Constitutional recognition – what should lawyers (and everyone else) know?

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (centre) and Aboriginal leaders Pat Anderson (left) and Mick Gooda listen as Professor Patrick Dodson addresses the first meeting of the Referendum Council on constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in Sydney on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015. (AAP Image/Paul Miller) NO ARCHIVING
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  • PM Malcolm Turnbull (centre) Pat Anderson (left) and Mick Gooda (right (AAP)
COMMENT | The Recognise campaign has had over 10 million dollars pumped into from consecutive governments to build awareness of constitutional recognition to ultimately see a ‘yes’ vote when taken to a referendum. But it’s only promoting one voice, says Pekeri Ruska.
By Pekeri Ruska

15 MAR 2016 – 1:22 PM  UPDATED 18 MAR 2016 – 10:35 AM

The Recognise campaign for constitutional recognition is everywhere – it uses prominent Aboriginal people as their poster campaigners and they sponsor major sporting events. It is too the only voice heard in mainstream media portrayed as a campaign that all Aboriginal people stand for. But it is a huge misconception.

Sadly, the Recognise campaign is promoting one voice. They have failed to put forward choices where choices are available by only putting forward a ‘take it or leave it’ proposal.  This approach lacks integrity to say the least.

Even Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson have lent their support for what’s been promoted as a “grassroots campaign”.  It’s the right thing to do they say, ready to “sweat blood” into the “heartfelt pact” that will “complete” the founding document of the Australian nation.

Such widespread support for any policy platform is rarely seen in Australian politics.

It reeks of the days when Australian politicians united under principles of White supremacy and racial purity in their championing of the White Australia policy and the forced assimilation of Aboriginal people.

Constitutional recognition falls into the category of tokenism alongside many other ‘historic’ gestures made by the Australian government to Aboriginal people.

Some may believe that constitutional recognition is about re-writing the wrongs of the past and acknowledging Australia’s real history. But I question, what does it actually symbolize, what does it actually recognize. It will ultimately legitimize the assimilation of Aboriginal people into the constitution – it will not recognize us as a distinct people, or peoples, with distinct rights such as the right to political independence.

The Referendum Council on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been established, with the announcement of 16 people charged with devising the game plan.

Will it recognize the massacres, the stolen children, the land theft – the ongoing trauma that Aboriginal people to continue to suffer today?  Will it address these grievances in a meaningful way?  No.  There will be no reparations, no land returned, and no change to the racist laws currently imposed on our people.

What’s more, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria already recognise Aboriginal people in their state constitutions – with Victoria’s acknowledging Aboriginal people as having a “unique status, with spiritual, social, cultural and economic relationship with their traditional lands and waters within Victoria.”  This inclusion has meant little for the Aboriginal people of these states.

Such symbolic recognition is already 227 years too late.

Constitutional recognition will fulfill its ultimate goal of making the majority of middle class white Australia feel good through pure tokenism. It is then the white privilege that allows non-Aboriginal people to think they have a right to vote in any referendum on issues that affect Aboriginal people. Instead, that white-privilege should be put into check and you do this by not voting. For too long, the future and status of Aboriginal people has been decided by non-Aboriginal people.

Alternative arguments

Whilst I do not speak for all Aboriginal people, I do know that not all Aboriginal people want to be recognised in Australia’s constitution and have their own alternative models. And as long as there is millions of dollars being pumped into a one-sided debate, my voice amongst many other black voices will not be heard and the Australian government will yet again win at paternalising the movement.

If non-Aboriginal want to create change and were serious about it, this country would create a repatriation fund. Land could be handed back without any specific conditions- we should not need to apply for our own land back through strenuous process. Substantial amounts of power can be handed over – it is not a solution but a more significant action where you give back the power stolen from us on our own terms. This is not Aboriginal people ceding their position, but ultimately means we are not fighting for the crumbs.

We need to look at real self-determination. Models exist around the world and even in this country – but they are not accepted by the broader population. It would go beyond a symbolic gesture if white Australia heard and accepted the self-determining positions of Aboriginal people across this country. This would be the start of true reconciliation.

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There is the possibility of a treaty – but this is not new. I believe that we as Aboriginal people need to first treaty amongst ourselves. Once we have done that, we will turn to the Australian population and invite them to treaty with us, we will tell them what we want and how we want it. That is another step towards true reconciliation.

Further, at any referendum concerning Aboriginal lives, we should pose our own question. Like the Scots, a question that could have real effect would be, “Should we as Aboriginal people be an independent nation?”

In this piece, I hope to provide you with an alternative voice, one you do not ordinarily hear. If you want to enact real change for Aboriginal people, I will take you back to the topic – Constitutional Recognition: what should lawyers know? It is ultimately this:

1. As lawyers, we can get caught up in the meaning of words and the long term effect for Aboriginal people to the proposed amendments. But what you need know is that for each proposed amendments there is a counter-argument as to why it will fail, why it is purely tokenistic etc. I have addressed only a few of them today as I wanted to get beyond this and try and help you understand the alternatives so you can look at how you might better consider your time in this movement;

2. Let others know that there is an alternative voice to constitutional recognition – listen to it. There is a campaign titled ‘Voices of the three percent’ which highlights the no voices. It is a grassroots campaign, not pushed by government agenda. Do not believe everything that is backed by politicians and mainstream media.

3. Listen to Aboriginal people on the ground that have alternative answers – offer your skills to assist them (not dictate) in becoming self-determining. Understand these models of repatriation and land return – and then work with your local Aboriginal community to make it happen.

4. And lastly, if it ever gets to a referendum, simply do not vote and encourage your peers to vote for something that does not concern you, your welfare or your livelihood –  you should not be so privileged to do so. If you genuinely believe that Aboriginal people have the right to determine their own destiny, then you would realise that you have absolutely no right to participate in the referendum.

I could write positive, feel-good messages about Constitutional recognition. I could spout drivel about how it will help bring White and Black together and unite as Australians. But I will not. What I will tell you might make you feel uncomfortable, and it may sound like the ramblings of a radical, disenchanted, angry Black woman.

Call it what you will, my voice, my position on this issue, is just one of many, many Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal positions contrary to the views promoted in mainstream news outlets.  I know I do not stand alone.

Indigenous leaders are frustrated by a series of government policy failures, meaningless rhetoric and reports that never get acted upon. This week the government finally announced the referendum council. But, asks Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, does the news come too late?

 

Pekeri Ruska is an ex-lawyer with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and a Goenpul woman from Tjergang’gari (North Stradbroke Island) undertaking her MBA. She is the co-founder of Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) and Black Nations Rising Magazine(a publication of the Aboriginal movement, by the people for the future). She was an organiser of the protests against the proposed closures of Aboriginal communities in WA and a recent host of IndigenousX.

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