Like many countries which were originally colonies, Australia has been reluctant to admit past transgressions against the original inhabitants of our country. In 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generation – those Indigenous Australians who, as children, had been taken from their families to live in foster homes. Some of these children never saw their families again. In doing this, Rudd at least expressed some understanding of the hurt and damage such a policy caused, and admitted that it had been wrong.
Tony Abbott, current Prime Minister, has decided that his legacy to Indigenous Australia will be to include in Australian’s Constitution a recognition of the Aboriginal people as original inhabitants of Australia. It will also recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have a deep connection with the land and waters.*
However, Liberal-National Party Senator David Leyonhjelm disagrees with this idea. To be clear, he is a senator in the governing coalition, and it is the leader of his party who is advocating for these changes. Not to colour your opinion of Leyonhjelm, but this is the person who, after the January siege in the Lindt Coffee Shop in Sydney, said that it wouldn’t have happened if Australia’s gun laws had been more liberal. Because obviously in places where gun laws are more liberal, they never have sieges or mass shootings, ever.
OK, I lied, that totally colours your opinion of him.
In this case, Leyonhjelm argues that including a clause in the Constitution focussed on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is a ‘perverse kind of racism’. It singles out one single race, to the exclusion of others, therefore it is racist. Leyonhjelm goes on to say that the claim that the parliament “acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” is divisive, because some people in Australia may not acknowledge or respect this.
This kind of ‘logic’ hurts my head. Leyonhjelm is basically saying that all of us should agree with everything in the Constitution, or we shouldn’t put it in. But the Constitution should be something we amend as we see fit, when events or society evolve past a point to require its alteration. Not on a whim, of course, but with careful consideration, and with support of both sides of parliament. After all, the original preamble includes New Zealand as a state of the Commonwealth of Australia. The world changes, and we should be willing to change with it.
Politicians are in government to represent what we want, but they are also there to represent the best of who we are. Yes, there are people who don’t respect the history that Indigenous Australians bring to this country. They don’t acknowledge the deep connection with the lands and waters of Australia. But that doesn’t mean it should be kept out of our Constitution. If anything, including such language encourages those who dismiss the significance of Australia’s First Peoples to consider their position.
In a sense, though, Leyonhjelm has a point. It is racially divisive to mention one people in the Constitution, when we are such a multicultural nation. There shouldn’t be the need to formally state that we acknowledge and respect Indigenous Australians. That should be something that simply happens. In fact, just think of all the resources spent on assistance, education and health just for Aboriginal Australians. Why are we singling out one part of the population to receive all this assistance and funding? How racist, indeed.
I’m guessing, though, that most of us would love to see the back of such specific programs, if it meant the prospects of Aboriginal people improved to meet the same standards as the non-Indigenous population. As it is, the health outcomes for
Indigenous Australians compared to non-Indigenous are dismal. Indigenous Australians are at least 13 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians. They’re less likely to finish school, more likely to live in overcrowded housing. There is a long, long list of challenges that Indigenous Australians face, and their impact on everyday life cannot be underestimated. Rather than claiming that adding words to the Constitution is racist, we should be asking why our society is so divided.
The point that Leyonhjelm is missing is that focussing on the Aboriginal contribution to the history of our nation is another necessary step in helping to bridge that gap. And it is such a gap. It’s not that we should be trying to ensure that Aboriginal people are somehow morphed into non-Indigenous culture. It’s that we need to recognise just how disruptive an invasion of one’s country is, and how awesome it is that even after centuries of dissonance and discrimination, the Aboriginal people are still here.
I would love for there to one day be no need to have a separate government department for Indigenous Affairs, or an Aboriginal Legal Service, or Indigenous Housing Program, because we have reached a point where we are all equal in every sense of the word. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine what our country would look like, if Indigenous Australians had every opportunity that non-Indigenous Australians had? If life expectancy were the same, if infant mortality were the same, if risks of chronic disease or incarceration were the same? That would be something. Just imagine what kind of incredible country we could be, if we could achieve that together.
And yet, even when we reach that point of racial equality, I would still argue for a clause in the Constitution, honouring and commemorating the First Peoples of our country. That’s not racist, despite what Senator Leyonhjelm might argue. That’s just good manners.
*Note that I’m not mentioning the Abbott government cuts to the Aboriginal Legal Service, which rather diminish any worth of Abbott’s promise about amending the Constitution.