The national Indigenous representative body has warned it is already receiving a backlash from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are determined to vote ‘no’ at any referendum into constitutional reform.
It is perhaps the first time the body has acknowledged the growing opposition to the government’s constitutional reform agenda from black Australia.
In a submission to the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, chaired by Aboriginal MP Ken Wyatt and Aboriginal Senator Nova Peris, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples said the continual delays have sparked negative sentiment across Aboriginal Australia.
While the coverage around constitutional reform, promoted by the government-funded Recognise campaign, is largely positive, with very little avenue for opposition, the National Congress acknowledged the frustration felt within communities.National Congress co-chairs Kirstie Parker and Les Malezer acknowledge this frustration in the statement.
“We are already receiving messages from our people that they are determined to vote against any referendum,” they say.
“Congress suspects that this committee and its members will have experienced the same sentiments.”
The Congress said it believed the negativity was not due to “the subject of reform” but instead to the current political situation in Aboriginal Australia.
“For example, the frustration continues over high and escalating rates of removal of children from our families, the high and escalating rates of imprisonment including youth detention, the continuing police killings and victimisation of our people without accountability and justice, high rates of unemployment, restrictions and restraint upon economic development, and mining and major developments without consent on Aboriginal lands.”
It also was felt in the savage cuts to the black budget from the Abbott government, the chaos around the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, where the majority of Aboriginal organisations have waited for months to see if they are being re-funded, and the controversial Forrest Report into remote Aboriginal employment, lead by mining magnate Andrew Forrest.
This was compounded by the fact there has been no government response to the expert panel’s recommendations, which was handed down to the Gillard government in 2011.
“In this current environment, and in the absence of clarity on Constitutional reform, we are now seeing a developing backlash,” the statement said.
The Congress also noted that a referendum on constitutional reform still does not satisfy the aspirations within First Nations communities to “our rights as peoples” and for sovereignty, which is “not without substance”.
Constitutional reform would also not satisfy Australia’s international rights obligations, such as the rights contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was ratified under the Rudd government.
“The committee will be aware that our peoples seek resolution of their inherent rights, rights held before colonisation and which remain oppressed or denied.
“The calls for recognition as a sovereign peoples and the calls for a Treaty are not without substance in Australia.
“Additionally the international standards clearly require that the rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples be protected in law. This can be either through Constitution reform or legislation in Australia.”
The Congress said there was still a need for governments to address the issue of rights, despite the deep opposition to it from wider Australia.
“The political leadership of Australia is yet to address these matters and the Australian people are overwhelmingly opposed.
“This conundrum can only be resolved by political leadership within the nation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and the national representative body of Congress, will not end these calls for fair and just recognition in the event that a successful referendum as proposed is achieved.
“The Constitutional reform process does not intend to address these issues. The Expert Panel, including the participation by Congress Co-Chairs, determined that the Australian public would not vote to recognise any of these paramount claims by our Peoples.”