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Issue #1532      25 January 2012


Words won’t replace need for struggle

Symbols and words can be powerful and useful; they can unite and heal. But nobody is impressed by lip service or tokenism. In the lead-up to Invasion Day (or Survival Day as it also known) and which is officially celebrated as Australia Day, such judgements are being made about a government-sponsored report on proposed changes to the constitution.

Recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution is the work of a panel headed by Aboriginal leader Professor Pat Dodson and senior lawyer Mark Leibler AC. It is said to be the result of discussions with “… more than 4,600 people, in more than 250 meetings in 84 locations across the country and received more than 3,500 submissions.”

The recommendations include “Recognising that the continent and its islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; Acknowledging the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters; Respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

Commentators have noted that solid majorities in polls taken on these issues have been reflected in the recommendations. The fact that attitudes to questions like recognition of the first peoples of Australia are improving is certainly to be welcomed.

A recommendation that jars, however, is Section 116A that would prohibit racial discrimination. It is not long ago that the federal government over-rode the Racial Discrimination Act to launch its outrageously discriminatory Northern Territory Intervention in 2007 during the Howard era. The Rudd and Gillard governments embraced the policy. It is not ancient history. The discrimination was said to be ended by atrocious legislation that extended aspects of the Intervention to disadvantaged people of all backgrounds in the Northern Territory and beyond.

While the original Intervention legislation is approaching its sunset clause to be replaced by the cheerier sounding “Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory”, the land-grabbing intent continues. Residents of remote Aboriginal communities are being pressured to sign regular leases on their property. Sign on the dotted line before the August deadline or lose it. Funding for housing in remote communities is frozen in favour of construction in faraway towns. Opposition leader Tony Abbott is rubbing his hands together on behalf of resource developers referring to the current situation in the NT as that of a “failed state”.

So, while it would be a relief to believe in the Prime Minister’s endorsement of the report and the process it will set in train, it’s hard to believe it indicates a fundamental change of heart on the part of the federal government. The Gillard government has form in ushering in legislation that belies its stated intent. The carbon tax will not tackle climate change. The mining super-profits tax will not levy a meaningful impost on profit-bloated mining transnationals. It’s a gloomy thought that the constitutional changes that could develop from this report might fall into the category of appearing to do something about an outrageous injustice while doing little or nothing in fact.

One is reminded of the apology made by Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generations in 2007. Would it have been better that he didn’t make the apology? Many Aboriginal people welcomed it while realising not much else will happen given the current balance of political and social forces. It may well be the same with the proposed constitutional changes. They will be noted and might be appreciated but nobody should be fooled that real change will not come without united struggle.

Next article – CPA campaign for Port Adelaide in full stride

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