Ruckus puts referendum out of reach
At least the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra has finally achieved one constructive thing in its 40 years as a moral eyesore: it helped kill off the proposed amendment to enshrine racial preference in the Australian constitution.
That proposed amendment is now dead. Everything else will merely be its funeral. The Australian public will not enshrine special privileges for any group on the basis of race, especially after the events of the past few days.
Even readers of the Herald and the National Times overwhelmingly expressed their disapproval of the Aboriginal ''embassy'' in an online poll conducted on Thursday and Friday. Most of 25,853 votes agreed the tent embassy's time had passed or never existed. Only 15 per cent expressed support.
And what a pack of gutless wonders contributed to this debacle.
The root cause was found within the Prime Minister's staff. One of her press secretaries, Tony Hodges, used race to make political mischief even though indigenous affairs had been an area of tacit bipartisanship between Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.
On Thursday, Hodges began looking for an Aborigine to take issue with some bland remarks Abbott made during a morning interview when he was asked about the tent embassy and replied: ''Look, I can understand why the tent embassy was established all those years ago. I think a lot has changed for the better since then … I think the indigenous people of Australia can be very proud of the respect in which they are held by every Australian and … I think it probably is time to move on from that."
Hodges called Kim Sattler, the secretary of Unions ACT, and told her Abbott had said it was time for the tent embassy to move on and was attending an event just 100 metres from the demonstration.
Sattler spoke to at least two of the demonstrators at the ''embassy'', Barbara Shaw and Michael Anderson, and told them Abbott wanted the embassy gone and that he was right next door.
Within minutes, about 200 people were outside The Lobby restaurant banging on the windows and shouting abuse.
The organiser of the demonstration, Michael Anderson, ranted afterwards that Abbott ''said the Aboriginal embassy had to go, we heard it on a radio broadcast … It's just madness on the part of Tony Abbott. What he said amounts to inciting racial riots.''
Another activist, Paul Coe, a former barrister disbarred from practice for lying to a court, later brandished the shoe left behind by Gillard as she was bundled away by security. Coe said she should visit the ''embassy'' to collect the shoe as an ''act of goodwill''.
Kim Sattler crowed on her Facebook page ''a huge crowd from the embassy went to greet him [Abbott] and he had to be rushed away with a police escort!''
When all this blew up in their faces, the response was just as gutless.
Hodges was sacked - damage-control for Gillard - and delivered a mealy-mouthed apology denying he had distorted Abbott's words.
Sattler took down her crowing Facebook entry. Then she blamed Hodges, who she said told her Abbott said the tent embassy should be shut down. She also blamed the Prime Minister for saying it was Sattler, not her press secretary, who began the distortion.
Barbara Shaw, Greens candidate for the Northern Territory federal seat of Lingiari, shifted blame to Sattler, telling reporters Sattler had said she was speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister's office and that Abbott was right next door talking about closing down the tent embassy.
The most absurd response came from Anderson, who told reporters: ''Someone set us up.''
Pathetic. Which returns us to the far larger failure, the proposed changes to the constitution. An expert panel has delivered a report, commissioned by Gillard in 2010, which proposes amendments that recognise indigenous culture.
The ideal is to seek redress for some of the sweeping disruptions and pain caused to Aboriginal communities by the process of European settlement. The changes would also remove two provisions which allow the government to legislate on the basis of race.
The expert panel has delivered an inexpert political document. It has proposed four additions which should and probably would pass at a referendum. It also proposed two additions which would create an unlimited new avenue for judicial activism and human rights litigation. They read:
''Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.''
''The Commonwealth, a state or a territory, shall not discriminate on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin.''
Last Thursday, this column described the advancement sentence as a blunder that monetised race. On Saturday the Herald editorialised on this proposed amendment: ''Many will ask, why should indigenous advancement be mentioned in the constitution specifically? How is it distinct from the advancement of the population as a whole?''
Also on Saturday, The Australian editorialised: '' … the government is considering a referendum to provide constitutional recognition for indigenous Australians. That task has been made difficult by the overreach of the expert panel. The Canberra activists might have put it further out of reach.''
Referendum proposals do not survive such public misgivings. Nor has any referendum ever passed without bipartisan support, and I cannot see the opposition supporting the amendments as proposed.
Abbott anticipated such a moment in his 2009 manifesto, Battlelines, when he described the chasm between the rhetoric of progressive policies and the continued failure to make real progress: ''Under the ideology of self-determination, an exaggerated respect for Aboriginal culture has coexisted with a kind of abandonment of Aboriginal people.''
A couple of indigenous women returned the Prime Minister's shoe to security guards. But it is the flag-burning, the besieged leaders and the jeering chants of ''Cinderella'' that will stick in the public mind.
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