(This is a transcript of the speech given by Emily Chauvel Byrne on 22nd February, 2015 at the monthly meeting of Sunday Assembly Melbourne.)
(Acknowledgement of Country)
Before I get into the presentation today, I thought I would share why I became involved in the Constitutional Recognition campaign. Throughout my schooling I was aware of this silence and gap in our education system about Australian history, I was fortunate enough to be part of an exchange program developed by my American Year 6 teacher who thought it was important to learn about our First Peoples, we developed relationships with students in Borroloola, Arnhem Land and after they came and visited us, our class went to Borroloola. I learnt then and there that as an Australian, what we are taught as students was not necessarily the true history of this land on which we live.
I believe that all children should learn the uneasy truth of Australia’s history, that there was no such thing as terra nullius and that there were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander freedom fighters who fought for this land such as: Pemulwuy, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner, just to name a few. To know the name of battles sites like the Battle of Yering, and Massacre Hill. To know the traditional names for places across this country, and the many that are already in Aboriginal languages, but we don’t acknowledge their heritage or know what they mean. There is a disconnect from our history and our present. How we construct history, directly relates to how we construct evidence that influences policy.
I have been incredibly fortunate in the opportunities I have had through higher education to be taught by some of the most highly respected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and academics. I am privileged to have worked with incredibly knowledgeable, passionate and committed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians throughout my career so far. Through my involvement over the years with ANTaR Victoria, the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency and now Reconciliation Victoria I have witnessed the strength and resilience of Aboriginal communities.
I believe I have a responsibility in knowing my history, and Australia’s history. I feel we all share the responsibility to make sure that future generations can all aspire to achieve their dreams without carrying the legacy of failed policies.
I see this next step of Constitutional Recognition as a part of the unfinished business and an intrinsic part of national truth telling and nationhood.
Keating asked all Australians to: “Imagine if our spiritual life was denied and ridiculed. Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it. It seems to me that if we can imagine the injustice we can imagine its opposite. And we can have justice.”
Then, in the former Prime Minister Keven Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008:
“For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.”
Today, in Victoria we have the highest rates of Aboriginal children in Out of Home Care in the Country, higher than any time during the stolen generations as documented in the Bringing Them Home Report. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up 14% of Victorian prisoners and 28% of the juvenile system.
In the recent presentation of the Close the Gap Report to Parliament: Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, “Much more work is indeed needed because this seventh Closing The Gap report is, in many respects, profoundly disappointing.”
Northern Territory Labor senator Nova Peris said the report showed Indigenous Australians had been let down:
“When you look at the Closing the Gap report, when you look at the incarceration rates, when you talk about juvenile reinvestment, that’s been neglected… [W]e always talk about closing the gap in educational and health outcomes. That’s all gone backwards. There’s not a lot to smile about on a day like today.
“Australia is so rich in so many areas, but we’ve got a lot to be ashamed about in the treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
What we are aware of is that when it comes to Indigenous Affairs it is highly politicised but what is ultimately needed is bipartisan support to address ongoing issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and to give agency and ownership to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to develop and deliver programs. As Ian Hamm has said on multiple occasions; “There is nothing wrong with Aboriginal Australia that can’t be fixed by what is right with Aboriginal Australia” – but it takes the rest of Australia to help us do that.
Reconciliation Victoria sees that recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution is part of the unfinished business of the recommendations made by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000.
We see Constitutional Recognition as a positive step forward, but not an end to the reconciliation journey: it alone is not sufficient to achieve outcomes required of a fully reconciled and fair Australia.
Last June on ABC’s Q&A Program when Rosalie Kurnoth-Monks responded to Peter Coleman’s assertion that assimilation was the only way to address the Aboriginal problem, her strength and conviction that “I am not the problem” was indicative of the shift that is required at the legislative level. For too long Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been the policy problem rather than being involved in the decision making process.
As it stands today, the Australian Constitution, the founding political and legal document of our nation does not mention or acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians, it pays no mention to the fact that as a peoples they represent the oldest continuing cultures in the world. Australia is unique in this respect, but it is not something we should be proud of. Not only do we not acknowledge the First Australians but we have no Treaties or agreement making processes, unlike other ‘former’ British Colonies, and we also are yet to protect our citizens from racial discrimination. Today we are in a position to change some of these factors and hopefully use these changes as a stepping stone to achieving justice and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Since its inception the Constitution has only been changed 8 times, out of 44 attempts. So the challenge we have ahead of us as a Nation is enormous.
The 1967 Referendum remains a record in the history of Australian referendums where over 90% of the population voted to change the Australian Constitution. Provisions which prevented the Federal Government from making laws for Aboriginal people, and excluded them from being counted in the census, were removed from the Constitution.
Advocacy for recognition is not new, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been championing for recognition in a diversity of forms for decades, looking back to the Yirrkala Bark Petition and the Vincent Lingiari walk off as examples. We can also look to the recommendations from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, to the former PM Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations where he saw CR as the next step.
In 2011, The Expert Panel consulted with thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and received over 3000 submissions. The Expert Panel’s recommendations which were presented the Prime Minister and Parliament in January 2012 continue to lead the discussion.
The Expert Panel recommended:
- Deleting Section 25, permitting States to disqualify people from voting on the basis of race, and Section 51 (26), which allows the Commonwealth to make laws on the basis of race;
- Adding a new Section 51A Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,
- Adding a new Section 116A Prohibition of racial discrimination
- Adding a new Section 127A Recognition of languages that recognises English as the national language of Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the original Australian languages,
There is ongoing discussion about what the final model should look like, and what the question should be if we go to a referendum.
I’d like to paraphrase Mark McMillan a Wiradjeri Man, and Senior Lecturer at Melbourne University Law School.
He sees constitutional recognition as an issue for non-indigenous people, because he believes that we have a role to play in understanding why this is playing out, we have a responsibility in understanding how the past has an impact now. With a background in constitutional law he doesn’t believe that CR will impact on the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples nor will it have implications of negotiations around agreements and treaties.
We feel it is important to rectify the silences in the Constitution; the fact Australia has the oldest continuing cultures in the world should be a source of national pride and inform our sense of identity. Our Constitution should also protect all Australians from racial discrimination. These are two inextricably linked and integral steps in the journey towards reconciliation and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.
So…What can you do?
In reading up about Sunday Assembly I learn that this is a house of love and compassion so I hope that what I have spoken about today has resonated and that you feel empowered and confident to take on the role of ‘Action Heroes’. To talk to your friends, family and work colleagues about constitutional recognition.
“I believe racism is a community issue which we all need to address and that’s why racism stops with me. I’m not here to tell you what to think or how to act or raise your children. All I’m here to do is to tell you about my experiences and hope you choose to be aware of your actions and interactions so that together we can eliminate racism.”
Perhaps we can all walk away today and think about how we live our daily lives. We need to commit to the work of truth, justice and reconciliation. I would like to end on a quote from Professor Megan Davis, “We cannot decouple rights from recognition.”