Recognise: Recogning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Constitution

I attended my first Recognise event last week, and am finally getting an opportunity to write it up. If you’re not familiar with “Recognise”, it’s the one with the crazy-make-my-eye-squint-fluro-R logo, or officially, the national campaign to gather support for changes to the Australian Constitution which removes “race” clauses and adds in “recognition”.

I have still not yet formed an opinion around this issue (more on that later in the post), but I thought I’d write up the presentation so that we have the “what” and are all on the same page.

What is being proposed?

The removal of two clauses in the Australian Constitution

1. Section 25

“Provisions as to races disqualified from voting: For the purposes of the last section, if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of that race resident in that State shall not be counted”

2. Section 51xxvi

“Legislative power of the Parliament: 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 for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws;”

The addition of a clause (possibly s51A) which will include

  • a recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Indigenous) prior existence and preserve the ability of the Commonwealth to make laws for the benefit of Indigenous people
  • a “declaration” that Racial Discrimination is illegal
  • a recognition that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the foundational languages of this continent.

How did these proposals come about?

Where is it all now?

The likelihood of the Constitution being changed is very small (very few Referendums have been successful). Without the unconditional support of all sides of politics, the chances are even slimmer. This is why “the question” (i.e. the Referendum) was not put up at the last election. The movement/the campaign was not ready. All sides of politics want to have the Constitution altered to include Indigenous recognition. What the exact proposal is, is still in debate, and will not be decided until well into this next Parliament. Thus, the proposal above (the removal of two clauses, and inclusion of the new three parts) is still just a proposal and have not been formally ratified.

My analysis so far … 

To be 100% honest, my jury is still out on this issue. I think the removal of section 25 is a no brainer. It should and needs to go. But with 51xxvi, and the inclusion of the “recognition clauses”, my biggest issue (and I know I’m not the only one) is that the proposed changes do not seem to take into consideration a discussion about a treaty or sovereignty and are therefore distracting from these bigger issues. However Tanya Hosch, the Deputy Director of the Recognise campaign, addressed this issue when she stated that expert legal advice found the proposed constitutional changes will not impact upon the broader Sovereignty campaign. She argued they are two different “causes” or issues and do not impinge upon each other. It’s possible, she stated, that you can support Recognise and still continue to fight for Sovereignty.  In addition, the National Congress’s expert legal advice found independently that,

“the recommendations do not limit or extinguish those rights [to sovereignty]“

Is this a case of “do you fight the fight you think you can win or the fight that should be fought?

In her summation (at the event last week), Tanya mentioned the experience of “recognition”, the overwhelming emotional and mental impact of “being seen” or “being recognised”, that she first witnessed at the National Apology. She argued that the Recognise Referendum would have the same impact. She said,

“When people experience recognition for the first time, you can’t underestimate the power of it.”

While my jury is in deliberation, I’ll continue to consider these issues over the coming years. I’ll keep an eye out for articles and posts on the issue (including the No case) and update the recommended reading list when I can -

[If you know of any links that should be on the list, I'd love to hear from you] 

Update: I think Amy McQuire nails many of my pre-existing concerns in her article The R Word. For me, the R Word has always been Reconciliation. And that the Recognise movement is so closely aligned with R, does make us … well… wince.

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