In Canberra today the Constitutional Education Foundation of Australia will hold a Forum on the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians (it refers to “Indigenous” Australians, but since all native-born Australians are, by definition, indigenous, I prefer greater precision).
The Forum, entitled Recognising the Forgotten People, will discuss The Forgotten People, a book edited by Damien Freeman from the Foundation and the Cape York Institute’s Shirreen Morris.
CEFA’s interest in the proposed Recognition referendum is appropriate. It is, however, disappointing to see it seeming to take a one-sided position in doing so. I say “seeming” because, in one sense, CEFA is merely presiding over a book launch; but that is not the impression given by the proceedings, the invitation to which says:
“The celebrated Indigenous film maker Rachel Perkins will discuss” the book with its authors.
She is the daughter of the late “freedom rider” Charlie Perkins – a connection that has done her career no harm, even to becoming described as “celebrated”. Her opinions are predictable; but what her expertise may be on constitutional matters, escapes me.
One of the book’s contributors, who will introduce Perkins, is Julian Leeser, MHR. Although I count him among my friends, he has earlier (most uncharacteristically) made a goose of himself – in company with Damien Freeman, and with the endorsement of the Aboriginal industry’s supreme leader, Noel Pearson – by advocating an outlandish proposal that would require all commonwealth legislative proposals to run the gauntlet of an Aboriginal so-called “advisory body”. (Note Menzies’s comment, responding to some not dissimilar ambitions in the 1965 Vernon Report, that “the power to advise is the power to coerce”). When he gave a paper on that proposal to a Samuel Griffith Society conference last year, I described it as so bizarre I was astonished he should have put his name to it.
Another speaker will be the other principal author of that bizarre proposal, Damien Freeman, who is, I fear, guilty of the same lack of judgment.
Another contributor, Tim Wilson, MHR is also well known to me, and I have heard him previously endorsing recognition on what seemed shallow grounds. He was formerly a senior fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs, which has been leading an admirable campaign against recognition on the irrefutable grounds that “Race has no Place” in our constitution – a slogan which, should this aberrant idea ever go to a vote, will tell strongly against it.
The Australian’s Chris Kenny will also speak, along with Shirreen Morris, the book’s other editor. I do not know her personally but have seen her interviewed on television. She strikes me as an intellectually arrogant young woman, clearly unwilling to suffer gladly any fool who disagrees with her.
Since this Forum, as noted, would be more accurately described as a book launch, it may be unsurprising that all concerned should clearly favour recognition. With great respect, however, to an institution that I have supported since its inception, and which normally does an excellent job in improving understanding of our outstanding constitution, this Forum is an exercise in advocacy, to which CEFA should not have lent its name and reputation.
I have three further comments. First, it is shameful that the book in question should have purloined Menzies’ famous phrase “the forgotten people”, and astonishing that two Liberal Party parliamentarians should lend their names to this “cultural (mis)appropriation”.
Second, it is ironic that any book concerned with Aboriginal matters should today carry such a title. Those matters, so far from being “forgotten”, today fill hugely disproportionate areas of our print and electronic media, to the displacement of more worthy causes and the increasing boredom of their readers, viewers and listeners.
Finally, may I also say that in the real world the Recognition project has long since been effectively “dead, buried and cremated”. Only the passionate (albeit totally misguided) support of former prime minister Tony Abbott kept it alive to begin with, and only the misuse of taxpayers’ money (to be precise, borrowings), condoned now by the Turnbull government, keeps it alive today.
It remains a nice little earner for the usual elements of the Aboriginal industry, but nothing more. The fact is that we are all Australians, and any attempt to give pride of place in our constitution to one group among us has as much chance of surviving the vote of the people as the proverbial snowball in hell.