The cracks are starting to appear in the $15 million federal government-sponsored Recognise campaign, with a room of up to 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people last week delivering a stunning rejection of constitutional recognition. Chris Graham reports.
The Victorian Andrews Government got a little more than it bargained for this week, when it hosted an historic consultation with hundreds of Aboriginal people from around the state on the highly contentious issue of ‘constitutional recognition’.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Natalie Hutchins hosted the meeting on February 3 – the first major Victorian Government consultation with Aboriginal people in two decades – to seek views on self determination and constitutional recognition.
Up to 500 of the mob showed up, but before Hutchins had even arrived at the Federation Square venue, one of the key questions she was posing – What does the Victorian approach to constitutional recognition look like? – was settled.
A motion proposed early in the meeting – We as Sovereign People reject Constitutional Recognition’ – was passed, with unanimous support.
Terry Mason, an Awabakal man and Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy Committee for the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) attended the meeting, and broke the news on the NTEU’s ATSI Facebook page.
“A little bit of history today,” Mason wrote.
“The first time in about 20 years the Victorian Government held a large consultation with Aboriginal People,” Mason wrote.
“The large and diverse audience made it clear from the beginning that they were suspicious of self determination talks with government, as they had not delivered any positive results in the past and trust was an issue.”
One of the more startling outcomes from the session was an admission by Hutchins that in her travels as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, communities consistently express opposition to constitutional recognition.
In the NTEU Facebook post, Mason noted: “The Minister assured she would represent the views strongly to her colleagues and that the stance [against constitutional recognition]was one she had commonly heard.”
Mason told New Matilda: “The minister… made it very clear she will strongly represent [the view of the meeting]to her colleagues, but cannot guarantee what the cabinet will do. But she is committed to delivering this message back on our behalf.
“I’ll give her the credit for that – I think the Minister is quite honest in understanding where we’re coming from, and she was honest to the meeting in not promising anything on behalf of the rest of her party.
“It will be interesting to see where Labor goes on this.”
One of those who will be watching closely is Celeste Liddle, an Arrernte woman and prominent writer, who also works for the NTEU. She watched the meeting online (it was streamed live) and took particular interest in the Minister’s admission that opposition to constitutional recognition is widespread.
“Obviously I was fairly amused by that because of my history with the Recognise campaign, and having the unique distinction of being one of the only dissenting people Tim Gartrell (the co-head of Recognise) addressed individually via a blogpost,” Liddle told New Matilda.
“The fact the Minister said she was aware there were questions around constitutional recognition in Victoria, but still came looking to have a discussion on it in at that sort of forum was incredibly telling.”
Recognise has consistently reported that constitutional recognition has strong support across Aboriginal communities, a claim widely rejected by many Aboriginal leaders across the country, but supported by others, including Congress, the nation’s peak Indigenous representative body.
Two other motions were also passed at the meeting.
- We demand the state resources a treaty process, including a framework for treaties, with complete collaboration with all Sovereign Peoples and Nations, and treaties are finalised and agreed upon by December 2016.
- Resource an Elders Council of South Eastern Australia, which is comprised of all Sovereign Peoples.
Both motions recorded one dissenter.
Mason told New Matilda the meeting was very representative.
“For a first meeting it was a very good cross section – it was diverse. It may not have had everyone’s preferred person there, but there were enough people there for the message to be going back to the communities for follow-up meetings,” he said.
“And that’s important – the understanding was that this was not a final meeting. This was an initial meeting and there must be follow-up.”
Voices at the meeting were “impassioned” and “strong frustration” was expressed at a lack of past government consultation.
“One of the key comments was ‘Why are we discussing self determination and constitutional recognition without having first sorted out the issue of treaties,’” he said.