Chris Kenny supports Sean Gordon
This is an edited speech, delivered by Chris Kenny on 20 September 2017, in support of Sean Gordon’s essay, “Claiming the Common Ground for Recognition.” Gordon’s essay is available for download here.
I took great delight in reading Sean Gordon's essay. I thought it was very insightful. And I think it holds great hope for the politics of this model, of this proposal. The model we’re talking about - where we have, one, Indigenous recognition in the Constitution that manifests as an Indigenous advisory body, and two, a declaration of country outside of the Constitution - is one that I was attracted to over time, because of its innate good sense. It has intellectual integrity; it protects the Constitution and enhances the Constitution; and it delivers meaningful reform for Indigenous Australians.
There’s been a remarkable amount consensus around this model. Now that there is this consensus, we don’t want to cool our jets too much in this country. Everybody who’s got an interest in this project, you want to make good use of this consensus, you want to make good use of this momentum. You don’t want the consensus to dissipate through disappointment or disillusionment.
Sean talks about how this is a lot more than symbolism at play. He says, “There are many who still suffer, we all want this to change, and change quickly.” And he rightly says that an Indigenous voice to our national parliament will help, because it will encourage responsibility. He says, “First Nations people and their communities need to be empowered to take responsibility for the policies and programs that are supposed to be helping us. Right now, we have little power to do this.”
Just a few weeks ago, I spoke to the Samuel Griffith Society in Perth - a bunch of constitutional conservatives. What I said to them was that if we we’re putting the Constitution together now, we would obviously include Indigenous Australians. The document is essentially a bringing together of six people, six different colonies into one federal government. If we were to do this today, there’s another group of people who would never be ignored the way they were then, and that is of course Indigenous Australians. This is an argument I’ve tried to make with people: think about us remaking the Constitution. We would never do it without due recognition and due responsibility with our Indigenous Australians if we were doing it now. This is one of the key intellectual points that Sean makes in this essay. He said that this is the unfinished business of the 1967 referendum. Now, this in my view, is a point of great substance, and a point of great political benefit.
Sean writes, “The referendum gave the Commonwealth the power to make laws about us, but it didn’t give us a say in the exercise of that power. We still have no voice in the compact.” Now, he is so right on that point. Just 50 years ago, we woke up to our error in the Constitution, but we didn’t quite get it right. We should not have given Canberra the power to make laws over Indigenous people without giving Indigenous people a voice to that central power.
Now, the reason I think this is a rhetorical and a political point is that it’s a lot easier to sell. Rather than advocating some fundamental change to our founding document that’s 116 years old, this model is actually aiming to complete a change that was made in living memory. What’s more, I think across the hall of the Australian community, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, there’s an enormous amount of good will and pride associated with that 1967 referendum. The nation still celebrates it. It was a unifying event.
So, I’ve long advocated this model, and I’m very pleased to see the consensus that’s building around it. Thanks to this key insight from Sean’s essay, I argue that this model is actually an addendum to the 1967 referendum. It gives the nation the opportunity to complete that process that everybody was so proud of in the 60s, namely to correct the erroneous absence of the Indigenous voice to Parliament.