Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

A looming referendum

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Today's essay is about the proposed amendment to our Constitution to acknowledge the fact that indigenous Australians were here first. There have been a number of such proposals in the last hundred years. Most of them were said to be bi-partisan, have been shaped through consultation with Aboriginal people, and have been supported by some of the good and the great. None of them has yet been subjected to a referendum. None of them would have succeeded, in my opinion. As far as I understand it, the current proposal is only to ask whether citizens are in favour of there being some sort of recognition of the historic presence of indigenous people. If it passes, then there would be another period of consultation, from which a formal proposal about the nature of that recognition would require approval at a further referendum. Complicated? Yes, but a popular approval would give the second stage some impetus.

It is worth noting right away that the proposal does not have anything like the unanimous support of 'the Aboriginal people'. Several of their well-known leaders have dismissed it as just words. They want real action, not recognition. It is not always clear what 'real action' might be, or whether it is implementable at all. Some want a treaty, not words in the Constitution. You might say that Aboriginal people are united in feeling that something should be done, but show no unity at all about what that something should be.

I am not in favour of any of these proposals, for several reasons. The first is that such recognition is a form of identity politics, in which the identity of the group is the most important aspect of life, which acts to reduce the possibility of the members of the group being further integrated into the broader society. In the sixties I asked respondents to choose a card from a set of cards that best described how they saw themselves. The cards were AUSTRALIAN, VICTORIAN (or the relevant state for the respondent), BRITISH SUBJECT, SYDNEY-SIDER (or relevant city or town), WORKING CLASS (or middle class). The great majority saw themselves as 'Australian' first, though there substantial numbers of Tasmanians who put their primary identity as 'Tasmanian', with smaller such groups in Western Australia and Queensland. A small minority chose 'British subject' and an even smaller minority chose a class term. No one then used the term 'identity politics', but you can see how it works.


What do the assumed members of minority groups want? We don't know really, but we can assume that they want to be noticed and respected. Would the inclusion of some words in the Preamble or the Constitution appease them? I doubt it. Their leaders would ask for more. In things like identity there is an almost infinite set of things that a minority group might want. It is the same with the environment.

My second objection is that such an addition is a form of racism. Yes, you can argue correctly that the Constitution already mentions 'Aboriginal' people. But this proposed addition goes much further, and intends to provide a privileged position for those of indigenous descent. Indeed some critics of the present want to see an addition that says that governments could in future only pass laws that improve the status of indigenous people. At the moment the Constitution is silent about race other than to say that the Commonwealth Government can pass laws about Aboriginal people. I would strike that out, on the ground that everywhere else in the Constitution Australians are regarded as equal, whatever their 'race'.

My third is that Aboriginal people constitute a little over 800,000 of our 25 million people. There about as many Indians, and well over a million Chinese. Critics will say, so what? Both Indians and Chinese are interlopers just like Europeans. Yes, I concede that, but they are likely to say, as will many immigrants from Europe, 'We had to start again, and we've worked hard. Why don't they [indigenous people] do what we had to do, and not just accept sit-down money? Of course a great many Aboriginal people are in jobs, and are well integrated into Australian society. What to do about those who live in remote settlements, where there are no jobs, defeats me at the moment, as it has defeated every Australian Government.

It will be clear I have little time for those of tender heart who say that we stole the land from them, and their children. The notion that the peoples of the continent of Australia were going to be allowed to live on as they had been doing for a long time, without any European intervention at all, is simply preposterous. The land was going to be taken and colonised by someone, English, French or German. I don't see any reason to suppose that the French or the Germans would have been better masters than the English, and a good deal to suggest that, all things considered, what happened was the best outcome. Yes, the use of the land was going to be different. Yes, some indigenous people were killed, and others were forced off the lands they had come to see as theirs, as custodians or stewards, not as freehold owners. And your alternative?

I know it's politically incorrect to say so, but I do not feel sorrow for what occurred, nor am I happy with the apology that was offered. Nor would I have walked over the Harbour Bridge to show that I cared. Nor do I think a treaty is what is needed. As I have written before, what we need to do is to hasten the process of integration, assimilation, call it what you will, so that all Australians feel a common bond in feeling 'Australian', wherever they come from, and whatever their 'race'.

Finally, do not think for a moment that it really doesn't matter. 'Just give them what they want - it's only words', which you'll hear people say, is simply ignorant. Words in our Constitution, even in the Preamble, can become really important and, as we have seen over the last century, what our founders had in mind is sometimes not what a modern judge thinks they ought to have had in mind. It is actually really important that there are no such changes to our fundamental document, which is why I go on speaking and writing against the possible referendum.


Previous Prime Ministers have decided against establishing a referendum process on this issue, because, to follow Malcolm Turnbull when he held that office, 'it won't get up'. Our present PM has been quiet on the matter, and if we have an election soon, as I keep hearing, then it won't get up in the present Parliament. On the other hand, it looks so innocent a question that he might break all records and get it up and running, just to appease the tender hearts. I sincerely hope not.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

This article was first published on Don Aitkin.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

25 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Don Aitkin

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 25 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy