A poor man's treaty: the 'con' in constitutional reform

Chris Graham 'Tracker Magazine' 1 April 2013

Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples seems to have captured the imagination of many white Australians, writes Chris Graham. But are the motives really all pure?

I was browsing the 'Recognise' site recently - the hip, new rebranded 'You Me Unity' organisation tasked with promoting constitutional recognition of First Nations Australians - when I came across this curious fact: "Research by Auspoll in late 2012 found strong Indigenous support for constitutional recognition. Three-quarters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people surveyed were in favour of recognition, and only 8 percent opposed it. The same overwhelming majority felt recognition would help protect against a loss of culture for future generations.

The claim reminded me of a scene from one of my favourite political comedies, Yes Prime Minister, where newly installed PM Jim Hacker is floating the idea of reintroducing National Service, convinced that it would be popular with voters.

Hacker's view is based on internal party polling, which shows strong community support for the plan. But Arch bureaucrat Humphrey Appleby is determined to sink it, primarily because the military don't want their pristine ranks flooded with unemployed bogans.

Appleby explains to long-suffering private secretary Bernard Woolley that polls which find support for National Service can just as easily find opposition. It all depends on how you ask the question.

And so, playing the role of pollster, he demonstrates to Woolley how to get two different results on the same issue.

APPLEBY: Mr Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?
APPLEBY: Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?
APPLEBY: Do you think there's a lack of discipline in our schools?
APPLEBY: Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?
APPLEBY: Do you think they respond to a challenge?
Would you be in favour of reintroducing national service?

Appleby notes that after answering 'yes' to all those questions, you could hardly say no to the final one. Then he shows Woolley how to get the opposite result.

APPLEBY: Mr Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?
APPLEBY: Are you worried about the growth of armaments?
APPLEBY: Do you think there's a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?
APPLEBY: Do you think it's wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?
APPLEBY: Would you oppose the reintroduction of national service?
WOOLLEY: Ummm, Yes!

As Appleby notes, the pollsters simply publish the last question, and no-one's the wiser.

And so to the question of constitutional reform - try this at home if you like:

Do you believe Aboriginal people have a special place in Australia?
Do you believe Aboriginal Australians have been treated poorly in the past?
Do you believe symbolism is an important part of our national character?
Do you believe Aboriginal Australians should have an important place in the national psyche?
Do you believe now is the time for Aboriginal people to be recognized in the Constitution?

And here's how you get the opposite result.

Do you believe Aboriginal people are still treated unfairly today?
Do you believe that governments misuse important symbolism like the National Apology to score political points and improve their image internationally, rather than to actually improve the lives of Aboriginal people?
Do you believe Australians will try and add a preamble to the Constitution, but resist changing sections of the constitution that racially discriminate?
Do you believe Treaty and issues of Sovereignty are the most pressing symbolic issues facing Aboriginal Australians?
Do you believe that more symbolism from government without meaningful action will make things better for white people, but worse for Aboriginal people?
Do you oppose recognition of Aboriginal people in the constitution at this time?

I'm not suggesting Auspoll, nor Recognise for that matter, deliberately diddled their poll, but I am suggesting that the Aboriginal people surveyed didn't have all the facts when they were quizzed (which I'll get to shortly). And I'm also suggesting that WE haven't been given all the facts either.

One of the other reasons I'm so skeptical is a disclaimer that Recognise includes after publishing the result: "As with the entire Australian community, there are diverse views among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples."

Well, no. According to the Auspoll result, there isn't diverse views at all. The overwhelming majority of Aboriginal Australians support it, and only eight percent oppose it. So I interpret that qualifier as meaning 'Recognise' didn't entirely believe the poll results either.

Whatever the truth, it hasn't stopped Recognise from spruiking it at every available turn, including in a press release in October last year, when they were still called 'You Me Unity'.

They lost me at the headline: 'Pollies join the people's movement for recognition'.

Simply calling something the 'people's movement' doesn't make it so, and particularly not when you consider the people behind it - they are almost exclusively political players of some description.

On that front, I should acknowledge that I have enormous respect for many of those involved in the campaign. Aboriginal leaders such as Pat Dodson, and Greens such as Rachel Seiwert, for example, have led the push at the local and parliamentary level.

And young upcoming Aboriginal leaders like Tanya Hosch and Jason Glanville have led the push behind the scenes.

But Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have also attached their name to it. The three combined have done more to frustrate the aspirations of Aboriginal people than any other politicians in the last half decade. And they've done the least to advance Aboriginal interests as well, despite being in positions of enormous power and influence.

It's not just my personal dislike of whitefellas playing politics with black lives, that underpins my opposition to constitutional recognition, at this point in history.

I think the arguments against it are also compelling.

If Aboriginal people sign up to this, political players and governments who have a history of being actively hostile to Aboriginal interests will use it on the world stage to fudge the fact that on virtually every other front, Aboriginal rights and interests are being trashed.

That's how the national apology was used by Kevin Rudd. That's how constitutional recognition will be used by our national parliament.

I understand why some people might believe constitutional reform represents progress, but I think those who do, respectfully, might like to rethink what progress actually looks like.

The strong desire for a way forward is perhaps because we're going backwards in so many other areas. But we can't simply have it both ways.
You can't extend the Northern Territory intervention for another 10 years; you can't deny compensation for Stolen Wages; you can't deny compensation for Stolen Generations; you can't quarantine people's basic welfare entitlements; you can't do less than the bare minimum to alleviate Aboriginal poverty and disadvantage; you can't play politics with the lives of Aboriginal people; you can't have people living with trachoma in a first world nation; you can't have people suffering the world's highest rates of curable diseases; and at the same time pretend that a Preamble acknowledging PRIOR ownership of the land is meaningful.

Basic human rights are not divisible. You can't have some rights, and not others. It's an 'all or nothing' deal.

Nor can you deny Aboriginal people the fundamental right to self-determination, but give them a warm fuzzy constitution and call that progress.
I accept that the intent of people like Siewert is honorable. But not for one millisecond do I believe that people like Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott see it as anything other than a cynical opportunity to advance their own political interests.

It's worth remembering, while the major political parties have pushed the notion of a tightly written preamble which affords no legal advantage to Aboriginal people as the true owners of this land, they've been far more muted on the issue of reforming sections of the constitution which still allow governments to discriminate on the basis of race. I think their comparative silence on this front speaks volumes about their real motivations.

So just as you can't negotiate with terrorists, you shouldn't negotiate with a government that still refuses to extend to Aboriginal people basic human rights and respect.

Constitutional recognition is a poor man's treaty. It is another national apology, without compensation.
I think Aboriginal people should hold out for a better deal.

* Chris Graham is a Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist, the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and the former founder and editor of the National Indigenous Times. He's now a freelance writer based in Sydney.

The 'Recognition' debate deserves better than this political jostling
When the time is ripe for discussion, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott just throw jibes at each other over who is the mosty committed to Aboriginal issues.