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Beware conservative slogans for Indigenous inclusion

  • 31 January 2014

The choice of Adam Goodes and Fred Chaney as Australian and Senior Australian of the Year respectively will help to build much-needed momentum for the campaign to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution. They are both committed to the reconciliation movement. But such necessary change must be approached in a way that is open-ended rather than closed.

The Prime Minister has chosen initially to frame the changes as not about changing the Constitution but completing it. He may have done so in the search for an approach which might resonate with Australians who are risk-averse when it comes to constitutional change by referendum.

Tony Abbott's tactic to soothe any concerns that may exist in the electorate looks at face value to be a clever one. He may see it as just playing with words. If 'Completing the Constitution' becomes his campaign slogan it may even be adopted by the Opposition and other advocates of a Yes vote. That would be a mistake.

The idea of a completed Constitution may be attractive but it is a dangerous one for advocates of any future constitutional change. To complete something, according to dictionary definitions, is to end, conclude or finish it. Alternatively something which is complete is perfect, full or entire. Such language is inappropriate when discussing a constitution and reformers should beware of it even if it improves the immediate chances of passing any particular constitutional change.

Reformers always need a good angle and this Abbott angle is quite a good one. But constitutions shouldn't ever be described as complete or incomplete. Rather they evolve just as communities evolve. Constitution-making should be an ongoing process.

Constitutions should be on the table for discussion and not on the mantelpiece for adoration. They are living documents that should reflect community attitudes, rather than relics of a time many years ago. As community attitudes change so it makes sense for constitutions to change. Realistically constitutional change will lag behind social change. But constitutional change should come eventually. Reformers should be upfront about challenging conservative opposition to change and ready to make the arguments for change, as difficult as that might be.

Though the overall success rate is low the conservative parties have a much better record than the Labor Party when it comes to sponsoring constitutional change. This improves the chances of these Indigenous proposals being accepted by the Australian community. Conservative parties are inherently better at reading and reflecting the