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Another divisive referendum out of tune with national thinking

By John Stone - posted Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A constitutional referendum to "recognise the special place of our first peoples"?

The Australian (Editorial, November 9) saw this as "An amendment we all endorse". With respect, few statements can be further from the truth.

What is it about our politicians (from all sides) that moves them to these flights of faux-symbolic fancy? And what is it about our journalists, even those from a newspaper I have bought since its inception, that moves them to endorse the unrealities involved? Whatever became of that once famous Australian national characteristic, a keen eye for bullshit?


Journalists aside, the principal protagonists in this recent political posturing are the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and as always, the predominantly non-Aboriginal "Aboriginal industry". Note the conspicuous absence from this self-righteous band of brothers (and sisters) of most truly Aboriginal Australians. While the nation argues over this tired question, their everyday disadvantages continue largely unaddressed.

In considering this Julia Gillard "initiative", first recall that we have already had one referendum to amend the Preamble to our Constitution.

It occurred in 1999, concurrently with the one to change Australia from a constitutional monarchy to a republic.

In 1999 the proposed preamble included the following words: "honouring Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, the nation's first people, for their deep kinship with their lands and for their ancient and continuing cultures which enrich the life of our country."

Did one ever see a clearer example of Canberra-generated codswallop?

As any Torres Strait Islander will quickly tell you, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are not one "people" but two quite separate "peoples". Shying away from such truths is what has led us to the point where, as Gary Johns, himself a former minister for Aboriginal affairs in the Keating government, said in his generally excellent article ("Referendum must not be used to settle old scores", The Australian, November 11), "The long-run trajectory for Aborigines in Australia is integration. The experiment with separate development in the past 40 years has been a dismal failure".


As for "their ancient and continuing cultures" graphically chronicled in the 2007 Northern Territory Little Children are Sacred report, to take only one example, the less said about the violence-racked, female-oppressive, sexually predatory cultures of the Australian Aboriginal the better.

The former chief justice of the High Court, Harry Gibbs, in his essay "A Preamble: The Issues", published by The Samuel Griffith Society in 1999, summed up by asking whether a preamble should "incorporate any expression of opinion or values, however firmly held by those who may claim to be an elite, unless it is certain that those opinions and values are generally accepted by Australian society as a whole, and are likely to continue to command general acceptance?" To this he gave a very firm "No".

In the event, while the republic referendum went down overwhelmingly, the preamble referendum (even though it was supported by all political parties) was even more summarily dismissed, gaining only 39.3 per cent of formal votes recorded. In Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania the "Yes" votes were even more derisory: 32.8, 34.7 and 35.7 per cent respectively. Does Gillard really believe that by 2013 (say) Australians will deliver a different verdict?

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First published in The Australian on November 22, 2010.

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About the Author

John Stone is a former treasury secretary and National Party senator.

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