It’s not about constitutional recognition


I remain to be convinced about the need or the wisdom of enshrining any one race or ethnicity or specific group of people in a nation’s constitution. Particularly since the Indigenous people themselves (to the extent “the referendum council” represents the views of the hundreds of thousands of average Indigenous people as opposed to the Indigenous elites) clearly want something much more substantial, more than all the well-meaning (and often white guilty-suffering) Australians want to achieve through a constitutional amendment:

Aborigines are about 3% of Australia’s 24m people. They are more likely to go to prison and tend to die younger than most Australians. Ken Wyatt, one of five aborigines in the federal parliament, says a few aboriginal MPs are not enough to achieve an “aboriginal voice” on issues affecting his people.

At a referendum 18 years ago Australians rejected a clunky proposal by John Howard, the prime minister at the time, to mention aborigines in the constitution’s preamble. Mr Wyatt is “glad” it failed: “It was done in haste with the wrong set of words.” (The proposal simply spoke of “honouring” indigenous people “for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country”; veterans and immigrants also got a shout-out.)

This time, the referendum council took a different approach. For six months it consulted indigenous people around Australia, culminating in a “First Nations National Constitutional Convention” at Uluru (Ayers Rock), in central Australia in late May. The resulting “Uluru Statement” demanded more than token recognition. It called for “Makarrata”, or “agreement-making between governments and First Nations”—a treaty, in other words. (Unlike those in neighbouring New Zealand, the British colonisers in Australia never signed any treaties with the indigenous people.)

A treaty would not necessarily involve constitutional change. But the convention’s other big demand would: it asks for a “First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution”. At the very least, this seems to mean that aborigines should have some formal involvement in the drafting of laws that affect them. “In 1967 we were counted,” the convention declared. “In 2017 we seek to be heard.”

Ken Wyatt is a nice guy, and a Liberal too (as was the first Indigenous parliamentarian, Queensland Senator Neville Bonner) but I’m concerned that “a few” Indigenous MPs are not enough to achieve “an aboriginal voice”. I’m concerned because at 5 Members and Senators in the Federal Parliament, Indigenous Australians are only slightly underrepresented as a proportion of population – roughly 2.2 versus 2.7 per cent (and in any case I don’t believe that the parliament has to be an exact demographic reflection of the society in order to be representative). I’m concerned because I don’t know how many would be enough to achieve “an aboriginal voice” and why. But most of all I’m concerned because to me a “First Nations voice enshrined in the constitution” smacks of extrademocratic mechanisms that afford a special treatment to a minority – either a quota of seats in the Parliament to be set aside for Indigenous Australians, or, more likely, some sort of an Indigenous quasi-parliament which has a say in matters and laws relating to Indigenous Australians.

This is a dangerous path because if Indigenous people then why not everyone else? On that basis every other group in our society has an argument to not merely be consulted (as governments generally do) when laws are being drafted affecting them, but to have their views and preferences actually enshrined in them. Are seniors, veterans, single parents, or the disabled (for example) any less deserving such an opportunity?

The state of Indigenous Australia with all its full spectrum of disadvantage and under-performance is a national disgrace. But it’s not a national disgrace because the governments are not spending enough money; it’s despite the fact that they are spending all this money without apparent results. Indigenous people receive some $24 billion a year from general government education, health and welfare spending. This works out to about $37,000 for each Aboriginal man, woman and child in Australia (based on the latest census figures). On top of that, all three levels of government spend another $6 billion a year in Indigenous-specific programs. The problem is not the lack of money; it’s that it’s not working.

If Indigenous Australians are indeed a nation within a nation, then it’s a corrupt and dysfunctional Third World nation within one of the most developed nations in the world. Just like a Third World nation there is a small and well connected elite, a silent middle class, and the forgotten masses. Before we set up some sort of an Indigenous parliament, those who would sit there, who also happen to be the greatest current beneficiaries of the billions spent on the “Aboriginal industry” or the “Aboriginal bureaucracy”, need to answer for the disadvantage of their brothers and sisters, and answer beyond the usual trope of blaming “whitefella racism”.

We don’t need any more politicians to suck on the taxpayers’ tit – we need solutions.