• Cape York leader Noel Pearson discusses constitutional recognition at Garma Festival, saying he is disappointed with Tony Abbott for knocking back an idea for indigenous-only conventions. (AAP)Source: AAP
When it comes to building momentum towards constitutional change, the Prime Minister’s outright rejection of Indigenous-only conferences has ruled out building a much-needed foundation.
By
Myles Morgan

Source:
NITV News
7 Aug 2015 - 6:09 PM  UPDATED 10 Aug 2015 - 1:05 PM

In a strange case of timing, the Prime Minister's response to Patrick Dodson and Noel Pearson's proposal of Indigenous-specific constitutional conventions arrived shortly before a panel on the very subject at this year's Garma festival in north-east Arnhem Land.

Tony Abbott's reply said that he did not support the idea. What followed was obvious anger and disappointment from many as a legitimate idea from respected Aboriginal leaders had been flatly rejected.

The argument from the prominent Indigenous thinkers was simple: First Nations peoples need to make a compelling case for constitutional recognition and as it stands, a popular argument does not exist because many Indigenous people find the idea of constitutional recognition variously offensive, dangerous, unwanted, uncalled for and paternalistic. A coherent and earnest case presented to the rest of Australia would certainly bolster support heading towards a referendum; anything less would risk the entire process.

Tony Abbott said in his letter of refusal that he was anxious that Indigenous-only conferences around the country to discuss the issue could create a "them and us" attitude.

"The risk with an Indigenous-only – or even an Indigenous-first – process is it might produce something akin to a log of claims that is unlikely to receive general support," he explained.

Indeed, many strong opinions on the subject would be aired. It happened at the Garma festival with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians engaging in an honest and open debate on the issue around a fire at the Gulkala site in northeast Arnhem Land. But, to say that a competing log of claims would result from black conferences is unlikely, and actually, quite offensive. It is as if the Prime Minister thinks Indigenous people have a list of demands in hand, patiently waiting two centuries for a chance to hijack an issue for their own personal gains of treaties, more money and more power.

It is as if the Prime Minister thinks Indigenous people have a list of demands in hand, patiently waiting two centuries for a chance to hijack an issue for their own personal gains of treaties, more money and more power.

According to Mr Abbott, there "should be a national consensus in favour of a particular form of recognition rather than simply an indigenous one".

It is a polite way of being told that the black agenda will only advance as far as it is allowed by non-Indigenous Australia. Well, a non-Indigenous government at least. The perceived risk here is obvious: a "national consensus" will essentially result in 'feel good' national conferences where the 3 percent of Indigenous Australians will be told by the other 97 percent of Australia what sort of recognition they deserve.

To expect Aboriginal people to commit to all-in national conferences in the same way as Indigenous-only ones is silly.

There are what some conservative Australians consider dangerous ideas out there in Aboriginal Australia: treaties, bans on racial discrimination, more funding for Indigenous organisations and giving First Nations political bodies legislative power. Rightly, those ideas are becoming associated with constitutional recognition because the Prime Minister himself often says recognition should result in practical change (of a sort he is yet to define). And yes, it is likely those ideas would be loudly and strongly debated at Indigenous conferences.

There will be black pragmatists, sceptics, campaigners and the generally confused and undecided.

There will be black pragmatists, sceptics, campaigners and the generally confused and undecided.

It is also now creating precisely what Tony Abbott wants to avoid when it comes to constitutional change: partisanship. Labor supports Indigenous-only conferences. The Liberal Prime Minister does not.

It is also now creating precisely what Tony Abbott wants to avoid when it comes to constitutional change: partisanship. Labor supports Indigenous-only conferences. The Liberal Prime Minister does not.

Now, there will be fewer at national conferences because those settings are not traditionally as culturally inviting.

Now, legitimate expectations of constitutional recognition will be pushed to the fringe, the undercurrent of black Australia. There, they will eat away at the remaining foundations of the process, constantly undermining what the Prime Minister dangerously assumes to be an already unified Indigenous position.

There are options moving forward.

Various non-government organisations could lend their time, assistance or financial resources to help set up Indigenous-only conventions.

Charities could lend their assistance, perhaps The Salvation Army's Black Recognition Appeal? Indigenous organisations could pay for their own conferences, although there is not much money out there these days.

The point is, Indigenous-only conventions can happen outside of the Commonwealth's sight and purse. But, it will create precisely the impression the Prime Minister wants to avoid: 'them and us; instead of 'we'.