Constitutionial Change
Sarah M Blake

Sarah M Blake

Conflict Strategist. Transforming your conflict challenges into opportunities for innovation, evolution & elevation.

Constitutional Change

My family and I have a long history of being involved with social justice issues. My father’s side has family folklore about being one of the last Adelaide plains farms to allow local Aboriginal people to camp on their traditional lands. My Pop on my mother’s side used to talk about walking country with the local Indigenous people from Eyre Peninsula, learning some of the stories. My father has been heavily involved with Native Title law and Indigenous right and as a family we have connections through Mawul Rom in Arnhem Land. This connection and relationship with Indigenous Australians has shaped who I am, and the journey I walk. Personally, the journey has required hard self-reflection and painful lessons, but it has also been such a gift. So, when my brother called me to understand more about the upcoming referendum, a man who cares deeply for Indigenous rights, it challenged me to learn more and try to articulate what I think many non-Indigenous and perhaps, some indigenous people are feeling. Confusion.  

We are being asked to decide on constitutional change that recognises and gives a voice to our first nations people. On the surface this seems a no brainer, of course we should honour and give constitutional recognition to the first nations people of this country. If as a nation this simple question was being asked, then I think the overwhelming response would be an enthusiastic yes. But we are also being asked to enshrine a voice to parliament and this is where things have got messy.  

I wanted to try and break down the prevalent perspectives so you can understand the main divisions. 

  1. Political Conservatives who consider giving ‘rights’ to others that disadvantage themselves to be unacceptable. They are using fear-based propaganda to peddle often extreme views and doomsday scenarios. 
  1. Vocal and high-profile individuals, often backed by religious or political bodies, calling for treaty rather than constitutional change. Their motivation will be diverse but their distrust of systems of authority are high, and the views are often expressed as anger or division. They tend to swing to the extreme either side of the argument.  
  1. Everyday Australians who want to honour Indigenous Australians, but are nervous about the details, they are pondering questions like ‘why does it feel so political’ and ‘doesn’t the voice to parliament create more division’? They have a higher level of suspicion and distrust in Government and politicians’ capacity to doing the right thing. 
  1. Pragmatic Supports, these are both high profile and ordinary Australians who acknowledge it isn’t perfect but that it is a start. They have a higher level of trust in the mechanisms of government to do the right thing.  
  1. The strong supporters, these are the people who view these changes as right, justified and likely just the beginning of change.  

Like any conflict, there is merit within the mess of everyone’s views and opinions. For those that have held power, the notion of sharing or empowering others is a threat. Of course, these people want to retain more control, more power and influence. However, for most Australians, this notion of exclusive power is no longer widely shared. The fear-based PR campaigns do more harm and push us backwards. But there is an information gap that is real, and with a lack of connection to everyday people, confusion reigns.  

Agreements like treaties certainly have precedent, just look to state governments, and several vocal Indigenous Leaders from across the country have spoken about their people having never ceded sovereignty. The notion of a treaty represents a formal negotiation and agreement between separate nations and sovereignty, it is considered a way to negotiate shared power and authority. From a national perspective, this option seems like a bridge too far, and unlike other countries like NZ the number of Indigenous nations across the country would technically make this difficult.  

So, what of the current referendum proposal?  

For complex negotiations, we often focus first on ‘in-principle agreements’. These are the big statements that set to tone of how we move forward. In this case the two-part question for the referendum – constitutional recognition and a voice to parliament. The details and making this a reality are then the responsibility of the Parliament. This is the normal process and as a nation this is what we are being asked to provide, the authority to parliament to make this a reality.  

The Voice to Parliament seems to be the sticking point. With the historical corruption of ATSIC, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are rightly nervous about the potential risks this new form of representation. How will issues of power, authority and influence be transparently managed. For others, their concern is that such a body creates more division and has the potential to sideline issues, without departments needing to embed better cultural engagement in their everyday business.  Essentially, there is a risk that responsibility will fall to this new body rather than as part of best practice.  Others highlight that many other groups already have a voice to parliament, so why is this different? Good questions for complex issues.  

The thing is that when there is already mistrust and suspicion, details matter. When trust in our institutions is low, people ‘play it safe’ and avoid change. What this is creating is a division and when we allow division to grow rather than curiosity and understanding, we set ourselves up for failure.  

The reality is that genuine cross-cultural engagement is hard work. It takes work on both sides; we each must do homework before we can truly come together. We must get ready and get clear, we must collectively want a better future.  

In May 2017, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gathered in central Australia. This was our first nations people doing the hard work, not perfect, not everyone agreed – but the resulting negotiated agreement was powerful and specific. “The Uluru Statement from the heart is an invitation to the Australian people from First Nations Australians. It asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling”.  This was a process of legitimate, formal, and ceremonial decision-making, that has driven this referendum.  

They ask us a non-Indigenous people to walk with them. They are asking for recognition and authority to influence decisions that impact them. Is this too much to be asking for? A people who have lived, cared for and carried lore for country for more than 65,000 years. A people who continues to celebrate culture, language, science, systems of governance and law despite a seemingly endless patterns of trauma, disrespect and pain inflicted on them from a people who saw them as less than human.  People whom the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ seems to be growing rather than getting better. This referendum, and the lead up is us trying to do the work of coming together too. But it isn’t going so well, in fact it seems that we are becoming more divided, more fearful, and less curious.  

So where does that leave us? Certainly, with no easy answers and a deeply uncomfortable fear that there is no clear way to bridge forward. The outcome of this referendum is realistically to be determine by white or non-Indigenous Australians, many of whom have never been directly impacted by the hard realities facing many Indigenous people. This just doesn’t rate on their radar or priority list. However, it is fair to say that most people genuinely want to do the right thing; however, their priority focus is on the things impacted by the struggling and hard realities of increased cost of living, the emotional scars of the post covid world and a lack of real understanding of why this matters so much to our first nations people, those who live the impact of dispossession.  The timing of the referendum and the lack of detail just makes good decision-making even harder.  

So where does that leave the conversation with my brother? I shared some stories with him about the conversations that I have had and heard; one stood out for me from an Aboriginal person, an elder of their community who said “if the Australian people vote no, there is no hope. How can we move forward when they don’t even want to recognise us in the constitution”. My heart hurts when I hear this. I know the details aren’t perfect, but I know the intent is critical. The drive for a voice to parliament has emerged from Indigenous Australians, through proper process, and I trust that. I don’t want the details to distract from the heart of the matter, that is for down the track. Right now, we are being invited to walk together and recognition is just the next step on a long road of growing together. For me it is a yes that recognises there is much more we need to do.  

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