Richo’s ‘lazy fictions’ are simply an insult

Opinion Article

2017 August, 8

Graham Richardson is entitled to his opinion on indigenous constitutional recognition but not his own facts. No one is proposing an indigenous voice in parliament. This is not a third chamber, nor reserved seats. The proposal is for an indigenous voice to parliament — an institution set up in legislation, constitutionally guaranteed a say in indigenous affairs. 

Richo says he supports constitutional recognition but opposes a voice. He provides no reasons, except his prediction of referendum failure, unsupported by reasoning. This is lazy commentary. I expect better from Richo. What is his argument? And what model of recognition does he think would succeed? 

Let’s assume Richo is in favour of a purely symbolic or minimalist model, as most commentators who haven’t bothered to think it through tend to be. He is wrong: mere symbolism would fail.

Indigenous people will reject minimalism — inserting tepid symbolism and removing references to race. Constitutional conservatives, too, oppose inserting symbolic words into what is fundamentally a rule book: they worry about unintended High Court interpretation. 

A symbolic model would animate a powerful alliance between indigenous people and constitutional conservatives that would kill the referendum. For an indigenous body, however, both groups become passionate advocates for yes. A symbolic preamble failed in 1999, and would again today. And so it should. Mere symbolism will not improve policies, laws or outcomes.

If Richo prefers the expert panel’s approach, a racial non-discrimination clause, he is equally misguided. It was road-blocked by politicians.

A new rights clause has never been successfully inserted into the Constitution. We can’t even implement a legislated federal bill of rights, let alone new constitutional rights clauses. 

It is not clear which model Richo prefers: he hasn’t thought it through. He should pause and consider the Constitution: it is all about voices. 

Our Constitution guarantees the pre-existing political communities a say. Even minority states such as Tasmania are guaranteed an equal voice. There were more indigenous Australians than Tasmanians. 

Julian Leeser MP ran the “no” case defeating the republic Richo advocated in 1999, defeating a bill of rights, and defeating local government recognition. He opposes inserting symbolic statements. Yet Leeser supports an indigenous constitutional voice because this is “the kind of clause Griffiths and Barton might have drafted had they turned their minds to it”. 

This is the only model that doesn’t empower the High Court, respects parliamentary supremacy and eliminates uncertainty. That’s why it attracts conservative support. Ponder that fact. Indigenous people and hardcore constitutional conservatives such as Leeser actually agree on this constitutional reform. That has never happened before. 

Richo never took a stand on indigenous rights in his political career. Following a visit to the Northern Territory as health minister in 1994, where he witnessed the parlous state of indigenous communities, he proposed a major funding initiative. 

His attempt at big reform came to naught. The mob at Wallaby Camp are still waiting on your promise, Richo. 

Politicians shed tears for the unfinished business of indigenous Australia at the end of careers. The time for leadership was when they held power.

Richo owes blackfellas not to be lazy in his commentary on constitutional recognition. 

Indigenous people formed an unprecedented national consensus for this reform. They have done the work. They deserve better. We ask for the one reform with a decent chance of success at referendum. The only missing ingredient is leadership. 

Richo’s ‘lazy fictions’ are simply an insult