The R Word

By Amy McQuire, September 9 2013, Tracker Magazine.

NATIONAL: The Recognise “movement” is a public relations triumph, but it still has a long way to go to sell its agenda to blackfellas, writes AMY MCQUIRE*.

It’s easy to get distracted by shiny things.

In a time when we are constantly foraging for the scraps of goodwill by governments, in which “historic” victories must come with caveats and small steps forward come coupled with long leaps backward, it’s tempting to hold onto the promise of brighter objects.

That shiny thing of late has been that great dream of constitutional reform.

Across the country there is a “movement” of people sporting shirts painted with “R”.

That “R” signifies you are a member of Recognise, the successor to “You Me Unity” – the government-funded train that is supposed to carry us on the journey to reforming our nation’s founding document.

Recognise is not lead by Aboriginal people – but by Tim Gartrell, the man behind Kevin 07, who then headed mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s “GenerationOne” initiative (which still has not produced transparent data on job outcomes arising from the Australian Employment Covenant model).

It is governed by the board of Reconciliation Australia and has cross-party support.

Its website is simple and attractive. “Like Us on Facebook”, “Follow us on Twitter” – it screams – below happy pictures of model Samantha Harris sporting “R” like a fashion statement.

If you were new to Aboriginal affairs, you’d be forgiven for thinking constitutional reform is the most important issue confronting our communities today.

You would think it is the front and center of protest – the chant on the breath of our youth.

Of course, the shiny things can be blinding. Recognise is, after all, a well-oiled PR machine.

The organisation says its own polling shows an overwhelming majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people support constitutional reform while at the same time acknowledging there are “diverse” views on the matter.

I believe those views are a lot more diverse than Recognise credits.

Although anecdotal, I know many blackfellas who are wary of the movement, who want to know the motives of politicians who promise a referendum on a question that has not been decided on, instead of looking at real Indigenous aspirations to treaty, sovereignty and land rights. But more on that later.

Earlier this month, Fairfax newspapers ran a “good news story” from the Garma Festival in north-east Arnhem Land. It centered on the youth contingent of Recognise, who used the occasion to promote its “Recognise This” campaign.

They are undeniably impressive and passionate. But they could do with a good dose of cynicism.
The Age journalist Dan Harrison wrote:

“Recognise youth campaign coordinator Pete Dawson said young people had a responsibility to their elders and leaders to “step up” and help them achieve recognition.

“Our generation will inherit this change, and now we have a chance to shape it. We should seize that opportunity with both hands,” Mr Dawson said.

“This will be a choice for our country about whether we will forge our future together, or spend another generation living apart.”

I disagree. We do have a duty to our elders and leaders, but it’s not to blindly accept the wishes of government. It’s to exercise a bit more cynicism and build on their past sacrifices to ensure a future where our people can make their own decisions.

Right now, paternalism is concealed by the propaganda of our politicians, the ignorance of a sleeping mainstream media and a population who have become accustomed to accepting it.

I’m not saying there is no point to constitutional reform. I also understand it has been called for by many Aboriginal leaders.

It’s undeniably important to remove the race power, as the expert panel on constitutional reform recommended. It’s important to put in provisions to prohibit governments from discriminating against citizens based on race, as the expert panel recommends.

It’s important that we must remove provisions stopping states from banning voters based on race or ethnicity, as the expert panel recommends.

But we are looking at a bleak political future where these recommendations would seem almost ridiculous in the mouths of either Rudd or Abbott (the poll was still a week away at the time of press).

Abbott, in particular, has said the expert panel may have “overreached” in its recommendations.

His press releases have stated that:

“…Within 12 months of taking office, an incoming Coalition government would put forward a draft amendment and establish a bipartisan process to access its chance of success.”
The actual details are lost in a maze of rhetoric emanating from both our major parties and the Recognise “movement”.

In the absence of any actual detail on the “draft amendment”, I can only assume the Coalition is committing to its previous policy – to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Islanders in the preamble – which would mean little substantial change to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Labor has been largely silent on the recommendations.

Yet despite this, we are being asked to support this movement when the details and implications for Aboriginal people are still so murky.

I’m sure our mob involved in Recognise would agree calls for a treaty or sovereignty are important, and that these aspirations are not denied by constitutional recognition.

But I think it seriously negates the calls for treaty. It distracts from the end goal and it wastes a lot of precious time and advocacy that could be better spent on this. Tracker columnist and academic Nicole Watson has pointed out that a treaty would be inevitable, that it is not a pipe dream, and that much of the “intellectual heavy-lifting” has already been completed.

Constitutional reform is undeniably complex and yet to take it to the Australian people requires making it as simplistic and understandable as possible.

The 1967 referendum was the most successful in Australia’s history. But the question lead to many popular misunderstandings about what it actually achieved for blackfellas. It didn’t give Aboriginal people the right to vote. It meant that Australian governments could make laws both for and against Indigenous peoples and removed the clause prohibiting them from being counted in the census.

The “against” part is often forgotten in the tide of history, washed over by the collective back-slapping of Australians who like to believe they voted their way out of a racist past.

This lack of constitutional protection has meant Aboriginal people have been the victims of racist policies.

That may seem like I’m making the case for constitutional reform. But I have serious doubts Australia is ready to do this for Aboriginal people when they readily accept the daily racism dished out towards our nations.

And if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are still not united on this, if it is a top-down approach rather than a truly grassroots movement, than it will represent a significant step backwards for our people. It will divide, rather than unite.

Right now, as much as Recognise likes to paint it as such, it is far from “grassroots”. It is not a “people’s movement”. It is a PR campaign far removed from the weight of Aboriginal opinion.

It leads me to another factor – the issue of our relationship with Australian governments.

I do not trust a Labor or Liberal Prime Minister to act in good faith for our people, regardless of whether they said sorry or claim they want to go “walkabout”. That’s because their promises on constitutional reform are diametrically opposed to past actions and current policies.

How can we look at these promises as anything but Howard-like “non-core” promises, when they have both supported an intervention that ironically was passed because of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act?

How can we trust them to actually act on one of the most important aspects of constitutional reform – removing the race power – when it was this very provision that would have prevented them from passing the intervention? When they can so easily toss aside flimsy legislation that is enacted to protect our people from racial discrimination?

There are serious and well-founded concerns that the intervention laws, regardless of which branding you market it under, are still racially discriminatory despite the reinstatement of the RDA.

How can you work in partnership, and receive funding, from any government that encourages these laws?

How can you trust them to put forth questions to referendum that have the support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that will ensure our rights are protected, whilst keeping in place these policies in the Territory?

How can you believe them?

That’s the great failing of the Recognise movement, and the people involved in it. It is the questions I would like them to answer.

It seems to me the agenda is to keep our mob complacent, to placate them with promises that will be very hard to accomplish, attracting them with shiny things that in the end will have little value.

The true value is in advocating for a treaty and land rights – the jewels that are mined within our own communities, rather than extracted by big government machines intent on using them for their own interests.

Let us line our nests with those objects instead. They are no longer as shiny, but with a little work, we can brush off the dust.

*Amy McQuire is a Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist from Rockhampton in Central Queensland. She is editor of Tracker.

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