Bennelong Papers

Recognising Some Difficult Questions

r for recogniseHaving watched as much as I could bear of Recognition: Yes or No on ABC TV, what follows is addressed to Linda Burney, Stan Grant and everyone else, Aborigine or not, who advocate that Indigenous Australians be recognised in a revised Constitution.

Q: Is the Australian Constitution the historical record of the nation, or is it the document prescribing the rules by which Australia is to be governed?

If the former, then it is woefully incomplete, because it fails to list anything at all of the history of Australia. In that event, it must be written anew from beginning to end and it should most certainly begin with the recognition that there were Indigenous people living on this continent and its islands when the First Fleet arrived. This new document – considerably longer then the old – might be named Constitution Mark II, with the existing one left untouched to continue to serve its original purpose.

If the latter is the case, what justification is there amidst all that unrelated legalistic text to mention just one single historical fact relating to one single group? Wouldn’t that be utterly illogical by any standard?

Q: Is anyone is under the illusion that there are some in Australia, or anywhere else for that matter, who are not aware of the fact – who do not “recognise” – that there were Indigenous people living on this continent and its islands when the First Fleet arrived?

If the answer to this question is in the affirmative, then perhaps there is some legitimacy to acknowledging an Aboriginal presence in 1788 and thousands of years before, even if not inserting it into the Constitution.

If, on the other hand, the answer is in the negative, then what on earth is the purpose of any official “recognition” of this perfectly well-known, undisputed historical fact, especially in a legal document where it does not belong?

Q: Is it reasonable to believe that some form of official “recognition” of the fact that there was an Indigenous population on this continent when the First Fleet arrived would in any way improve the lives of Australian Aborigines?

There were similar expectations when voting rights were extended to Aborigines, when land-rights legislation was enacted, and when Kevin Rudd apologised. None of those events made an iota of difference to any aspect of the lives of Aborigines. Why expect anything different in this instance?

Q: How could the “recognition” of one specific group of Australian society not be divisive?

Human nature would guarantee that most of those belonging to a group so privileged could not avoid a sense of superiority or, at the very least, a sense of exceptionalism. How could that be anything other than divisive?

Q: Are Aborigines better entitled to regard their culture as extraordinarily special than those of different cultural backgrounds?

If so, why exactly. Why not add a further line to the Constitution, perhaps to honour the migrant waves that followed World War II?

Perhaps, in the comments thread below, Quadrant Online readers might care to react to my ruminations.

  • exuberan

    My ever lingering question has always been this, What if 1788 never happened?, what if no other civilisation ever came to Australia. What would Aboriginal Australia be like today? To me the answer is obvious. Look at the huge quantum leap that has been expected of Aboriginal Australia since 1788.

    • 8457

      What if 1788 happened but it was the Portuguese?

      East Timor in spades?

      • whitelaughter

        Given that most of the problems in East Timor* were caused by the Indonesian invasion – suppose the Indonesians moved in? The massacres that are currently happening in West Papua would be occurring across the continent.
        Japan? [shudder]
        The Maoris?

        *granted that the refusal of the Portuguese to let the Timorese run businesses still cripples them economically, due to the lack of a native mercantile class.

  • Peter OBrien


    Great and concise article. With your first question you nailed it. The others are just icing on the cake, nonetheless valid for that.

    I too watched ‘Recognition Yes or No?’ last night and my reaction was pretty much the same as yours. What a waste of time and money.


      Thank you for your kind remarks Peter, which I highly value.

      • ianl

        Bill, you asked this question in the beginning of your essay:

        > ” … If Aborigines are to be written into the Constitution, what is that must be added?”

        I fear that doesn’t matter. Various stacked High Courts will answer it for us.

  • Patrick McCauley

    All five questions show incisive common sense and put both cases … but I don’t believe the question is merely verbal/ written/constitutional ‘recognition’ … they are now talking of treaty again. I believe the Aboriginal lobby actually want ‘sovereignty’ … they want the land back with full title … or lots of money ( lots more than has already been paid ) The ‘ambit claim’ developing from the powerful left wing Aboriginal lobby will include the words ‘Treaty’ and/ or ‘Compensation’. The ‘pride’ that has been developed from abundant ‘Recognition’ over the past generation or so can be seen best in the attitude of Ms Prior who is presently seeking $250,000 from three Qld University students for denting the massive edifice she has created and been given access to by The HRC.


    What struck me as a relevant point was that Linda identified as indigenous yet had 50 percent Scottish heritage. Seems typical of many claiming aboriginal heritage but ignoring or diminishing any other heritage they may have, allowing some form of advantage.

  • Jody

    And when Bolt asked Burney whether children would be better off learning maths, science and english so that they could get employment (rather than learn their own language and culture) her answer was that ‘it shouldn’t be an either/or situation’. Unintelligent comment which flies in the face of economic realities. Honestly, I think they like the idea of belonging to an exclusive clique which makes them better and distinguishes them from other Australians. Yes, that’s it. A clique.

    • padraic

      So called “recognition” is essential ammunition for the lawyer activists pursuing “lawfare” to progress a “treaty”. You may have noticed a well-known media personality suddenly showing great interest in having a treaty. Constitutional recognition will result in two nations and I don’t know how such a scheme would work without geographical boundaries. As Bill says – everyone recognises that Aboriginals exist, so what’s the big deal?

      • PT

        Clearly they have an agenda they think will be furthered by it. Either legal challenges, or “the constitution itself recognises… Therefore….”.

        • rosross

          The agenda is financial. The Stolen Generation was invented for financial gain although it has failed in courts because there is no case. The Hindmarsh Island bridge affair in South Australia was invented for financial gain.

          It is the legal ramifications in regard to financial gain, of changing the Constitution to give a small group superior rights, which motivates the Aboriginal industry.

          Money, money, money. Nothing has changed from when the English began handing out rations and ‘free stuff’ to Aborigines – ‘sit down money,’ as the Aborigines called it and now they just want more ‘sit down money.’


    John Howard said that the history of referendums is such that unless you have a clear question that is self-evident it has no chance of passing. Moreover if it shows that it will give a clear advantage to a very small minority that also would kill it. That is my expectation also. As Gerry Van Hees points out Linda Burney is at most 50% aboriginal. Recently a federal judge had to deny a case concerning Aboriginality because of lack of transparency. If Paddy Coleman claims advantage after a constitutional change how do we determine whether he is aboriginal or not? A DNA test? There are strong feelings in the aboriginal community about what they call white Aboriginals.


    I am of partly English and partly Scottish heritage and although my progenitor’s country was once settled by Romans, Vikings,and Norman French I accept the cultural advantages of hot baths, blonde hair, and fine dining. I don’t want any special recognition or compensation.

    • rosross

      How incredibly sensible and mature of you. Actually, of most of us unless we are on the indigenous gravy-train.

  • rosross

    Why should one segment of the community, and a tiny, tiny minority at that, be singled out as exceptional simply because they can trace some ancestral Aboriginal inheritance, often so minimal it is insignificant?

    Such recognition says that one is more Australian, i.e. superior, depending upon how far back an ancestral connection can be traced. Ergo, someone who became a citizen last week counts for nothing and will not count for anything for many generations.

    And why should it be that someone who is 99.9% Anglo/European/Asian and barely 1% Aboriginal be identified as Aboriginal and accorded greater rights as an Australian?

    I presume the reference to voting rights refers to the 67 referendum and would only say, this referendum was not about voting rights, although that was the lie presented, because Aborigines had voting rights, even if they did not know it.

    Quote: The right to vote
    Another common myth is that the 1967 referendum gave the Aboriginal people the right to vote. This is incorrect. The 1967 referendum had nothing to do with this right (or “equal rights” or rights at all).

    Aboriginal people were able to vote in all States and in the Commonwealth by 1967. From 1949 they could vote in Commonwealth elections if they were enrolled to vote in NSW, Victoria, South Australia or Tasmania. Indigenous people who had been in military service also had the right to vote. In 1962, all other Aboriginal people became entitled to vote in Commonwealth elections.

    At the State level, Aboriginal people were able to vote in South Australia, NSW, Tasmania and Victoria throughout the 20th century. In Western Australia and Queensland they gained the State vote, respectively, in 1962 and 1965.

    It should also be noted that the official definition of Aboriginal has changed over time, and voting rights of individuals have therefore changed accordingly. Many Aboriginal people today would not have been excluded from the right to vote under the former laws.

    In any case (with the exception of a now-spent transitional provision – section 41), neither eligibility to vote nor the franchise is mentioned in the Constitution. The right to vote is a matter for ordinary legislation. The Constitution did not need to be altered for Aboriginal people to gain the right to vote.

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