Australia is a multicultural success story. People from all backgrounds, hailing from hundreds of different nations, have made a positive contribution. We cannot claim to be proud of the diverse mix of ethnicities in Australia while simultaneously proceeding with a change to the constitution that will categorise Australians according to race. And we should be doubly cautious while the legal ramifications of recognition remain unclear. It is unquestionably dangerous to award the Commonwealth further power to legislate on the basis of race.
Worse still, we can hardly claim to be a multicultural nation while dismissing any genuine opposition to constitutional change as being “racist” or coming from a place of evil.
The proposed referendum to recognise indigenous Australians in the constitution will divide the citizens of this nation into categories on the basis of race. Every Australian who values our free and fair democracy, in which all people are treated equally irrespective of their place of birth and the colour of their skin, should oppose it.
In 1967, we made one of the most important decisions in our nation’s history: we overwhelmingly approved a two-pronged referendum that amended sections of the constitution to abolish part of the so-called “race power” that caused the commonwealth to discriminate between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in legislation and to ensure that all Australians, indigenous or otherwise, were counted as one population.
This was an act of unification for all Australians. It marked the end of a set of measures that established and entrenched division between indigenous and non-indigenous people, responsible for decades of laws and policies that treated Australians differently on the basis of their race.
A critical hallmark of this country’s success is that all Australians, irrespective of where they were born or the colour of their skin, are treated equally under the law. The proposed amendment to reintroduce race into the constitution is anathema to the decades of changes that have sought to eliminate discrimination between Australians on the basis of race. Though the exact wording of the proposal is yet to be determined, one thing is certain – the final referendum will seek to divide Australians and categorise them by race. Such a division will cause deep unrest in the community, and has the very frightening potential to destabilise our society.
There is no question that indigenous communities around Australia face real problems that require action. It should be of concern to all that levels of literacy and numeracy, incarceration, and life expectancy are out of synch with non-indigenous Australians. But these issues require real policy solutions developed at the coalface, and cannot be solved by a constitutional amendment. Indeed, the referendum could actually pose further risk to indigenous policy: it gives the semblance that something is being done, without requiring governments to actually address the real issues that indigenous communities encounter on a day-to-day basis.
As long as political leaders continue to push this offering as a silver bullet to fix all problems within indigenous communities, we will continue to see cyclical and intergenerational disadvantage faced by many indigenous Australians.
Instead of addressing these real issues, Western Australian Labor leader Mark McGowan has denounced the Young Liberals’ call for a debate on this issue as “intolerant” and some have gone as far as to create a new word to describe those opposed as engaging in “ethnicity based misogyny”. This shows the narrow-mindedness of those who condescendingly assume Australians can’t discuss this matter respectfully, preferring instead to label those with whom they disagree “racists”. If we are to be truly proud of our diverse society, we must welcome a diversity of opinions and foster healthy debate on an issue as important as a change to the constitution.
All Australians must be treated equally, awarded equal rights and responsibilities, in our national document. We must resist the temptation to entertain a symbolic change that will entrench an insidious division of Australians into racial categories, and put the fairness and openness of our society at risk.
Australians have previously opposed racist and racially discriminative language in the national document and moves towards reintroducing race into the constitution should be resisted.
Aiden Depiazzi is the Secretary of the Young Liberal Movement of Australia and President of the WA Young Liberals
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