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Say 'No' to 'Recognise'

By Syd Hickman - posted Friday, 6 March 2015

'Recognise' is proposing five changes to the Australian constitution to give recognition to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The government and opposition, plus various corporates and notable individuals are pushing for the change but have not named a time for the referenda, apparently because polling tells them it would not pass.

This is another case of the Australian public being much smarter than their supposed leaders.

Recommendation one is to remove section 25 of the constitution. This section gives States the right to ban people from voting on the basis of their race. It should be removed but as part of a general clean-up of all the non-operative and redundant sections. It has never been used and never will be.


The second recommends removing section 51 (xxvi), which permits the parliament to make laws covering the people of any race where that is deemed necessary. This section originally read, "The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State," In the fondly remembered referendum of 1967 this was amended to delete, "other than the aboriginal race in any State". So the '67 vote gave the Commonwealth power to make laws for Aborigines, and to overrule State law, by changing this section. It was a big step forward.

It sounds nice to get rid of racial discrimination but what if we had a war with a nation that had many nationals living in Australia? The Parliament may want to pass laws restricting those people, or protecting them. It could be so unnecessarily complex to do this without some reference to race that it would become a lawyers' picnic. It is certainly a separate issue to recognising ATSI people.

Changes three and four are contradictory. They aim to insert a new section 51A to recognise ATSI peoples and preserve the government's ability to pass laws for the benefit of ATSI peoples; then a new section 116A banning racial discrimination by government. That is, they want to ban all discrimination while enabling discrimination that is 'good'. Lawyers would make fortunes arguing what laws were for the benefit of ATSI people. Was the Howard Government's intervention 'good'? Is handing out welfare payments 'good'?

Finally they want to insert a new section 127A to recognise that ATSI languages were Australia's first tongues while confirming English as Australia's national language. Maybe we should also formally declare the sky blue.

Apart from the fact the recommended changes are unnecessary, silly or contradictory, the entire project of 'Recognise' is phony.

It is not the result of a growing change of opinion among many Australians, or an attempt to solve a clear problem. It twists the purpose of, and degrades the role of the constitution. I can only assume whoever dreamed it up had so much fun with the 'Sorry Day' campaign they invented an excuse to do it all over again.


I think the "Sorry" speech was the best thing Kevin Rudd did as Prime Minister. It made people feel better for a while and possibly had some long-term effects. It certainly put an end to the 'Sorry' campaign. Trying to repeat that success with a tokenistic campaign that can not be expected to achieve any real improvement or take thinking on indigenous matters to new ground is worse than a waste of time and effort.

It distracts from serious analysis of the manifest failure of so many policies tried over recent decades; failure that can be blamed on aboriginal leaders and their sympathetic white supporters as much as governments.

The best work currently being done to raise ATSI peoples' living standards, as far as I am aware, is in the fields of education and in closing down appallingly dysfunctional small communities in remote areas. These hard won achievements will not be assisted by another grand, national campaign to change some words in a document nobody reads.

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About the Author

Syd Hickman has worked as a school teacher, soldier, Commonwealth and State public servant, on the staff of a Premier, as chief of Staff to a Federal Minister and leader of the Opposition, and has survived for more than a decade in the small business world.

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