The government-backed campaign to acknowledge Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution is mired in controversy. Polls are showing a majority of Aboriginal people do not support the ‘Recognise’ campaign, and would vote against the proposed changes if a referendum were held.
While ‘Recognise’ describes itself as grassroots, the guest lists at the galas and fundraising events held by the campaign read like a who’s who of the Australian elite. Big business has thrown its weight behind the campaign: supporters include mining companies like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, construction giant Lend Lease and detention centre operator Transfield Services.
The campaign has an open orientation towards these types of supporters. Recognise joint campaign director Tim Gartrell said that while “the grassroots community movement continues to grow… political and business leadership is also crucial.”
A poll run by Recognise found that 75% of Australians would vote to change the constitution to acknowledge Aboriginal people. Yet a rival poll of Aboriginal people run by IndigenousX found that 75% of respondents would vote against the proposal!
While many non-indigenous Australians would like to see Aboriginal people treated with more respect there is a clear and understandable suspicion about ‘Recognise’ among Aboriginal people. Why would companies that profit from forcing Aboriginal people out of inner city areas or destructively mining Aboriginal land suddenly have their best interests in mind?
Indigenous Advisory Council chairman Warren Mundine has suggested that a successful Recognise campaign would open the door to treaties and greater land rights. Critics are sceptical as it seems unlikely that a government which doesn’t even let Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory decide how to spend their income would be open to giving them greater control over valuable mining land.
The Recognise campaign has shone a harsh spotlight on the gulf between the warm words of the establishment and the lived reality of Aboriginal people. In March establishment figures attended a Recognise gala in Redfern while the Aboriginal occupiers of the Block continued their brave stand against eviction just metres away.
Aunty Jenny Munro, leader of the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy at the Block, argued that “the Recognise Campaign is just another propaganda campaign. Putting the words ‘prior occupation’ in the constitution, which is a racist document to start with, will not give our people any legal redress within this toxic legal system of theirs… it’s a bad system that only gives justice to the white rich.”
Despite all the recent lip service from politicians it is clear from the Northern Territory Intervention, the proposed forced closures of Aboriginal communities, deaths in custody, the housing crisis and the endemic poverty in Aboriginal communities that neither of the major parties or their big business backers want to improve the lives of Aboriginal people.
In fact as the economic crisis worsens, big business will continue to pressure their representatives in the major parties to make ordinary people pay through budget cuts that will disproportionately affect Aboriginal people.
The capitalist system puts big business greed before community need, and relies on racist division to maintain this status quo. Aboriginal land rights and self-determination will not be won within this profit-driven system of private ownership. But self-determination could be a reality in a different type of society, one based on collective ownership and genuine democracy.
Ordinary working people from all backgrounds need to reject the divisive tactics of the establishment and fight together for jobs, homes and services for all, and for this different type of society – a socialist society.
By Chris Dite