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Australia's constitutional whitewash

Those behind moves to change Australia's constitution say its current framework has led to indigenous disadvantage.
Last modified: 5 Aug 2014 11:48

Somehow I can't imagine a former US president standing by an airport luggage carousel waiting – with the great unwashed – for his bags to appear.

Australia is a lot more relaxed about these things but, even so, it felt refreshing to see former Prime Minster Bob Hawke, without any fanfare or a hint of security, waiting patiently for his case after the flight from Cairns to Gove. And he had to wait a while: no priority for the former PM. His bag was one of the last ones out.

He - and I - were on our way to "Garma" in Australia’s remote northern Arnhem Land. It’s a great leveller of a festival, without any airs or graces.

A sprawling dusty site where, once a year, the local Aboriginal people with traditional rights over the land invite in outsiders with an interest in Australia's indigenous affairs.

Organisers call it the Davos Forum of the Aboriginal world. That's tongue-in-cheek, one feels. Far-fetched, of course. No one camps in tents under the stars at Davos.

At Garma there's a distinct lack of snow. And 2,000 participants discussing affairs of one country as they relate to one part of society will never rival Davos's worldwide reach or scale.

But to those 2,000 participants, particularly those who are indigenous, the issues under discussion are profound.

Awful statistics

The statistics are awful. Despite, or in some cases because of, decades of action, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders lag behind "mainstream" Australians in almost every measure.

Their life expectancy is more than a decade lower than that of other Australians; their health is worse at all stages of life; unemployment rates are much higher, education levels much lower.

Aborigines only make up about two percent of Australia’s population but about 40 percent of those in its prisons. In the Northern Territory, 85 percent of prisoners are Aboriginal.

Why, and what to do about it, has been a staple of Australian politics for a few decades but on the ground, not much has changed. There has been little "closing the gap" to use the popular political phrase.

If some attempts to address the issues are specific policies – and this week, at Garma, mining billionaire Andrew Forrest was outlining proposals contained in his government-commissioned review – another attempt is more ephemeral.

A campaign is under way to change Australia's constitution.

Those behind the move say the very framework of Australia’s nationhood has led, perhaps inevitably, to indigenous disadvantage. Change the framework, they say, and positive change will follow.

'Explicit' racism

That framework is Australia's constitution.

Written in 1901, it is, says former Olympian-turned politician Nova Peris, a "whitefella rule book" which "institutionalises racism".

For businessman Mark Yettica-Paulson, it lacks any invitation or hope for indigenous Australians. Bob Hawke told me that, until it changes, Australia will "never be able to call itself a totally just and fair and decent society".

One issue is that the 1901 document makes no reference to the fact that Australia was inhabited before white settlers arrived.

Indigenous history and culture isn't so much whitewashed in it, as ignored.

That legacy, claim some, lives on. Worse, although the provisions aren't currently used, the constitution explicitly says there can be laws which apply differently to people of different races.

Like kangaroos, explicit racism in a constitution is unique to Australia.

Constitutional change, then, is a hot topic and at Garma there was universal support.

Conservative nation

Politically, in Australia, there is near unanimity too. It's a fair bet that when a referendum comes – probably next year or in 2016 – Australia's political parties will swing behind a "yes" - to - change vote. But that's not say any referendum will be won easily.

Australians are a conservative bunch. Most previous referendums have been voted down.

For most, the country has never been more prosperous. When the "no" campaign gets going, a central plank of it is likely to be "why take the risk of changing something which isn’t broke".

To my surprise, a majority of attendees at the Garma festival were not indigenous, but white.

That most liberal (that's small "l") of Australia’s cities, Melbourne, seemed the most common home town.

But it will be non-indigenous Australians from less liberal – more big "L", Liberal - places who decide whether constitutional change succeeds.

To use a clumsy analogy, when that particular bag comes around on the luggage carousel, it will up to mainstream Australia to decide whether to pick it up or leave it rumbling around.