‘Recognising’ The Artful Con That Is The Constitutional Reform Debate


The great academic Noam Chomsky once wrote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum”.

This quote perfectly encapsulates the current debate around constitutional reform – where there is a bipartisanship backed by reams of PR spin as a “positive”, while in reality it demonstrates one of the most insidious developments in black policy today – a dangerous “Canberra consensus”, as described by Indigenous policy expert Jon Altman.

How can two white leaders agreeing on the best way to shortchange blackfellas, at the expense of Aboriginal opinion, be a good thing?

The debate around ‘Recognise’ is made worse by the fact even the Greens are snuggly in the fold, leaving the opposition to a growing chorus of disenchanted and disenfranchised Aboriginal people, who are vilified for their justifiable and commendable cynicism.

Last night, the ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’ Tony Abbott again tried to demonstrate his credentials for the title, having thus far failed spectacularly to elicit anything other than mockery given his shameful and routine gaffs in the area.

Any commitment to Aboriginal affairs is met with wariness by our mob due to several factors, not least his government’s decision to slash $500 million from the black budget, embark on an $86,000 taxpayer-funded trip to Yirrkala which delivered precisely nothing except photo opportunities of Abbott condescendingly patting the heads of Yolngu children, followed by causing offence to the majority of black Australia, and a great proportion of our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters, by claiming Australia was “nothing but bush” before the arrival of the First Fleet, which, by the way, was apparently the “defining movement” in the history of this continent.

But Abbott still wants us to believe he is serious about righting the wrongs of the past, bloody massacres and poisoned waterholes and stolen children and all, by washing away the nation’s collective sins through a referendum which he thinks should be held on May 27th 2017.

Abbott, along with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, last night addressed a gala dinner thrown by the taxpayer-funded Recognise campaign, one of the very few ‘black’ organisations that hasn’t had to worry about funding uncertainty caused by the chaos that is the Abbott government’s new “Indigenous Advancement Strategy”. That’s largely because it is generously funded to do the government’s work, a key part of which involves limiting that spectrum of acceptable debate.

In his speech, Abbott said he was ready to “sweat blood” in order to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution.

He also mentioned “we have to temper our ambitions”.

“This is at least as important as any of the other causes that this government has been prepared to take on,” he told Recognise.

“We will get Indigenous recognition – and when it comes, I suspect that it will take the form of a pact – a heartfelt pact – between Indigenous people and conservative Australia.

“Indigenous people have to accept that any proposal put forward is worth doing because it does sufficiently acknowledge them as First Australians. And conservative Australia has to accept that any proposal put forward really is completing our constitution rather than changing it.”

The fact Abbott feels he can dictate what blackfellas should accept as worthwhile is a hallmark in the “new paternalism” he infamously called for back in 2006. The belief that acknowledgement as “First Australians” in the constitution is “sufficient” to deal with the trauma that stretches back 226 years, is as offensive as the term itself.

Aboriginal people are not the “First Australians” – we are members of nations that have never ceded our sovereignty, despite government doublespeak offering the concession we were here “first”, while disassociating us with our individual nations.

Bill Shorten furthered the debate within Abbott’s spectrum, by vilifying those who step outside the parameters.

“The Prime Minister was right tonight to say that we cannot allow this debate to be run off the rails by extreme views, by a fracturing of national consensus or political games that we have no time for. Recognition is simply too important for that,” Mr Shorten said.

He continued:

“There are a small number keen to exercise political veto, to re-boot the old rhetorical weapons of the history wars, rather than play a constructive role in our national conversation of the future of our country.

“Well, that is people’s prerogative, but in advancing the cause of recognition, we cannot afford to submit to the tyranny of low expectations of those who would prefer our Constitution to remain the last bastion of the ‘great Australian silence’.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be put off our stroke by those who propose nothing and contribute nothing. I understand that there are some who believe recognition doesn’t go far enough, if it doesn’t discuss a treaty.

“And to those we must make clear that the past injustices of settlement and occupation and dispossession are not thwarted or extinguished by the recognition process.

“Recognition is not the end of the road, but one step in the ongoing journey of reconciliation and closing the gap.

Shorten believes “it is time for Australia to be debating what sort, what form of referendum to support – not whether or not we support recognition, but what form of recognition to support”.

Chomsky’s words ring truer than ever.

We can’t even have a debate about whether Recognise is the right way forward for Aboriginal Australia – according to Shorten it’s worthless because it doesn’t play a “constructive” role in the future of this country.

It may play a constructive role for white Australia in easing its guilt by again denying history, but it does nothing for black Australia’s yearning for justice. Shorten can’t even use the word ‘invasion’ in his speech – it is replaced with ‘settlement’ and ‘occupation’.

If black and white Australia still have such different interpretations of history, how can we debate constitutional recognition?

How can Aboriginal people have faith in governments that deny our own history and at the same time advance serious rights abuses in the form of policies like the NT Intervention?

How can we believe governments want to reform and remove the ability to discriminate on the basis of race, when this is currently the reality in many areas of Australia?

Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, the man who recommended stricter conditions for work-for-the-dole in remote Australia – a policy which essentially reduces Aboriginal workers to free labour – founded GenerationOne, which was formerly headed by Tim Gartrell, now the head of Recognise. How’s that for limiting the spectrum of acceptable debate?

Shorten’s assertion that constitutional reform doesn’t sideline calls for treaty is a furphy, because that is precisely what he has done in his speech. By claiming there is no other debate worth having other than Recognise, Shorten seeks to nudge treaty further and further off the political agenda.

And once this question goes to referendum, and still we have no idea what that question is, regardless of whether it is successful or not, it blows the true aspirations of Aboriginal Australia so far off course that it will be very hard to tug it back to shore.

Recognition does precisely nothing in addressing any Great Australian Silence – it instead helps entrench it by further silencing dissenting voices.

Treaty is a true Aboriginal aspiration, but one that’s constantly been denied, replaced with ‘Recognition’.

National Land Rights is a true Aboriginal aspiration constantly denied and replaced with ‘Native Title’ (there are now attempts to water down separate land rights laws in NT and NSW, and a successful attempt in South Australia).

Sovereignty and self-determination are true Aboriginal aspirations constantly denied and replaced with ‘Reconciliation’ (governments have shown time and time again they aren’t willing to respect elected Aboriginal representation).

The ‘Recognise’ movement sidelines these aspirations at the expense of Aboriginal voices who want these recognized first and foremost.

Recognise is founded on whitefella terms at the expense of blackfella wishes.

It’s pursued by big politicians who wash away treaty as if it were “writing in the sand”.

Australia is the only first world nation with a significant Indigenous population that has never signed a treaty with Aboriginal nations.

It also happens to be the nation which has the highest gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, jails Indigenous people at the highest rates in the world, a nation that has never recognized true land justice, and continues to deny its own history.

This denial of history can be seen in the fact there is no trace of the frontier wars in the Australian War Memorial, but there are plans to build a memorial to war correspondents.

It’s a national monument that has statues recognizing the contribution of animals to wartime efforts, but which adorns its walls with gargoyles of Aboriginal men, alongside the flora and fauna.

When we talk about these unappealing facts, we are seen as stepping outside the spectrum of acceptable debate. In Shorten’s words, ‘our voices are the ‘extreme’ ones.

We must sign up to ‘Recognise’ because it is white Australia’s solution. It may still offend some conservatives, but by and large does little to offend the cosy Canberra consensus. It may not be politically damaging to them, but it is very damaging to Aboriginal Australia.

We have to have this debate if white Australia is serious about coming to terms with its complicity in black disadvantage. Every single Australian has a stake in it because every single Australian has benefited from the theft of land and the slavery of Aboriginal people.

White prosperity was built on black poverty. That is why Aboriginal people have to have the first say in any way forward. And if that involves stepping outside the spectrum of acceptable debate, then so be it.

* Amy McQuire is a Darumbul and South Sea Islander woman, and a senior journalist at New Matilda. We rely almost entirely on subscriptions to survive – if you want to help fund New Matilda, you can click here.

A Darumbul woman from central Queensland, Amy McQuire is the former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine.