There is a tremendous cache to be found in portraying oneself as an ‘underdog’ in contemporary Australian society, whether that be in the cultural, the commercial or the political arena.Australians love the notion of a scrappy band of outsiders banding together and taking on powerful interests. The emotional appeal of insurgency is a key aspect of the public campaign being waged by ‘Recognise’ – which badges itself as ‘the people’s campaign to recognise indigenous Australians in the Constitution.’ The use of the term ‘people’s campaign’ is no doubt deliberate, and meant to evoke romantic images of a mass uprising that forces ‘the system’ to bend to its will.
There are a couple of minor problems with this narrative. The first is that a genuine ‘people’s campaign’ is an organic uprising, often social protest against the established order. In contrast, Recognise is possibly the first ‘people’s campaign’ to be not only birthed by the State, but also financed by it, around $15 million thus far.
The second, more troubling, aspect of Recognise’s evolution was its decision last month to burst into partisan politics.The catalyst was the WA Liberal Party State Conference, which among 52 policy motions listed for debate, included one that proposed the Party ‘oppose any move to recognise a single race to the exclusion of all others in the body or preamble of the Commonwealth Constitution’.
It’s worth noting that a similarly-worded motion passed by the Liberal Party’s Federal Council in June failed to elicit any significant commentary from Recognise at the time. This means one of two things. Either the organisational leadership at Recognise are not paying attention to national policy debate, or otherwise they have been actively seeking an opportunity to involve themselves in the partisan fray, and have now seized their moment. The mere fact that the issue was listed for debate was enough to produce a predictable outbreak of high dudgeon from the usual suspects. As any observer of politics can tell you, this is the new tactic of the political left – to declare that there is ‘consensus’ on a subject, and announce that anyone with a different view is ergo an extremist, a racist or some other such foul epithet.
On the final parliamentary sitting day before the conference, one Labor Senator sputtered her outrage that the Liberal Party would dare to ‘allow these racist statements and comments to be the topic of discussion at their conference,’ and went on to make the offensive claim – absent any evidence, naturally – that ‘racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people pervades the Barnett government’ in Western Australia.
The very same day, Recognise sent an email to all those who had signed up to their cause, sneering that ‘there are some in the WA Liberal Party who believe that there isn’t enough community support!’
This allegedly non-partisan organisation then beseeched its subscribers to spam Liberal parliamentarians by providing pro forma email text that would ‘help us prove them wrong, right now.’ As it happened, the policy motion wasn’t debated by the conference, which discussed a broad range of policy and simply didn’t have time to get through everything listed on the agenda.
Yet through its actions, Recognise has now confirmed what constitutional conservatives have long suspected. Namely, the organisation is not interested in a national conversation on the question of indigenous recognition; rather, its mission is to stifle genuine debate. This may also explain the bizarre refusal of Recognise to take part in a public debate on indigenous recognition late last year, jointly sponsored by the WA Liberal Party Policy Committee and Murdoch University.
Despite initially agreeing to take part, Recognise later withdrew, on the basis that its preferred panellists hadn’t been invited. The then-Communications Director also expressed concern that any debate organised by the WA Liberal Party and MU was not motivated by a ‘genuine intention to seek a balanced, respectful and proper discussion.’
Given its remit and generous taxpayer support, no organisation is better positioned than Recognise to contribute to a discussion on this topic. It could be argued that the unique status of the organisation places on it not only a right to attend such events, but an obligation to do so.
Disappointingly, evidence suggests that Recognise isn’t promoting a genuine, broadly-based conversation, but is instead providing a platform for extreme views.
Witness a recent debate at Glebe Town Hall, promoted on Recognise’s own website as one that would ‘explore both sides of the debate’ relating to indigenous recognition. Yet, none of the advertised speakers hailed from the conservative, or even centrist, part of the political spectrum. One of the advertised presenters was activist Jenny Munro, who recently proclaimed the ‘recognition sham is a continuation of the racist, colonialist, capitalist government policy against Aboriginal people.’ Another speaker, Ken Canning, believes constitutional recognition is a distraction from the government’s ‘deeply racist policies and their effects — suicides, mass incarceration and the continuation of the stolen generation.’
As Recognise chose not only to promote this debate but also to provide its own panellist to participate, one can only conclude that the expression of these extreme views aligns closely with its view of what a ‘balanced, respectful and proper discussion’ looks like. Recognise declares that its mission is to ‘raise awareness of the need to end the exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the Australian Constitution.’ Yet, it seems this awareness-raising does not extend to constructive engagement with those who hold concerns about the possibility of unintended consequences arising from constitutional recognition.
There are many Australians who believe the best way to ensure the Australian Constitution is not racist is to eliminate all mention of race from its provisions. Given that their tax dollars also underpin Recognise’s operations, they deserve much better than the dismissive attitude which the organisation has thus far displayed toward their views.
After three years and over $15 million flowing to Recognise from taxpayers, it is unsurprising that some are now asking precisely what they are getting for their money.Based on the organisation’s modus operandi to date, it is not the opponents of constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians who should be most alarmed by Recognise’s approach to debate, but rather supporters of the cause.
Simon Morgan is a member of the WA Liberal Party Policy Committee.
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