Guest Blog: Thomas Keneally
Speech originally delivered at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 12 November 2016
I’m delighted to congratulate two gifted young Australians: Damien, and Shireen, who have put together a superb book of essays on the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, The Forgotten People. The subtitle of the book is ‘Liberal and conservative approaches to recognising indigenous peoples’. John Howard talks about this issue in his memoirs. Howard was a tough nut to crack on this issue, but he spoke about the significance of the fact that Noel Pearson was an Aboriginal who had deliberately decided to embrace the reality of the conservative world, of course without which, no constitutional reform is ever possible.
Given the way constitutional issues are voted on in Australia at the moment, the majority of the electorate is needed to pass a referendum, as are the majority of the electorate in the majority of the states as well. I think this can happen if we’re fortunate.
A lot of people will want more out of the Constitution, will want a virtual Aboriginal ‘Bill of Rights’. Sadly, given the realities of what we can expect from the Constitution, they won’t get that. But they can get constitutional recognition, they can achieve the abolition of section 25, which can be used to exclude certain races from voting. And we can modify section 51 (xxvi), the notorious ‘race power’ to get an advisory body which can’t be legislated away.
I think that a great flaw in the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian peoples will be redressed by this constitutional change. The recognition of Aboriginal Australia will rid us of that whispering voice; that sense of illegitimacy that is in us – why do we get so worked up about the Aboriginal question? Because it is core to our own legitimacy as Australians, it is core to our own possession of Australia and we will achieve our own legitimacy by endowing the ancient Australians with their legitimacy, not as an act of generosity—because they’ve always had legitimacy—but as an act of tearing the scales from our own eyes and acknowledging it.
That advisory body would give our brothers and sisters a voice in relation to laws that affect them. An Aboriginal body that is permanently there to advise on legislation on Indigenous affairs cannot be taken away by administrative decisions, by statute or according to the particular ideological view of a government when it comes anew to power and takes an entirely new direction on Aboriginal affairs, as happened when John Howard came to power and brought in Dr Herron as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
You will always have extreme conservatives who say that any constitutional change is undesirable, that all constitutional change has unintended consequences. I was saying to Damien in an email earlier this week, some of these guys and girls talk as if the Constitution were brought down from Mount Sinai, the time of the Ten Commandments. It’s not! It is a sensible document created by sensible men, no women had a part in that stage, sensible men who wanted to create a viable set of articles of association for a viable set of former British colonies, and they did put in a mechanism for change. By the time they finished with it, it was a hard mechanism to move. You can only succeed if you can convince a lot of people and if you get both conservatives and progressives to agree. That’s the trick - agreement.
And so I support Noel Pearson’s advisory council concept. As he says, Indigenous people need to gain something of practical value from their constitutional recognition. Aboriginal people have no reason to be interested in our making a gesture of recognition. We are crazy for symbolism and always have been and always will be. Yet without giving Indigenous people something of practical value, of which Noel Pearson speaks, then I think it could be a far emptier gesture.
Otherwise, we will not attract anything like the unified voice from the Aboriginal community. And we will never have a constitutionally guaranteed advisory body having input into Indigenous Affairs legislation if we fail in this great endeavour. So I think The Forgotten People talks about and promotes a reasonable conservative constitutional change which will have dramatic effect upon our relationship.
One of the people who writes in the book is a fella I know, General Michael Jeffery, former Governor-General. He writes about when he became aware of how important heritage is in relation to this constitutional reform. This is the other endeavour which will come out of this change, it will accompany it and will fortify it.
Our increasing knowledge of Aboriginal heritage should make us proud. Out at Lake Mungo, we should have the greatest heritage site in the world. We could show young Australians and all Australians that 42,000 years ago, even 60,000 years ago, there was a community behaving viably and sustaining the country out there in Lake Mungo, maintaining the landscape which was part of Aboriginal culture and law.
What a difference from the picture in our childhood history books of a hapless Aboriginal man and woman underneath a tree with a cast-off boomerang in the background and a wallaby corpse for dinner. What a difference this heritage would make to our perception and to our respect and to our united cry. That united cry; that acknowledgment of heritage would help create a new vision in the White mind of what Aboriginal people are and were.
And yet, none of that will happen, I believe, unless we do it in the big document, the founding document, our articles of association. Unless we are going to be aspirational there, unless the voice of Indigenous people is heard in the legislative process, we will be rendered endlessly miserable by denying this recognition to Aboriginal people in the Constitution. In acknowledging the place they’ve always had, we will fortify our own.