied:

  • Recognition must sit in a preamble with a statement that it has no legal force. This formulation was contained in the Howard government’s Constitution Alteration (Preamble) Act 1999.
  • Recognition must contain only the words: “The parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” This formulation was contained in the Gillard government’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013.
  • Recognition must not mention any characteristics of a people, such as “culture”. Reference to race in the Constitution’s sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) may be removed, but alone this isn’t worth the bother of a referendum.

Many Australians are ready to vote; they are not ready for foolishness. If the three conditions for a yes case are exceeded, a vigorous no case would be mounted, for which government funding would be demanded.