The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Ken Wyatt delivered a speech at the National Press Club explaining that there would be a referendum on constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. He stated that this recognition would probably be a version of the ‘voice to Parliament’ outlined in the Uluru Statement presumably either by legislation or constitutional amendment1. The Uluru Statement was dismissed by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when it was delivered to him in 20172.
After Wyatt’s speech, the usual suspects came out and said that any recognition in the constitution or having an indigenous voice to parliament would not help fix social issues. Religious nutter Amanda Stoker said “If what we’re talking about is elevating them into some different category and entrenching the kind of identity politics of racial differences in our constitution, well I think that would be deeply harmful”. Institute of Public Affairs drone, James Paterson warned against any change which threatened Australia’s parliamentary system or treated Australians differently based on race. The presumptive dumbest parliamentarian, Craig Kelly, warned that he and other Coalition colleagues could “actively campaign for the no side” if Wyatt pursued an ambitious proposal for constitutional recognition. More pointedly, Kelly said that if Wyatt wanted “words in the constitution that don’t really mean anything, that are symbolic, then that’s fine”3,4. So they will contemplate supporting it, as long as it is doesn’t really mean anything. It is ironic that when Australia attempts to address the results of over two centuries of disparity of opportunity based on race, the usual suspects suggest it is itself racist.
Without much delay, such a version of recognition put forward by Wyatt was dashed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who very quickly came out and stated that he didn’t want to raise expectations of what can be achieved1. Is it a measure of Scott Morrison’s integrity that he has used Ken Wyatt as a propaganda tool, but at the first hint of dissent from the usual right wing nutters in his party, he caved in and threw Wyatt under the proverbial bus. Morrison said “I am a constitutional conservative on these issues which should come as no surprise”. Morrison is not a constitutional conservative by any stretch of the imagination, as he either ignores it or tries to subvert it at every opportunity to suit the ends of his party. This is especially true of sections 44 (eligibility to run for office) and 116 (religion).
In an interview with a journalist on ABC’s Weekend Breakfast, Fauzia Ibrahim, asked if now was the time for such recognition, because Australia was “more mature”. I almost choked on my cereal. Australia has never really been ‘mature’, having only had short intervals of lucidity in the last 40+ years of history I have observed. It was only with the referendum in 1967 that Indigenous people were counted in the Australian census5. In New Zealand, their indigenous people were first counted in the census in 1951 (they previously were counted separately)6.
The British Crown signed the treaty of Waitangi with the Māori in 1840, and Māori were granted all the ‘rights and privileges of British Subjects’. This was re-affirmed by the Native Rights Act in 1865. However, over the next century, they were denied some of the privileges enjoyed by white British migrants. As in Australia, where the Indigenous population collapsed to not much more than 10% of the estimated 1788 population, the Māori population dropped some 50% by about 1900. While this clearly showed that a treaty is not enough to guarantee the rights of indigenous people, what has happened in New Zealand to benefit Māori is that the media has been transformed. Trends that were commonplace in the media 30 years ago, including a dearth of Māori broadcasters, poor pronunciation of Māori names and words; and, at times, racist reporting of stories involving Māori – are now largely absent7. This could not happen in Australia while we have a media largely controlled by conservatives, the worst of all being those outlets run by NewsCorp, who regularly bring out the dog-whistle. Australia really does have a long way to go.