Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Deferring Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia: When Partisan Politics Really Gets in the Way

This blog has discussed in the past the issue of constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia, and how a referendum was being called for after an expert panel convened by the government recommended so. Surprisingly, the referendum met with support from all sides of the political spectrum, including the two major political parties. A campaign went underway, led by You Me Unity (here), an organization created by the government for the purposes of consultation with indigenous groups and also raising awareness to the referendum, so as to guarantee its passage. But work has been slow, and a significant part of the Australia population (61%) is still unaware the referendum is even on the political agenda. Most of this segment of the population is concentrated in rural areas, which are the ones where Aboriginal peoples are more likely to inhabit.

Professor George Williams of the University of New South Wales published an op-ed piece in the Sydney Morning Herald (can be read hereprecisely exploring some of these issues, and highlighting the need for popular involvement with the referendum. He even suggests a nationwide popular competition for the drafting of the new preamble, similar to the contest for the design of the Australian flag led in 1901.

As a result of this unforeseen difficulty of raising awareness, and the upcoming federal elections in Australia next year, the current (Labor) government has proposed that the referendum be postponed, and that an “Act of Recognition” be passed instead, making the recognition happen through a federal statute initially. This Act of Recognition would then contain a sunset clause, determining that a referendum be held within three years of the act’s passage.

The Act of Recognition strikes me as an elegant solution because it would pass much more quickly (it only requires voting in the two federal legislative houses, as opposed to referenda in all eight states and territories), and also because it would bind the next government (regardless of who wins the election) to really go through with the referendum. It also importantly buys more time to build consensus around the country.

But then the opposition (Liberal) leader went on to criticize the government’s move, saying it is inadmissible that the current government may seek to bind the following government to go through a referendum process. I see two possible (and not mutually exclusive) explanations for this move. The first one is a principled approach from the Liberal opposition to having the Labor government command them even after it (possibly) stops being the government (polls indicate a slight edge for the Liberals to win the next election). This possibility also speaks to the cheap political game in Australia, where the opposition spends its time decrying every single act by the government out of principle, regardless of the acts merits. After all, if the opposition supported the referendum, and wants constitutional recognition to go through, why would it oppose what is considered to be the best strategy to do so?

This leads to the second possibility: the opposition is in fact not interested in constitutional recognition, and is pushing for the referendum to happen before the elections so the referendum will fail, as You Me Unity suspects it will if the referendum is done now.

Regardless of what the reason is for the opposition’s reaction to the Act of Recognition, the fact of the matter is that the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples in Australia is long, long overdue, and that petty politics should give way to the greater good of peoples who have already endured colonization and are now deeply marginalized and disenfranchised. Constitutional recognition is an essential first step in making amends and allowing these peoples to flourish in Australia, their country.

Post written by Lucas Lixinski.

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