You Me Unity – some information on Constitutional Reform in Australia
Today we attended the South Australian Unions Aboriginal & Islander State Conference for workers across the state and had the pleasure of talking with Tanya Hosch, deputy campaign director for You Me Unity who gave a presentation on her work in bringing about Constitutional Reform for Aboriginal and Islander peoples here in Australia.
The Constitution is the basis for our laws and political system. A lot has changed since the Constitution was written in 1901.
Nowadays many Australians would be surprised to know that the Constitution still includes the possibility for discrimination based on your race, and ignores Australia’s first peoples and their role as custodians of the world’s oldest continuing culture.
The Australian people have the power to update the Constitution through a referendum so that it better reflects our shared values.
In light of this The Panel was appointed by the Government to consult with the people and led a nationwide discussion on the issue.
After a period of consideration, discussion and consultation with all Australians, the Panel developed options for formally recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution. They provided their Report to government on 19 January 2012.
You Me Unity is the national conversation about updating our Constitution to recognise our first peoples and define equality for all Australians.
Please find below Tanya’s latest blog from the Your Me Unity website;
Last week I caught up with a mate I’ve known most of my life. His is a story pretty typical for an Aboriginal man of that vintage: grew up on a mission, knew hard times as a kid, worked hard his whole life, never had a lot of spare cash. His main preoccupation these days is making sure that his children and grandchildren are well cared for and have the support they need.
I wondered aloud whether he thought the growing push to recognise our people in Australia’s constitution had any relevance given the challenges he faces each day. His answer was compelling.
“I don’t think it’s going to change my life,” he began. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
That profound and simple truth has stuck with me ever since.
Why? Because it is “the right thing to do” for this nation to acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were here for tens of thousands of years before federation. It is “the right thing to do” for our cultural and individual contributions to the modern nation to be acknowledged and honoured. And it is right for us to want to rid our constitution of the lingering stain of race discrimination.
Flip the proposition around, and it becomes even more potent. It’s wrong – and unjust – that our founding document of law still entertains the idea of banning people from casting a vote because of their race. That’s section 25 for you. The idea that we would tolerate that any longer as a nation is unbearable.
For such a long time, political leaders of this nation understood that such discrimination lived on in our constitution yet did not feel compelled to do anything about it. Now, at long last, the current generation of senior political figures is prepared to acknowledge that searing affront. We should press them to act on it.
When I think of the race discrimination that lives on today in our constitution, my mind often wanders to our old people. The people like my Aboriginal dad, who has lived life hard yet without complaint, never knowing any privilege. How many more of his generation will die before this country has a constitution that acknowledges them properly, and that no longer allows for the potential of discrimination against them? For their sakes alone, we should all be possessed of a sense of urgency.
If you doubt whether constitutional recognition is worth pursuing, think of it in these terms. To my mind, the lack of recognition of our people in our founding document of law taints the whole basis of our relationships as Australians. How can you even begin to fix significant problems when the document on which the modern nation is founded doesn’t tell the truth of what came before federation? Recognition is about getting the basis right for every other conversation we need to have with each other.
There is still a way to go, of course, before we see exactly what the nation’s political leaders will agree to take to a referendum as specific changes to the text of our constitution. Both Labor and the Coalition have said they are committed to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and removing race discrimination. But both agree it should be held after the 2013 election, to take the issue out of the political crossfire in a brutal partisan battle and to spend more time making the case well enough to the Australian public to ensure a Yes vote.
The reforms that the parliament proposes will still need to win the assent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have any chance of success. Some people are sceptical that the political leadership will come up with a proposal that goes far enough to be meaningful. That is still an open question. Like every other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in this country, I will be watching carefully to see how the final proposals match up to the promise of their rhetoric. We need to see the specifics before we can sign up to them.
But what we can sign up to in the meantime is the concept itself of recognition – the idea and the intent implicit in it. I want our country to have a constitution that speaks the truth about the awe-inspiring dimensions of our peoples’ connection to this ancient land. I want our country to have a constitution that reflects the values we as a nation claim to have.
Perhaps this quest for constitutional recognition might also spark a movement in our everyday lives for better recognition of the men and women who carry our peoples’ struggles day by day. The elders and the night patrol ladies and the grandparents who raise their children’s children and the tireless campaigners for justice for those who can no longer speak for themselves. The young people who take on big responsibilities before their time and the women whose leadership is often so important – and so under-acknowledged – and every one of us who succeed at something, against odds big or small.
Another memory sticks with me, too. In my time working at the Human Rights Commission, I went to interview some of the Aboriginal leaders whose long fight for recognition and acknowledgement of the Stolen Generations helped to elicit the Bringing Them Home report and ultimately the Apology. One of those women, who devoted years of her life to the cause of pursuing an acknowledgement of the anguish, trauma and pain known to so many of the separated families. On her kitchen table that day was a pamphlet bearing the words: “Have you ever thought about volunteering?” It seemed an insult, given how much of her life she had contributed to unpaid, tireless activism in pursuit of recognition of what had happened to the Stolen Generations. I feel shades of the same every time I see a black colleague get less recognition than they should in a workplace or boardroom. And I’ve felt the sting of being erased from a room myself – even by well-meaning colleagues – without acknowledgement. Recognition is a personal responsibility – and it needs to begin with us.
That’s why, in talking about constitutional recognition, I often pay tribute to the activists and leaders who have pursued the case for such a long time for sovereignty and a treaty. If you think about it, we are only at this point, with the nation preparing to take the next step in coming to grips with its true past, at least in part, because of their work. Some people might be tempted to play the movements for constitutional recognition and proponents of a treaty off against each other. I think we’re smarter than that. So do many other Indigenous people.
A recent survey by the independent research company Auspoll found 37 percent of Indigenous people believe constitutional recognition would be a positive step towards an eventual treaty. George Williams, the respected constitutional lawyer, takes a similar view, arguing the debate on constitutional recognition will invite many more Australians to focus on the basis on which the nation was forged. Wherever the debate on treaty leads, we should still have a federal constitution that acknowledges our true past – and which no longer countenances race discrimination.
To anyone tempted to oppose constitutional recognition outright – before they even know precisely what it is that they are opposing – I ask simply this. Who are we to decide for others that this is not a big deal? Sitting in the gallery on the day of the Apology to the Stolen Generations, I thought of all the people who had passed away before they got to hear those words. If we wait too much longer, many of our old people aren’t going to be here to see the change that now lies before us in prospect. How many more of our people will we let slip away before our constitution acknowledges them properly?
On the face of it, recognition in our constitution may seem like a small and insignificant act, but even during my most cynical and defeated moments, I still believe it can lead to important positive changes, and I hope, will bring a renewed sense of pride to my father, my daughter, my family and friends. I teach my daughter to tell the truth, and I’m looking forward to the day when our constitution does the same.
Tanya Hosch is a Torres Strait Islander woman who lives in Adelaide. She is deputy campaign director for You Me Unity, the people’s movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People in our constitution.
See the National Indigenous Times article here: http://www.youmeunity.org.au/uploads/custom/ee0281153d7b7c2d37a4.pdf