Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Referendum for Constitutional Change 40 years

The 27th May 2007 marks 40 years since the people of Australia voted yes to changing the constitution regarding Aboriginal people. The referendum concerned the removal of sections from two clauses of the constitution that disqualified Aboriginal people from the right to vote and be included as citizens:

51. The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:-

(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any State, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

127. In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.

The removal of the words ‘… other than the aboriginal people in any State…' in section 51(xxvi) and the whole of section 127 were considered by many to be representative of the prevailing movement for political change within Indigenous affairs. As a result of the political climate, this referendum saw the highest YES vote ever recorded in a Federal referendum, with 90.77 per cent voting for change.

Although I was born two years after the referendum I feel that this was a high point in what has been general a very sorry story. I was among the first generation of Australians to grow up with Aboriginal people who were not classified as part of the flora and fauna of Australia. Rather, the indigenous people from 1967 were legally (if not practically as racism is rife in Australia) considered members of the community at large. That it only happened 40 years ago is an irony of bitter consequence.

Today things are not good but perhaps they are better than they were on 26th May 1967. Aboriginal disadvantage is common knowledge in Australia. New South Wales Minister for Fair Trading, Linda Burney (a member of the Wiradjuri nation) spoke at Wagga Wagga recently on what is happening at the moment regarding Aboriginal Australia:

"The truth is this we are not all equal. And we are not all mates … It is almost impossible to put into words the distress being felt at the roll-back in Aboriginal affairs. Not least because you think of all those people who gave so much."

The Prime Minister spoke today at Parliament house and was heckled; "We have been genocided by your government and your court," the unidentified woman yelled to loud applause from the gathered crowd.

Prime Minister Howard's ideas for overcoming Aboriginal disadvantage seem to be steeped in a paternalistic vision of assimilation:

"The right of an Aboriginal Australian to live on remote communal land and to speak an Indigenous language is no right at all if it is accompanied by grinding poverty, overcrowding, poor health, community violence and isolation from mainstream Australian society."

These remote, communally owned traditional lands are the only ones still controlled by Aboriginal groups. That they are isolated and not supported with infrastructure is a shame for the Government not the people that live there. Consider that a uranium mine built on land taken from "remote communal land" can be equipped with all the facilities found in a major city (sewage, electricity, access to education and so on) and it is not done for Aboriginal groups. One wonders about the rational behind such facts.

I found the text to former Prime Minister Paul Keating's speech given in Redfern Park in 1993;

More I think than most Australians recognise, the plight of Aboriginal Australians affects us all. In Redfern it might be tempting to think that the reality Aboriginal Australians face is somehow contained here, and that the rest of us are insulated from it. But of course, while all the dilemmas may exist here, they are far from contained. We know the same dilemmas and more are faced all over Australia.

This is why the status of Aboriginal Australians is important. Not until the crimes of the past and the present are dealt with mutually (and not by just avoiding the issue) through dialogue then the whole concept of Australian identity, for all Australians, is compromised.

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