Grassroots dissent derails referendum report

Last living founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, Michael Anderson.

Support from senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander figures for the Referendum Council’s final report — which recommends a referendum on an Indigenous voice to Federal Parliament — is facing grassroots revolt.

Critics of the report and its recommendation say that many Aboriginal people don’t fully understand its implications or the complex issues surrounding Constitutional change, and it needs to be explained to them.

In Tasmania, lawyer and activist Michael Mansell said there were better ways to give Indigenous people a voice in Parliament without the need for a referendum.

He said if Parliament’s focus continued to be along the narrow lines in the Referendum Council report, a “broader group” would seek a meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition leader Bill Shorten.

Meanwhile, the last living founder of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, Michael Anderson, says the recommendations don’t represent what everyday Aboriginal people want and a campaign against them could be mounted in the future.

The comments came as 20 senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island figures this week signed a statement backing the Referendum Council’s recommendations in its final report, released last week, according to The Australian newspaper.

The signatories included high-profile leaders such as Professor Tom Calma, Noel Pearson, June Oscar, Pat Anderson, Roy Ah-See, Thomas Mayor and Jackie Huggins.

The Referendum Council’s final report recommended the Australian Constitution be amended to allow for a representative body that gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations people a voice to the Federal Parliament.

It also recommended that all Australian parliaments enact legislation as “a symbolic statement of recognition to unify Australians”.

But Mr Mansell said while everyone agrees there should be a national Aboriginal representative body, there is dissent on how it should be given life.

“Everybody agrees there should be a national Aboriginal representative body,” he said.

“Everybody also agrees … that it should be entrenched in the Constitution. Where it gets blurred is the sequencing — which comes first? A lot of people are saying you have a referendum for an advisory body and people like me are saying how did it go from a national body to an advisory body for chrissakes?

“One of the problems I think is anything to do with the Constitution and law is confusing for most people and a lot of Aboriginal people really find it hard to get their head around the Constitutional concepts, so the Referendum Council by pushing for an advisory body has left room for people to dress it up as being more than an advisory body when structurally it cannot be.

“Because of parliamentary supremacy under the Constitution, only the Parliament can make decisions, so any other body can be nothing more than a body that makes a comment or gives advice that they can ignore or whatever.”

Mr Mansell said instead of waiting for a referendum on the Referendum Council’s proposal, Aboriginal leaders should push Parliament to legislate for a national body now.

“The body should have the same powers and authority as the Torres Strait Regional Authority which gives internal self-determination to the Torres Strait Islanders,” he said.

“That could be adopted across the board so that whereas the Torres Strait are guaranteed $50 million each year and they decide what they are going to do with the money, what the priorities are and so on, a national Aboriginal body should be the same.”

Mr Mansell said the body could be entrenched in the Constitution later.

He said if the national focus remained “narrow” it was “almost certain” that a broader group would seek a meeting with the Prime Minister and Opposition leader, as soon as after the Garma Festival next month.

He said he doubted a referendum would be held before the next election.

Meanwhile Mr Anderson, the convenor of the Sovereign Union of First Nations and Peoples and a founder of the tent embassy in the 1970s, said the leaders’ statement to the government this week was “crazy”.

He said the decision rested with the whole of Australia’s Aboriginal community.

“These people don’t even have a constituency base, most of them,” he said. “And Land Councils and their staff members cannot sign a document of that nature, nor a staff member, because they are not the community. They are employed staff. It doesn’t count.

“It’s been rejected by the community. What we need to do is have people accept that and start again and talk to the people. They need to have proper local consultations. It needs to be done in language as well.

“You have to explain to the people so they understand what this is all about in language and a language, even in English, that allows for them to understand what this means. They need to have a full understanding of what the ramifications are and how it will impact on their future lives as a people and what it will do for them.”

Mr Anderson said he believed a vocal minority was trying to push the recommendations through.

“They are running a government agenda and Aboriginal people are resisting it,” he said. “They know there are 22 million white people out there that they are catering to, to get the vote, to get this across the line, so no matter what happens – whether people reject it or not – it’s of no consequence really because they are pandering to the white population.

“We need to go back to the drawing board and go back to the people and the people want to know what this is really about.”

Mr Anderson said a lot of people — non-Indigenous and Indigenous — didn’t understand the Australian Constitution. He questioned how people could vote in an educated manner.

“The thing is what rights are they going to give us or do we automatically become assimilated into mainstream Australia and therefore there’s no need for a ministry of Aboriginal affairs, there’s no need for Aboriginal medical services or Aboriginal legal services and we’ll use the same systems, so it’s mainstreaming and assimilating into one and they are not telling the people that.”

He said a campaign could me mounted in the future but didn’t see a referendum happening quickly.

“This is not going to get across the road very quickly,” he said. “The chicken will get across the road before these fellas do.”

The Referendum Council was appointed by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition to advise on steps towards a referendum to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution.

In May, Aboriginal leaders from around Australia met for a historic national convention at Uluru where they agreed on the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, which called for the setting up of a First Nations voice enshrined in the Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to act as an umpire between Aboriginal People and the Parliament.

Wendy Caccetta

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