It will be a shameful day for Australia if it does not change its Constitution to both prohibit racial discrimination and recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The proposed changes are, individually, both worthy and overdue. But together they become complex enough to threaten the success of any referendum.
The recommendations are to remove the “race power” section, prohibit racial discrimination, but allow positive discrimination “for the purpose of overcoming disadvantage, ameliorating the effects of past discrimination or protecting the cultures, languages or heritage of any group”, to recognise indigenous Australians in the Constitution itself (rather than in a preamble), and to acknowledge indigenous languages.
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It was only Day 13 of the New Year, 2012. And on this day, I attended the funeral of the eighth South Australian Aboriginal person to die – the eighth death in our small community this year. And it was only Day 13.
These eight deaths are not of Aboriginal people who have lived to a ripe old age. The funerals were not celebrations of long and productive lives. No, they were all premature deaths, some of them violent, all premature and preventable.
Aboriginal people are always at funerals. We attend out of respect for our people and community. We give our condolences and cry for our loved ones.
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You don’t often hear people challenging someone’s claim to be Italian. Or Swedish, or American. Generally you accept what they say even if they don’t have an accent, or a funny surname, or blond hair.
Aboriginality, on the other hand, apparently remains a contested field.
The Federal Court last week decided that high-profile and controversial columnist Andrew Bolt had breached the Racial Discrimination Act in his columns ‘It’s so hip to be black’, and ‘White fellas in the black’, which questioned why nine prominent ‘fair-skinned Aborigines’ identified as Aboriginal.
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Self-identity - who you are, what your values are and what you believe - is critical to success in any society, whether it is cultural, sporting, professional or political.
Without a firm understanding of who you are, it is very difficult to present a point of view or know where you stand on a particular topic.
Not knowing or recognising your cultural heritage will suppress your purpose throughout life.
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The Prime Minister has announced that she will establish an expert panel to investigate the best way for indigenous people to be recognised in the Australian Constitution.
Julia Gillard’s announcement is no surprise in of itself. It merely makes good on an election promise and, at least among major political parties, has bipartisan support.
But as Kevin Rudd has showed us, the road from announcing an “expert panel” to something actually getting done is a long one, and there are a lot few issues to be teased out between now and seeing this in the Constitution.
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