Treaty, sovereignty, empowerment the key factors for meaningful recognition
By John Rowsthorne, National Indigenous Times - We fear the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd and the leader of the Coalition, Tony Abbott are missing the most important point about recognition of Australia’s First Peoples. Perhaps they are doing so deliberately, perhaps they believe by promoting recognition of Indigenous Australians in the constitution it takes people’s mind from the real issues – we hope that is not the case.
But Mr Rudd’s address at Yirrkala to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous bark petitions of the Yolgnu people and the spat between him and Mr Abbott later, dishonours what the Yolgnu people were calling for 50 years ago and what the Yolgnu people and vast majority of Indigenous Australians still want to see today – a Treaty, sovereignty, empowerment.
With his words of hope and aspiration for Indigenous Australia such as those he uttered at Yirrkala last week Mr Rudd does himself a disservice. Formally recognising Australia’s First Peoples in a white man’s document, the Australian constitution means next to nothing if it doesn’t also come with three key components – Treaty, sovereignty and empowerment.
We respect and acknowledge the drive and commitment of those behind the Recognition movement to raise the profile among mainstream Australia why it is important to achieve a successful referendum to change the constitution. It is a worthy cause. The problem is recognition in the Australian constitution is such a limited outcome. The people driving the Recognition movement know this. They also want to see a Treaty, sovereignty and empowerment … they just believe the referendum is the first step in that journey.
But in our view the test of anything are the outcomes achieved. So will a successful outcome at a referendum improve the daily lives of Indigenous Australians? Will it mean jobs for the unemployed, appropriate medical services for communities, an appropriate curriculum in education where First Nations languages for example are recognised and taught to students, where Traditional Owners and Elders are properly consulted and their opinions accepted on matters involving their land and what it offers up? Will a successful referendum mean Indigenous Australians will no longer be among the highest anywhere in the world to be jailed, or die while in custody or commit suicide? Will it mean homes for the homeless?
These are the core, fundamental issues which confront our First Peoples. Our First Peoples have to confront these challenges every day of their lives and they do so with all the dignity, strength of character and resilience they can muster. These are issues not of their making. These are issues white Australian governments and bureaucrats have inflicted upon them ever since they landed on these shores more than 200 years ago.
The truth is a successful referendum which formally recognises Indigenous Australians in the constitution will not of itself deliver any positive change to the lives of those who currently suffer the indignities Australia’s white society has heaped upon them.
Many highly respected and reputable Indigenous leaders believe the referendum question is a sideshow, a distraction from the main game and this is one of the reasons why we have not seen Indigenous Australians clamouring to support the movement.
That is not to say they oppose the movement. There is little doubt the majority of Indigenous Australians are not going out of their way to derail the movement but it is equally true they are not too bothered about being actively involved either. It’s more a quiet acceptance of the process.
In any event even if every Indigenous Australian voted in favour of the referendum it would mean little in terms of deciding the outcome. Like everything else that inflicts itself upon the lives of Indigenous Australians, it is the white vote which will decide the referendum’s fate.
When Kevin Rudd stood last week at Yirrkala before the Yolgnu people, the latest batch of survivors from the litany of government failures of more recent times, he declared he wanted to see constitutional recognition finalised within the next two years. He then took the opportunity to use the occasion to do some political pointscoring at the expense of Tony Abbott.
But Mr Rudd is kidding himself if he thinks the “feel good” mood of changing the constitution will make any real difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians because it simply won’t. Mr Rudd, Mr Abbott and white Australia may feel good with that outcome but it won’t have addressed the fundamental issues this nation must ultimately confront.
The reality is the only actions that will properly address the issues confronting Indigenous Australia is for Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott to show themselves to be statesmen, men who really do care for their fellow human being by declaring there should be a Treaty with all the First Peoples nations, that Australia will recognise and acknowledge the sovereignty of the First Peoples nations and that government will empower the First Peoples nations to administer and prioritise the work required in their respective communities to deliver living standards at least equal to those enjoyed by the rest of Australia.
That, Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott would be meaningful. That would make a difference.