The last thing that Aboriginal people need is affirmation in the Australian Constitution that we are in some way ‘special’ and ‘different’. Instead, we need help coming to terms with the fact that we are not.
It is understandable that Australians might support the idea of some form of recognition of Aboriginal people in the Australian Constitution. Australians are constantly facing accusations that we are in denial about our origins as a nation, that the Aboriginal experience is ignored in our historical narratives, and that Aboriginal people continue to be neglected today. To include a statement of recognition of the ‘First Australians’ in our Constitution would demonstrate to the world, and perhaps to ourselves, that we are not as awful as everyone seems to think.
In practice, however, the idea of recognising some members of the Australian populace as a separate and distinct group of ‘First Australians’ raises a number of interconnected problems, not least of which is the problem of distinguishing who counts as a ‘First Australian’ and who doesn’t. Senator Jacquie Lambie’s claim to Aboriginality is only the most recent cause for consternation amongst those who regard themselves as authorities on such matters.
Further problems lie in defining the qualities that all ‘First Australians’ share, and in describing those particular qualities that should be acknowledged and respected by all other Australians. Then there is the problem of deciding how any such expressions of respect should be implemented. After all, it means little to say you respect something, or someone, if you do nothing tangible to demonstrate this sentiment.
If Australians feel a need to recognise something in our Constitution in order to feel better about ourselves, it is preferable that we acknowledge simple facts, rather than express vague sentiments that serve to reinforce outdated notions of ‘race’. For example, the Constitution’s preamble could simply include an acknowledgment of the historical fact that there were people living on this continent before it was claimed by the British. We could also acknowledge that a proportion of the Australian population are descendants of these so-called ‘First Australians’, and that some (although not all) of these descendants maintain some elements of the traditional culture of the original inhabitants.
It makes no sense to meld under the title of First Australians those people who originally inhabited this continent and their modern-day descendants, as the two groups are vastly different people. While many – too many – people of Aboriginal descent continue to live in conditions of Dickensian squalor and deprivation, they are nonetheless modern people, as much a product of modernity as am I, and as are you. These descendants of the original inhabitants are heirs to ancient cultural values and practices that have largely been eroded by time and corrupted by the exposure to outside influences that modernity inevitably brings – just as those of European descent are heirs to the remnants of other ancient cultures. Yet Aboriginal Australians today are also heirs to the same cultural values, technology and practices that govern all of us who live in this country: those of a modern, democratic nation-state.
Responsibility for the corrosive effects of modernity on traditional Aboriginal culture should not be shouldered by guilt-ridden ‘whitefellas’. Back when I was an active participant in the Aboriginal industry, I bought into the prevailing culture of blaming Whitey for denying me access to the culture that was my birthright as an Aboriginal person. Everything that I found disagreeable about the world around me – from the obligation to work and the cost of living, to parking fines and reality television – was the product of someone else’s modernity that had been unjustly imposed on me. As an Aboriginal person, I felt that I belonged to something different, and that I was entitled to something more… authentic, than the late-20th century Australian life in which I found myself.
With maturity came the realisation that my complaints about modernity made about as much sense as the disgruntled teenager’s complaint that she ‘had never asked to be born’. The reasonable response to such complaints being that none of us asked for the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and all of us find our circumstances unsatisfying to some degree, because that is simply the human condition. My Aboriginal heritage does not grant me exemption from the demands and dissatisfactions of modern life, nor does my heritage mean my feelings of dissatisfaction are more substantial or meaningful than anyone else’s.
For too long this nation has indulged the crippling conceit that the exigencies of modernity do not, or should not, apply to people of Aboriginal descent. As a result, many Aboriginal people today need assistance to cope with the basic demands of daily life. Constitutional recognition of an exclusive group of people who regard themselves as ‘First Australians’ will not bring about ‘healing’, nor satisfy a sense of entitlement or appease a sense of injustice, because the unbridgeable gulf between Aboriginal dreams and present-day realities will inevitably remain.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10