The Recognise brand offers a great deal to the consumer-activist. The recognise.org.au website provides advice on how to get involved in this ‘people’s movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution’. Getting involved entails signing pledges and ‘liking’ announcements, buying and displaying merchandise and, for the dedicated activist, telling other people to get involved as well. Recognise offers the consumer-activist the opportunity to feel a part of a meaningful political movement, without all the boring meetings and tiresome factional disputes. It offers a sense of participating in something morally good, without the requirements to make sacrifices, forego pleasures or endure discomforts that usually accompany a moral cause — or, for that matter, to think very deeply about the logical basis of the moral message itself. It offers the consumer-activist a sense of being courageous, while remaining risk-free, and offers a feeling of being a generous and compassionate individual in exchange for very little outlay of time and money. For some, it may even offer a spiritual element — all Aboriginal political matters being deeply and incomprehensibly spiritual — without all that naff ‘God’ business.
Although the Recognise campaign has successfully positioned itself as a political, moral and social good that is available to the consumer-activist for minimal cost and effort, this may not be enough to secure a groundswell of popular support for Aboriginal Constitutional recognition. Mere ‘goodness’ may not be sufficiently appealing to attract a sustained commitment from the fickle and demanding modern political shopper. The consumer-activist craves a feeling of authenticity, freshness and excitement from her chosen cause. While it is good to be involved in something Good, it’s even better if the consumer-activist also feels Young, Cool and maybe even a little bit Sexy in the process. The Recognise hoody ($42.80) should ideally give its wearer a Che Guevara-style air of political badassness; the Recognise badge ($2 — currently sold out) should evoke a tingling in the sinuses akin to a whiff of tear-gas, and the temporary tattoo ($3.40) should be symbolic of the bruises to be inflicted by police batons when the time comes to take the Recognise campaign to the streets.
For the more mature consumer-activist, the Recognise merchandise may deliver a sense of Belonging. In our increasingly atomised urban lifestyles, a sense of belonging to a community is a feeling that many consumers crave intensely. Consumer-activists purchasing the Recognise bumper-sticker ($3.90) may be buying membership of a creative, grassroots collective of like-minded citizens, while the Recognise T-shirt ($18.70) is a display of solidarity with an emerging resistance movement against the entrenched racism that pervades Australian society.
The Recognise campaign clearly takes pains to position itself as a spontaneous, slightly radical (yet still family-friendly), community-based political action. However, the unelected leadership of this supposedly grassroots movement does not report to any community-based constituency, but to the board of Reconciliation Australia. Reconciliation Australia was allocated $10m in 2013 by the previous government to ‘help build public awareness and community support for change’. Perhaps this is why the consumer-activist’s opportunities to ‘get involved’ in this movement are limited to the passive consumption of mass-produced merchandise and stage-managed expressions of support for a prefabricated message. It is difficult for a government propaganda campaign to instil a genuine sense of excitement and engagement in its target audience, although Recognise makes every effort to do so.
Why should the state sponsor a partisan political campaign such as Recognise? The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act 2013 obliges the government to conduct a review of ‘the Australian people’s readiness to support a referendum for recognition’. As far as Reconciliation Australia is concerned, Australians will be considered ready for a referendum when we demonstrate a willingness to deliver a majority ‘yes’ vote for Aboriginal recognition. Recognise campaign material describes a ‘successful referendum’ as one that leads to Constitutional change, while rejection of the recognition proposal would be regarded as a failed process. It is inconceivable that a proposal for Aboriginal Constitutional recognition could be rejected because the idea is simply misguided; the idea itself can never be wrong, only the people can be wrong for failing to embrace it. Any government presiding over a ‘failed’ referendum on Aboriginal recognition would likely be accused of not doing enough to boost the ‘yes’ case, and of engineering the failure through neglect. Therefore, successive governments may be obliged to support a strangely disingenuous campaign that they may not necessarily believe in.
Persistent community reluctance to embrace Constitutional change would indicate, according to Reconciliation Australia, that the public is insufficiently aware of the need for Aboriginal recognition, therefore more grassroots, community propaganda — sorry, campaigns — would be required. Although the Recognise website alludes to ‘a growing push for recognition’ (modestly declining to take sole credit for doing the pushing), it may still be some time before the public is sufficiently aware and adequately prepared to vote as it should. The government review may well find that Reconciliation Australia requires further funding for revolutionary wristbands, compassionate coffee cups, sanctimonious shopping bags and progressive pencil cases for the kiddies.
If Constitutional recognition is self-evidently good for Aboriginal people and for the nation as a whole, why must $10m of taxpayer funds be devoted towards its promotion? If Reconciliation Australia is so lavishly funded to promote something so obviously good, why is the Recognise message so very vague and superficial? Voters who are inclined to ponder such questions may also be interested in the questions raised in Recognise What?, a collection of essays presenting a sceptical view of Aboriginal Constitutional recognition. For example, Dr Anthony Dillon’s chapter asks: given that a lot of Aboriginal people have already achieved relative prosperity through the usual channels of education, work, personal responsibility and pro-social behaviour, why do some Aboriginal people require recognition in the Australian Constitution before they can go about improving their lives? Are some Aboriginal people more special than others?
Like Reconciliation Australia, the Recognise What? group is concerned with building greater public awareness of the issue of Aboriginal Constitutional recognition. Unlike Reconciliation Australia, we believe that a successful referendum is one that reflects the wishes of a genuinely informed and free-thinking populace, whether the final outcome be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. We will continue to raise questions and generate discussion about the wisdom of introducing specific racial divisions to the Australian Constitution via our website, recognisewhat.org.au.
Given the nation’s enthusiasm for racially divisive instruments — such as the ‘Reconciliation Action Plans’ implemented in many workplaces — Australians could well end up voting ‘yes’ to unhelpful and unnecessary racial divisions in the Australian Constitution without giving the matter much thought. It is hard to feel optimistic about the potential impact of Recognise What? when citizens are so easily persuaded to pay for their own propaganda, and to wear government-sponsored political slogans of their own volition. Perhaps the best our group can hope for is to convince some Australians to demand greater clarity from the Recognise campaign. For their $10m, Australians are entitled to a more comprehensive analysis of both the benefits and the risks of a racially divided Constitution, and a more detailed explanation of why Aboriginal recognition in the Constitution is both good and necessary, beyond ‘because it’s the right thing to do’.
Kerryn Pholi is a former Aboriginal public servant, social worker and teacher, currently working within the justice system.
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