Should Aboriginal people be recognised in the Australian Constitution? The government thinks so: it has allocated $10 million in funding for a “Yes” campaign, versus zero funding for any “No” campaign
Many are opposed, however. One of them is Andrew Bolt, who sees the proposal as just another symptom of “The New Racism”.
More importantly, however, there is also a large and growing opposition amongst Aboriginal people. Arrernte woman Celeste Liddle, who blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist, has called the Recognise campaign “a government-sponsored ad campaign removed from grassroots indigenous opinion”. Northern Territory elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks has said that constitutional recognition is worthless without a treaty. One of the founders of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Gumbaynggirr historian Dr Gary Foley, believes that constitutional recognition would only serve “to divert our attention from the real issues”.
So what are the “real issues”? Without mincing words, the real issue is that Aboriginal people continue to face the colonisation of their lands and their culture by an invading force. This is not something that ended a number of decades ago – it is ongoing.
Colonising forces continue to deny Aboriginal people the opportunity for self-determination and autonomy. Instead, they impose “vast social engineering efforts”, to quote Nicolas Rothwell, the Northern Australia correspondent for The Australian.
The largest such effort in recent years has been the Northern Territory intervention. To quote Rothwell again, “[t]he idea [behind the intervention] was simple: disempower to empower; limit economic freedom to set free people’s minds.”
The most in-depth evaluation of the intervention, released by the Department of Social Services in late 2014, found that this had not worked, however. Patterns of spending on food, tobacco or alcohol did not change. Rather, the intervention had “increased a sense of dependency on welfare and removed the burden of personal management from community people.”
Critics have pointed out that this may have been deliberate. The intervention was launched following allegations of serious sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities (allegations since found to be largely unfounded). However, the Act which authorised the intervention—the NT Emergency Response Act—does not contain the word “child” or “children” once. Words which do appear with high frequency, however, are “land” and “area”.
This is consistent with Rothwell’s assertion that the intervention is just one part of the effort “to break the political power of the large Aboriginal land councils and gain easy access to indigenous land”.
This follows the pattern of ‘conquer and control’ which has characterised the colonising forces’ relationship with Aboriginal people since 1788. The following examples are from Victoria, but they more or less apply to the rest of Australia.
From very early on, writes historian Michael Christie, officials and missionaries sought “to eradicate Aboriginal culture and replace it with British forms”. What land Aboriginal people had managed to retain for themselves in Victoria was mostly taken away after the Second World War, with former residents being pushed into urban slums.
At the same time, children were removed from families, supposedly because of neglect, but Aboriginal relatives were rarely asked to care for children. Historian Richard Broome found that this was because the government “wished to blend [Aboriginal] children into the general population”.
Government policy has scarcely changed. It is still attempting to eradicate Aboriginal culture in order to assimilate; it is still taking away the land of Aboriginal people, forcing them into the regions that the colonisers dominate; it is still taking children away. And, as stated by Rothwell, the intervention is just one part of this effort.
The Western Australian government, for example, having already bulldozed a remote township named Oombulgurri last year, has said that it will also close a further 150 “unviable” remote Aboriginal communities in the near future. It is unclear what will happen to those who live in those communities. The Oombulgurri example does not bode well: many former residents were left homeless, and most of the children formerly from Oombulgurri now do not go to school.
Ultimately former residents of remote communities will be forced into urban areas, where the incarceration rates of Aboriginal people are at record levels and growing. Currently, Aboriginal people are the most incarcerated race on earth.
And children are now being taken away at higher rates than ever too. In the landmark “Sorry” speech, Kevin Rudd estimated 50,000 children were taken between 1910 and 1970.There are now more than 15,000 Aboriginal children in “out-of-home care”, and approximately 1,000 new children are coming into the system every year. A recent case —typical according to UTS senior researcher Padraic Gibson—was that of a grandmother who was accused of neglecting the children under her care. The children were removed from the local school without her knowledge or consent, and only after the accusations were found not to stand up in court was she able to get them back. That was a year later.
The Saturday Paper recently quoted a grandmother named Aunty Hazel saying that it’s like the Stolen Generations didn’t end at all. “The stories are the same, just the voices and the faces are different,” she said.
What is required is self-determination for Aboriginal people. Rothwell observes that “it is hard to point to a single top-down social reform or employment or home ownership project in any part of the centre or the north that has taken off”. On the other hand, in its 2011 homelands report, Amnesty International found that there are “huge benefits for Aboriginal people living on their traditional lands: connection to land and culture, self-determination, employment, improvements to physical and mental health, and a reduction in substance abuse and violence.”
Constitutional recognition will not help with the need for self-determination, however. It merely continues the command and control paternalism which has been so catastrophic for Aboriginal people. As stated by Michael Mansell, an Aboriginal lawyer,
“Recognition is supposed to deliver benefits to Aborigines yet the beneficiaries are denied the chance to have a say. Public meetings on recognition have been held around Australia without a single meeting to hear Aboriginal opinion.”
This suggests that Dr Foley is right. The “Recognise” campaign, so far as it distracts, is designed to subvert the fight for justice for Aboriginal people.
Duncan Wallace is managing editor of De Minimis, and a second-year JD student