Recommendation 3 of the Expert Panel on Constitution recognition of indigenous Australian peoples is a new section 51A which includes a clause:
“Acknowledging the need to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”
Advancement? This is a term straight out of the mid-1900s, and one which lays claim to modern Western notions of ‘progress’ as the only ‘normality’ in Australian life.
It is part of the mentality which depicted First Peoples as backward remnants of the stone age, and suffering from some form of imaginary deficiency.
The thinking in the Expert Panel, as reflected by its recommendations and language, seems to belong to a White Australia tradition which we need to leave well behind us.
While there is no denying the disadvantage which First Peoples have suffered as a result of the failure of the Anglo-Australian state (since 1788) to engage in genuine exchange relationships, this does not mean that First Peoples have to be ‘advanced’.
There is an equal case to be made that mainstream Anglo-Australian practices need to be reformed in order to reduce and repair the damage done to life here by the notions of progress which were in place in the late 1890s when the original Constitution was written. Some rebalancing all round is required.
Constitutional recognition needs to be in terms which affirm First Peoples as First Peoples, not in terms which unfairly put them in a bad light. It was the failings of the colonial authorities (no treaty, no recognition, no exchange relationships) which disadvantaged indigenous Australians.
The present wording of this proposed Section 51(A) clause carries with it an ‘unconscious’ negative characterisation of the respective positions of Australia’s First Peoples vis-à-vis non-indigenous Australians.
As things stand, a referendum question based on the expert panel’s recommendation would, if successful, cement an obsolete 20th century stereotype of First Peoples into the Constitution.
A far better form of words, which avoids empowering this one-sided and increasingly obsolete ideology of ‘progress’, would be:
“Acknowledging the need to restore and secure the full well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”
This leaves room for First Peoples to be empowered on terms which are in keeping with their own values, practices, worldviews and cosmologies.