Recog­nise what gov­ern­ments have not

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

“We are here and you have to deal with us.” As re­counted by Fred Chaney in his fore­word to It’s Our Coun­try, so said the Yorta Yorta na­tive ti­tle claimants in 2002 when the full bench of the High Court dis­missed 5-2 their ap­peal against the judg­ment of the full bench of the Fed­eral Court, which had up­held Jus­tice Howard Ol­ney’s rul­ing that the “tide of his­tory” had “washed away” their tra­di­tional ob­ser­vances and way of life.

It’s Our Coun­try con­tains es­says by Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lander le­gal spe­cial­ists, aca­demics and busi­ness and com­mu­nity lead­ers. Each sets out their view on mean­ing­ful con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion, and “their vi­sions for re­form”. The book is edited by Me­gan Davis, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of NSW law school, and Mar­cia Lang­ton, foun­da­tion chair of Aus­tralian in­dige­nous stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne. It’s closely ar­gued, well writ­ten and often graphic (“the air­tight cage of poverty”), as be­fits “poli­ties” (na­tions) of poetic sto­ry­tellers.

Im­por­tantly, the con­trib­u­tors did not have to think only about what might be con­sid­ered “achiev­able”, the edi­tors say. “We asked au­thors not to be con­strained by the ide­o­log­i­cal mine­field of deeply held views from both the left and the right … re­gard­ing mat­ters such as ‘rights’ in the con­sti­tu­tion.”

Upfront it’s made clear that the word coun­try in the ti­tle does not mean the whole of Aus­tralia (though some ar­gue it does) but the in­dige­nous sense of “land­scapes de­fined and bound by cus­tom and hered­i­tary rights, shaped by a pri­ori spir­i­tual forces and im­bued with spir­i­tual power”.

This book will shock some Aus­tralians. But the edi­tors write: “It is our wish that you hear what suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have failed to hear and de­velop a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of why many com­mu­ni­ties will not set­tle for the ap­proaches that have al­ready been tried and failed: sym­bol­ism, grad­u­al­ism, min­i­mal­ist ap­proaches.”

The es­says here cat­a­logue bad faith, let­downs, bro­ken prom­ises, ap­palling sta­tis­tics of in­dige­nous mor­bid­ity, mor­tal­ity, in­car­cer­a­tion: wall-to-wall dis­ad­van­tage. Al­most worse is how not just in­dige­nous af­fairs but in­dige­nous peo­ple are po­lit­i­cal foot­balls in the main game of pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially fed­er­ally in re­cent years: now is the low­est ebb of com­mon­wealth pol­icy and pro­grams for 40 years.

A case in point is the Na­tional Con­gress of Aus­tralia’s First Peo­ples, de­vised by Tom Calma for La­bor, side­lined by a hand-picked in­dige­nous ad­vi­sory coun­cil when the Coali­tion gained of­fice, now to be de­funded. In her es­say Kirstie Parker is out­raged by the govern­ment’s “lack of re­spect”.

It is telling that the most ex­pe­ri­enced ad­min­is­tra­tors among the es­say­ists, in main­stream bu­reau­cracy and at the in­dige­nous coal­face, are the most tren­chant crit­ics of govern­ment and its pro­cesses.

It is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to pass a ref­er­en­dum to change the Aus­tralian Con­sti­tu­tion, harder than any­where on earth. And it would seem that any min­i­mal­ist ref­er­en­dum, cer­tainly by May 27 next year, to co­in­cide with the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1967 ref­er­en­dum, is dead in the wa­ter be­fore the process even starts, when­ever that might be. Five years and four pro­cesses, and still no ques­tion to put to vot­ers; the hard truth is that cer­tain of the ex­pert panel’s pro­pos­als are likely to be un­ac­cept­able to some politi­cians, and very likely to many vot­ers, though re­peated polling shows a healthy ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralians favour recog­ni­tion.

There is con­cern the Recog­nise cam­paign seems to be head­ing for a sym­bolic, min­i­mal­ist or grad­u­al­ist (not now, later) for­mu­la­tion. Per­haps un­fairly: the Recog­nise cam­paign is di­rected by Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Aus­tralia and based on the pro­pos­als of the ex­pert panel and the se­lect com­mit­tee of the com­mon­wealth par­lia­ment. And surely some­one like rugby league star Greg

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