Seek indigenous views ahead of full referendum

, - January 29, 2011

THIS week I put forward two ideas for the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.

The first was obvious: that any successful proposition will need to be supportable by persons such as indigenous Australian elder Lowitja O’Donoghue and former prime minister John Howard. When asked by The Australian whether she could find common ground with Howard, O’Donoghue responded: “Why not? Yes we could.”

If the country succeeds with reconciliation it will be because of the wisdom and maturity of the nation’s elders.

My second idea was that if the expert panel appointed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard develops a proposal, it should first be subjected to a vote by indigenous Australians before a law for the alteration of the Constitution is proposed to parliament.

The Australian reported that O’Donoghue was not convinced about the idea, saying she was concerned it would cause division in the mainstream community.

Similarly, the new member of parliament Ken Wyatt, an indigenous Australian, has expressed strong opposition to my proposal.

I do not take these views lightly. O’Donoghue has vast experience dealing with public opinion in Australia and Wyatt has proved himself by winning the support of the mainstream electorate as the Liberal Party’s successful candidate for the seat of Hasluck. If the straw poll in the online edition of The Australian is anything to go by, and judging by the letters to the editor, O’Donoghue and Wyatt have strong grounds for their concern.

I think, however, there are arguments in favour of the idea that indigenous Australians should first decide their position on any referendum proposition.

First, is the effort of recognising indigenous Australian people worth pursuing through a national referendum if the objects of that recognition do not support it? If indigenous Australians say no, then our people will have to wear the decision. That is a possibility the process must be prepared to allow.

Second, without a preliminary vote we will never know what position was taken by indigenous Australians, because the vote of 3 per cent of the population will be submerged in the overwhelming 97 per cent national vote. Surely both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians would want to know whether or not indigenous Australians supported the recognition.

Third, the very concept of recognition implies there are two groups in the national community of Australia, indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians. To say a preliminary vote of indigenous Australians creates an offensive division overlooks the fact that recognition is about one recognising the other.

Fourth, for the nation to truly settle unfinished business the indigenous Australian voice must be active in the process. If the voice of indigenous Australia is submerged within a national voice, there is a danger our people will play a passive role in the process. The voices of some indigenous Australian leaders will be heard loud and clear. My concern is the voices of ordinary indigenous Australians, in the city suburbs, in the country towns, in the remote communities, all have the opportunity – and indeed the responsibility – to give active expression to their view.

Passive acquiescence to some overwhelming national process would be a great regret for a process that is likely to be a defining moment of reconciliation.

My proposal is a preliminary process. It is not intended to be a formal part of the constitutional amendment. The processes mandated by the Constitution, requiring the parliament to pass a referendum proposition to be put to the Australian people, will not be formally affected by the outcome of the preliminary vote by indigenous Australians. It is just that the parliament and Australian public will know where indigenous Australians stand in relation to a proposition and the parliament will decide what should be done in the light of it.

It would not make sense to move forward with something that does not have the support of the indigenous community, but this is a political argument, not one that is binding on parliament.

Every nation is facing or has had to face the question of the place of distinct peoples within its borders. Often one ore more of those peoples is indigenous to all or part of the country; others are historical settlers.

There are thousands of distinct peoples but only 200 nation states. This fact – the need for thousands of distinct peoples to co-exist within the boundaries of a couple of hundred nation states – is the planet’s perennial challenge. Every nation deals with this challenge in its own way. The circumstances differ greatly and the problems and solutions are highly particular to this almost endless variety.

Reconciliation within South Africa involved a response by the people of that country to the particular circumstances of that nation. The enfranchisement of an oppressed majority was the challenge that faced them.

In some cases there has been a popular acceptance of arrangements that take little note of ethnicity. The people of historically German-speaking Alsace prefer to identify with France and French citizenship.

New Zealand has dealt with its question in its own way.

In Australia the circumstance is fundamentally different from South Africa and New Zealand and our history is unique. We indeed have a history of denial of recognition at the time of federation in 1901, and the removal of that denial in 1967.

That we are now undertaking a process of investigating constitutional reform to recognise indigenous Australians in the Constitution demonstrates that we are still working on the particular challenge that faces our country. It is unfinished business.

Many of the foundations and elements necessary for a reconciled nation where a distinct indigenous culture and heritage is recognised and can flourish are already present. The single defining condition of indigenous Australia within the national polity – the feature that makes our challenge specific and unique – is the extreme minority status of the 3 per cent who are seeking to hold their own in the nation.

I proceed from the belief that our country can recognise the status of indigenous Australians without fracturing the principle that all Australians are equal citizens in a united nation.