If you talk to anyone supportive of constitutional reform, they will tell you that there is general acceptance across Australia – including Indigenous Australia – of proposals to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution.
If you mention it to the body tasked with drumming up awareness – the government-backed and funded Recognise – they’ll go further, claiming the “vast majority” of Australians are behind them. They proclaim that recent polls found “almost 7 out of 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people supported constitutional reform”.
This polling was based around the single question – do you support recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution? And it remains unknown who they polled, given the difficulties in specifically identifying First Nations people.
But what that recognition means in the absence of a model to take to referendum, is another question entirely.
Unofficially, Recognise claims the debate has moved on and no-one, except for Noel Pearson, is talking about ‘Recognition’ being in the form of fluffy words inserted in the preamble (Pearson is calling for a Declaration of Recognition, which would sit above the constitution in an attempt to drum up support from constitutional conservatives concerned about how the preamble will be interpreted).
It of course flies in the face of the political rhetoric on the issue, with statements made by Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggesting the opposite – that we are not looking at any concrete suggestion to remove discriminatory clauses from the nation’s founding document.
Nevertheless, the Recognise polling contradicts large swathes of anecdotal evidence from Aboriginal people across the country, who remain steadfast in their opposition to Recognise.
Murri activist Sam Watson is one man who believes there is little enthusiasm for constitutional reform on the ground.
“I come from one of the largest and most diverse Indigenous communities in Australia, which is Brisbane. I’m going through community every day of the week and I haven’t seen a single Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander person even raise the matter of constitutional reform,” Mr Watson told New Matilda.
“It’s not a priority here. It’s not an issue. They’re concerned about a basic priority to survive on a day-to-day basis.”
The claim of widespread First Nations support for constitutional reform exists is brought alive through propaganda pumped out by government and the Recognise movement. But where does this ‘support’ come from?
The lengths the Abbott government will go to solicit it from Aboriginal organisations casts a sinister shadow over the debate.
The Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), the chaotic and confusing new process implemented by the Abbott government to allocate funding amidst a $500 million cut to the Indigenous affairs budget, is one example of this attempt by government to silence dissent.
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal organisations applying for funding under ‘Culture and Capability’ – one of five broad streams which replaced 500 programs under the IAS – are now being asked to detail how their activities will contribute to the government’s own goals for constitutional reform.
The IAS guidelines state it will fund organisations involved in a number of areas to help support and revitalise culture, but the document provides a major focus on demonstrating support for recognition, describing it as a key outcome of the program.
Organisations who are applying for separate funding to run NAIDOC week events, which is also regulated to the Culture and Capability stream, and is currently still open, also have to demonstrate how their activities will help progress government outcomes – namely recognition in the constitution.
Organisations were asked on their application “How will your project contribute to achievement of relevant outcomes under the Culture and Capability Programme of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS)?”
The key outcome indicator is progress towards constitutional reform. In the IAS guidelines, it is described as the primary outcome.
The fact Aboriginal organisations are being encouraged to support a government policy of which many do not approve, in order to receive funding for their programs, even NAIDOC week events, is outrageous, especially under a funding stream which is supposedly designed to help revitalise culture.
By contrast, it seems the government wants to continue deciding the priority areas of Aboriginal organisations.
It again raises cynicism about the level of acceptance of constitutional reform as the prevailing Aboriginal policy narrative, and whether there is a groundswell of support like the government rhetoric suggests.
If your only option to fund your program is to sign up to support a government policy you oppose, how many Aboriginal organisations will comply?
As cynicism around Recognise grows in the absence of any concrete model to take to a referendum, asking organisations to sign up to a government policy that exists purely as an idea, or even a pipe dream, is ridiculous.
It demonstrates the severely limited debate allotted to talking about Recognise, which is concerning given how much airplay it receives compared to Aboriginal aspirations for land rights, sovereignty and treaty, aspirations, it’s worth noting, which have always been formulated at the grassroots level.
To be fair, there are Aboriginal organisations who support constitutional reform, even among the growing wariness.
But even then, should they be required to announce their support in the hopes of gaining funding? Should they have to demonstrate how their programs of cultural revival will help the government reform the constitution?
Once again, this is all about playing by white rules. It’s an example of the assimilationist direction that continues to strangle Aboriginal affairs policy today.
An example is the Aboriginal community broadcasting sector, already critically underfunded, which now finds itself captured under the Culture and Capability stream.
The suggestion that these organisations demonstrate how they would support constitutional recognition in order to receive funding is disastrous for any attempt to report on the issues of importance to their communities, free from the intervention of government.
What does this say about freedom of the press?
Of course, in the absence of any detail from PM&C, it is almost impossible to establish how many Aboriginal organisations applying for funding under the Culture and Capability stream have announced their support for constitutional reform.
A spokesperson for Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion dismissed suggestions that applications may have been refused because they failed to provide support for constitutional reform.
The spokesperson told New Matilda IAS applications were judged on “merit”.
“Support for the recognition of Indigenous people in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution was one of a number of activities that was considered for funding under the (IAS) Culture and Capability programme,” the spokesperson said.
“It was not a requirement or condition of funding for all applicants under the programme. It was therefore appropriate that progress towards constitutional recognition be included as an outcome for the Culture and Capability stream under the IAS funding round.”
Labor’s shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs Shayne Neumann, while critical of the IAS, is supportive of Recognise, and echoed government lines on the matter.
“I think it’s one of the criteria that they’ve looked at. Generally speaking I think there is support across community. Some people argue for sovereignty, but I don’t think constitutional recognition is the same or excludes those arguments that people want to put out at some stage in the future,” Mr Neumann told New Matilda.
“Support for recognition was one criteria among several others.”
But Mr Watson told New Matilda making constitutional reform a key outcome under the IAS demonstrated that it is still white bureaucrats who want to decide Aboriginal futures.
“We have a large number of organisations that require government funding in order to deliver services or programs to our people,” Mr Watson said.
“It’s just a big stick approach and goes back to the days of the protectionist act where you had to sign to go anywhere.
“It’s a new style of dog license where you to have sign a whitefella’s piece of paper to get basic treatment, basic employment or housing.”
He said tying constitutional reform to NAIDOC funding goes against what the week was set up for in the first place.
“The old people started the idea of NAIDOC for the entire Aboriginal struggle for our rights, and our right to make our own decisions without white bureaucracy.
“NAIDOC is a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come together in the struggle.”
A senate inquiry is currently underway into the management of the IAS, which has been almost unanimously described as traumatic for many Aboriginal organisations, who had to negotiate the complicated process on little resources and against the anxiety of funding uncertainty across Aboriginal affairs.
Unsuccessful organisations received a phone call or email from PM&C, and were given no detail about why they had been rejected. A number of submissions to the senate inquiry have already highlighted this.
While a list of recommended organisations who will receive funding has been published on the PM&C website, there is no detail about the amount of funding to each organisation, and under which program stream it falls.
There is currently little detail about how many organisations announced their support for constitutional reform in order to gain funding, or if any were knocked back for a failure to do so.
But even the fact they were asked to support a controversial government policy to receive funding, as if there was a gun to their head, is outrageous and should be condemned.
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