Aboriginal affairs are at an all-time low since the gains of decades such as the 60s, according to the co-chair of Australia’s Referendum Council.
Lowitja Institute chair Pat Anderson, an Alyawarre woman who replaced Pat Dodson at the council’s helm, said she was at a loss to explain the hostility and racism towards Aboriginal people in modern-day Australia.
“It’s like there is no moral compass—a direction in which we all need to go because we are a civilised and mature society,” she told the National Indigenous Times. “It’s as if Australia has lost its moral compass and indeed its compassion, for anybody at all who is even a little bit different, including us.”
Ms Anderson’s comments followed a two-day council-led meeting of Aboriginal representatives in Tasmania this month—the first of 12 such meetings which will be held around the country.
At the Hobart meeting, 100 Aboriginal representatives resolved it was important Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal people be accompanied by a treaty covering sovereignty, land, a financial settlement and recognition of their rights.
An Indigenous representative body, embedded in the Constitution, also needed to be set up to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice, the meeting decided.
The next meeting is due to be held in Perth in February followed by Broome, in WA’s north; Dubbo in NSW; Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra and other locations before wrapping up with a final, all-encompassing meeting at Uluru in April.
The 16-member Referendum Council will then prepare a report for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten on the best way to proceed towards a referendum on Constitutional change.
Ms Anderson rejected suggestions there was anything radical about the Tasmanian proposal.
She said the meetings were a chance for Aboriginal people to consider and decide what they thought were the best arrangements that could be made to ensure First Nations people were properly recognised.
“Aboriginal affairs over the last 10 years in particular is in free-fall,” she said. “There has to be a bottom to this.”
Ms Anderson said reform movements of the past had lost momentum, high-profile Aboriginal leaders were vilified and attacked in the press and sports people faced racism.
“I’ve never seen it so bad,” she said. “We’re bloody on our knees here. What more do they want? They’ve sucked the bloody life out of us. It’s got to stop.”
Ms Anderson said there had been gains in health such as in infant mortality and immunisation rates, but even in those areas it was an uphill battle to justify funding.
“We have no voice, we have no say and nobody listens to us,” she said. “I think there has been a hardening of hearts against us, for what reason, I’m not sure.
“People are not that interested at all. I don’t understand it.”
She said in the late 60s and into the 70s reforms were part of a global movement for a better society. The 1967 referendum removed references in the Constitution which discriminated against Aboriginal people.
“There was a general mood for change,” she said.
“The mood in this generation is the mood of the rise of people like Donald Trump. It’s acceptance that these people are now prominent. And we have people here in Australia as well.”
Rodney Gibbons, a co-convener of the Tasmanian meeting, said local leaders put what they felt was important on the table.
“We felt that the treaty itself should be mentioned in the final recommendations to the Referendum Council and put into legislation but not included in the referendum proposal,” he said.
“We think there should be obviously reform to the Constitution through referenda but we think the treaty itself should stand alone in its own legislation and not be included in any future referenda.”
Mr Gibbons said the proposal was nothing of which Australia should be frightened.
“We think it will take a while to settle,” he said. “We don’t think the broader Australian population should be frightened of it. It should just be bringing to a conclusion the dialogue between Australians and Aborigines.”
Mr Gibbons said he wouldn’t be surprised if similar meetings around Australia turned up similar results.
The Referendum Council is made up of 16 Indigenous and non-Indigenous members. Mark Leibler is co-chair, and other members include Professor Megan Davis, Mick Gooda, Stan Grant, Noel Pearson, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Andrew Demetriou, Murray Gleeson, Amanda Vanstone, Tanya Hosch, Kristina Keneally, Jane McAloon, Michael Rose, Dalassa Yorkston and Natasha Stott Despoja.
The meetings around Australia, or regional dialogues as they are also called, are to establish how Aboriginal people want to be recognised in the Constitution.
Part of the council’s final report to Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten will include suggestions for what questions should be proposed in a referendum on the Constitution. It will then go to the Federal Parliament.