A Rightful Place focuses a great deal on arguments in support of the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian constitution, and particularly on persuading conservative opinion-holders. Pearson makes a number of salient points and his case for broad support is mostly eloquently put. As the question is whether a referendum on this issue can be successful, Pearson is correct to focus on the entire electorate, as a majority of voters in a majority of states will need to vote “yes” in order for the referendum to pass. In short, the essay gives a well-rounded perspective on the Aboriginal case for constitutional recognition.
However, while Pearson addresses the mainstream opposition, he does not discuss indigenous opposition to any degree. I don’t feel this is a flaw in his work, as his position is clear: he supports constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and wishes to bring voters from all sides on board to ensure the success of a referendum. I do, however, feel it is a major flaw in the dialogue around this issue that warrants further exploration. The “anti” stance has been dominated by conservative white men – including the constitutional conservatives Pearson mentions – while support for the move has been dominated by more moderate indigenous opinion-holders and government-funded campaigns. Whether indigenous people themselves wish to be recognised in the constitution should be at the heart of this discussion; otherwise, we run the risk of indigenous recognition being another merely symbolic gesture.
There is a long history of failed policy when it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. We have had generations of “good intentions” (or so we’re told when historical reflection occurs), yet our social markers suggest we are still the most disadvantaged people in this country. Additionally, we have heard so many grandiose statements, and seen so many broken promises, that many indigenous people tend to be quite cynical and discerning when presented with political pledges. A recent poignant reminder of the source of such cynicism was former prime minister Bob Hawke’s address at the 2014 Garma Festival. During his speech Hawke confirmed that he supported constitutional reform. The fact that, as prime minister, he had promised a treaty only later to renege on this did not go unnoticed. If he had followed through on his 1988 promise made at Barunga, it is highly possible that we would not be having this conversation about reform now, or at the very least the framing would be quite different.
We also have a cynical view of moves perceived to be mainly symbolic. The 2008 apology to the stolen generations is an example of an act that some indi-genous Australians see in this way. Many found Kevin Rudd’s words healing and engaging, and the warmth with which he delivered them was welcome after years of Howard rule; however, the clear statement from opposition leader Brendan Nelson that “there is no compensation fund”, a point which Rudd avoided completely in his speech but later confirmed, cast a nasty shadow over the event. What’s more, there appears to be an understanding in the national electorate that the apology was “to Aboriginal people” rather than for the policies that led to the stolen generations. On its website, the Australian government fuels this misconception by labelling the event the “Apology to Australia’s Indi-genous Peoples.” When we hear conservative media commentators capitalising on this by asking when indigenous people will ever be satisfied, it’s not hard to see how such views gain traction in the broader population.
The Recognise campaign is itself a source of contention within the indigenous community. For every indigenous person who supports or is opposed to constitutional reform, there would probably be another two who are simply unsure. The Recognise campaign was developed to educate Australians on the benefits of recognition. It bills itself as a “grassroots campaign,” yet it has been allocated $10 million in government funding over two years to deliver its message of reform – a message which is consistent with the current government policy platform. Its focus on advertising has become apparent, with corporate entities such as Qantas emblazoning aeroplanes with giant Recognise logos. Conversely, opposition movements have been reliant on social media to get their messages out and connect with like-minded community members. The opportunity for indigenous people of differing opinions to participate in a debate on an issue that is going to primarily affect their communities has simply not been provisioned for. From an indigenous perspective, there are serious questions about how democratic this process is. Dissenting views are only now gaining a slight amount of traction.
So what are these oppositional indigenous views? First, it is important to understand that rather than being homogenous, those opposed to constitutional recognition come from a vast variety of backgrounds. If I were to put them on a spectrum, I would place at one end the Black Nationalist movements and at the other holders of the view that recognition is an unnecessary distraction from tackling other, more life-changing, issues. I won’t go into the latter view as it seems to be held by more conservative commentators and it is for them to highlight their arguments. Of the other anti-recognition views, though, some reinforce indigenous sovereignty and call for treaties, while others seek emancipation from the state entirely.
It is unsurprising that at this point in time we are seeing more tent embassies and more public acts reinforcing indigenous sovereignty than we have for years. Recently, four young Aboriginal activists re-entered the country using Aboriginal passports, causing some confusion customs. In 2013, the Murrawarri Republic undertook a secessionist movement and sent a declaration to the Queen, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the United Nations. A First Nations Women’s Ceremonial Walk for Freedom was recently organised. These are just a few examples. People making moves to emancipate themselves from the laws of this country are not going to have a great deal of interest in recognising the highest law that exists, the constitution, and are therefore not putting their faith in the idea that amending it will right wrongs done to indigenous people and lead to a more equitable society.
Noel Pearson discusses in great depth the concept of layered identities. I found this of particular interest, as it is partly the reason why I find myself on the oppositional side. I am Arrernte, but I also identify as a feminist and a trade unionist. Like Aboriginal people, women were excluded from the table when it came to the writing of Australia’s constitution. This country still has a long way to go before it achieves gender equality. As a trade unionist, I support a hearty process of negotiation between parties wishing to work together to achieve outcomes. There has never been a negotiated agreement between First Peoples and the government in this country and I feel that it is integral to achieve this before we look at amending the constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Pearson is absolutely correct when he highlights that treaties negotiated with other indigenous peoples in the world have rarely been honoured. Due to this fact, Australia has a wealth of knowledge globally on which to draw and improve. To me, the idea of simply being recognised is an act of unquestioning consent to this Australian authority and I’m really not of a mind to be a “blushing virgin” in this instance.
Pearson makes many solid arguments for his case, and it is clear that he is dedicated to a future of unity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the broader Australian population. The problem is that indigenous people themselves are not committed to this idea of “unity,” nor are numbers of them convinced that it will bring anything of the sort. Despite the legal fiction of terra nullius apparently being a thing of the past, many people feel it still permeates society today, and therefore being written into a document which was based on the premise of terra nullius is not the answer. We owe it to ourselves and the experiences of our forebears to ensure that we tread lightly here, examine the question from all angles as indigenous peoples, and then engage the greater Australian public in these debates.
Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman living in Melbourne, and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union. She has written for the Guardian, Fairfax and Tracker, among others.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 56, Clivosaurus.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY