Time To Recognise Significant Aboriginal Wariness of Constitutional Reform


The last time Andrew Bolt was called a racist on national TV, he used a radio segment, a television show and a newspaper column to sulk about it.

On ABC’s Q&A, Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton accused Bolt of racism over columns he wrote implying one of her colleagues, and several other prominent pale-skinned Aboriginal people, were falsely using their Aboriginality in order to gain career benefits.

Several of those blackfellas targeted in the columns took Bolt to the Federal Court under the Racial Discrimination Act’s 18c provisions, which make it unlawful for a person to offend, insult, intimidate or humiliate on the base of race.

Bolt lost that case in 2011, and has spent a large deal of time since using his substantial influence in the media crying over the paper thin gag that has supposedly been put over his mouth. Never has a martyr of free speech been given so much free speech. 

When Langton labelled Bolt a racist earlier this year, he penned a sulking column about how “hurt” he was and then invited her on his prime-time radio show to force an apology.

Under repeated questioning, Langton said sorry and then issued a 19-page written statement on Q&A’s website trying to clarify her apology, despite it being a rare moment when she received widespread support amongst blackfellas.

Turns out former minister and current Labor MP Craig Emerson doesn’t back down that easily.

On Sunday he appeared on Channel Ten’s The Bolt Show where they discussed a number of issues before coming to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Last week Qantas used Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes to announce its partnership with the government-funded Recognise campaign, promoting it with a plane plastered with Recognise symbols.

Bolt is not a fan and he made it clear on his show, accusing the airliner of playing race politics.

It riled Emerson.

“I take fundamental issue with your introduction to say this is a racist campaign,” Emerson told Bolt.

“Dividing people on the grounds of race is racist,” Bolt said.

“Then you are a racist,” Emerson said and then referred to Bolt’s court case: “because of the comments you made in relation to Indigenous people. By your own criterion, and that’s what you did. You identified a group of people and went for them.”

After heated debate, Emerson told Bolt: “We should be mature enough to recognise there were people here before 1788… If we are going to talk about racism, let’s talk about the racism in the constitution.”

Today, Emerson was inundated with messages of support from Twitter users. He wrote: “Thanks to progressives for your support. Mr Bolt is wrong to claim @RecogniseAU is racist; it’s about Indigenous recognition, not division.”

Sadly, on that front, Bolt might be right, although not in the way he thinks.

Recognise is a campaign championed first and foremost by white politicians, and I would argue, largely derided by Aboriginal people themselves. As an Aboriginal journalist, I have met very few Aboriginal people supportive of the campaign. Sure, there are some out there – not all Aboriginal people think the same – but I would hazard a guess that a large percentage of the pretty PR pictures propped up by government cash do not resonate with most blackfellas.

Recognise is not lead by Aboriginal people, it is headed by the former ALP President Tim Gartrell, previously the CEO of Andrew Forrest’s GenerationOne. That’s another organisation with a shaky reputation in Aboriginal communities across the country, due to Fortescue Metals Group’s questionable native title dealings, and the fact the organisation has never coughed up accurate data on its job outcomes despite promising to move 50,000 Aboriginal people into employment.

But that’s just the surface when it comes to constitutional recognition. No doubt, the broad plan has merit and there are many prominent Aboriginal leaders who have called for it in the past. There is widespread agreement across many Aboriginal peak bodies that constitutional recognition would be worthwhile if it made concrete changes like removing the race power, which allows Parliament to pass laws for the detriment of Aboriginal people.

But there were a lot of concerns about the findings of the Expert Panel, which was assembled by Labor to consult with community and report back to government about the best way forward.

Prominent Tasmanian Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell has criticised the panel for delegating Aboriginal languages to second-tier status behind English, while Indigenous policy expert Jon Altman has raised concerns about using the word “advancement” in replacing the race power clause, with all its negative historical connotations.

There is also great wariness over whether any government would actually make substantial changes to the constitution.

Neither Labor nor the Coalition have ever made any official responses to the expert panel’s recommendations, and Tony Abbott went to the election only promising he would support recognition in the preamble, which would mean largely nothing and would completely waste any groundswell of support drummed up for constitutional reform.

Recognise is dividing, rather than uniting Aboriginal Australia. While Aboriginal people have rallied under the banners of land rights and treaty, pounding pavements and pulling down parliamentary fences, this current incarnation of “constitutional reform” was dreamt up by John Howard as he was pushed from his Prime Ministerial throne, then promoted by the “me-too” Kevin Rudd, extended by the apathetic Julia Gillard and tolerated and exploited by the “Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs” Tony Abbott, while they all continued the greatest Aboriginal rights abuse in decades – the NT intervention.

Parliament’s only Aboriginal presence – Liberal MP Ken Wyatt and Labor Senator Nova Peris are toeing their party lines and pushing this great white hope, which bypasses and pushes land rights and treaty further and further off the agenda. It is as far away from the majority of Aboriginal opinion as you could get.

Just because a footballer like Adam Goodes is promoting it, doesn’t mean the rest of Aboriginal Australia agree with it. Just because Qantas has backed it, doesn’t mean it’s going to fly with Aboriginal communities.

Most of them are not employed by Recognise. They are being asked, like the rest of Australia, to sign up to a “movement” where they don’t even know what the question is.

We don’t know what the government will ultimately take to referendum, so how can we support it?

And what will we do with the wasted time when Aboriginal men, women and children are being locked up disproportionately, are dying younger than the rest of Australia, and are still over-represented on basically every social indicator?

What happens to the momentum for change, for true land justice, for a treaty? 

Where are these questions on mainstream television or in the papers?

Sadly, this black opposition to the government-funded propaganda propping up Recognise is lost to the media. The only opposition you see is in the form of ignorant columnists like Andrew Bolt and Gary Johns, who are easy to brush off, as Craig Emerson did on Bolt’s own show. He may have been right about the racist part, but Bolt’s support of Recognise is another issue entirely.

Most Aboriginal people do not have columns in the nation’s highest circulating newspapers, or television shows branded with their name. They do not have the support of politicians because all of the major parties, as well as the Greens, have offered bipartisan support for Recognise, at the expense of opposing Aboriginal opinion.

Wyatt and Peris might as well not be there at all… they represent their electorates first and foremost, above their mobs.

While Craig Emerson might think it good that “progressives” support Recognise, maybe he should think about whether Aboriginal people are part of that group too. And maybe before standing up so stridently against racism, he should consider the racist policies his own governments have passed – the NT intervention, championed by both Rudd and Gillard, stands out as one in particular.

New Matilda

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