“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
— Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 19 November 1863
The recent blockbuster movie “Lincoln”, starring Daniel Day Lewis, is an inspiring account of how a conservative leadership can bring about fundamental legal and social change. It was Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, who spearheaded the end to black slavery and brought about the Thirteenth Amendment, banning the slave trade in America. It was a Conservative leadership and a Conservative moral stance that drove the change: a steadfast sense of right and wrong and the knowledge that discrimination based on race is morally unjustifiable.
Conservative morality, leadership and vision is what we need for constitutional reform in Australia now. The goal is recognition of Indigenous peoples and the removal of racial discrimination. And we may be getting there.
The passing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 in Parliament earlier this year helped foster the necessary spirit of bipartisanship on the issue of constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples. Following Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s second reading speech, Tony Abbott’s addresscalled for optimism, bipartisanship and hopefulness:
“May this be an occasion when the Parliament lifts people’s spirits, makes them feel more proud of our country…we shouldn’t feel guilty about our past but we should be determined to rise above that which now makes us embarrassed. We have that chance. Let us grasp it.”
The advocacy of other conservatives has been growing. While retaining some reservations regarding the wording of some of the Expert Panel’s recommendations, many have begun expressing sound thinking on how to tackle the issues at hand.
The Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, has joined the conservative movement for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. In his second reading speech he argued that symbolism does have a role to play in closing the gap and that an important message needs to be sent through constitutional reform: that this nation does not accept racism.
Former CYI Deputy Director, Alan Tudge, Federal Liberal Member for Aston in Victoria, also presented a compelling case. “I think it is right to formally recognise our history in our Constitution and the ancient history of this land is an Indigenous history…The Constitution currently includes the concept of race as a ground for differential treatment and this must be changed,” he stated.
Northern Territory Country Liberal Party Minister, Adam Giles, offered a strong Conservative analysis of reasons for constitutional reform. There are “proud traditions in liberal and conservative history of opposing racism, slavery and discrimination,” Giles argued. “We need a referendum that allows Australians to take away from governments the power to discriminate based on race and ensures our founding document reflects our full history as a nation.”
The campaign for Indigenous recognition and removing racial discrimination from our Constitution and legal system is one that needs to be led by Conservatives. A conservative analysis of our racial discrimination problem is required to muster the required bipartisan support. A referendum without it would not succeed.
There is time to deliberate over the correct legal wording in the lead up to any referendum. But it is the principles we must agree on now.
We should officially recognise the prior and continuing occupation of this land by Indigenous peoples, and recognise our Indigenous heritage is Australia’s national heritage. This is our historical truth that should be stated in our founding document.
And, we should remove the allowances of racial discrimination from our Constitution, and in all law and policy. The approach based on the differentiation of Australian citizens on racial grounds has not worked to address the real problems facing Indigenous people in Australia. In the past there was too much adverse discrimination against Indigenous peoples on the basis of race. Now, as our work in welfare reform has shown us, there is an overuse of well-intentioned positive discrimination – often with adverse results. Treating people differently on the basis of race has led to low expectations in Indigenous affairs.
It is time to change the way we do things. We should treat people equally before the law, as individuals. Reward should be on the basis of merit, and government assistance should be on the basis of need. There should be no legal or policy without distinctions on the illegitimate basis of race.
We need conservative leadership and bipartisan agreement on the right principles: recognition and equality. Then we need to change our Constitution so that it reflects these right principles. We must move beyond race if we are to become a better, fairer nation.
Australia’s conservative leaders need to channel the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.