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Tony Abbott fights the good fight for aborigines’ rights

27 June 2014

The status of aborigines in Australia has, to be frank, hardly crossed my radar until now. But that was before I met Tanya Hosch, a representative of the community who’s over here right now campaigning for them to get an honourable mention in the Australian constitution. ‘We just want to be acknowledged in the country’s foundational document,’ she says. ‘It really would make a difference to the way we feel that others see us.’

Australians, it seems, regard their constitution as a bit of a workhorse, clarifying various aspects of life without any of the grander aspirations of the US constitution. Most of them aren’t really aware that aborigines are absent from the constitution in the first place. Tanya is too polite to say baldly that they were there first but given this obvious reality, it seems odd, to say the least, that there’s no mention of them. In New Zealand, by contrast, there is a treaty between Maoris and the rest which allows for the subject to be endlessly debated. Six years ago the state made an apology to the Aborigines for the raw deal they got since Captain Cook, but it’s not quite the same as a constitutional mention.

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Thing is, any change to the constitution requires a referendum. And in Australia that means a majority not just of voters but of states: so four of the six states plus at least 51 per cent of votes. Hence Tonya’s presence in London, lobbying the Australians here. But the normal objection to referendums, viz, that people can’t be bothered to turn up doesn’t apply there, on account of their – to my mind admirable – compulsory voting system. The effect of it is to shift politics to the centre ground, for since everyone’s voting – apart from those with $120 to burn (that’s the fine for not turning up)  – you have to appeal to the mainstream. So, the constitutional amendment will be a moderate affair; the wording is still being worked out. Naturally, there’s disagreement on what it should involve, even among aborigines (some of whom feel it doesn’t go far enough) but it’s likely to be a formula designed not to alienate anyone.

Now, it’s a fair bet that if this sort of campaign were happening in Britain, it would be squarely dominated by the Left and an assortment of campaigners for inclusivity, diversity, anti-colonialism, multi-culturalism – you know, the usual . Thing is, it hasn’t happened in Australia. Tanya points out that constitutional change has, historically, remarkably, been the preserve of conservatives. There  have been only 44 attempts to amend the constitution and of the eight that succeeded, seven were sponsored by conservatives.

Well, it’s true of this campaign too. One of its leading supporters is Tony Abbott, the Australian Liberal premier. Indeed, he gave a moving and powerful speech on the second reading of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill last year in the House of Representatives in which he called the failure to recognise the first people as ‘a stain on our soul’. He went on to observe, ‘Our challenge is to do now in these times what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago: to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our country’s foundation document. In short, we need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears.’

In passing, let me observe that this is as near to the Catholic Confiteor, or confession of sin, in a political speech, as I’ve ever come across, and Mr Abbott is a Catholic. But the interesting thing about all this is, from the point of view of Speccie readers, that constitutional reform and the acknowledgement of aboriginal rights is, here, not just a leftie thing but a conservative thing. Indeed, if socially progressive reform is going to get anywhere, there’s a better chance with the right – in this case the Liberal Party. Tony Abbott is loathed and vilified by his political opponents to an extent that hasn’t been seen here since Margaret Thatcher. Interesting, isn’t it, that he should be on the vanguard of social progress?

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  • tjamesjones

    Actually though it seems logical that Australian constitutional change would only happen when supported by the Right, if we assume the Left is generally in favour of change, it’s only the times the right is on board you get your majority. That is no doubt true anywhere.

  • Vickie Roach

    Do not be deceived by the ‘recognise’ campaign… it is designed to strip us of any claim to our Sovereignty and any possibility of Treaty… it is designed so they can make further laws allowing discrimination against us and to make ‘special laws’ for us which will only further extend arbitrary and punitive income ‘management’, growing youth suicide, ever increasing incarceration, poor health outcomes, poor education and employment outcomes and vastly premature death… WE DO NOT WANT TO BE RECOGNISED IN THE constitution!!! The people that have been brainwashed by the mining magnate who finances this organisation DO NOT represent the majority of Aboriginal people in this land…

  • Daidragon

    Will be interesting to see how a bloke who thinks the planet is only 6000 yrs old deals with a culture that goes back at least 40,000 years.

    • tjamesjones

      gosh you’ve got him there!!!

  • Jez

    Shame the US will not return much of the land they stole to the beleaguered Indian communities that they decimated also.

    Could not the Australians give these guys their own official independent territories boost these peoples proud traditions?

    I saw with my own eyes the scandalous, ‘wash their hands of these lot’ attitude the Oz Government seemed to portray when dealing with the Aboriginal Communities that equated to this group being put out to pasture, drinking heavily in parks etc.

    If there are any minerals etc on these hypothetical newly formed Aboriginal States, then use this to invest in them from the mining revenues- that is if the Aborigine communities want this.

    It is their lands after all.

    • tjamesjones

      Throughout the history of modern oz, there’s been a swing back and forth between heavy handed paternalism and laissez faire ‘wash their hands’ approaches. Lots of self-rightous commentary abounds, but not sure that anything has worked particularly well.

      You say it’s their “lands” but that’s not how the law sees it, except in places which have had some unbroken occupation by a particular tribe or group of native people.

  • swatnan

    The treatment of indigenous native peoples world wide has been a disgrace.
    It amounts to genocide, but nobody has been prosecuted.
    Tony dropped a clanger in his hunt for MH 370. The search should be dropped. It’ll turn up in its own time. Maybe Civil Rights for Aboriginals will remedy his standing in Oz.

    • Jabez Foodbotham

      Since most of the initial contacts between technologically advanced societies and primitive ones, the contacts that proved most fatal to the latter, took place centuries ago, whose dead ancestors do you wish to be prosecuted?

      • swatnan

        Excellent point. Its like Corporate Social Responsibility, so I guess ithe buck stops at the ‘State’, which could mean the Dominion Govt of Australia, or even Great Britain itself.

        • tjamesjones

          I think it’s the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’, ie what you call the Dominion Govt, which would have inherited GB’s rights and responsibilities in a process centred on Federation in 1901.

  • Dee Sunshine

    Tony Abbott does not fight the good fight for aboriginals –
    he made pre-election promises to the aboriginal people of Australia that he had their best interests at heart to get them to vote for him – he lied

    His first budget will see cuts to Indigenous spending by more than half-a-billion dollars over five years – plus the cuts to health, education and welfare that will totally impact on our indigenous people to make even them even poorer than they are now. Thanks Mr Abbott

    • tjamesjones

      handouts really working are they Dee?

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