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September 15th 2014 print

Frank Salter

‘Recognise’ the Retreat

The campaign for a referendum to amend the Constitution appears to be foundering -- news to cheer those who believe we are all Australians and spurn the notion of a nation whose citizenry is categorised first and foremost by race and ethnic background

recognitionThe campaign to recognise Indigenous peoples in the Australian Constitution has descended into chaos.  The Prime Minister’s hand-picked advisory panel has recommended that yet another advisory body be formed, declaring the public is not yet ready for a referendum. Translated, this means Australians are not guaranteed to vote ‘yes’ to anything placed before them. The panel has suggested that the referendum be delayed to 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum.  This amounts to dumping the matter in the “too hard” basket. 

The government is sending strong signals that a referendum cannot be won in the short term.  The Prime Minister indicated last week that a delay would improve the chances of success.

My guess is that the Recognise What? campaign has played a role in confounding the referendum process, by pointing out the irresponsibility of the more ambitious proposals.  The book of the same name, edited by Gary Johns, and a growing log of cautionary articles in the media appear to be having the desired effect.  The panel chairman, former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, said he feared the referendum would fail due to extreme demands from Recognise supporters or a scare campaign by conservatives.  This remark hints at the depth of the Recognise campaign’s confusion.  “Scare campaign” is a strange way to characterise opposition to extremism.

Another sign of confusion in the Recognise ranks is Noel Pearson’s discarding the recommendations of the Gillard-appointed Expert Panel.  This was a costly, time-consuming exercise whose report Pearson approved.  It is not something he would lightly abandon.  But on September 10 that is what he did — or perhaps pretended to do because his Plan B is almost as risky as the Expert Panel’s.  Pearson adopted something close to Greg Craven’s proposal for instituting a new statutory body to give Aborigines quasi-legal oversight on legislation affecting indigenous peoples. And he still demands removal of references to race, despite this being irrelevant to recognition and posing technical nightmares for the drafters of the referendum.  This Plan B is being sold by Pearson and the media as a concession to conservatives.  But it is radical.

The new proposal reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the scholarship on ethnicity and nationalism and its application to Australia.  Pearson maintains that the Australian nation has three parts: an ancient heritage provided by Indigenous peoples, the political and social structures provided by British settlers, and the joys of cultural diversity provided by post-WWII immigrants.  This pretends that Aborigines’ heritage, inherited by 2.5% of the population, is claimed by all Australians and that non-Indigenous peoples do not have their own ancient heritages; as if their deep histories were forgotten on arrival on these shores. The British founders provided a core identity as well as structures.

Pearson is not alone in constructing such fantastic historical scenarios.  Other commentators claim that white settlement itself was a sin, a “bitter historical injustice”, for which the Australian people must permanently atone. This is an outrageous position that denies the legitimacy of the nation’s possession of the continent.  Pearson’s new proposal would establish an ethnic constitution that makes most Australians second-class citizens. Such a fantasy offers no justification for giving Aborigines constitutional privileges, which as Wesley Aird, a member of Recognise What? points out, is the last thing they need.

We should hope that the Recognise campaign’s intellectual, political and moral chaos never finds its way into our Constitution.

Frank Salter is an Australian urban anthropologist and ethologist who studies organisations and society using the methods and concepts of behavioural biology. His books include On Genetic Interests and Emotions in Command.