Reformer or time-waster? At last, Australia may have reached a constitutional moment, giving indigenous Australians a voice to parliament. It’s time to embrace the change and move ahead full steam.

If Prime Minister Scott Morrison does not change his political calculus and raises his game quickly, any attempts to enshrine an indigenous voice to parliament in Australia’s constitution might go nowhere.

Identity formation in

settler colonialist societies

is largely determined by either isolation from or conflict with their indigenous population, and any transformative change happens painstakingly slow and requires prolonged pressure from

below. Those who have to bring this pressure to bear find themselves all too often in circumstances of political disempowerment, economic deprivation and social isolation and neglect. After all, the cards have been stacked against them right from the start as is the nature of settler colonialist societies; these native communities do not just have to struggle against biased and discriminatory institutions, but they must also overcome deeply entrenched prejudices and misperceptions in mainstream society as well. Thus, political evolution is always accompanied by the risk of significant backlash.

Following the

Uluru Statement From The Heart, resulting from a deliberative constitutional convention of Aboriginal and

Torres Strait Island communities, the question of constitutional recognition, supplemented by a representative, elected voice to Australia’s parliament is on the agenda once more. Despite the voice to parliament being the most contentiously debated issue at present, the Uluru statement employs the finest of Aboriginal wisdom by extending a hand of friendship to settler society and by envisaging a

co-design process to achieve reconciliation and progress. This means closely working with the community at large and government in particular. Misconstrued at times, the Statement From The Heart strives for more than just a voice to parliament, calling for a

Makarrata Commission for truth telling, empowering the latter also to negotiate treaties for determining land rights for Australia’s first people. Such a commission could be easily set up by legislation alone. If all of these proposals were adopted, we would look at the most significant change in the Australian polity since settlement by Europeans began in the 1780s. Arriving at such a watershed moment won’t be easy though.

For Aboriginal law professor and academic

Megan Davis

the Statement From The Heart goes as far as Australia’s first people can be expected to go in compromising their position on political representation and their overall rights. For her, it is the result of a compromise itself and provides the best shot at meaningful

change

for generations to come. A view that is widely shared in the Aboriginal community and well put by, amongst many others,

Dean Parkin

and

Dani Larkin.

Ken Wyatt, the first Aboriginal Australian to be appointed to the portfolio of Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Morrison cabinet, has created plenty of

goodwill

toward him. Being held in high esteem by his own community; the fact that Wyatt is a self-professed constitutional minimalist must not automatically count against him as yet, giving the Morrison government the necessary political leeway to maneuver and make the case for constitutional reform to a skeptical public. The potential for

failure

is real, and even likely

bipartisanship

will not guarantee success. Thus, as minister Ken Wyatt learns the ropes of his new job, he will recognize quickly that goodwill in politics only gets you so far and is rarely enough to bring about transformational changes. In the end, the buck stops with the Prime Minister, and even though the road ahead is a treacherous one and will require plenty of political capital to be spent, it is the Prime Minister and his authority that will be essential in pushing through constitutional change. In Australia, any constitutional amendment must be put to a referendum, and since federation in 1901, 44 attempts have been made to change the constitution; only 8 referenda have been carried, and the hurdles for success are significant. In order for a referendum to pass, not just an overall majority of voters must endorse the proposed changes, but it must also secure majority support in at least 4 States. Therefore, particularly when it comes to Australia’s indigenous peoples, the bar will be relatively high, and even with the best intentions in the world, there is no guarantee of success. Morrison also faces a divided Coalition party room on the issue, and with nationalism, populism and cheap opinion on social media, the risks for his government in pushing too far too quickly are genuine and could be politically rather costly. However, the age-old question rings true for the PM too. Does he want to rely on his conservative base exclusively to win subsequent elections, or is he prepared to grow into a true national leader for all Australians and embraces risky but necessary reform to heal a gaping wound that is still hurting today and won’t stop bleeding until properly attended to? For future generations, does Morrison with progressive community support help remedy the terrible injustice committed against Australia’s first people? Will he become a transformational leader or remain a time-waster, easily satisfied by longevity in office? It is difficult to say where Morrison really stands on the issue, but the

history

of the man gives rise to concerns. His record shows that Morrison has often tackled huge policy challenges by grand announcements, but has not followed up when it came to spelling out detailed policies; obviously, the fine-print is frequently lost on the man. What is far from certain but most likely is that Morrison will opt to take a leaf out of John Howard’s political playbook, choosing the electorally least costly policies by advocating symbolic recognition in the constitution without any reference to an indigenous voice to parliament, leaving this to be settled by legislation alone. A relatively large section of Australian society will see this as change, but it will not be transformative. Australia’s first people are unlikely to be satisfied by such an arrangement because, as previous representative bodies set up by legislation such as

ATSIC

and the

National Congress Of Australia’s First Peoples

have shown, such bodies never met expectations, and their legitimacy as being representative institutions was always in doubt. The political

baggage

in relation to ATSIC in particular, and the ease by which governments could tinker with such institutions or outright abolish them with a stroke of a pen makes the legislative option divisive and will not satisfy the native population of the Australian Commonwealth.

One of the most thoughtful and sensible interventions was that of former High Court chief justice

Murray Gleeson. Like many other notables in the legal profession, Gleeson dismisses concerns about an indigenous voice to parliament as being completely unwarranted. Indeed, The Uluru Statement From The Heart makes explicitly clear that any voice to parliament would not be a third chamber as it will not have any veto power over legislation; in fact, there is no suggestion that any such political body would even have the legal authority to initiate the legislative process, meaning that its role would be advisory only, ensuring that sovereignty of parliament would remain sacrosanct. Being a conservative Prime Minister, Morrison and his government could make such a case to the public at large, and the government might have an easier time of persuading a larger section of the electorate than Labor if it had won government and would have to pursue these changes as a left leaning administration. However, if the PM wants to do so, he must change his political calculus and raise his game quickly. If the constitutional moment is not grasped soon, vital momentum will be lost, and attempts to enshrine an indigenous voice to parliament in the Australian constitution will go nowhere.

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