Constitutional Recognition will not ‘close the gap’

Constitutional Recognition will not ‘close the gap’

July 28, 2015

Seven years ago, the Rudd government apologised to the Stolen Generations. As the recently released Closing the Gap report indicates, this achieved nothing for Aboriginal living standards.

The unemployment rate for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders is still three times the national average, and Aborigines overall have shocking health outcomes and die at younger ages, especially in rural and remote areas.

You’d think the politics of the empty gesture would have fallen out of fashion by now. But no; if anything, things are getting worse. They now include the ridiculous claim that recognising Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Constitution will somehow improve their health and welfare.

I’ve had to sit through speeches in the Senate asserting this, and have read newspaper articles making the same argument. And yet there is not a shred of evidence to support the claim.

The national fondness for political symbolism became evident with full force when I made a speech in the Senate opposing Constitutional recognition. I argued that it would be conjectural, divisive, and contrary to the rule of law.

It was the last point that generated the most vitriol. My argument was that we should all be equal before the law, while Constitutional recognition is a campaign for the specific recognition of a specific people. Apparently a lot of people think otherwise.

Prior to 1967, the Constitution included the power to make laws for ‘The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race, in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws’. We now recognise this as racism. What made it racist was not just that it had been interpreted negatively, but that it allowed people to be treated differently because of their race.

If the constitution is to be changed, it should be to remove the remaining ‘race power‘, which allows Parliament to make laws for ‘The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws’, and Section 25, which allows the exclusion of whole races when drawing up electorates. No Constitution should permit governments to make laws that apply to certain races and not others. It is racist, and amounts to a standing invitation to engage in abuse of power.

But I don’t kid myself that removing those sections will have any effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health or welfare. The Constitution may be an important document, but individuals needing special assistance should be treated equally before the law, whatever their race. And Australia must be colour blind when it comes to reducing poverty and disadvantage.

Indeed, my party, the Liberal Democrats, deliberately has no policy relating specifically to Aborigines. Our policies are simply about people. In that vein, we think the property rights of remote and rural Aborigines should be upgraded to the same as everyone else, allowing them to fully participate in the general economy.

In the book Recognise What? Anthony Dillon writes movingly of those Aboriginal people who have enjoyed success in wider society without Constitutional recognition.

‘Do not segregate yourself from society,’ Mr Dillon advises. ‘Treat others with respect and see them as equals; pursue an education (whether it be formal or informal); make valuable contributions to the community in which you live; be a role model for others to emulate; make healthy choices; and adhere to a personal moral code.’

This is good advice. Constitutional recognition will not ‘close the gap’. In fact, it is not likely to achieve anything positive at all.