My hope, shared by many Australians, is for our nation:
- to formally recognize and respect the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the prior occupants of Australia for an estimated 60,000 years.
- to allow Indigenous Australians to have a greater say in the management of their own affairs.
- to continue to encourage the preservation of Aboriginal culture and way of life, whilst at the same time enabling them to better integrate into wider Australian society.
Great Britain, during the period of Colonial Rule from 1788 until 1901, failed to sign any Treaty of Occupation as it did with the Maori people of New Zealand in 1840, and progressively dispossessed them of their land arguing that because they were nomadic and primitive, the land was “Terra nullius”.
The fact that 231 years after settlement, the injustices of the past still rankle with them and old problems still linger, suggests that the basic issues of justice and respect will not easily be corrected.
How they still feel has been movingly expressed by Referendum Council Member Galarrwuy Yunupingu in his essay ‘Rom Watangu’ at Appendix D in the Final Report of the Referendum Council of 30 June 2017.
What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now makes the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be. Let us be who we are – Aboriginal people in a modern world – and be proud of us. Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past had thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.
The Referendum Council
Each recent Australian Prime Minister since Bob Hawke (1983-1991) has tried with limited success to progress the cause of the Aboriginal peoples as the first Sovereign Nation of the Continent of Australia.
On the 7th December 2015 Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten appointed a 16 member Referendum Council to plan for a referendum which would establish for all time recognition of the pre-existence of Australian’s native races
Under this initiative, the Council organized the three-day 2017 National Constitutional Convention attended by 250 tribal representatives to annunciate their wishes for change. The outcome was a Consensus viewpoint entitled “Uluru Statement from the heart” in which there were three specific requests:
- Constitutional reforms to recognise their rightful place in the history of Australia.
- The establishment of a First Nations Voice in the Constitution that could not be wound back as John Howard did with ATSIC.
- The establishment of a Makarrata Commission for ongoing conciliatory dialogue and unity with the full Australian Community.
Whether such constitutional modifications can be brought about will depend not just on the political intent of our leaders, but on convincing a clear majority of the people of Australia on the weight of evidence for change. Prejudicing a successful vote however are the unkind, and vocal objections of those who deliberately misconstrue expressed Indigenous aims as a grab for unfair advantage over others, and the thin edge of a wedge for gaining political power.
It is not compensation or wealth they seek, but respect. They need our assistance, but wish to be heard on how best to solve their own problems, and meet their own aspirations. They are far from being insurgents, seeking only a peaceful dialogue with Australians. . They have long endured inequality and implied inferiority that affects their well-being and way of life.
Why Constitutional Change should be considered.
A formal request has been initiated
There has been an official government of Australia invitation to an appropriately representative group of some three quarters of a million Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to suggest objectives for constitutional changes if the Australian people vote in favour of it at a referendum.
Indigenous polity has not been adequately addressed, or belatedly addressed under previous British and now Australian law and governance.
The High Court’s judgement of the 3rd June 1992 rejected the concept of Terra nullius for Indigenous land dispossession, and established a legal framework for native title claims by Indigenous Australians. It argued that common law as it existed violated human rights norms, and denied the historical reality of Indigenous people’s dispossession. They were even denied basic citizenship rights such as the right to vote, and to be included in statistical records, until 1967.
Largely unintended though it may have been, the transportation of an estimated 162,000 convicts between 1788 and 1868 to Australian penal colonies almost completely decimated the native races because;
- The accompanying marines and soldiers charged with maintaining law and order used excessive force to suppress uprisings by natives agitated at losing their traditional hunting grounds.
- The influx of new settlers cleared their lands and competed for food and safe water supplies.
- Is it any wonder that malnourished native people were so vulnerable to introduced diseases such as small-pox, venereal diseases, tuberculosis and influenza?
As a result it is estimated that by Federation in 1901, their population had fallen to about 93,200 in a general population of just over 3 million (3%).
Exploitative and paternalistic policies
Australia’s management has been blemished by inhumane, paternalistic policies that ignored basic human rights. e.g. during the Stolen Generation period, when Aboriginal parents lost control over their own children, and had them forcibly taken from them, for adoption by white families, under well-meaning but misguided policies of assimilation.
During the 1950s and 1960s 7 atomic bombs were detonated at Maralinga in the North-West of South Australia. “In 1985, a survey found that of the 12,500 people involved in the British nuclear testing program in Australia, 11,000 had died. Hundreds of Maralinga-Tjarutja people were also forced from their homeland during the testing”. And only returned after a second clean-up of the site was completed in 2000 at a cost of $108 million.
In 1994 when less than 1500 of the 12,500 displaced Maralinga-Tjaruta peoples were still alive, the Australian government paid compensation of $13.5 million. However previously an attempt by the legal firm Hickman and Rose acting for the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement was unsuccessful with a class-action claim in the English Courts. They alleged that the claim failed because they were unable to prove that Ionizing Radiation is dangerous to human health. Try telling that to the people of Japan, and of Chernobyl!