Good Work Australia, But Must Try Harder
Had I been reading it on my old journey to work, or reading the full story in my old local newspaper, I might not have stopped to contemplate it too deeply.
But as an Australian who has been living in London for 10 years, I feel I have gained what I consider to be an important outsider’s perspective.
So when I read “@JuliaGillard: Today we moved closer to recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our constitution” I stopped in my track pad; not in a state of contemplation, but one of shock and disbelief.
With my outsider’s hat sat firmly upon my head, I was a-gasp at the fact that my homeland still had not sorted this out yet.
Some might use this as proof to say that Australia is a racist country. I won’t deny that I’ve come across racist individuals in my time there. But so too have I in London.
In fact it was only in October 2012 that police and the government had to step in to prevent the English Defence League from marching through my East London neighbourhood in protest of its predominantly Asian population.
Australia is a comparatively young nation, so I understand that it is prone to still making the mistakes and learning the lessons that older countries have already been there and done.
Indeed, it was only in 1973 that the White Australia Policy, which banned anyone ‘of colour’ from immigrating, was abolished. And it was only five years ago that the government finally apologised to the ‘Stolen Generation’ of indigenous people who were forcibly removed from their families and communities right up until the 1970s.
But in spite of these practices, and also because of the relatively recent awakenings of conscience that recognised them as wrong, I find it outrageous that the indigenous people of Australia – the oldest continuing cultures in human history – still aren’t even recognised in their own country’s constitution.
Yesterday (13 February 2013) Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott oversaw a parliamentary vote pledging to rectify the situation.
But as historic and good-intentioned as the vote may be considered, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Bill 2012 is not an actual change, just a stepping stone on a long and complicated path which may or may not be successfully navigated.
Plans to hold a referendum on this constitutional change were abandoned last year because the government considered that there was a lack of community awareness on the issue.
Today Gillard said that following the introduction of this Bill, with its aim “to build the necessary momentum for constitutional change”, the next step is “a legislative requirement for a review of public support for a referendum, to be tabled here in Parliament six months before any referendum bill is proposed”.
Now, I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that I am ignorant of the full extent of political and legal machinations required to change a country’s constitution.
But I would submit that it’s ignorant of humanity and that great Aussie notion of ‘fairness’ that Australia’s indigenous people are not recognised in its constitution.
To my mind, this isn’t an issue that should require debate or consultation or a referendum. It is a true and accepted fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were the original inhabitants of the land now known as Australia and that ever since European settlers arrived on the island in 1788, the indigenous people have been systematically stripped of their land, their culture, and their human rights.
It’s times like this when I wish that formalities could be set aside and common sense allowed to prevail.
If (as the government itself states) a majority of people in Australia are ignorant of, or indifferent to, the injustices that indigenous people have been, and continue to be, subjected to, then more fool them.
But that shouldn’t prevent those injustices from being righted right now.
I commend Gillard and Abbott for taking these politically important first steps. But – and without wanting to advocate a dictatorship – I just wish that the politicians elected by the people to represent the people didn’t have to keep asking the people’s permission to make decisions and changes; especially when it’s one as obvious and overdue as this.