In early November Julia Gillard announced plans for a referendum to decide whether Indigenous Australians should be formally recognised within the Australian Constitution. The move drew cautious support from both sides of parliament—but many Indigenous leaders living under the racist NT Intervention labelled Gillard’s plans meaningless tokenism.
Warren H Williams, an Arrente man and Greens senate candidate in the last federal election, told the ABC, “This is the 21st century and we’re still going to a vote to get Aboriginal people in the constitution, it is meaningless … why is that coming in all of a sudden, is it taking away from what we are arguing about, the Intervention and all that?”
John Leemans helped organise a strike against the NT Intervention in the communities of Kalkaringi and Daguragu on October 20. In a statement responding to Gillard’s announcement, Leemans said, “changing the constitution is another token that will cost the government nothing and change nothing on the ground. Give Aboriginal people back our integrity, liberty and control of our lives, homelands and communities. We need funding for jobs, housing and services that can help alleviate poverty and overcrowding.
“We’ve lost a lot of vital services, including the retirement and family centres. We’ve lost hundreds of workers as the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) closes down and now people are being forced to work for the BasicsCard.
“We feel we’ve been betrayed. After the Apology we hoped a Labor government would demolish the Intervention and start a new way of working with Aboriginal Australians. Constitutional recognition would be more of the same symbolism while continuing to roll out racist policies on the ground.”
This Labor government has a particular record of hollow symbolism in Indigenous affairs.
In February 2010, just 11 months after the Labor government endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), they were publicly condemned by the UN for violating it on several counts. The government continues to violate a list of the UNDRIP articles, including denying the right to self-determination (Article 3), the right to teach children in their traditional language (Article 13), and the right of Indigenous people to own and control their traditional lands (Article 8).
Former Chief Justice Professor Alastair Nicholson summed up the attitude of many who are demanding real rights for Indigenous Australians: “The passage of a referendum paying lip service to our Indigenous people in a preamble to the Constitution will fool nobody into believing that we have changed our approach. What is required is deeds and action, not empty words.”
By Carl Taylor