4 May 2015 | General Interest
Co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Kirstie Parker, is the latest leader to dissect the constitutional recognition debate and the parties involved.
Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Ms Parker discusses the events that have led us to the current deadlock, considering arguments from the Recognise campaign and its supporters, as well as the constitutional conservatives, or con cons.
The recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution seemed imminent three years ago when an expert panel – tasked with advising on a model and process – delivered its recommendations to the Prime Minister, but things have since stalled.
“Those recommendations represented a pragmatic appraisal of what enough Australians might support at a referendum on the issue,” Ms Parker writes.
“They paired removal of existing discriminatory clauses within the constitution with meaningful recognition, preservation of the Australian government’s ability to pass laws for the benefit of Indigenous Australians, and a prohibition on racial discrimination by governments.”
Since the expert panel reported its findings in January 2012 two joint select committees have deliberated over the wording such recognition should take, with the second of these, lead by Aboriginal MP Ken Wyatt, due to report in June.
Those opposed to the inclusion of recognition argue that such changes to the constitution would compromise its interpretation, exposing legislation to excessive judicial review.
Cape York leader Noel Pearson, concerned that a lack of support will lead to a failed referendum, has also recently shifted his support from the views of the expert panel to an alternate series of more compromised measures. These include:
- the removal of existing discriminatory clauses,
- symbolic recognition outside the constitution (in the form of a declaration of recognition), and,
- practical recognition within the Constitution, through the enshrinement of an Indigenous advisory and consultative body to the Parliament.
As Ms Parker explains, “Like any other issue, there is a wide breadth of opinion amongst our people on recognition.
“Polling by congress and others indicates broad support for constitutional reform, as long as it is meaningful. There’s a smaller proportion that is outright opposed to any inclusion of our peoples in the constitution.
“In between, there are many who are becoming increasingly disillusioned and cynical about the way things are headed generally in Indigenous affairs.
“We have seen threats to close down remote Aboriginal communities, poor government engagement with communities, chaotic grant processes, funding cuts to key organisations (including congress), funding insecurity for health, legal, childcare and other services, the continuation of punitive measures such as income management – even those most supportive of constitutional reform ask whether they can trust their hearts with a government that does such things.”
Progress towards a decision on constitutional recognition is due to rise in the coming months, with the joint select committee preparing to deliver its final report. National Congress are also planning to convene a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander meeting to discuss the issue.
“The observation by American academic, author and activist Cornel West that ‘you’ve got to be a thermostat rather than a thermometer. A thermostat shapes the climate of opinion, a thermometer just reflects it’ rings true for all of those engaged in this debate. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aspirations should be at the forefront of it.”