Saturday, 5 August 2017

Referendum Council offers up some big new ideas

This heading serves to take words out of the prime minister's mouth but I think it's fair to say he's right. The Referendum Council that has been consulting on what to do about Aboriginal Australia's legal standing in this country released a report recently but it has received scant attention in the media. So far there's a decent ABC story and also one by Sky News, but that's about it. The council's report follows the release of the Uluru Statement, a document that purports to encapsulate the aspirations of Aboriginal people. The council it should be noted from the outset is made up of a number of prominent Aborigines as well as people from the dominant Anglo-Celtic strand of the Australian demos plus people who represent multicultural Australia.

The council's report specifically highlights the contributions that these three elements of Australian society have made in the formation of modern Australia. The recommendations of the final report handed down to the leaders of the two major parties talk about the "Australian story" as a palimpsest of signification and importance stretching back over the millennia to the point of arrival of modern humans on the continent, and it is at pains to emphasise the important roles that all three strands of the culture have played in writing that story. At the last census only 2.5 percent of Australians identified as Aboriginal.

But clearly something needs to be done to enable Aboriginal people to reach their full potential. Even the hard-line columnists at the Australian are looking for practical solutions that can serve to narrow the gap between Aboriginal Australia and the broader community. And it will be people like them who will be the most vocal in the public sphere when it comes to discussing the council's recommendations, and what to do about them. From the prime minister's words it is clear that Canberra will be looking to the community for guidance as to how to proceed. So it is up to all parts of society to educate themselves about the council and what it has put forward for consideration.

The main take-away for me is the mooted representative body that would give Aborigines a voice in the Parliament. There is also what is being called a makarrata commission to have "the function of supervising agreement-making and facilitating a process of local and regional truth telling". And lastly there is a desire for some sort of symbolic "declaration of recognition" to be enacted in state and federal parliaments. So there are three requests that the council has handed down to the party heads.

This is all a lot different from what Australians had previously been expecting, which was merely some sort of recognition as to the unique position vis-a-vis the Commonwealth held by Aboriginal people. Many also thought that the Constitution would be amended to remove some racist elements inherited from earlier times. So the PM's words will make more sense to the majority of Australians than you might wish. It's also worth nothing that one of the council members - ex-Liberal minister Amanda Vanstone - says "she does not support an Indigenous voice being inserted into the constitution without further consultation", according to Sky News.

By resetting the parameters of the debate about Recognition the council has given the country a new challenge. And the first thing to do is to inform people about what it all means. Hence this blogpost. No doubt there will be many other people writing about the council's report in the coming weeks and months. I asked someone on Twitter who teaches at Melbourne Law School when they intend to have the referendum and she said "soonish".

So what does the representative body - the Voice to Parliament - mean, in broad terms? As the PM noted in the press conference held when the report was released, it is short on detail, and the way that such a body would operate, who would elect it, what sort of laws it would be able to influence, how it would influence the making of laws in Parliament: all these things remain to be decided by someone. Presumably the boffins in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (which is where the council sits in the hierarchy in Canberra). Personally, I can't see a referendum framed in terms amenable to the council's recommendations being successful. There has to be a lot more debate in the public sphere before the ideas they embody can trickle down throughout the community so that everyone is on the same page. It seems the gap between Aboriginal Australia and the mainstream is as broad as it has ever been.

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