Monday, July 15, 2013

First Footprints and constitutional recognition for Australia's First Peoples

Tonight a short ramble.

First Footprints

Neil liked the ABC's First Footprints, First Footprints delivered!, as did I. The series traces the long Aboriginal occupation of this continent. There were things that annoyed me in that first episode, but my reaction was in part that they did a pretty good job, in part wondering at just how far our knowledge had come since I was a member of Australia's first Australian prehistory honours class all those years ago.

For those who are interested, you can watch the first episode free on download for the next few days -

Constitutional Recognition of Australia's First Peoples

As it happened, almost straight after watching First Footprints on download, I listened to a an ABC Radio National program on the Australian constitution, including a discussion on recognition of Aboriginal peoples in the document. As it happens, this is something that I agree with, but as I listened I thought how hard it all was, 

One problem is that exponents feel the need to convince, rather than explain. A second problem is that if you wish to bring about change on an issue, discuss the issue. If you mix it in with other causes, and "popular" causes tend to run in teams, then you will fail.

A third problem is that people fail to recognise that our apparently pedestrian constitution is simply legal wrapping surrounding Australia's parliamentary system of Government.

I have absolutely no doubt that there will be some form of recognition of Australia's first peoples inserted in the constitution. However, I also suspect that it will take between three and ten years because time is required for issues to be argued through and for a community consensus to form.

Setting the Boundaries for Change

One of the really big problems with constitutional change is simply setting the boundaries of change, That is why there is really very little chance of a republic attracting a yes vote. There is no agreement on the bounds, on the definition of just what a republic might mean.

Aboriginal recognition in a preamble is really a different issue. People can agree to that. If, however, the intent were to alter some of the substantive provisions, then I think that any referendum is likely to fail.

Role of Parliament

In any case, I don't think that substantive provisions are required. In our system, Parliaments have the power within the defines set by the constitution. Most of the real demands for recognition of Aboriginal rights can be achieved through Parliament. If they can't get through there, they are highly unlikely to get through via constitutional change.

This doesn't make a new preamble just a piece of window dressing. Insertion in the constitution actually places a pressure on Parliament. It increases the chances of other things happening.  

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