Reform is about building a better and fairer Australia as well as making good on past promises – to treat Aboriginal Australians with dignity and respect
‘The moral debt must be lifted, so all Australians can move forward together with lighter hearts.’ Photograph: Ingetje Tadros/Getty Images
Last weekend the Referendum Council held its 10th regional dialogue to discuss constitutional recognition with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Adelaide. We see this referendum as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure real and meaningful reform for our people. We want to make it happen.
This is a story that began long before the constitution was enacted. For South Australians, the imperial letters patent created a moral debt that is yet to be made good. Until that moral debt is redeemed, the soul of our country cannot be at ease.
The letters patent established the province of South Australia in 1836 and contained a serious condition: the fair treatment of the Aboriginal owners. The letters “Provided Always” that “nothing … contained shall affect or be construed to affect the rights of any Aboriginal Natives of the said Province to the actual occupation or enjoyment in their own Persons or in the Persons of their Descendants of any Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives”. This was the crown’s promise to always treat Aboriginal Australians with dignity, fairness and respect.
It was not the first such royal promise. In 1787, King George III instructed Arthur Phillip “to endeavour, by every possible means, to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them”.
The crown carried some honourable intentions in relation to our people. But those good intentions have largely not been realised. The way things played out, Aboriginal people were not treated with “amity and kindness” and our rights were not respected as the letters patent required.
Constitutional recognition must fix this. This reform must ensure that our people will be treated more fairly in the future. The moral debt must be lifted, so all Australians can move forward together with lighter hearts.
We Aboriginal people of South Australia have survived, despite the injustices of the past. Our cultures and languages remain strong and must be cherished and shared. We remain connected to our land. Some of us lived through the stolen generations. But we all keep pushing and fighting for better lives. Our mob must be the most resilient people on the face of this planet.
The delegates agreed that constitutional recognition must include substantive reform. We too reject minimalism, like our counterparts across the country. We all want a bit of blackness in this country’s white document – but not just for symbolic effect. We want this reform to make black lives better. Otherwise what’s the point?
If we go for a weak option, we will never have another go in this lifetime. The minimalist “racism out, recognition in” out model, or simply deleting the word “race” from the constitution, would not address the legal challenges faced by Aboriginal people in South Australia.
Aboriginal people are born with one foot in the grave. Some of us are told this when we are just 12 years old. We are currently worse off in our incarceration rates than we were at the time of the Aboriginal deaths in custody report. Too many children live in out of home care. Ice epidemics are rife. Constitutional recognition must improve the system, so that our people are more empowered to take charge to solve these problems.
The government has the power to make laws for us, but in the current system we cannot easily take responsibility and leadership in these decisions. We want to make our own decisions about our lives. Too often governments talk about us, but they don’t talk to us. Consultation is poor.
As only 3% of the population, our voices can’t easily get into parliament. Current Indigenous MPs must represent their political parties and their electorates. They do not represent an independent Aboriginal voice.
Many delegates agreed that we need our rights enshrined and protected. We need them locked down in the constitution. Legislation is in one day and out the next. Native title amendments get rushed through without proper consultation. Atsic was our peak legislated body, but it got struck down.
Currently, we don’t have secure power to take responsibility and leadership – pursue self-determination – in our affairs. Many of us believe this power must come from the constitution, where it can be guaranteed.
There was therefore strong support for a voice to parliament, through a properly representative, land-based body that is not hand-picked and that is guaranteed by the constitution, as well as support for agreement-making reforms through a truth and reconciliation process. There was strong interest among delegates in a treaty or treaties, but a treaty was not viewed a silver bullet. It all depends on how legally effective it is. A treaty enacted in legislation can be changed or struck down. A statement of acknowledgement was also considered important, but only accompanied by substantive reform.
The importance of languages and cultures was emphasised in the discussion. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are Australian languages and should be recognised as such. This is the true heritage of our nation, and the inheritance of all Australians.
We in South Australia are ready to stand united and work together to achieve meaningful constitutional recognition for our people. We ask all Australians to hear our voices and join us on this journey. We ask government to listen too, and to work with us after the final gathering at Uluru. We do not wish to passively hand over our reform requests. We want to sit down and negotiate with all politicians.
This is about making good on past promises. It is about building a better and fairer Australia. It is about lifting the moral debt, so that our country can heal and grow stronger together. We can do it if we all work together, with good hearts and hard heads. It’s time for change. Let’s make it happen.
Cheryl Axelby and Klynton Wanganeen were co-convenors of the Referendum Council’s regional dialogue in Adelaide.
- Building on long-term work focused on the need for constitutional reform and the form it might take, the Referendum Council is holding a series of 12 First Nations regional dialogues around the country to gain an understanding of the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in relation to constitutional reform. Dispatches from each of the remaining dialogues will be published in the Guardian over the coming month. The dialogues culminate in a national convention in Uluru in May. To get the full picture and join the conversation visit www.referendumcouncil.org.au.