A case for change

[WHO] Professor Marcia Langton, a member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians
[WHAT] The inherent racism in the constitution can be readily removed
[HOW]  The referendum must be delayed to allow time for people to understand the issues

AUSTRALIA is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and a place that prides itself on being underpinned by fairness and decency. The greatest blot on our society and economy then, must surely be the gap between the outcomes for indigenous Australians and the rest of the population.

On so many fundamental human measures, indigenous Australians experience lamentable outcomes, to the point where they are the most disadvantaged group in the land. This is tragically transparent in statistics covering health, education, child abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, income, employment, incarceration and life expectancy.

So much of our political debate concerns whether or not we might have a fiscal deficit, yet the indigenous-outcomes deficit is arguably a far more important and pressing issue. A further, related reality is the lack of recognition of indigenous Australians in our constitution.

Today's guest in The Zone, Professor Marcia Langton, a descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations, was a leading member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians set up by the federal government after the 2010 election.

She was born and raised in Queensland, where she endured appalling discrimination under a system she describes as apartheid. She left there when she was 18 and travelled the world for five years, returning determined to defend her human rights. Her eventual escape from being treated as inferior was education. Her CV runs to several pages. Her doctorate was awarded by Macquarie University for her study of a customary Aboriginal land tenure system in eastern Cape York. Since 2000, she has held the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne.

The expert panel was charged with researching how a question could be put to the population at a referendum Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposes to hold either before or with the next federal election, due by late next year. The wording of the question is yet to be determined.

Gillard's desire for constitutional change has cross-party support, but Langton believes it is imperative the referendum be delayed until there has been sufficient time to convince people of the need to remove the discrimination against indigenous Australians from our founding document.

''It is very important that this question does not go to a referendum at the next election - which is the commitment that Julia Gillard, our Prime Minister, made when she did a deal with the Greens in order to form a minority government.

''If the question goes to a referendum at the next election it is very likely that Australians will vote against it. It's pretty obvious that Australians are going to vote this government out of power, and so they might regard this as one of these irrelevant commitments made by this government, so our question would go as well; it would be voted against pretty overwhelmingly, I think.''

Langton believes it will take between five and 10 years to adequately mount the case for change to the constitution.The history of referendums also suggests the chances of success would be augmented by postponing the vote because it takes time to educate the population about the need for change and because Labor governments have been mostly unsuccessful in seeking constitutional amendments.

Only eight of the 44 referendums held have succeeded, and most have been put by conservative governments. The last time a Labor government successfully proposed a referendum question was in 1946.

Langton sets out the detailed argument for the need to remove race references from the constitution in our interview, the full transcript of which, as well as a short video, are at theage.com.au. She also discusses at great length racism and the reasons why indigenous people suffer such extreme disadvantage.

The constitution was stacked against indigenous Australians from the outset; they were a majority of the population, and the white people who wrote the document wanted to ensure Aboriginal people were not in a position to control parliaments or receive a proportionate share of public spending.

''So, the way around the problem was to exclude Aboriginal people from the constitution altogether. The race power, then, is a pretty big part of the constitution. It's a bit like legs of a table; the race power is one of the legs of the constitutional table.''

The solution the expert panel suggests is to remove from two sections of the constitution - sections 25 and 51 - the entire concept of race. ''The problem is - and this is one of the tricky bits in the recognition of indigenous people - you have to recognise [in the constitution] that indigenous people were the first peoples here; it is not a racial classification, it's a chronological fact.''

A dominant theme for Langton is education; the need to educate about constitutional change, and to buttress the education of indigenous Australians. She sees lack of education as a primary cause of the gap between social and economic outcomes for indigenous people and everyone else. ''Aboriginal people exclude themselves. So you can say 'oh, Australia is racist and therefore Aborigines are not getting jobs', but it's pretty hard to get away with that now you've got all of the corporate leaders in the Australian Employment Covenant offering people jobs.

''So why aren't Aboriginal people stepping up to the plate and taking those jobs? Because they are under-educated, they are not work-ready, they have to undergo training. They find it humiliating and they don't understand that everybody else just kept going to school and got themselves trained to do something.

''They don't understand that everybody else has to do that as well, because they are so accustomed to the whole problem of discrimination that they think everything is discrimination. They don't realise that there are some things that aren't discriminatory but are just the necessary parts of living in modernity.''

Langton is highly critical of teachers who treat Aboriginal children differently to other students in the belief that they learn differently and that curriculums ought to be modified to make the lessons culturally sensitive. ''That is just a bunch of racist codswallop. It's lala land. What we do know is that the traditional methods of teaching literacy involve discipline, constant attendance, learning element by element and putting together the system of literacy, the sounds and associations between the symbol and the sound. And all those things have to be built up consistently and according to a curriculum, brick by brick, in a classroom.

''Our children are being funnelled over into idiot land by teachers afraid to make a mistake. And it really is up to parents and communities to say 'We want our children to learn the normal curriculum that every other kid learns; we don't want our children to be treated like idiots'.''

Langton is an influential voice in public debate. She created controversy several days ago with a speech at the Melbourne Writers Festival (see link below), when she argued for an end to blanket welfare for indigenous Australians. She believes assistance ought to be given purely as a function of economic need.

She is a fierce champion of equality of opportunity, having endured the bastardry of the Queensland government decades ago. She talks of ''the burden of history'' - a society in which Aborigines have been systemically discriminated against.

She is also a forceful advocate for people embracing opportunities and driving change, and argues many openings are being created by employers around Australia, several of whom she has advised.

''You have to do the hard yards as well. You have to be a bit fearless. The opportunities can be there, but if you don't take them, then you are complicit in your own oppression. That is really the truth.

''You can participate in racism as a victim of racism, and you can participate far too long and be utterly stupid about the problem. At some point you have to say 'No, I'm not going to be a victim of racism'.

''Now, it is very difficult in some situations when you are on the receiving end of an under-educated police officer's baton. Yes, there is not much you can do about that. But there are plenty of times where there are things that you can do.''

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