Peter Dutton’s promise on 11 August (reiterated on 3 September) to have his own referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution is a grave mistake. Admittedly, the promise may make sense politically as polling shows most Australians support the concept of symbolic constitutional recognition rather than the Voice. Most No campaigners have insisted they support recognition but reject the Uluru Statement’s model of voice, treaty and truth-telling.
However, such an approach is misguided because it was a desire to entrench constitutional recognition in the first place that got the nation into this current referendum mess. Let us begin in 1999 when John Howard proposed a preamble to the Constitution. Most people remember the Republic Referendum of that year. However, John Howard also proposed a preamble. There was no enthusiastic campaign for the preamble, and it was defeated by a significant margin, close to 60% voting ‘No.’ In contrast, the Republic question was defeated by much less (55%). This statement is that John Howard wanted to insert into the Constitution:
With hope in God, the Commonwealth of Australia is constituted as a democracy with a federal system of government to serve the common good. We the Australian people commit ourselves to this Constitution: proud that our national unity has been forged by Australians from many ancestries; never forgetting the sacrifices of all who defended our country and our liberty in time of war; upholding freedom, tolerance, individual dignity and the rule of law; honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation’s first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country; recognising the nation-building contribution of generations of immigrants; mindful of our responsibility to protect our unique natural environment; supportive of achievement as well as equality of opportunity for all; and valuing independence as dearly as the national spirit which binds us together in both adversity and success.
Howard’s preamble failed. I would have voted against it at the time because having these sorts of cultural summations latched onto the Constitution will never satisfy everyone. Acknowledging the British and European foundations of Australian society should have been in Howard’s preamble, for example, but the politics of the time forbade it. However, the failure of Howard’s preamble is a reminder that symbolic constitutional recognition has already been tried and rejected. Nevertheless, the idea that there should be some form of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians remained in our politics after 1999. Howard proposed another try at constitutional recognition in the last days of desperation in 2007.
Under Kevin Rudd, we got a national apology in 2008. In 2010, partly due to the infamous Australia 2020 Summit in 2008 (one of Kevin Rudd’s little initiatives in the early years), we saw Julia Gillard establishing an expert panel on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into the Constitution.
In the 2009-13 period, Tony Abbott committed himself enthusiastically as Opposition Leader to constitutional recognition. Abbott had a hard conservative reputation, the Coalition was helping to block same-sex marriage, and he needed a palliative. Supporting constitutional recognition was a way to soften that image. Abbott was undoubtedly genuine in committing to the concept, given his passion for spending time in and helping remote indigenous communities. However, as often occurs, these basic ideas get overwhelmed by more radical objectives.
In 2013, the bipartisan Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act provided parliamentary recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first inhabitants of the Australian continent and called for the beginning of a process to plan for constitutional recognition. A referendum council was established. In July 2015, Abbott and then Opposition Leader Bill Shorten agreed to the Kirribilli House Statement that put in motion a range of regional dialogues around the country on recognition in indigenous communities. These regional dialogues ultimately fed into the Uluru Statement from the Heart. At this stage, the federal Coalition (Turnbull taking over as leader and PM in September 2013) was still enthusiastic about the recognition process. However, similar to Louis XVI’s calling of the Estates-General for the first time in more than a century in 1788, the consultation process would turn up something much more radical than had been intended.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart put forward the tripartite agenda of Voice, Treaty and Truth. The statement begins by saying:
We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart:
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands and possessed it under our laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.
The statement goes on to claim that
Sovereignty is a spiritual notion, the ancestral tie between the lands or Mother Nature and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are born there from remain attached thereto, and one must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil or, better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished and coexists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
The statement is nationalistic by any understanding. It is a crystallisation and an expression of Aboriginal nationalism in Australia that parallels the European national movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. According to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the unfinished business of Australia’s nationhood is to recognise the ancient jurisdictions of indigenous law. They say that every First Nation has its word for law. It is crucial in this view for Australia to reckon with this sovereignty and recognise it in some fashion. The British arrival in Australia ruined this ongoing culture, destroyed it, and disfigured it. Still, in some form, it has survived and needs to be recognised side by side with the Australian state because they see the conquest of Australia and the settlement of Australia as an invasion. They want to ensure Australians know the ‘truth’ about the nation’s history. Non-Aboriginal Australians in this framing need to take responsibility for the history they created.
The Coalition under both Turnbull and Morrison wisely rejected the implementation of the statement in full. Unfortunately, they failed to combat the enormous cultural campaign waged by its supporters of the from 2017 until now. Fortunately, the Fair Australia campaign, Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price (amongst others) have risen to the occasion, and the agenda represented by the Statement will, hopefully, be rejected firmly at the referendum on October 14. However, there is no purpose in backtracking to the constitutional recognition ideals of Howard and Abbott. They set in motion a process that led to our current predicament.Best to leave this plan in the past where it belongs. Political conservatives in Australia should instead focus on the value of One Australia.
We can see from a review of the stages since 1999 that despite Howard and Abbott’s efforts to promote a welcoming preamble in the Constitution that acknowledged the first peoples of the continent, the leadership of indigenous communities have already rejected the concept of recognition that is limited. Symbolic constitutional recognition is dead. Dutton and the Coalition should move Australia forward and remain committed to an Australia of equal citizenship.In this regard he should also emphasise the importance of the British and European foundations of the Australian community as often, if not more, than indigenous cultures.
Lucas McLennan is a Melbourne teacher of English and History