Julia Gillard meets Lowitja O’Donoghue yesterday.IT WAS a day unlike any other in the national Parliament since the 2010 federal election, and no one called it better than the man who is often held responsible for the bitterly combative atmosphere that has dominated what passes for political debate.
”So much of what happens here passes people by. Sometimes it even annoys them,” Tony Abbott observed. ”May this be an occasion when the Parliament lifts people’s spirits, makes them feel more proud of our country and more conscious of our potential to more often be our best selves.”
Earlier in his remarks, the Opposition Leader congratulated Julia Gillard on the ”fine” speech that preceded his own. ”So often in this place we are protagonists,” he said. ”Today, on this matter, we are partners and collaborators.” And they were.
The occasion was the passage through the House of Representatives of legislation to recognise the unique and special place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – and generate momentum for recognition in the nation’s founding document.
That it coincided with the fifth anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations delivered by Kevin Rudd, and was witnessed by many of the country’s most respected indigenous leaders, made it all the more poignant.
Kevin Rudd wasn’t there, but only because he was honouring an undertaking to address a reconciliation event marking the anniversary in Adelaide.
As remarkable as the level of unity was the capacity of Gillard and Abbott for plain speaking. While Gillard spoke of ending ”the great Australian silence” and healing the ”fabric of the nation”, Abbott was even more evocative and direct.
”This is the stain on our soul that prime minister Keating so movingly evoked at Redfern 21 years ago,” he said, noting that Australia was a blessed nation in every respect but one – the failure to ”make peace” with the first Australians.
”We have to acknowledge that pre-1788, this land was as Aboriginal then as it is Australian now and, until we have acknowledged that, we will be an incomplete nation and a torn people,” Abbott said.
”We only have to look across the Tasman to see how it all could have been done so much better. Thanks to the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand two peoples became one nation. So, our challenge is to do now in these times what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago: to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our country’s foundation document. In short, we need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people.”
The immediate result was to inject a large dose of confidence into those who will lead the campaign for constitutional recognition, including emerging indigenous leaders Jason Glanville and Tanya Hosch, who put the case for change to the National Press Club.
”Lots of us were surprised and delighted by not just the bipartisanship, but by the language that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition used to describe what’s possible,” Glanville, the chief executive of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, said later.
But, for all the goodwill and optimism reflected in the passing of the legislation, four questions were left hanging after the hugs and the handshakes – questions that will determine whether the referendum ultimately succeeds or fails.
The first concerns the wording of the question, and whether it will reflect the recommendations of the expert panel, co-chaired by Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler, who toiled for more than a year before producing a 300-page report on the best way forward.
Rather than simply suggest a minimalist new preamble that acknowledged Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and risk being defeated because it was tokenistic, half-hearted and, according to the panel’s legal advice, capable of having unintended consequences, the panel proposed meaningful change.
It said the recognition should be included in the body of the constitution; that the last vestiges of racism in the constitution should be repealed (including the section that contemplates state laws that exclude indigenous Australians from voting); that indigenous languages be recognised as part of the national heritage; and that there be an explicit prohibition of racial discrimination.
The latter suggestion prompted the concern, articulated by Abbott, that ”we have some reservations about anything that might turn out to be a one-clause bill of rights”.
Abbott alluded to the challenge during his speech on Wednesday, when he spoke of the need to come up with a form of words that satisfies ”reasonable people” as being fair to all.
”It won’t necessarily be straightforward to acknowledge the first Australians without creating new categories of discrimination which we must avoid, because no Australian should feel like a stranger in their own country,” he said, before adding: ”I believe that we are equal to this task of completing our constitution rather than changing it.”
Dodson reflects the view of the panel when he says the prohibition on discrimination has nothing to do with a bill of rights and everything to do with eradicating the inherent racism that is embedded in the constitution. Moreover, he says the recommendations flowed from a year-long consultation process and advice from the country’s most eminent constitutional lawyers.
While the wording of the referendum question will be developed by a parliamentary committee, Dodson says any retreat from the panel’s recommendations would have to be negotiated.
Tanya Hosch, the deputy director of the recognition campaign, is confident that fears about the proposed change will be allayed as people become more informed.
”It’s important to remember people had equal concerns about native title and Mabo,” she says. ”They had equal concern about the apology and the sky didn’t fall in. Instead, we’ve become stronger and better as a nation.”
The second question is when the referendum will be put. The original plan was for it to be put at or before the September 14 federal election. As Gillard explained on Wednesday, this prospect had seemed very ”close at hand” at the time of the apology, but became problematic after the 2010 poll produced a hung Parliament.
”In difficult and volatile times, we have not yet found the settled space in our national conversation to make the promised referendum a reality,” she said.
While Gillard’s expectation is that legislation for a referendum will pass next year, Abbott spoke of the next Parliament – that is, the next three years – finishing ”the work that this one has begun”.
Like the expert panel, Hosch and Glanville are not hung up on a time frame, saying the important thing is to put the referendum when it has the best prospects of being overwhelmingly supported. ”We need to remember that in 1967 they campaigned for more than 10 years with meagre resources to get that result,” says Hosch.
That referendum resulted in indigenous people being counted in the census and gave the federal government the power to make laws for their benefit, but fell short of recognition.
The third question is whether the campaign is capable of winning the kind of support that saw the 1967 referendum not only succeed, but win almost 91 per cent of the popular vote, remembering that Australian voters have approved just eight of the 44 referendums put to them since federation, most recently in 1977, and the record under Labor is even worse – just one success in 25 attempts.
Here, the challenge is to do more than promote recognition as simply correcting an oversight of the constitution’s architects – and the speeches by Hosch and Glanville go a long way to highlighting some of the practical consequences of recognition.
Hosch spoke of the role recognition could play in safeguarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture – and enabling ”our children and grandchildren” to be enriched by it. ”Some will dismiss this as symbolism, and say it won’t change a thing; won’t educate a single child; won’t create a single job and won’t improve health, life expectancy and living standards,” she said.
”That’s not only beside the point, it’s plain wrong. Symbolic statements not only have intrinsic worth, they remind us of duties and obligations to each other. Who would dismiss the Gettysburg Address as a mere symbol? It changed America.”
Glanville spoke of the impact of the apology, which resonated deep into his own family history, describing it as a watershed in Australian history.
”It was the day we faced the truth about a searing chapter of our history. And that truth has helped to heal many. There is still much pain, but I know people today who are mentally and physically healthier since that moment, and I have no doubt it is because of what Kevin Rudd did and said that day,” he said.
”To my mind, constitutional recognition would have a similar power for the whole of the indigenous community. I only wish such a moment had come sooner, for the sake of those who needed to see it most.”
A final question, and one that deeply worries veterans of the 1967 campaign such as Lowitja O’Donoghue and Shirley Peisley, is whether the referendum is capable of garnering the support of the overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Among those who are, at best, still to be convinced, is Kutcha Edwards, the singer, songwriter and activist who was taken from his family the year of the 1967 referendum and had five siblings who were ”stolen and institutionalised”.
In the foreword to Where Were You?, a book published to mark the fifth anniversary of the apology, he writes: ”The inter-generational trauma still needs to be healed. The memories don’t stop. The scars are on our souls.”
Edwards stresses that he doesn’t want to be disrespectful and that he isn’t speaking for his family, but says: ”I want to remain a sovereign Mutti Mutti man. That’s just me. I’m all for walking down the road together, but I don’t want to concede my sovereignty. If they want us to move forward, sign a treaty.”
Herein lies another question: will a successful referendum represent a final settlement between those who were here first and those who invaded? Or will it be like the apology: another important and long-overdue step towards ”making peace” with the first Australians.
In truth, constitutional change would not constitute the last chapter in Australia’s reconciliation journey. But it would, as Jason Glanville put it, constitute a fresh start.
Michael Gordon is national editor.
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