Indigenous people’s scepticism towards the government-backed campaign to acknowledge Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution is developing into outright opposition.
Recognise has attempted to portray itself as a grassroots ‘people’s movement’ to eradicate racial discrimination from the Australian Constitution, and create a ‘more united nation’. In reality, it is propelled by the Australian elite and corporations that profit from the exploitation of Indigenous people and land. Supporters include mining companies BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, construction giant Lend Lease and detention centre operator Broadspectrum (formally Transfield Services).
Indigenous Advisory Council chairman Warren Mundine has claimed Recognise could lead to treaties and greater land rights. Yet why would a government which forcibly restricts how Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory spend their income, and has flirted with forcibly closing Indigenous communities, be open to giving them greater control over profitable mining land?
Throughout last year, the campaign consistently claimed it had majority support amongst Indigenous communities, ignoring independent polls showing a majority opposed it and would vote against the proposed changes in a referendum. In February this year, 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people attended a Victorian government consultation meeting on the issue. This was the first such major consultation in over two decades, which speaks volumes about the top-down approach of government. A motion was unanimously passed, declaring: “we as Sovereign People reject Constitutional Recognition.”
Attendees highlighted the contradiction between empty words about self-determination from governments and their actual deeds, with years of policies that have worsened outcomes for Indigenous people. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Indigenous people aged 15 to 35. Indigenous children are nine times more likely to kill themselves than non-Indigenous children. The Northern Territory Intervention, Aboriginal deaths in custody and endemic poverty in Aboriginal communities all demonstrate the unwillingness of the major parties and their big business backers to improve Aboriginal lives.
There is wide support for greater respect for Aboriginal people and their right to self-determination, shown by huge crowds at recent Invasion Day marches and rallies against forced closures of remote Indigenous communities. These rallies suggest a significant layer of predominantly young Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are drawing radical conclusions about the need to challenge racist Australian capitalism and the major parties which manage it. Large numbers oppose the establishment’s ‘Recognise’ campaign because they know it is not intended to achieve anything meaningful.
Recognise is the latest in a long tradition of tokenism from capitalist governments – including the Rudd apology to the stolen generations. This tokenism was on full display with the government’s response to the latest Close the Gap report. The report examines progress on targets to reduce Indigenous disadvantage. Of the seven targets, only two are on track. Targets for closing the gap in life expectancy, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous school attendance, halving the gap in literacy and numeracy achievements and halving the gap in employment outcomes are falling by the wayside.
Yet Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull celebrated the report as evidence of “significant gains” for Indigenous people. At the same time he claimed constitutional recognition would offer hope and optimism, and was the answer to the demand by Indigenous people for government to “do things with us, not to us”. Indigenous MP Ken Wyatt said Turnbull’s speech about the report was ‘on par’ with former PM Kevin Rudd’s apology to stolen generations. He meant it as praise, and ignored the fact that Aboriginal children are still being torn from their families by state governments.
Journalist Amy McQuire, a Darumbul woman, more aptly said “the great farce of constitutional reform has been a white-led, top-down government approach to shutting up Aboriginal aspirations for treaty and sovereignty.”
Capitalism is incapable of placing people’s needs before the profit interests of big corporations, who funnel huge resources into both Liberal and Labor. In return, the major parties implement policies to boost big business while hurting working class and poor Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. They use racist tactics to strengthen divisions amongst us.
Indigenous self-determination could be a reality, but not on the basis of capitalism. What is needed is a system based on collective ownership and real democracy. Working people of all backgrounds must fight together to demand jobs, homes and services for all, and for a democratic socialist society.
By Ben Convey