A movement advocating for the formal recognition of Aboriginals in the Australian Constitution, otherwise known
as ‘Recognise’, has gained significant momentum in recent years, with powerful interests including the AFL, the NRL, and Qantas championing its cause.
Purportedly, notions of equality and civil rights motivate those who seek to have a specific segment of the Constitution dedicated to Indigenous Australians.
These ideals are reflected on the official Recognise website, which states: “Like the successful 1967 referendum, the Mabo decision and native title, Constitutional recognition is an important next step in the journey to reconciliation”.
But while these past accomplishments brought real change to Indigenous Australians, what could altering our Constitution bring?
While section 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution does permit the Federal government to make laws for certain races, no reasoned person could argue that Indigenous Australians face current legislative discrimination on racial grounds.
As if anything, Indigenous Australians receive preferential treatment per capita through Federal government initiatives on Aboriginal health, education, and ‘reconciliation’. And yet, I would doubt that Recognise objects to these circumstances which benefit Indigenous people.
Likewise, case law on section 51 (xxvi) suggests that genuine discrimination against Indigenous Australians through denying access to civil and political rights, is highly far- fetched.
The real argument carrying scope for debate again comes on the Recognise site, which argues that despite all Australians are indeed acknowledged in the Constitution as “the people of the Commonwealth”, Aboriginals should receive additional attention.
“By the Constitution remaining silent on Australia’s long and impressive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history before 1901, our founding document implies the first chapter of our national story either didn’t happen or isn’t important.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived in this land for tens of thousands of years. Recognition would acknowledge that first chapter of our shared story.”
So the argument essentially boils down to: As Aboriginals are a more valued part of the Australian story, they deserve extra recognition in the Constitution.
There is some substantive argument here: Indigenous Australians were the first humans to inhabit Australian shores, and over 40 000 years they developed their own unique customs, cultures and languages to become distinct ethnic groups.
So while it isn’t surprising to see Indigenous Australians by some measure support the Recognise campaign on these historical grounds, this type of argument is largely misleading.
Despite the stubborn resistance of John Howard all throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s, upon Kevin Rudd’s apology in 2008, our Prime Minister insisted: “The time has come, well and truly come … for all Australians, those who are indigenous and those who are not to come together, truly reconcile and together build a truly great nation.”
And in the near- 10 years since Rudd’s apology, closing the gap benchmarks have repeatedly failed, and Indigenous Australians remain languishing behind on a variety of socio- economic indicators.
So how would more superfluous, feel- good gestures such as recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution help?
The concept that Indigenous Australians have made such a contribution towards Australia as to warrant unique praise in our Constitution, is also disingenuous.
While Aboriginals have maintained a long history of living in the land we now consider to be Australia, when Captain Phillip landed in the First Fleet of 1788, modern Australia did not exist.
For in the 40 000 years of Indigenous isolation, unique tribes and cultures did develop, but these groups were unable to move beyond basic levels of subsistence civilization. With no sophisticated agriculture, sanitation, education or health, and with regular conflict between Indigenous tribes in addition to rampant domestic violence, the reality of the world’s ‘oldest living culture’ was far less comfortable than inner city elites tend to imagine.
Contrastingly, in just 229 years, British settlers (along with help from European and Vietnamese immigrants along the way), have transformed an ancient, primitive land into a nation of democratic rights, legal processes, modern amenities, as well as mining and agricultural exports which service billions of people across the globe.
Raising this comparison isn’t done with the aim of insulting or denigrating Indigenous Australia, but merely to address facts.
If Recognise believes that the tale of Indigenous Australia is so valiant as to be deserving of eternal acknowledgement in our nation’s most important legal document, then surely the achievements of brave British settlers who created the nation of Australia, justify similar appreciation too.