I like to learn how to say people’s names properly. Not that I have a particularly good memory for pairing names with faces, but I believe it is a sign of respect when you pay enough attention to learn to say – and spell – someone’s name correctly. Perhaps it’s a legacy of those elocution lessons at primary school … Mrs. Edie would be amused.
I also like to learn where names are from, so that I can mentally categorize the silent ‘w’ or the difference between the suffixes ‘-ski’ and ‘-ska’ in a name. The regional variation in pronunciations interests me, so I often ask people if I have pronounced their names correctly and from where it harks. One man some years ago, aged somewhere around seventy, replied to me that he was simply a man of the world, that we are all just people and where we come from should not matter. He did not believe in dividing people into races. When I explained my reasoning, he told me that he was from what was formerly known as Yugoslavia, but he maintained that we are all simply people, wherever we come from.
Andrew Bolt is making the same argument in his Valentines Day post, but whilst heritage should not matter, the reality is that it quite simply does. His argument is that we should treat each other equally regardless of race assumes race, or indeed colour, gender, age or creed do not confer certain advantages or disadvantages. Such naïve perceptions assume that everyone starts at the same point in life, everyone has the same opportunities, the same privileges. The reality is experiences suffered by people such as Ms. King, Angelique, Lucinda McMillan, the former Commissioner for ACT Revenue, the indigenous people of the various nations living in the Northern Territory, the Yindjibarndi, the family of Evelyn Greenup. If you are indigenous, you are treated differently both with regard to legislation and law enforcement. As has been demonstrated all to frequently via the Intervention, manipulation of the people and processes that should have protected the Yindjibarndi and the festering corruption in the Australian Capital Territory, Aboriginal Australians are still seen and treated as second rate. The reality is that even if you are the most senior female indigenous banking executive in the country, you have no human rights. Equality is much more than a state of mind; society does not offer each and every person the same opportunities to education, legal representation, career options or medical treatment. If we don’t all commence at the same starting point, then equality is illusory. Differences in circumstance, be they inherited or acquired, never make for a level playing field.
Two hundred and twenty-five years of history and successive policies have proved that “should” simply does not equate to “do”. Ironically, Andrew Bolt draws attention to Section 51 of the Constitution of Australia, which allows for special laws to be made to assist any race. Yes, those laws have been used to legislate for Aborigines, but I doubt the Aborigines in the Northern Territory would agree that the Intervention has done much to help them. Remember the Ampilatwatja Walkoff? Yes, they may get welfare, but people in no other state are forced to submit to income management. What a paternalistic insult.
The wording of Section 51 (xxvi) was amended as a result of the 1967 referendum removing specific reference to aborigines as follows (words with strike-through removed in 1967):
The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:
(xxvi) the people of any race , other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.
What many do not realize, is that this section was originally designed to permit discrimination against immigrants such as the Pacific Islander sugar cane workers, giving the Commonwealth the power to curtail their activities and where they lived.
Richard Downs was one of the Elders of the Alyawarr community near Alice Springs involved in the Ampilwatja Walkoff and tells of the effect of the failures of the Northern Territory Intervention and its offspring, the Stronger Futures initiative. The NSW Aboriginal Land Council sent the people of Ampilatwatja a symbol of their solidarity when they walked off the mission:
The NSW Aboriginal Land Council sent a symbol of their support to the Ampilatwatja community through a plaque and a bell. The plaque read in part: “The decision to walk off your government controlled community and set up a permanent camp to protest the intervention in your lives following decades of neglect has the full support of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council … Your action in the face of such denial of human rights, has shone a powerful spotlight on one of the sorriest episodes in your long struggle for land rights and social justice.”
The Declaration Bell is also symbolic. It is a reference to the Prime Minister’s apology speech and his observation that an apology without action will sound like a clanging gong. The Declaration Bell was also inscribed: “May it ring for justice and change.”
Justice and change would mean the elimination of systems that restrict what indigenous Australians can buy in the Northern Territory, not to mention where and from whom they can buy goods. Justice and change would not have left the family of Kwementyaye Ryder, killed after he and his indigenous friends were terrorized by non-indigenous men, without the solace of further investigation under the Racial Discrimination Act and allowed such minimal sentences for such deliberate behaviour.
Justice and change would have seen Ms. King’s assault investigated by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), not intimidated by police cars sitting outside her home late at night with their lights flashing.
I have written previously about how Ms. King’s human rights have been completely ignored by the inactions of the AFP, despite the compelling nature of those rights. Not only have they ignored Ms. King’s right to justice but also her right to be brought before the court. In that post I stated that:
“The simple act of altering two sections of constitution that pertained to a specific race should have eliminated the discrimination that was permitted to go unseen by the rest of the Australian population … The body of rights that jus cogens recognizes should have become applicable to Indigenous Australians. Instead, what has been demonstrated via the experiences of people like Ms. King and Lucinda McMillan is that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is of limited value.”
I still believe that constitutional recognition is of limited value, because even if it is included the reality is that law enforcement and judicial processes are not applied equally to black and white. Access to legal representation and sufficient income to pay for legal advice don’t come with living on a mission, in Redfern or on Palm Island. It’s one thing to write about equality; it’s another to realize you can only have as much justice as you can afford. Look at the recent debate about sentencing in Bourke.
What constitutional recognition will do is ensure that Australia’s pre-history is recognized. The current Australian Constitution makes the tremendous assumption that this great land came into being in 1788. There is no recognition of the pre-British settlement history of this land. The entire constitution is a rendering of a system and values that differ in every possible way from that of the original inhabitants. As a nation, we trade on indigenous culture and heritage, but we fail to acknowledge that heritage in our founding document. I don’t expect that constitutional recognition will change a single thing for indigenous Australians on a practical level, because words so often do not translate to actions. But it should be able to force us as a nation to consider what we have done and re-dress some of the imbalance, breaking away from a purely Anglo-Celtic view. It is, perhaps, the step that must be taken for Ms. King, the former Commissioner for ACT Revenue, the Yindjibarndji and Richard Downs to find justice and change. Ring that bell, Uncle Richard. It’s well past time it tolled.