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Dangers of Indigenous referendum


Aboriginal flag in the shape of AustraliaThe debate about the Indigenous constitutional referendum proposed by the Gillard Government is heading in a familiar but dangerous direction. There are potentially alarming parallels with the unsuccessful 1999 republic referendum.

General disagreements have already surfaced about the proposed process and content. The most dangerous of these, with parallels to the republican debate, is the disagreement between so-called minimalists and maximalists (the same terms are even being used).

That is, between those who advocate recognition only in the Preamble to the Constitution and those who advocate legal recognition in the body of the Constitution itself.

The conflict is between symbolic change and constitutional change with potentially substantial legal consequences.

The Opposition supports change to the Preamble only. But some senior Indigenous activists, like Professor Marcia Langton, insist that there must be substantive change. Others scorn symbolic change as 'all talk no action', while some, like Patrick Dodson, warn against division.

In the absence of agreement among advocates of change, nothing happens. The status quo is the only winner. The logic is that division among constitutional reformers spells defeat.

Professor A. J. Brown of Griffith University has already issued such a warning on the basis of his Australian Constitutional Values Survey 2010.

Conducted by Newspoll, the survey polled attitudes to five potential constitutional reform referendum issues: whether to recognise local government in the Constitution; whether Australia should become a Republic; whether to recognise the history and culture of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution; what levels of government Australia should have; and which level of government is responsible for doing what.

Brown has warned that reformers must work hard to achieve success because support for change is so fragile and ignorance so widespread.

In the case of the Indigenous referendum 75 per cent of Australians consider it either very or somewhat important to hold a referendum over the next few years. On the face of it that is a very encouraging figure. But less than half (43 per cent) consider it very important and the figure in Western Australia and Tasmania is below 40 per cent (compared with a high of 49 per cent in Victoria).

So the passage of the referendum, especially gaining the necessary support in four states, may eventually depend on the support of many people with only a lukewarm interest.

Green voters are very supportive of the referendum's importance (62 per cent) but they are only a small minority. Labor voters are quite strongly supportive too (55 per cent think it very important). But Liberals are not (only 26 per cent consider it very important). The Nationals' opposition (only 24 per cent very important) goes some way to offsetting the Greens.

Those voters with only a lukewarm level of support or interest need a very encouraging environment in order to be convinced to vote Yes at this referendum. They need to believe that they should jump on a bandwagon of widespread community support.

Realistically they need at least an Opposition Leader firmly behind an enthusiastic Prime Minister. To ensure success Tony Abbott will have to encourage his Liberal base to get behind a referendum initiated by a Labor Prime Minister.

The community has so far heard a lot of static and murmuring about dangers and caveats. That is fine initially. Any serious disagreements must be aired and the pros and cons debated.

There also needs to be an accompanying basic education campaign. And it must be a creative education campaign, almost certainly web based, that reaches deep into the community. It would best be an interactive campaign that appeals to young people. Young voters will reject a paternalistic top-down education campaign.

But from the end of next year onwards, when the Expert Panel reports, until the referendum in 2013, the stars will need to be in alignment for this referendum to be successful. There will be naysayers but they will not defeat it. What may defeat it is division among those who are supporters in principle but not supporters of the particular proposal that eventually goes forward.




John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, referendum, indigenous australians, constitution, Professor AJ Brown



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Existing comments

Isn't this exactly what happened with the Republican issue ?

nick agocs | 30 November 2010  

Yes the old paradigm for constitutional change no longer works. This is most true of the local MP. Unless the majority of MPs in electorates in the majority of states support constitutional change then it is doomed to failure. But for change to occur, voters in each electorate need to lobby their local member to effect that change and to give leadership on the issue. The paradigm for that is social networking, best exemplified within the Australian context by the GetUp! group.

Without these mechanisms it is doubtful whether any change will be forthcoming.

John Edwards | 01 December 2010  

Two comments.

First, how can I or anyone else at this stage say we would vote 'yes' or 'no' on any proposed constitutional referendum until we know what precise change(s) is/are proposed and what the implications of change would be.

Second, why change the Constitution at all? Apart from the important symbolism involved, if what we really want to achieve by changing the Constitution is to recognize our indigenous cousins as valued and productive citizens of Australia, then the solution for this is really quite simple and straightforward. All that is needed is for us to abolish the current bureaucratic, racist mess known as "Indigenous Affairs". If we dismantle the shameful indigenous industry, then there would be absolutely no legal nor practical impediment to full participation by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in today's Australian society.

John R. Sabine | 02 December 2010  

"..the solution for this is really quite simple and straightforward. All that is needed is for us to abolish the current bureaucratic, racist mess known as "Indigenous Affairs"..."

Simplistic response to an issue which (since colonisation has not EVER been 'straightforward'.
Another '5 minute Indigenous Expert' who does not realise that the Australia he resides in may be vastly different to citizens in Aurukun (Wik Mungkun), Yuendumu (Warlpiri Yapa) & countless other regions/nations. The moment this is recognised with leadership & maturity is the moment we (hopefully) start the dialogue which should/could have occured from day dot.

I'm guessing John, you may be one of those commentators who would argue 'we are all equal' & all live under the same laws? Delusional...

Steve Gumerungi Hodder | 04 December 2010  

Australia : "Free West Papua" Indonesia : "Free Republic of Aborgin" haha should never interfere with the sovereignty of other countries. enough with timor leste and leave West Papua

senxe | 14 June 2012  

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