NAIDOC Week and Constitutional Recognition

Let me start with the same points I will finish with:

Earlier this week I attended a panel discussion at the Abbotsford Convent - the first in their new series of Convent Conversations. In line with the fact it is NAIDOC Week, the discussion was titled Indigenous Visionaries, with panelists Meriki Onus, Lidia Thorpe, and Charles Solomon, hosted by Benson Saulo.

A lot of the conversation centred around the plans underway for a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. There’s a general assumption from progressive-minded people that voting Yes for this referendum is a Good Thing, but the points from the panel quickly disabused me of that.

I’d picked up hints from following Luke Pearson on Twitter that not all Indigenous Australians support the change to the constitution, but I’d failed to read any further than that - so it was wonderful to have the panelists deepen my understanding of the issue.

While the host Benson did not share his opinion, Meriki and Lidia both raised excellent arguments for voting No, and Charles was very open about his hesitations around it as well. So much resonated, so here’s a summary of my current opinion heavily influenced from the evening’s discussions. Keep in mind, though, you’re far better served reading and listening to Indigenous Australians on the matter.

A big part of the problem with any constitutional change comes down to the fact that Australia was invaded by the British, and thus have come to ‘own’ the country as a result of illegal occupation and genocide. Recognition in the constitution would further solidify the assumption that this land belongs to the British-established Australia.

This wouldn’t be acceptable if someone stole your car and then claimed it was theirs, so why should it be different on a larger scale?

There are also issues with asking 97% of the population to vote on how 3% of the population should be treated and recognised (that’s the percentage of Indigenous Australians, in case you weren’t sure). Indeed, it really should be Indigenous Australians who call the shots for this…

… but, well, that question has been asked before. We don’t have a great record of listening to Indigenous Australians, let alone giving them full determination to make their own decisions, to control their future. Too easily, our society and our governments opt for the paternal, controlling approach. Particularly damning is The Intervention in the Northern Territory (for which the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended), and now the forced closure of Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

It’s worth noting that Tony Abbott and mining companies are supporters of constitutional recognition… and given their past treatment of Indigenous Australians, it’s worth being sceptical of how meaningful this recognition will be.

We are the only Commonwealth country that does not have a treaty with our first peoples. A treaty was part of reconciliation discussions originally, but seems to have been forgotten - and it seems like a far better step forward, providing full recognition not only of the Indigenous peoples of our land, but also of the brutal manner in which they were dispossessed and murdered.

This recognition is a critical step in closing the gap between the quality of life of Indigenous Australians and that of the rest of the country. In some areas, the gaps are widening - youth suicide is one statistic that is horrendously high.

Whether we end up with a treaty or constitutional recognition, we need to remember that no one thing is going to be a quick fix for over two centuries of genocide and colonisation. Indeed, rushing any such measures even with good intentions could make things worse!

Let me be clear: many Indigenous Australians support the referendum for constitutional recognition, and plan to vote Yes. These thoughts are my own, influenced by what I heard from the panel. If you are not an Indigenous Australian, I highly recommend you make some time to educate yourself further on the matter. Panelist Meriki Onus is part of a fantastic initiative Voices of the 3%, and that’s a great place to start building an deeper understanding of this issue.

Finally: for those on Twitter, go follow IndigenousX and Luke Pearson, and help strengthen the impact of Indigenous voices by sending some money to their crowdfunding campaign.