Indigenous Australia is on course for a showdown with Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten over constitutional recognition, with the final of 12 regional meetings on reform concluding yesterday that it would only be satisfied with a substantive outcome — something political leaders oppose.
A national constitutional convention to be held at Uluru this month now seems certain to reject the minimalist model preferred by politicians, and exemplified by the government-funded Recognise campaign’s “recognition in, racism out” slogan.
The Uluru gathering, which the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader had expected to present them with a reform proposal that could be taken to a referendum, will now include planning for a nationwide resistance campaign against minimalist change.
The weekend meeting, on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, followed each of the previous gatherings nationwide in backing a proposed indigenous “voice” to the parliament, an elected body which would give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people influence over lawmaking.
This body, which was described in the meeting as a potential “engine room” for change and a vehicle for achieving self-determination, is also being seen as one that could support a formal treaty process.
It, and a separate prohibition on racial discrimination, represent the line in the sand that each of the roughly 100-strong meetings of indigenous community leaders nationwide has drawn. The minimalist model, on the other hand, simply removes one reference to race in the Constitution and changes another.
The Thursday Island gathering is understood to have accepted there was significant political opposition to a racial discrimination ban, but even many so-called “constitutional conservatives” think the representative body would be workable.
In a statement written by co-conveners Kenny Bedford and Josephine Bourne, the meeting declared that delegates had “joined every preceding dialogue in rejecting minimalist constitutional recognition … the priority is practical reform. Only substantive reform can address original injustices, as well as the serious issues still confronting communities: youth suicide, unemployment and poverty.”
They noted that it was at the island of Bedhan Lag in the Torres Strait that Lieutenant James Cook claimed British sovereignty over eastern Australia in 1770, an act in which there was no consent by the local Kaurareg people. “Cook did not ‘discover’ the Torres Strait Islands; our ancestors were already here. This is the original grievance which Australia must now make right,” they said.
“Constitutional recognition is a crucial opportunity for us to right an enduring wrong.”
And they made a claim for greater autonomy in the Torres Strait, arguing that money was being wasted on red tape, with 37 government services on Thursday Island alone, and fly-in, fly-out workers doing jobs that could be done by locals.
But they also said there should be better representation of their interests in Canberra, with no Torres Strait Islander on the Prime Minister’s indigenous advisory council.
Kimberley leader Nolan Hunter and Melbourne woman Jill Gallagher last week dismissed the “recognition in, racism out” slogan as simply “selling us beads and trinkets” and “minimalism masquerading as substantive reform”.