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Australians have far too much in common to divide over a treaty

By Gary Johns - posted Thursday, 15 December 2016

It is hard to pick the instant when the movement to recognise Aborigines in the Constitution died. There were signposts. An early one was prime minister Julia Gillard's rejection of the (ambit) recommendations of the "expert committee" on constitutional recog­nition. More recently, Paul Keat­ing's support for a treaty did damage, but the meeting of Tasmanian Aborigines last week in Hobart at the behest of the referendum council confirmed its death.

Having grown frustrated with the political process of recognition, the Aboriginal leadership in Tasmania and elsewhere has lost control of the debate among its followers. They want something more radical than recognition; they want a treaty.

The recognition debacle has reached this point because no Australian prime minister could put a proposal that was acceptable to both the Aboriginal leadership and the electorate. Game over.


Rather than let Australians tell Aborigines what they really think, which would be something along the lines of "'just play by the same rules", politicians and the Aboriginal industry will start the next part of the game - treaty talk.

Unfortunately, this will get personal. As an Australian citizen, I may be asked to agree to a treaty between myself and other Australian citizens of particular racial (ethnic or cultural) or "first people" origins. Even if I ignore any distinguishing features of those claimants and just call them first Australians, I am nevertheless bound to ask, who is an Aborigine?

Take prominent Aboriginal activist Larissa Behrendt. Her father Paul's father was Australian of German origin and his mother was part-Aboriginal. Paul's maternal grandparents were of English descent and Aboriginal. His paternal grandparents were English and German. Larissa's mother was non-Aboriginal, and there is no suggestion of Aboriginal heritage on that side (see Michael Connor, The Family Stories of the Behrendts, Quadrant).

Larissa Behrendt has to reach back to her great-grandparents before she has a wholly Aboriginal origin defined by race or arrival (first people). My children would have to reach back to their great-great-great-grandparents to find couples who were "later" arrivals to Australia.

On what basis should I be seeking a treaty with Behrendt? Most of our forebears were from somewhere else. We have too much in common to divide over a treaty.

Polling undertaken two years ago as part of the constitutional recognition bandwagon found older Australians were more sympathetic than younger Australians to the cause. Further, younger Australians knew remarkably little about Aborigines.


Given that the school curriculum is saturated with references to Aboriginal causes it is likely young Australians are rejecting such teaching. It seems Australian schoolchildren have joined the revolt against the elites. Young deplorables?

The polling also made clear that any attempt to end discrimination via the Constitution was anathema. Australians would interpret it as ensuring that Abor­igines are treated differently. How right they are.

Australian schoolchildren are fed material from the fantasy world of latter-day historians, and reconstructions of the world they would like to have witnessed: glorious battles against the invader.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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