Whatever the final wording, the proposal to acknowledge Aborigines and their culture in the Constitution will present but a single theme for endorsement or rejection. That’s a pity because, with a a dash of reality on the ballot, some good might come of the exercise
One thing Australian politics is good at is thinking up slogans to encapsulate complex ideas in one, two or three words. The possible interpretations are often so ambiguous that every group, irrespective of their ideologies, feel that the slogan speaks to them and supports their cause. In the process, individuals warm to the bland or emotive catch phrases because they’re ‘motherhood’ stuff, we’re Australian, they’re fair dinkum sentiments and we all back the ideal of the fair go.
The latest one-word concept is ‘Recognise’, originally meant to convey national agreement that the Aborigines were this country’s First People and, as such, should be acknowledged in the Constitution, the nation’s founding document. Anyone who has read the pamphlets, posters and stickers will be aware that the current goal is to go well beyond simply bestowing constitutional recognition on First People. Rather, the push would enshrine respect for Indigenous culture, language, ancestor country, myths and genesis beliefs.
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Amid the predictable argy-bargy that has arisen during the quest for just the right wording it has become clear that there is much fuzzy thinking clouding the whole Recognise procedure, prompting an unholy row between clans, language groups and self-appointed spokespersons.
At the risk of being branded an ignorant outsider with no understanding of Indigenous values, culture or tradition, I suggest a new list of the things we should be given the opportunity to recognise or reject in any referendum. In an effort to gain consensus on the place and role of Aborigines in the future Australian nation, we should be asked to tick the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ boxes in regard to recognising the following concepts :
1. RECOGNISE that we were all cavemen once and that we’re all migrants.
2. RECOGNISE that Aborigines were the first humans to inhabit this continent.
3. RECOGNISE that after 50,000 years of occupation, the Aborigines were still hunter-gatherer cavemen at the time of first contact.
4. RECOGNISE that global migrations historically led to newcomers dominating original inhabitants.
5. RECOGNISE that fairness or legality were never criteria by which successful migrations by newcomers were judged.
6. RECOGNISE that advances in technical and intellectual capacity were always what characterised migrating newcomers who intervened in the original inhabitants’ way of life.
7. RECOGNISE that invaded peoples only became subservient to newcomers when they lacked the military power to resist and overcome the newcomers.
8. RECOGNISE that world history demonstrates that invasion is driven by a desire to gain new resources of many different types.
9. RECOGNISE that the march of human civilisations is based on adopting new ideas, new values and new technologies, all processes accelerated by the infusion of new cultures.
10. RECOGNISE that culture is not civilisation, that physical structures and civil organisations have arisen from a dissatisfaction with the primitive status quo and recognition of the advantages of civil advancement in benefiting both individuals and groups.
11. RECOGNISE that personal productivity in its many forms is the key to group progress and that without wealth-generation group well-being stagnates.
12. RECOGNISE that respect from others cannot be legally enforced or demanded, but must be earned by behaviour and performance which meet community norms.
13. RECOGNISE that racial separatism cannot deliver the same level of advancement as diverse unity, built on tolerant co-operation.
14. RECOGNISE that each group of migrants can maintain their identity and enjoy their culture, without losing their common national aspirations as one of the world’s most successful multicultures.
15. RECOGNISE that personal progress depends on our capacity to adapt, to change, to value new ways and to appreciate that not all our traditional beliefs are useful, appropriate or beneficial in our children’s modern world.
16. RECOGNISE that, while respect and comfort for our elders are honourable sentiments which should be preserved, it is the future of our coming generations which determines our success as a group.
17. RECOGNISE that while teaching our youth the traditional knowledge of their country can be an appropriate segment of our education policy, a mature balance between idealism and reality is required if coming generations are to develop into competitive moderns.
18. RECOGNISE that while mother-tongue language has deep emotive roots which strengthen our sense of belonging, the appropriate role and function of global language can be ignored only at our peril.
19. RECOGNISE that most health problems result from personal choices and that even expensive healthcare fails when individual responsibility fails.
20. RECOGNISE that the definition of Aboriginality is fraught and insufficient to act as a binding thread for identity and organisational purposes.
21. RECOGNISE that highly variable dominance of Aboriginal DNA cannot continue to be used as an ‘opt-in’ criterion for group membership, and because of this policy weakness, it must be replaced by the concept of need, rather than genetic association, as the basis for a supportive welfare policy.
22. RECOGNISE that for historic reasons, there is a degree of tension between the world’s races and religions, and that expecting a non-discriminatory worldwide brotherhood is at odds with human tendencies which cause common language and faith to draw individuals together.
23. RECOGNISE that we don’t need to love our neighbours but we do need to tolerate them, as they tolerate us.
24. RECOGNISE that each human group has a collective responsibility to the earth on which we depend, and for this reason population growth, pollution control and resource maintenance are everyone’s responsibility and should be taught in homes and schools.
25. RECOGNISE that group identity in most young nations is not a clear-cut phenomena, and as such, all citizens should learn to tolerate uncertainty, respect change and practice patience.
Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow