Next step is for Australia to leave race behind

, - May 25, 2013

INDIGENOUS affairs in Australia is like a pendulum swinging from one political extreme to the other.

This is how our national story in the country’s relationship with and treatment of indigenous people seems to play out.

We went from the explicit discrimination, protectionism and exclusion of colonisation and the mission era to the self-determination, separatism and cultural relativism of the rights era.

We have swung partially back the other way. Our work at the Cape York Institute has argued for this swing. In an attempt to shake off the social ills of welfare dependency, victimhood and passivity, we have pushed personal and social responsibility. We talk more about ordinary necessities and the importance of social and cultural norms than about rights and cultural autonomy. Schools, food, safety and economic participation are priorities.

But our aim has never been a complete swing back to adverse discrimination or cultural impoverishment in the pursuit of economic achievement. We have sought to push back towards a radical centre: to a correct position between Left and Right. The centre, for us, is a position where indigenous people enjoy equal rights and responsibilities in comparison with other Australians. Where we enjoy social, economic and cultural prosperity in parity with other Australians. Where we are no longer held to lesser expectations and responsibilities simply because we are indigenous but are judged as individuals, rewarded on merit and assisted in need, just like any Australian, rather than treated as members of an inferior, incapable “race”.

We are not there yet. The political pendulum still swings from Left to Right. We operate in a flawed system, riddled with flawed assumptions about indigenous people and how indigenous affairs should be approached. Knee-jerk reactions abound. Too busy dealing with the latest catastrophe, we rarely have time to pause to agree on the right principles.

Constitutional recognition of indigenous people has been on the national agenda for a long time. It has survived many pendulum swings. We moved on from talk of a makarrata in the 1960s and 70s. There was the push for a treaty in 1988. Then the momentum swung the way. In the Howard era we moved to an emphasis on practical reconciliation. However, John Howard pushed for preambular recognition during the 1999 referendum, which did not succeed. The polarity swung from symbolism to practical reconciliation.

Symbolic recognition is important, but it is not enough to fix the problems in indigenous affairs. We can do better.

Now national leaders are acknowledging the need for symbolic reconciliation as well as practical changes in indigenous affairs. This weekend the momentum is building for serious constitutional reform with the launch of the recognition relay in Melbourne.

When we look back on our constitutional history, we see that our place in the Constitution, too, has gone from one extreme to the other. First we were explicitly and discriminatorily excluded. We were not counted in the census. We were excluded from the operation of commonwealth law-making power.

There was the bark petition in 1963. Indigenous people wanted change. After much campaigning, the 1967 referendum reversed our exclusion. The exclusionary clauses were removed from the Constitution and we were counted, finally, as citizens of Australia. Ironically, however, 1967 left us with two problems. First, it left us with a Constitution that now makes no mention at all of this nation’s indigenous history and heritage. Our founding document reads as if terra nullius is still good law; as if this land were empty when the British arrived. As the founding document commemorating Federation and the birth of the Australian nation, it is inadequate in this fundamental respect.

The other problem is race. The Constitution still contains racially discriminatory provisions. It gives government the power to treat Australian citizens differently on the basis of race.

The now prolific attitude that indigenous citizens should be held to lesser responsibilities and expectations than other Australians has its roots, I believe, in racially discriminatory attitudes still embedded in the Constitution. The consequent “soft bigotry of low expectations” has come to pervade all aspects of indigenous affairs.

It is clear to me that the concept of race has been poisonous to my people. Inherent in the concept of race is the idea that some races are inferior and others superior, and that there are biological or genetic differences underlying these racial hierarchies.

We now understand these outdated beliefs to be incorrect. Indigenous people are not an inferior or incapable race. We are not innately or genetically disadvantaged. Yet race still persists in our Constitution, and therefore in our laws, policies and attitudes to one another.

The 1967 referendum did not fix these problems. But we have the opportunity to fix them soon.

The 2007 apology was a step in the right direction. But another step now needs to follow in this national journey. After sorry should come a promise. The next step in the reconciliation process is to promise that the discriminatory wrongs of the past will not happen again – to any Australian. Constitutional reform would be a guarantee of inclusion in the nation, finally, as equal citizens. This is a great, nation-changing opportunity. Australia can lead the world in rising above “race” and racial divides.

To win a referendum, a majority of voters in a majority of states needs to vote yes to the amendments. For that to happen, bipartisan support for the proposal must be achieved. An expert panel began the process in 2011, but the conversation has further to go.

This will be a process in which political vision will combine with imaginative problem-solving and precise drafting of constitutional amendments by this country’s best legal minds. It needs to be a process whereby this nation’s leaders come together and agree on the right answers to basic philosophical and moral questions. How important is this nation’s indigenous heritage? What is the relevance of race?

The first step is to reach high-level agreement on the right answers to these questions. Once we agree on the right principles, the right words and amendments will follow.

This is important reform and we should take time to think it through. This will be a lasting legacy for the future of all Australians.