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The gains must not be squandered

By Megan Davis and Sarah Maddison - posted Monday, 5 May 2008

Aboriginal children "can't eat the constitution," Professor Marcia Langton said at the 2020 Summit. She is one of various high-profile Indigenous commentators who have criticised the Indigenous stream's emphasis on constitutional reform since the weekend. She is right, of course. Constitutional reform alone will not fix the problems facing Indigenous children and their families in Australia.

But Langton and others who share her view are wrong in their interpretation of what the so-called "Indigenous rights agenda" is about. Kids may not be able to eat the constitution but without legal and constitutional reform to Indigenous-state relations in this country, you can guarantee that, in 2020, today's Aboriginal children will still be going cap in hand to the government of the day begging for services, for education and, fundamentally, for a fair go.

Resolving unfinished business between Indigenous people and the state was the issue that unified the Indigenous stream at the summit. We were proud of the clarity and passion of all participants. There was no group split between Patrick Dodson and those concerned with practical measures, as reported. That is a malicious fabrication designed to serve an ideological agenda. There was no clamour for an ATSIC-style representative body. The issue of a national representative body was hardly raised.


Yet despite this emerging consensus, we, like many others in the Indigenous stream, left the summit feeling deeply worried that the minister's failure faithfully to report the dominant sentiment of the group may reflect the Rudd Government's lack of interest in consulting a broad-based Indigenous leadership.

For some, the writing was on the wall when Noel Pearson appeared to sleep through much of Saturday's session and was animated only when Kevin Rudd was in the room. Pearson then failed to turn up on Sunday, showing great disrespect to the others in the stream and wasting a place at the summit table that many others would have been honoured to take.

That the Government may be captured by a handful of noisy but marginal individuals - who achieved extraordinary influence under the previous government and who are clearly frightened to let it go - bodes ill.

Successive governments have failed to grasp the complexity of Aboriginal political culture and have failed to develop a model by which to consult with a wide range of Indigenous voices. Over the years, the National Aboriginal Conference, National Aboriginal Consultative Committee, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the National Indigenous Council have all ultimately failed to satisfy either party to the relationship.

Providing the appropriate legal underpinning to future relations, through either constitutional reform or a legal agreement or treaty, would be a significant step in the right direction.

The Government must break the spell cast by Pearson and his colleagues. It would be a grave error to ignore the extraordinary goodwill and strong consensus generated in the Indigenous stream at the summit in favour of vocal but marginal sectional interests that the Government appears to believe are more palatable to the wider population.


If Indigenous communities want the truth about discussions had in their name and those of their children, they can find it out easily enough through the scribing and audio recording of discussion in the Indigenous stream.

Through the media, the minister has implied there was dissent between those who wanted a treaty and those who wanted constitutional reform. There was no division. There was agreement that we needed an entrenched position to ensure Indigenous people would not be subject to the whim of government. What was decided on by everyone was that we want a nationwide dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians about constitutional reform.

Governments come and go. The goodwill and fragile bipartisanship of today could dissipate tomorrow. International evidence makes it clear that post-colonial nations that have dealt with their First Nations' peoples by way of legal agreement are closing the gap in ways Australia is still only dreaming about.

On the day of the Government's apology to the stolen generations there was a feeling among many that we were, as a nation, returning to a conversation that had been on hold since 1996. Discussing the legal basis of Indigenous-state relations is a crucial part of that conversation.

The summit gave the Government an opportunity to listen to a wider range of voices in the debate about Indigenous futures. Whether it has the courage to do so remains to be seen.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on April 24, 2008.

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About the Authors

Megan Davis is the Director of the Indigenous Law Centre and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, UNSW.

Dr Sarah Maddison is senior associate dean in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of NSW.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Megan Davis
All articles by Sarah Maddison

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

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