Monday, January 2, 2012

First Australians, constitutional change and the UCA experience

The Uniting Church embarked on a journey of truth-telling in relation to Indigenous peoples with a formal apology in 1994. It committed to work together for justice and equality within the church and the wider Australian community. Over the years, we have achieved much and we have also failed often. But we continue to work together for a better future, and so it was that five years ago the Indigenous part of the Church initiated a process to have the truth of their histories told, and our commitments clearly stated, in the Constitution of the Church.

In 2010 the Uniting Church became the first major Christian denomination in Australia to formally acknowledge, in the Preamble to its Constitution, Australia’s traditional owners. The Uniting Church Constitution now acknowledges the pre-existing relationship of Indigenous people with the Creator God, and the Church’s complicity with the colonising forces in dispossessing the First Peoples from their land, culture and spirituality.

It is out of these experiences that we welcomed the announcement of the Federal Government that a referendum would be held on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution. We were delighted to hear that, in principle, the idea had bipartisan support and that a High Level Panel, comprising Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, would be formed to consult with the Australian people and explore the options for amending the Australian Constitution.

It was, therefore, concerning that the Coalition’s Indigenous Affairs spokesman, Nigel Scullion, and Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis, have made recent comments about the future of Constitutional reform for Indigenous Australians. Both the timing of the statements and their content appear to be deliberately designed to destabilise this vitally important endeavour.

For the last twelve months, the High Level Panel has engaged with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the public – people genuinely interested in seeing the process of reconciliation furthered for the benefit of all Australians. Mr Scullion and Mr Brandis seem determined to undermine both the achievements and the overall goals of the Panel. Their comments are disrespectful to the thousands of Australians who have faithfully attended the 84 community consultations and those organisations and individuals who together made over 3500 submissions. Many Indigenous people have participated in these consultations – let us hear their voices before stating pre-determined views.

Mr Brandis and Mr Scullion appear to be trying to derailing an issue that goes to the very heart of who we are as a nation, solely for the purpose of political point-scoring. Both have been outspoken in their opposition to the inclusion of anti-discrimination provisions and the ability for the Government to make ‘special laws’ for Indigenous Australians in an amended Constitution. These statements serve only to generate fear and misunderstanding amongst the broader public. Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution – which presently allows for governments to make laws for Australia’s First Peoples – has been flagged in the High Court of Australia as a perilously ambiguous aspect of our founding legal document. Amending this section would simply serve to clarify the pre-existing law-making powers of the government, and to strengthen the insights of the anti-discrimination legislation already in place.

It is appropriate that Constitutional recognition should follow the moving apology to the First Australians delivered by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008. That apology had much in common with the classic form of Christian confession which is, in effect, not so much an act of guilty hand-wringing as an act of telling the truth to God about the glory and shame of our lives; and seeking help to deal with the consequences upon others, intended and accidental, of our attitudes and actions.

Concerns have been expressed that in the current process too much time, money and energy might be spent on ‘mere words’ and that such resources would be better spent on addressing endemic aboriginal disadvantage. That is a salutary warning. Nevertheless, words remain important. As one aboriginal Elder said during the Uniting Church debate, ‘you whitefellas write your law, your story, in books. We want to be acknowledged in your sacred Law book’.

Amending the Constitution is a vital step forward in recognising and honouring the identity and history of the First Peoples. It will benefit both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike, by allowing us as a nation to move beyond the shame and distrust that has characterised relationships of the past. Opposition to changes that have not yet been announced are based on ignorance and speculation, and is indicative of opinions that are driven by ideology rather than evidence. Such speculation will only add to division and undermine the reconciliation and justice needed in this country.