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The dangers of appeasement (Part 3)

Part Nineteen of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.

The current meaning and consequences for Indigenous People of the slogan ‘law-and-order’ will be revisited.

For the time being it is worth mentioning that the process of ‘constitutional recognition’ was never universally accepted by the Indigenous People.

As recently as three years ago there were sign that the Indigenous People were divided over a campaign to recognise Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander People in the Constitution.

The Recognise campaign began to call for a referendum and for all Australians to support constitutional change. It was encouraged by the Federal Government, Opposition and the Greens, as well some sport organisations.

However, several members of the Indigenous people argued that that campaign did not represent their views. Vociferous among them was Ms Celeste Liddle, an Arrernte woman engaged as the Indigenous Organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union. Ms Liddle began complaining that Recognise was federally funded and is dominating the debate. Yet, she noted, “There is a huge movement against it as well … and it’s barely been heard.”

Ms Liddle said that Australia was not ready to vote in a referendum without a formal discussion which involves all sides of the debate.

“In my ideal world most Australians would be exposed to a wide panel of views on this,” she said.

Ms Liddle was concerned that proceeding with a referendum to recognise Indigenous People in the Constitution would set back the campaign for a treaty with their communities.

She noted that, when the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples reported to the Federal Government in January 2012, they expressed the view that the Australian public would vote against any proposal using the words ‘sovereignty’ or ‘treaty’.

“Does that negate our ability to go and negotiate a treaty and be recognised as sovereign peoples of the country?” she asked. Indigenous activists had been campaigning for a treaty for decades.

“One of the things we have fought really hard for is the right to have a say on the affairs that govern our people.” She remembered that in 1988 then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, while visiting a Northern Territory Aboriginal community, had promised Australia would enter into a treaty with Indigenous Peoples by 1990. But the treaty never eventuated.

In 1992 the High Court recognised Native Title in their landmark Mabo decision. That was the point “when [the Indigenous People] should have been talking about treaty,” said Ms Liddle. “It’s kind of like the position has been scaled back.”

Ms Liddle had been looking at other countries which had made treaties with their Indigenous peoples and believed the then current national debate needed to be about a treaty rather than constitutional recognition.

She was rather concerned about moves to refer to Indigenous People in the Constitution as the ‘original occupiers’ rather than the ‘original peoples’. “Original peoples … denotes a long connection to land and a belonging to land.” She said the term ‘occupiers’ is too passive.

Ms Liddle was obviously not affected by the use of a language that she still considered foreign: English.

As she put it, rather colourfully, “It perpetuates some really bizarre ideas about what Indigenous People did before everyone else rocked up.”

The Abbott Government had promised that the draft wording of the referendum proposal would have been finalised by the end of 2014.

Recognise, which is a part of Reconciliation Australia, aimed at acknowledging the Indigenous People in the Constitution and was seen as an essential next step in reconciling Australia’s past.

“One of the things we’ve fought really hard for is the right to have a say on the affairs that govern our people.” said Ms. Liddle.

However, she said, Australians deserve to hear opposing views from the Indigenous community before the decision is made to proceed with a referendum. (Indigenous campaign builds against constitutional recognition, 09 July 2014, The A.B.C.).

Soon after the issue of the Uluru Statement, the government-funded Recognise campaign presented a new advertisement in the form of a short film which follows a bus making its way down a winding road, picking up various historical figures to mark particularly significant events in the ‘Australian story’ – from the women’s vote, to Gallipoli, and the 1967 referendum.

The bus then takes a turn to pick up a group of Indigenous People on the side of the road, with the narrator announcing: “Now it’s our turn to do something great, our chance to do something our kids can be proud of.” The destination sign is flipped to Recognition.

People board the bus but they do not know the destination, how long the ride will take, or the cost of it. They have not bothered to find out who is the bus driver. Only later they are moved by curiosity: who is driving along this imaginary road of activism, a well-know itinerary for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander People who had marched many times before for the same cause?

It is significant that this ad-campaign appeared just after the Uluru Statement, for it is aimed at drawing attention away from this well-worn track and back on the road paved by government for some seven years. The road is meant to ignore Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander People’s intended arrival in favour of a destination designed by the government, and promoted by its Recognise campaign. That road had been completely rejected by delegates at Uluru, who instead called on a constitutionally-entrenched ‘Voice’ in Parliament and a treaty commission. Was that the government response to the Statement?

Recognise had not been invited to the Uluru gathering. The campaign had been provided by the government with several millions of dollars, while Indigenous organisations had suffered several cuts, still trying to survive the Coalition’s disastrous Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

On one hand Indigenous members of the Referendum Council had prepared a complete consultation process to ascertain the wishes of the First Nations people while on the other Recognise proceeded without consulting the Indigenous People. Cynicism and division among the Indigenous communities followed.

The main reason for such dissatisfaction is that the majority of the Indigenous People expected a treaty, ad most certainly did not wish to be recognised in a document that they considered a tool of instrumentalisation of the original invasion. As released, the Statement is not the complete declaration by the Indigenous People of their programme of action. Many feared that hidden concessions have been or will be made in dealing with the Australian Government, because there has been a lack of information about the substance of the dialogues, what was put up as a model, and what was rejected.

Some Indigenous representatives are dissatisfied and fearful of having lost at Uluru an opportunity to be heard by the Referendum Council. Many are also cynical of the Uluru Statement because they do not feel they were given a voice by the Referendum Council at all. Some of them learned about the Uluru gathering from television news bulletins.

The same persons were perfectly entitled to ask where the bus was going and who would pay for it. (Amy McQuire, To avoid another dead end, we need to know who’s driving the Recognition bus, 12 June 2017, The Guardian).

By mid-August 2017 its seemed that the Recognise campaign was likely to be abandoned.

Much more comprehensive was the criticism of the Uluru Statement coming from Mr Michael Mansell.

He objected that the Statement lacked real teeth and reality, fundamentally because an Indigenous body must have the power to direct, not simply to advise. He was saying that on the light of the collaboration between the Howard Government and the Opposition in dismissing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 2004. It is quite likely because of that experience that Uluru delegates felt that any new body should be protected through the Constitution against similar action. Hence they had called for a referendum. But that proposal looked – in Mr Mansell’s view – “dead in the water.”

In the meantime, somehow, a ‘Voice’ came to be defined as an advisory body. The proposed ‘Voice’ could become a real Indigenous decision maker or simply one to advise non-Indigenous decision makers. A decision-making Indigenous body would require legislation to establish it and provide its powers. On the other hand, an advisory body can be set up by the stroke of a minister’s pen. And of such advisory bodies there were already too many. One such example is the federal hand-picked Indigenous Advisory Council.

Advocates for a constitutionally entrenched advisory body believe that such a body would give value to its standing and guarantee its powers. Of course, they ignore the reality that such a body would be simply an advisory one. Even if successful, a referendum would simply indicate the desire to have such a body set up, and consequently authorises the Parliament, perhaps just the government, to do so.

A lot of time and energy is wasted trying to protect Indigenous bodies from government abuse of power, but the task is hopeless, as the case of the Northern Territory ‘intervention’ shows.

To be effective, a new Indigenous body could take up the place and functions of the federal government’s Office of Indigenous Policy Co-ordination. This ‘Voice’ could lobby for designated seats in parliament, and a makarrata. The governments could retain a veto power over things the body might do, but at a political risk. Left to its own devices, the Indigenous body could decide its own composition, and establish its own priorities in decisions which really matter: health, housing, employment and increase Indigenous land ownership.

It could resolve native title disputes and broker relations with governments on Indigenous issues. It could argue for a guaranteed revenue base to support its priorities, say: 3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product, currently amounting to some $60 billion – nearly twice the size of the existing allocation.

Of course, none of this would prevent a government from abandoning the whole arrangement. But that would be the only serious way of solving the problem.

Short of the Indigenous People establishing an independent nation, over which Australia would have no authority, or an Indigenous Seventh State, with protection in the Constitution State or Federal interference, Indigenous People would have to make the best of what is available. Interestingly, the establishment of a Seventh State would not require a referendum. The power to do so is in the constitution.

Ironically, the bigger picture possibilities of an independent nation or a 7th State do not require a referendum. They are established by simple legislation, noted Mr Mansell. (Uluru ‘Statement From The Heart’ Lacks Real Teeth And Reality, 09 August 2017, New Matilda).

Continued Monday with: A dialogue with the deaf (Part 1)

Previous instalment: The dangers of appeasement (Part 2)

Dr. Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents.




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  1. New England Cocky

    Another interesting analysis of Australian Aboriginal history and future.

    However, I would note that the Seventh State is properly the northern part of NSW; from the Hunter to the Queensland border and all points west to South Australia. A manipulated referendum under the Askin NLP government prevented this constitutional advance in 1967, and the reasons for having such a state remain as fresh today as they were in the 1850s when the first dissatisfaction with Sydney-centric government spending was expressed.

    Aboriginal politics is a legal minefield covering the time bombs of the legality of Torrens Title, currently kept under wraps by “Native Title”, the title you have when nobody else wants it; egalitarian citizenship and equality of access to state and federal government services.

    I am unaware of any publications, that discover the true scope of the statement “White Australia has a Black history”.

  2. David Fitzpatrick

    Still looking for a formula for land grabbing. The solution is to recognise local claims to local land.

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