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Dangers of Indigenous referendum

  • 01 December 2010

The 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