Will constitutional recognition mean anything to Aboriginal families?

 abc.net.au  5/20/2017 6:51:46 PM   Indigenous affairs correspondent Bridget Brennan

Posted May 21, 2017 04:51:46

For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, the complex debate over our constitution seems a world away.

Key points:

  • This week a "historic" constitutional convention is being held in Uluru — read the proposals that are on the table
  • Noel Pearson says whatever the outcome of the meeting, "it must be substantive"
  • Labor frontbencher Linda Burney says "the most important thing is a meaningful change … for everyone in australia"

Between swimming lessons and school drop-offs, Sydney mum Deborah Lonsdale has barely given a thought to whether a referendum could unite the country, or whether it is hollow gesture unworthy of the effort.

"I'm not focussed on that," Ms Lonsdale said.

"I'm more concerned with my son … surviving and being a parent."

Her Kamilaroi family have a history here that goes back tens of thousands of years, and she wants her son Cameron to be proud of that.

But next week, while hundreds of Indigenous people will meet for a historic constitutional convention at Uluru, she'll be ferrying her son to school and sport, steering clear of the politics.

"He's non-stop, like a little energy ball — It's all about his education," she said.

Smart, cheeky and full-of-beans, Cameron has just started his first year at a multicultural primary school at Bonnyrigg in Sydney's south-west.

Ms Lonsdale chose the school because she wants her son to get good support in the classroom, and to mix with kids from all different backgrounds.

She hopes he'll thrive in an Australia that's "fair" and that he'll "have all the tools he needs to be able to survive".

For now her focus is on setting up a package under the National Disability Insurance Scheme for Cameron, who has a sensory delay disorder which affects his speech and mobility.

He needs several different types of therapy, some of which is expensive and difficult to access, Ms Lonsdale says.

"I want to get him to a point where I know that we've got all the therapy done for him and I want to be able to show him life, to take him travelling."

Will reforming the constitution be effective?

So could reforming Australia's constitution be of any use to families like Deborah Lonsdale's?

Tasmanian Aboriginal writer Michael Mansell doubts that, and thinks many of his people will need convincing that constitutional recognition is a worthwhile step.

"All Aboriginal people in Tasmania — although there could be exceptions — would say 'Constitutional recognition, we don't understand it. It can't do anything to give us an advantage'," he said.

Mr Mansell has been invited to this week's meeting at Uluru.

The aim of the conference is to spell out the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on constitutional recognition — and there are several options for change up for discussion.

But Mr Mansell is sceptical a referendum to acknowledge Australia's first people in our founding document would succeed, and he does not see why it is a priority.

"I can't see why we need recognition — We know who we are, we're Aboriginal people. We know that we've been here since time began," he said.

"We know the invasion took place, we know that we've been subjugated and we know that our land has been taken."

Indigenous people from every state and territory have been invited to the Uluru summit to reach a consensus on whether a referendum is needed, and what it might look like.

Finding middle ground:

Twelve delegations from across the country will make their way to Central Australia this week to try to find middle ground on a proposal.

  • Options for change include:
  • Drafting a statement acknowledging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians
  • Amending or deleting the "race power" — section 51 — which allows the Federal Government to make special laws for Indigenous people
  • Inserting a constitutional prohibition against racial discrimination into the constitution
  • Establishing an Indigenous body of representatives to be consulted by Parliament
  • Deleting section 25, a redundant clause which says state governments can exclude people from voting in on the basis of their race.

Noel Pearson, a key member of the government-appointed Referendum Council, expects the Uluru delegates will reject a referendum that appears symbolic.

"It is crucially important I think that we achieve this, but it must be substantive," Mr Pearson said.

"It weighs on everyone's conscience that the original Australians are not prospering in what is a very great country."

Although there's bipartisan support for a referendum on recognition, there has never been a model for change endorsed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Professor Megan Davis is also a member of the Referendum Council, which was funded by the Federal Government to advise on the views of Indigenous people.

She has listened to Indigenous people from Tasmania to the Torres Strait, and says any potential vote must have the approval of the people it affects.

"You cannot do this without having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on board, as key drivers of the model," she said.

"The great thing about these dialogues is that it's coming from the grassroots."

'Meaningful change' is the priority: MPs

Labor frontbencher Linda Burney, a longtime supporter of recognition, believes the glaring omission of First Nations people in the constitution is worth amending.

"I don't have a preferred proposal in my mind — I think the most important thing is that it is a meaningful change, not just for Aboriginal people, but for everyone in Australia," she said.

Federal Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt will also be watching this week's Uluru summit with interest.

He wants any change to be meaningful, but insists any referendum proposal put to the Australian people must be "realistic".

"Constitutional propositions are not readily accepted by Australians — we can see that with the low level of success for referenda," Mr Wyatt said.

"When Federal Governments have put up propositions that people have seen as too ambitious and slightly overreaching then they tend to vote no."

Over the past six months, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have told the Referendum Council they want ambitious reforms to make sure communities can have a say on legislation that affects them.

Many regarded the Government's Indigenous Advancement Strategy — a Government funding arrangement introduced in 2014 — as a shambles, Professor Davis said.

"Money, infrastructure, has been ripped from communities, people really feel powerless and voiceless and that is building momentum for change," she said.

There's been support for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander "voice to Parliament" — a body proposed by Mr Pearson which he said could be established in the constitution to be consulted on laws and policies.

"One of the common complaints all across the country is that we just don't seem to have a voice in relation to our own affairs," he said.

"Is it any wonder policy becomes so poor?"

Some of meetings that have already been held said treaty negotiations were vital, others argued that the constitution should be changed to include a ban on racial discrimination.

It's now almost certain that the Uluru "position" will support much more than a statement of acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution.

The Uluru summit falls on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum.

That vote — the most successful referendum in Australian history — gave the Commonwealth powers to make laws for Aboriginal people, and count Indigenous people in the census.

"We stand on the shoulders of giants and I think we owe it to those who fought the good fights all those years ago to make the country a better place," Mr Pearson said.

Topics: indigenous-policy, government-and-politics, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, constitution, australia, nt, alice-springs-0870

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