Twelve months later we yet have another Joint Select Committee considering Indigenous Constitutional Recognition. We had the Expert Panel in 2012, a Joint Select Committee in 2015 and the Referendum Council in 2017.
In June 2017, the Referendum Council recommended a referendum be held to provide in the Constitution for a body giving Indigenous people a “voice to the Parliament”. On October 26, 2017, the Prime Minister rejected the recommendation.
His objection was that the body would be a third chamber of Parliament with persuasive veto and blocking capacity. That was not the case. It was not a body with any veto power over the functions of Parliament. It would place no constraint upon the Parliament’s legislative powers and fully respected parliamentary supremacy. Sure, the body would participate in policy debate and legislation touching Indigenous Australians. Sure, it would carry weight and generate debate. That was the point. Indigenous people have no voice. They are powerless in the regulations and policies which inform their lives.
In 1788 there were 300,000 to 1 million Indigenous Australians. One hundred years later, around 120,000. By 1920 possibly 80,000. They died from disease and malnutrition. They were denied their lands, languages and cultures. They were hunted, murdered and impoverished. They were denied the ordinary accessories and freedoms of citizenship – where to live and who to marry.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Aborigines were forced on to missions and pastoral properties. Employment was transitory, unreliable and poorly paid. Wages were often stolen. We took their children away. Many became domestic “slaves”. When the missions ceased, when pastoral stations no longer employed them, they lived on the outskirts of country towns, in dwellings constructed from the detritus of the local township. No running water, no sewerage, no power. They had little access to education, health facilities and employment. Many moved to our cities to live in poverty, under the daily grind of police surveillance. Entrenched racism, economic disadvantage and powerlessness made them outsiders.
Our history is a mix of struggle and triumph, victory and shame. Our British heritage produced a nation with extraordinary strengths and marvellous institutions. But egregious wrongs were inflicted on our first peoples. Colonisation was brutal and its effects profound and lasting. These truths transcend victimhood and blame. We are obliged to make the assessment that it was wrong.
On January 1, 1901, the Australian Constitution took effect. Indigenous people were excluded from the bargaining table. The Constitution empowered the Commonwealth to make laws for any race excluding “the Aboriginal race” and “Aboriginal Natives” were not to be counted as citizens. There was no treaty, no protection for their land rights, languages or cultures. They were denied all recognition in our brand-new nation.
Until 1967 we left Indigenous people to the mercy of the states. The states exercised absolute and often merciless control. Indigenous people were powerless. In 1967 we modestly amended our Constitution. The Commonwealth could now make laws about them with no guarantee that laws would be fair or non-discriminatory. The 1967 amendments did not empower Indigenous people with any voice or guarantee of Indigenous rights.
After 1967, we set about solving the “Indigenous problem”. In many respects, we entrenched Indigenous disadvantage and exclusion, through welfare dependence and control. Every state and territory has had a Minister for Indigenous Affairs and large bureaucracies managing their “best interests”. No other Australians are forced to confront such institutional, paternalistic and impenetrable frameworks. Ministers of the day and their bureaucrats decide where and how the Indigenous dollar is spent. Indigenous people are sometimes invited in. Sometimes they get good hearings; often they do not.
The cost to Australia is around $30 billion a year. The bulk of it is for services available to all Australians. About $6 billion is for Indigenous specific services. Value for money is not delivered.
The position in remote Australia is tragic. Here there are intractable problems of appalling poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, child abuse and neglect, suicide, poor health, poor education, high levels of incarceration, large-scale unemployment and under-employment. Problems are complex but poor policy and execution feed community disengagement and disempowerment. Meanwhile, the Indigenous population grows at twice the rate of the rest of Australia. Indigenous people represent 3 per cent of Australians but more than 28 per cent of our prisoners. At this rate, one in two of our prison population will be Indigenous.
The 2018 Closing The Gap report indicates some positive improvements. Nonetheless, the system continues to fail Indigenous people and will do so for so long as Indigenous people have no structural guarantee that their voices will be heard.
There are two standout reasons why constitutional recognition must occur. The first is to give Indigenous people a real say in how the nation engages with them. The second is to correct the barefaced wrongs of the 1901 Constitution and the shortcomings of the 1967 Referendum.
The Uluru Statement is a rejection of symbolism and a call by grassroots voices for meaningful and respectful engagement. This will require strong bipartisan leadership. We must understand how Indigenous Australians see our history. We must recognise the reality that Indigenous Australians are unique as the descendants of people who have lived here for 65,000 years. Until 1788 it was their country. They have suffered the collateral damage of nation building like no others.
Our first peoples have cultures and languages precious to our nation. They have interests in vast tracts of our country. The Commonwealth needs the constitutional power to protect and advance these interests. Indigenous people should be accorded the respect of a constitutionally enshrined voice as Parliament discharges this uniquely important facet of Australian nationhood.
I want this to happen because it is the right thing to do for Indigenous Australians and I want it for me, a non-Indigenous Australian.