Ahead of the Canning-by election on Saturday, a Liberal party motion that is set to dramatically deter Indigenous recognition in Australia’s Constitution will also be within Tony Abbott’s sights.
This Jesuit-trained student will have quite a bit of discerning to do in order to weave a satisfying and fair path through the discontent of his Liberal colleagues on the ‘Indigenous’ issue, yet keep Indigenous Australians equally and respectfully engaged in determining a much better future for Australia’s First Nations people.
The Prime Minister’s recent change of attitude towards Indigenous conventions is a step forward for Indigenous people. "There hasn't been any about-face," he told reporters when asked by NITV News’ Myles Morgan why he was now open to talking about the issue.
'What we want to do is to have a unified process which certainly will involve Indigenous people talking.'
"What we want to do is to have a unified process which certainly will involve Indigenous people talking," he said.
The architects of this direction — Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership Noel Pearson, Yawuru Traditional owner Pat Dodson, Co-chair for the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples Kirstie Parker, and Director of the Indigenous Law Centre at the University of New South Wales Professor Megan Davis — have been united and persistent voices in insisting that the Prime Minister support Indigenous conventions.
Speaking to the press pack after emerging from their meeting with the PM, Noel Pearson said, "over the next 12 months there will be a referendum council oversighting the process of national consultation which will include the program of Indigenous consultation that we originally proposed."
Before the meeting Tony Abbot had said, "it will involve the wider community talking and what I want to see is not some kind of ‘them and us’ process, but a ‘we the people’ process.
"Obviously, it's important for Indigenous people to have a chance to talk this through as thoroughly as possible."
But the weight of growing discontent against Indigenous recognition in the Liberal party ranks has to be of concern to the Prime Minister.
Canning, the Prime Minister’s shadow companion
The irony is that it is the politics of Western Australia yet again — the state that has provoked the greatest outrage with its announcement of stopping essential services to Aboriginal communities, effectively closing them off to any financial support — that is the battleground for the PM.
It is also the seat of Canning (the former seat of the late Don Randall whose death in July brought about the Canning by-election) that holds a unique place in black and white political history.
Don Randall is remembered as a good man, a strong campaigner and a champion for his local electorate. He was undoubtedly popular among both voters and colleagues. But for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, he is also remembered as one of the Coalition MPs who boycotted Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations.
'In some ways, Alfred Canning’s expedition could be seen as the Prime Minister’s shadow companion on his Indigenous constitutional recognition expedition.'
In some ways, Alfred Canning’s expedition could be seen as the Prime Minister’s shadow companion on his Indigenous constitutional recognition expedition. Perhaps a parallel journey of grand ideals, endurance, frustration, errors of judgement and accusations resulting in no real harmonious outcomes of the spirit, but at least the wells were built.
'a parallel journey of grand ideals, endurance, frustration, errors of judgement and accusations resulting in no real harmonious outcomes of the spirit, but at least the wells were built.'
In 1906, surveyor Alfred Canning (after whom the seat of Canning is named) was asked to find a way to link the Kimberley region to the Kalgoorlie Goldfield in order to find water on what is now known as the Canning Stock Route.
Such a venture was described by ANU historian and member of the Canning Stock Route Project, John Carty, as “such a long way to take cattle over some of the harshest country that's ever been inhabited by humans, so it was a bold thing to do, but an absurd thing to do in other ways.”
Canning needed Aboriginal members of his expedition to locate the water sources along that 5,000 kilometre stretch of spinifex and sand country. He was accused of treating Aboriginal men and women so badly, in particular for the unnecessary use of chains, that a Royal Commission into the Treatment of Natives on the Canning Expedition was established in 1908.
The Canning Stock Route Project reports that “The Royal Commission condemned the use of chains on guides but cleared Canning and his men to commence immediate construction of the stock route wells. Canning set out again from Wiluna in March 1908 with 30 men, 70 camels, 4 wagons, 100 tons of food and equipment, and 267 goats to provide milk and meat.” Incredible archives of newspaper reports on the Royal Commission can be read online.
'Canning’s legacy is not just in the name of the Canning Stock Route'
Canning’s legacy is not just in the name of the Canning Stock Route which is now a popular tourist destination, but also the establishment of the Division of Canning in 1949. In its 66-year history, Canning has largely been a conservative held seat, with seven Country and Liberal Members and three Labor members holding it. It’s interesting to note that the seat actually takes in the surrounds of the Perth area, not the remote regions of WA.
A racial constitution
Bill Hassell, a Lifetime Member of the WA Liberal Party and former WA Liberal Leader (1984-1986) insisted that the Prime Minister take heed of a motion going to the Liberal Party State Conference in 2015.
Hassell told NITV News WA Correspondent Craig Quartermaine, “Well it’s apparently on the agenda, it’s not my motion but it is on the agenda and I will certainly support the terms of the motion I have heard, which is that we should not be recognising any particular race in the Constitution that the Constitution is for all of us and should remain so."
Hassell said, "I think it's divisive to put a racially based provision in the Constitution. It is of course a fact of history that Aboriginal lived in Australia before Europeans did but there are now many races that live here".
There is no disagreement from Noel Pearson on that issue.
'That is not a question of race.'
“What I do want recognition of is the fact that there were Indigenous peoples in this country prior to 1788,” Pearson said on the ABC’s Lateline.
“That is not a question of race, even though commentators like Andrew Bolt and so on, they, in a very dishonest way, try to conflate race and Indigenous. They are separate things. I completely agree that we shouldn't have a racial constitution. But the simple historical fact that there were peoples here that came upwards to 53,000 years ago, there were people here prior to 1788 - that's a question of being Indigenous to Australia; it's not about race.”
Lawyer Michael Mansell who is co-ordinating ‘respectful conversations’ in Melbourne on the way forward, is incredulous at Hassell’s views. “What do they mean they don’t want to introduce racism into the constitutional debate? It is a racist document, it’s already there.”
Mr Mansell hoped that a discussion in Melbourne in August was important to put other models on the table for discussion, not just the Preamble or Noel Pearson’s model or the anti-discrimination model.
The gathering heard views from representatives such as Callum Clayton-Dixon, who has travelled the world on an Aboriginal passport, Les Malezer, Co-Chair of the First Nations Congress, former ATSIC Commissioner Kerry Blackman from Queensland, former ATSIC Chair Geoff Clark, NAIDOC Male Elder of the Year and National Coordinator of the Alice Springs summit in 2014 Tauto Sainsbury, and Meriki Onus from Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance who organised the 8,000 strong rally in Melbourne in May 2015.
Kirstie Parker said of the initial model for the conferences, "We've proposed a series of gatherings … where there is a very good spread, and the best spread that we can achieve geographically of our people.”
"We want to give an opportunity for as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to participate in that process as possible, and at the end of that regional process that there be some sort of coming together to hopefully arrive at a broadly consensus position out of our communities."
This will mean engaging with the passionate views of Sovereignty and Treaty advocates too.
'But over in the city of black swans (Perth), the question remains as to whether the PM will be swayed by the voices of the growing discontent among his Liberal colleagues'
But will the PM be swayed by the voices of the growing discontent among his Liberal colleagues, and will that delay — or worse, end — the constitutional conversation.
Will he have the courage of his convictions to stay firmly on course to engage respectfully and genuinely with the diverse views among Indigenous Australians, to achieve the long sought after swan dive of constitutional equality?
Or will our country be heading for a deeply disappointing belly-flop of distracting proportions?