Starting in 2007 with former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, the Australian Government has been pushing for ‘Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples’. However, many First Nations people are questioning the motive behind this multimillion dollar campaign.
Veteran Gunnai activist Robbie Thorpe believes including First Nations people in the Constitution equates to “tacking us onto the back of the White Australia Policy 100 years later”.
“If we do consent to that Constitution, we’re giving up our sovereignty in a sense, and legitimizing what’s happened to us over the last two hundred years in this country,” says Mr Thorpe, a producer at Melbourne’s 3CR.
Watch the following interview with First Nations philosophers Mary Graham (Kombumerri/Waka Waka) & Lilla Watson (Kungulu/Birrigubba) about what Constitutional recognition will really mean for First Nations people in Australia.
Aotearoa (New Zealand) is also in the process of reviewing its Constitution, which happens to include both a Bill of Rights and the nation’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi. An agreement with First Nations people and a Bill of Rights are both documents absent from Australia’s legal groundings. Two central focuses of New Zealand’s Constitutional Conversation, instigated by the Maori Party, are the role of the Treaty and Maori representation in Parliament.
According to Chairman of the Centre of Indigenous Cultural Policy Bob Weatherall, Constitutional recognition is yet another paternalistic government policy. “Nothing has changed,” says Mr Weatherall (Gamilaraay). “It’s just a new Act and new provision that’s being imposed on us, keeping our people down. We’ll still have the dominant society over the top of us who make laws and policies that continue to deprive us of our basic human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
In 2010, the Gillard government handpicked an ‘expert panel’ to make recommendations in regards to amending the Constitution. Palawa lawyer Michael Mansell claims the panel’s proposal to remove the race power (section 51xxvi) is redundant as they simply replace it in a new section (51a). This new section will preserve the parliament’s ability to pass laws “for the benefit” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples [e.g. Northern Territory Intervention].
Mansell also condemns the proposed new section 127a which will confirm English as Australia’s official language and recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as part of our national heritage. He says the call “stinks of racism” and that First Nations people have “the right to maintain our languages against assimilation”.
On the other hand, you have New Zealand’s recognition of Maori as one of the nation’s three official languages, alongside English and sign language.
Gumbaynggirr university student Gabi Briggs believes this proposed amendment will make it more difficult to recuperate and revitalize First Nations’ languages. “Those on the ‘expert panel’ and in government see Aboriginal culture as secondary to the culture of the colonizers and making English the official language of Australia marginalizes our cultures once again.”
Gumbaynggirr historian Gary Foley says Constitutional recognition is a joke and a waste of time. “Government only ever pumps millions of dollars into things that are essentially meaningless, things that are designed to divert our attention from the real issues.”
Amnesty Internationals Monica Morgan (Yorta Yorta) says Constitutional recognition fails to address the issues of sovereignty and Treaty.
| For further information on the Constitutional recognition issue, checkout this article by Michael Mansell (2012) |