There are many good reasons to support the latest plans to find a constitutional referendum question to encapsulate the principles of the Uluru statement from the heart. There's the fact that it represents a good idea and good ideal - perhaps one, as some say, that is essential to a mature nationality for Australia and a reconciliation with Indigenous Australia, so cruelly displaced, to this day, by white settlement.
There's the fact there has been an intensive dialogue going on both about some form of recognition of the unique place of Aborigines in our body politic and the need for some act - or treaty, or Makarrata or some other phrase - representing both an acknowledgement of past wrongs and continuing disadvantages, and a collective national will to close the disadvantage gaps.
There's also the intrinsic decency and sincerity of Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Australians and the first in a long time to get it, so far as understanding that there will never be Aboriginal advancement to full and effective citizenship that does not have active Indigenous leadership in the planning, organisation and implementation of policies and programs designed to address disadvantage, and at local regional and national levels. Lip service to the contrary, there has been no such minister (or prime minister) with that sort of understanding in the 21st century. Wyatt clearly understands that getting some form of constitutional recognition to the point of referendum consideration involves a broad national consensus, and some pragmatism all round, but seems prepared to invest his time and energy, and his reputation, in the project.
But there are also reasons why even those, in Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, who strongly support constitutional recognition will wonder whether they should invest much time or energy into it. It still bears almost all of the hallmarks of previously disastrous good ideas in Aboriginal affairs, and seems doomed to failure, whether at referendum or, more likely, from abandonment once it is clear that no consensus can be achieved, and that a referendum proposal is likely to fail. Such a failure would, of course, be disastrous for Indigenous Australians, and may in fact undermine the existing broad consensus which has supported special Aboriginal programs and projects, as well as other programs Aborigines enjoy as ordinary citizens, if sometimes, seemingly, at greater levels because of their manifest disadvantage and lack of previous access to services.
There's the eggs-in-one-basket problem, by which general programs for Aboriginal advancement languish or take second place behind the latest big idea. White fellas, apparently, have difficulty holding more than one idea, or one slogan, in their heads at any one time. In the early 1980s, Labor convinced itself, and many Aborigines, that the critical Aboriginal policy needed was national land rights legislation. While it was trying to create the circumstances for this, a host of other program ideas, in health, and education, housing delivery and employment creation fell by the wayside through neglect. In due course, the project exploded, in part because of the sabotage of (then) Western Australian Labor hero Brian Burke, and the unwillingness of the prime minister Bob Hawke to commit his popularity to the cause.
There's the eggs-in-one-basket problem, by which general programs for Aboriginal advancement languish or take second place behind the latest big idea.
Scarcely faltering from the debacle, national Labor geniuses switched to the idea that all would be well if there was both an Aboriginal parliament devising policy at local and regional levels, as well as in actually controlling the programs that implemented policy. Well, that was the theory in any event, but the body that was created differed greatly from the models put forward as a result of Canberra deals designed to get it into action. It had a designed-in effect of making Aborigines engage in unseemly brawls with each other about how much of the cake each should get, while allowing almost no mechanisms for their getting involved in deciding how big the cake should be.
With a new minister, the slogan was "reconciliation". About the same time, a prime minister, Paul Keating, got actively involved in policy (he had previously manifested no interest at all) but became, willy nilly, involved in negotiating a form of native title after the Mabo decision. Almost all of the energy of senior Aboriginal leaders for several years was taken up furthering this brand of salvation - again at the expense of community-based development.
The same period of the mid 1990s saw the setting up of two important inquiries, one into the (then) Stolen Generation and the other into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Each became a de facto royal commission into what was wrong in Aboriginal affairs. When they reported, in the early days of the Howard government, virtually all public activity on the Aboriginal affairs front was focused at getting Howard to say sorry - a dialogue that helped sabotage outcomes on extending native title after the Wik decision. Coalition conviction that nothing it could do would appease Aborigines led to an increasingly tough line, the destruction of ATSIC and, ultimately the Northern Territory Emergency Response or Intervention of 2007, a program that saw Aborigines blamed for the sexual abuse of children in their communities, a new top down white hierarchy of management and the break-up of local Aboriginal organisations and involvement in service delivery, and a re-introduction of coercive, punitive and populist policies, especially in using welfare programs to reward and punish co-operation.
Labor in government saw a fillip of enthusiasm with the Apology and the dedication to a closing the gap policy. But progress was poisoned by continuation of the intervention and most of its incidents, including the welfare card, top-down policies, and tough love. Service delivery became more bureaucratised, and much more expensive: less than 20 per cent of money notionally being spent on Indigenous programs ever touches an Aboriginal hand. Annual closing the gap statements showed little progress, indeed, all too often, right up until now, often showing that things are going backwards.
Tony Abbott claimed a special feel for and mission to improve Aboriginal conditions, as well as to progress constitutional recognition, but his legacy is largely of budget cuts, the preferment of favourites promoting tough love policies, and belief in the virtues, for Aborigines at least, of rote learning. Malcolm Turnbull torpedoed considerable bipartisan progress on constitutional recognition, interpreting a deliberately vague Uluru call for a voice as a demand for a third chamber of parliament. The liberal Liberal has no legacy whatever in Aboriginal affairs. Scott Morrison seemed to show little interest prior to his re-election; it is now clear that he sees progress on this as a major agenda for the next three years.
These twists and turns, good ideas and bad ideas, sucked a lot of air out of the room. It was almost invariably at the expense of effective service delivery at local level, the more so because of the sabotage of consultation, Aboriginal participation and involvement and any sense of ownership of programs imposed on communities. Under Labor's Jenny Macklin, indeed, the word "consultation" disappeared, and was replaced by "engagement". China watchers declared that consultation meant "we will ask you what you think"; engagement: "we will tell you what we are doing". A new industry of consultants, many from the top shelf, weighed, measured, recorded and certified the engagement, almost always unconvincingly. What was increasingly clear was that the objects of all of these attentions felt increasingly disempowered, and responded with apathy, anger and passivity. Meanwhile, suicide rates have increased, as have Aboriginal rates of incarceration. Children are now being removed from Indigenous families at higher rates than at the time of the Stolen Generations, although the process is no longer racist, discriminatory, unfair or wrong in principle, apparently.
Ken Wyatt has more than moves towards a referendum in mind. It may be, indeed, that he is using talk of a referendum as a smokescreen for a more radical policy of administering Aboriginal affairs. He wants, he says, to re-empower Aboriginal organisations and communities, with a particular focus on regional and local decision-making. He plans new work on getting federal, state and local government programs integrated into programs at local level. He has retitled his bureaucracy - still located in the prime minister's department, the National Indigenous Australians Agency, with slogans, at the least, of being in partnership rather than command. It's all a bit nebulous at the moment, and much will turn on his capacity to lead, and on his will and his patience. At least he is the first minister in quite some time in whom people have some hope and some confidence.
But these will not necessarily make more easy the job of creating a referendum consensus. It's a challenge in both Aboriginal Australia and in non-Aboriginal Australia, but particularly within his own party and among the ragbag of right-wing groups who have been traditionally antipathetic to Aboriginal advancement, and who claim that Aborigines are already privileged at the expense of other Australians, or will be if there is constitutional recognition.
Some of these, such as Barnaby Joyce, have been emboldened by the election result to resist anything which they fear might upset their own constituencies. It is sometimes forgotten that while 90 per cent of Australians voted Yes at the 1967 referendum, 10 per cent voted No, and they were generally from rural areas. It is quite clear that it will be opposed not only from the argument of making Aborigines a "special class" of citizens, but also with claims that the whole crusade is a form of the much dreaded identity politics, with self-defined "victims" of a type with which the critics do not identify. A referendum would also "permission" a good deal of frank hatred of Aborigines, resentments, and even "views" about matters such as everyone's "right" to climb Uluru.
It is true enough that perhaps 70 per cent of the political classes, including Liberals and Nationals as much as folk from Labor, the Greens or other groupings, strongly support some form of constitutional recognition, and generally understand well what is involved. In somewhat the same manner of youth enthusiasm for the same-sex marriage plebiscite, which saw record involvement and registration, it can be expected that support for the proposition will be stronger, and more passionate, among the young. But Scott Morrison himself might be the first to observe that a consensus of the political classes, or from inside the so-called Canberra bubble, does not necessarily translate into majority support, particularly among his decent people, and that passive support can change when matters become the focus of intense debate.
That's a problem aggravated by the relative elitism of the Aboriginal constituency for the idea. Some of the best known and most prominent Aboriginal figures have been closely involved with other great and good Australians from business, the arts, and politics in discussing and promoting the idea. They received generous government funding, had ample access to public relations people and put on good receptions and put out splendid, generally scholarly reports. In due course they held consultations, particularly with Aboriginal people, leading up to the Uluru Convention, and all of its poetry of the statement from the heart.
But while it would be true to say that most Aboriginal Australians would favour constitutional recognition, it would be hard to demonstrate that the proposal had galvanised Aboriginal communities, or had become, for most people in the settlements, towns and cities where Aborigines live, a burning issue. The symbolism might be appreciated, the fear that it would come to be empty symbolism and at the expense of other things.
A referendum campaign must have more than the blessings of archbishops, selected mining magnates, and "opinion leaders".
Many of those invested with the idea of a need for constitutional recognition have had in their mind that it might give rise to some sort of legal right able to be litigated through the courts, including the possibility of compensation or "rent" for lost sovereignty. But it is apparently of the essence of the proposals such as we have, and of its capacity to win popular support, that any constitutional change will have no legal impact - and create no legal rights - at all. In that, it is possible that the declarations will fall short of those made by the Australian community nearly 40 years ago - in Malcolm Fraser's time - in the Aboriginal Development Commission Act (now repealed). The ADC Act also embraced the idea of compensation or reparations, and established a fund for that purpose. The modern form of those funds were used, I think, by the last minister to underwrite the costs of Darwin fishermen opposing a sea-rights claim.
A referendum campaign must have more than the blessings of archbishops, selected mining magnates, and "opinion leaders". Particularly when it has been a top-down idea, its incorporation among ordinary citizens involves a lot of talk, discussion, debate, bitter arguments, instant controversies and iteration, reiteration and reiteration - indeed, as Keating used to say, until its proponents were absolutely sick of the concept. And even then, as he would say, the political process has only begun. There are no short cuts.
That's the reason why some might wonder whether it's worth the effort. The chances are that the proponents will not have the staying power, and that the vehemence of the resistance will amaze and surprise them. Morrison has stuck his neck out, bravely, but may pull it in if the going gets tough. Wyatt has said, rightly, that he will not persist with the proposal if it seems doomed to failure. Alas, for those who want it to fail, that's but an invitation for a lot of noise, after which they will claim credit, and endorsement and legitimacy, at a victory party.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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