A looming referendum

I think is my ninth-last essay here, and I would like to thank all those who have sent courteous messages to me, both here and by email, about the end of the donaitkin.com blog. Today’s essay is about the proposed amendment to our Constitution to acknowledge the fact that indigenous Australians were here first. There have been a number of such proposals in the last hundred years. Most of them were said to be bi-partisan, have been shaped through consultation with Aboriginal people, and have been supported by some of the good and the great. None of them has yet been subjected to a referendum. None of them would have succeeded, in my opinion. As far as I understand it, the current proposal is only to ask whether citizens are in favour of there being some sort of recognition of the historic presence of indigenous people. If it passes, then there would be another period of consultation, from which a formal proposal about the nature of that recognition would require approval at a further referendum. Complicated? Yes, but a popular approval would give the second stage some impetus.

It is worth noting right away that the proposal does not have anything like the unanimous support of ‘the Aboriginal people’. Several of their well-known leaders have dismissed it as just words. They want real action, not recognition. It is not always clear what ‘real action’ might be, or whether it is implementable at all. Some want a treaty, not words in the Constitution. You might say that Aboriginal people are united in feeling that something should be done, but show no unity at all about what that something should be.

I am not in favour of any of these proposals, for several reasons. The first is that such recognition is a form of identity politics, in which the identity of the group is the most important aspect of life, which acts to reduce the possibility of the members of the group being further integrated into the broader society. In the sixties I asked respondents to choose a card from a set of cards that best described how they saw themselves. The cards were AUSTRALIAN, VICTORIAN (or the relevant state for the respondent), BRITISH SUBJECT, SYDNEY-SIDER (or relevant city or town), WORKING CLASS (or middle class). The great majority saw themselves as ‘Australian’ first, though there substantial numbers of Tasmanians who put their primary identity as ‘Tasmanian’, with smaller such groups in Western Australia and Queensland.  A small minority chose ‘British subject’ and an even smaller minority chose a class term. No one then used the term ‘identity politics’, but you can see how it works.

What do the assumed members of minority groups want? We don’t know really, but we can assume that they want to be noticed and respected. Would the inclusion of some words in the Preamble or the Constitution appease them? I doubt it. Their leaders would ask for more. In things like identity there is an almost infinite set of things that a minority group might want. It is the same with the environment.

My second objection is that such an addition is a form of racism. Yes, you can argue correctly that the Constitution already mentions ‘Aboriginal’ people. But this proposed addition goes much further, and intends to provide a privileged position for those of indigenous descent. Indeed some critics of the present want to see an addition that says that governments could in future only pass laws that improve the status of indigenous people. At the moment the Constitution is silent about race other than to say that the Commonwealth Government can pass laws about Aboriginal people. I would strike that out, on the ground that everywhere else in the Constitution Australians are regarded as equal, whatever their ‘race’.

My third is that Aboriginal people constitute a little over 800,000 of our 25 million people. There about as many Indians, and well over a million Chinese. Critics will say, so what? Both Indians and Chinese are interlopers just like Europeans. Yes, I concede that, but they are likely to say, as will many immigrants from Europe, ‘We had to start again, and we’ve worked hard. Why don’t they [indigenous people] do what we had to do, and not just accept sit-down money? Of course a great many Aboriginal people are in jobs, and are well integrated into Australian society. What to do about those who live in remote settlements, where there are no jobs, defeats me at the moment, as it has defeated every Australian Government.

It will be clear I have little time for those of tender heart who say that we stole the land from them, and their children. The notion that the peoples of the continent of Australia were going to be allowed to live on as they had been doing for a long time, without any European intervention at all, is simply preposterous. The land was going to be taken and colonised by someone, English, French or German. I don’t see any reason to suppose that the French or the Germans would have been better masters than the English, and a good deal to suggest that, all things considered, what happened was the best outcome. Yes, the use of the land was going to be different. Yes, some indigenous people were killed, and others were forced off the lands they had come to see as theirs, as custodians or stewards, not as freehold owners. And your alternative?

I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but I do not feel sorrow for what occurred, nor am I happy with the apology that was offered. Nor would I have walked over the Harbour Bridge to show that I cared. Nor do I think a treaty is what is needed. As I have written before, what we need to do is to hasten the process of integration, assimilation, call it what you will, so that all Australians feel a common bond in feeling ‘Australian’, wherever they come from, and whatever their ‘race’.

Finally, do not think for a moment that it really doesn’t matter. ‘Just give them what they want — it’s only words’, which you’ll hear people say, is simply ignorant. Words in our Constitution, even in the Preamble, can become really important and, as we have seen over the last century, what our founders had in mind is sometimes not what a modern judge thinks they ought to have had in mind. It is actually really important that there are no such changes to our fundamental document, which is why I go on speaking and writing against the possible referendum.

Previous Prime Ministers have decided against establishing a referendum process on this issue, because, to follow Malcolm Turnbull when he held that office, ‘it won’t get up’. Our present PM has been quiet on the matter, and if we have an election soon, as I keep hearing, then it won’t get up in the present Parliament. On the other hand, it looks so innocent a question that he might break all records and get it up and running, just to appease the tender hearts. I sincerely hope not.

Join the discussion 42 Comments

  • John says:

    When I was in Switzerland I saw that not only were both sides of a referendum question given good exposure in newspapers but outright advertising was also common. Contrast this to the same-sex marriage “plebiscite” in Australia just a few years ago when arguments against the proposal were only very rarely heard.

    In that plebiscite and on other issues the mainstream media has had an unfortunate habit of favouring one position over another and in doing so blocking the public from learning the arguments both for and against a proposal.

    Democracy assumes that voters are well informed about their options and that there is no punishment meted out for those voting for any of the alternatives. Even if this assumption was true at some time I think it’s false now.

    • JMO says:

      Don, well written as always. You forgot to mention the Spanish and the Portuguese. When I was in the Canary Is (Spanish) I asked are there any original inhabitants. A firm no was the answer. When the Spanish came in 13th century they wiped them out! Just like they did some 3 centuries later in South America.

      I would also say had the Maories sailed across the ditch, they would not have cared about Aboriginal rights!

      I doubt many would have survived under either scenarios.

      The English colonizing this great land turned out to be their best option. The English were the most enlightened people of the 18th century.

      Do the Aborigines today really believed that their dreamtime could have continued during the Age of Exploration?

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Groups that fancy themselves ‘injured’ will believe any nonsense that suits their narrative.

  • John Nicol says:

    You are quite right Don. My greatest problem relates to the matter Andrew Bolt was judged unfavorably for several years ago by which “white” aborigines with 99% European blood, can claim privileges which are really intended for far less privileged people with real black skins who do suffer from significant discrimination and have les education, less experience in the modern world and, dare I say it, less intelligence capabilities. When have we ever seen a full blood aborigine gain a University degree. Most do not achieve a level of grade 12 at school. This may seem racist – I am not -but I grew up in North Queensland with real and very genuine aborigines and where everyone highly respected their bush craft and other skills, which are so different from ours. By ignoring this difference, governments and others have no hope of setting conditions which will be of real use to these people in their progress (perhaps) to developing skills necessary to take part in modern complex society.

    The rot set in with Gough Whitlam, who decreed that anyone who wished to identify as being an aboriginal could do so. This shifted the goal posts towards the rapidly growing numbers of those who simply defined themselves differently with much higher benefits going to people whose main genetics were European.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    I too sincerely hope not, Don. Well put, your thoughts overall. One nation, one people, one voice.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks for that well-explained detail, Don. As John Nicol rightly says, there are such a wide variety of “Aboriginals” these days and you never meet a real one with a true Aboriginal philosophy any more.

    Years ago I went camping with a “White Aboriginal” commissioner of ATSIC who brought along his taxpayer-funded Toyota Land Cruiser, 20 foot tinnie with 200 HP outboard and .303 rifle to do some “native” hunting of dugong and other protected species that were off-limits to the rest of us.

    This sort of special treatment is plain stupid.

    Trying to appease these moderns is plain impossible and we should simply stick to the sensible thinking that we are all Australians and we need to keep things as applicable-to-all as possible.

  • Karabar says:

    Your excellent work echos my sentiments precisely.
    Racism, Apartheid, and identity politics is at the root of the problem.
    No referendum or document change can alleviate the suffering of many women and children who are victims of domestic violence in some of these remote communities.
    “Sorry Day” was a huge mistake by the feckless Rudd.
    No race or ethnicity should be regarded as “special”.
    Yet all Australians ought to make an effort to solve the issues with those unfortunates locked unwillingly into an ancient culture.
    I once spent a month with descendants of the original inhabitants of Northern British Columbia. One of these impressive people explained to me that a woman in their society is like a species of fresh water crab that associate wiith one another in close proximity. If one such crab attempts to leave teh ball , it is quickly devoured by the remainder of the clan.

    • Chris Warren says:

      Racism and apartheid are corrupted forms of identity politics imposed to benefit one group by dispossessing another.

      This is our history.

      Today there is a different form of identity politics not to be included in the same sentence or context as racism and apartheid.

      • Boambee John says:

        “Today there is a different form of identity politics not to be included in the same sentence or context as racism and apartheid.”

        The effects end up being the same -division and discord at best, violence at worst.

        • Chris Warren says:

          Fake make believe.

          No identity politics in Australia is anything like identity oppression and exploitation as in Israel or 1960’s South Africa.

          • Boambee John says:

            Not the point. Try again, this time focussing on the issue.

          • Chris Warren says:

            For the slow learner…


  • Peter E says:

    The proposal for special treatment runs directly counter to the idea of Australian egalitarianism. It might work if we could also have referenda for, say, those of part -Scottish descent who would be included in the constitution for their bringing the bagpipes here, with other minorities also afforded special status on like grounds. Or maybe not.
    These ideas for advancing persons of Aboriginal descent need to be set in the context of the ‘winds of change’ ‘liberations’ that have taken place since WWII, the liberation of South Africa being a recent case in point.

  • Chris Warren says:

    This is all wrong.

    Identity politics does NOT act “to reduce the possibility of the members of the group being further integrated into the broader society.” gen The opposite is the case.

    There is NO proposal that “intends to provide a privileged position for those of indigenous descent” with the connotations such a comment tries to suggest. Any difference can be cast as a “privilege”. This is just propaganda. Due to vast murderous differences in the past and continuing consequences today, differences in treatment now should be considered. This depends on the level of your humanity.

    There is NO notion “that the peoples of the continent of Australia were going to be allowed to live on as they had been doing for a long time, without any European intervention at all”. This is outrageous propaganda.

    It is NOT necessary that there be “the unanimous support of ‘the Aboriginal people’.” There only needs to be broad or wide support and not from coconuts.

    It is not those with a “tender heart” who state “that we stole the land from them, and their children”. This factual history and NOT to be denied by those without tender hearts.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      “There is NO proposal that “intends to provide a privileged position for those of indigenous descent””
      This is probably the most self-evidently stupid comment you have made in quite some time.

      • Chris Warren says:

        Grow up. There is NO proposal that “intends to provide a privileged position for those of indigenous descent” with the connotations such a comment tries to suggest.

        If you want to falsify other peoples comments – go elsewhere.

        • Boambee John says:

          Bryan is correct. If you wish to deny reality, that is your choice, but that choice does not change the reality.

          • Chris Warren says:

            Here is reality – deny all you like – see if you can digest it;

            For the slow learner…


          • Boambee John says:

            For the poor reader, read again what I wrote, and try to comprehend the meaning of the words.

          • Chris Warren says:

            Not one of your abilities it seems.

          • Boambee John says:

            Certainly not one of yours.

            All identity politics is poison, just with varying degrees of lethality. Everyone, regardless of ethnicity, must be equal hefore the law.

          • Chris Warren says:

            Boambee is a fool. All identity politics is not poison. It only becomes lethal as explained earlier when used to benefit one group by dispossessing another (particularly with State sponsorship as in Burma and Israel).

            Identity politics in Australia is not lethal. This fake dogma is just a corrupt ploy by identity denialists. Identity politics arises because there is a deficit in equality that must be addressed. Only those enjoying privileges from past oppressions peddle the nonsense being peddled by Boambee. They are a reactionary rump within the Liberal Party right-wing and fellow travelers paraded on Sky News.

          • Boambee John says:

            Standard Chrissy denialism. Re-define the issue until it only applies to his personal obsessions.

            Chrissy doesn’t believe in equality before the law.

    • Boambee John says:


      That was all wrong. A continuous series of denials of reality.

      And the cherry on the cow pat: “and not from coconuts”, use of a racist expression.

  • Chris Warren says:

    Identity politics can be taken to extremes as under South Africa’s Bantu Authority Act, 1951, and more relevantly here:


    But in these cases gaining and maintaining economic wealth for some elite is the underlying motivation. This does not apply in Australia.

    • Boambee John says:

      More denialism.

      • Chris Warren says:

        If you do not like facts – there is no point pretending they are denialism.

        Denialism is you.

      • Boambee John says:

        The extremes that you highlight do not obviate the possibility of lesser policies, still damaging. But feel free to keep pushing your preferred political line.

        • Chris Warren says:

          Australia was founded on the extremes you seem to ignore (or deny?). Today’s “lesser” identity politics reflects this fact and addresses understandable hurt and grievances beyond that experienced by migrant and social identities.

          • Boambee John says:

            Australia was founded in 1788 as an apartheid state! Who knew? Apart from you, of course.

            Or are you referring to the White Australia Policy, a founding principle of the ALP, finally abolished in the 1960s by the Coalition?

  • spangled drongo says:

    On 13 February 2008, the Parliament of Australia issued a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for forced removals of Australian Indigenous children (often referred to as the Stolen Generations) from their families by Australian federal and state government agencies. The apology was delivered by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

    It’s interesting that only one aboriginal person has ever established in court that he was “stolen” and having lived with aboriginals for years the only “stolen” ones I have ever encountered were actually saved by these various agencies.

    When a part aboriginal girl gave birth to a baby fathered by a part aboriginal boy on a station where I worked, she left the baby in the bush where it was born because she had no possible capacity to raise and look after it.

    Luckily we found it before the ants had done too much damage and the flying doctor took it to an agency to be raised and fostered.

    Many of the “stolen generations” were placed in similar agencies for very good reason.

    Mainstream Australia needs to “steal” a lot more of these kids these days.

    And then they mightn’t end up in gaol so often.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Like this one a couple of days ago:

      The bail hearing for the 11-year-old boy was illuminating and ­horrifying.

      The judge, the prosecutor and the defence understood that, on principle, bail was the right thing for such a small child — the law is clear on this. But there was a problem: across the boy’s big Aboriginal family, no responsible adult with a safe and suitable home could be found to take him.

      Dad was solicitous to his son in court — he brushed hair away from the boy’s eyes with his hand as he sat with him. The gentle ­gesture belied a record of extreme ­violence that had landed him in jail more than once.

      So the boy, small for his age with big eyes and a heavy fringe that made him look like a doll, went to the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre to wait for his trial. He was there for 21 months before he was found guilty of the manslaughter of Aboriginal man Patrick Slater, 26, in a mob attack in the centre of Perth in the early hours of January 27, 2016.

      He was with seven older males, five of them men, who set upon 26-year-old Slater in an alcove just out of view of CCTV. The boy was caught on camera leaving with a thin object in his hand that the prosecution said was a bloodied screwdriver:


      • spangled drongo says:

        And a comment on that article:

        “Being a victim of youth crime multiple times, and being just one of multiple, multiple victims of unfettered youth crime in our township, which would be one of multiple, multiple townships in Australia, I know something is not working. But nothing constructive or effective for us law abiding sufferers is being done. These young crims are obviously being told that they are untouchable. So I fail to see how raising this age of criminal responsibility can make things better. I think we all know lack of parental responsibility is behind a lot of these issues so why isn’t anything being done in this area. Why are overcrowded houses the fault of the average Australian? All we want are these young thugs off the street by whichever means. They know that what they do is wrong, no question about that.”

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Why is identity in the broader social context so important? It seems to me to be concomitant with tribalism; but I am not using the term pejoratively. Tribes have been essential for human survival, with positive mutual support as well as mutual protection. Wider societies grew from amalgamation. The need to belong is a very strong force in the human psyche; consider the power of ostracism if you have any doubt.

    Perhaps the drive behind identity politics arises from this same need to belong, and it would appear from many statements expressed by the more vocal of various minorities, that they are demanding at least recognition. Fair enough. However, they go further, drawing determined boundaries around their identity group; an example is the claim that outsiders cannot write about them, or represent them on stage or screen. Thus they have moved beyond simple recognition and respect for their minority, to an almost socially belligerent refusal of the rights of others to say or do things on their behalf. This is an identity politics of exclusion, the antithesis of the very inclusion upon which those vocal members insist. Incidentally, how do we know that they speak for their minority anyway? Are they not self-appointed?

    Successful social development has required inclusion, acceptance of a variety of groups, axiomatic of amalgamation. Exclusion divides, and weakens society.

    In our apparently mature society, why then do we appear to accept such exclusionary demands? That needs qualifying: while the media trumpets exclusionary causes, does it speak for the majority of us? I suspect not. Of course, it is not just the media; many of the intelligentsia support those demands, implicitly or otherwise. Why? Well, humans are prone to a sense of guilt; it has been a marvellous tool for social conditioning, a means to hold the tribe together. So a sense of guilt has become deeply embedded in our psyches also – the other side of the coin of belonging.

    This is not to say that minorities in the past have had no reason to protest. Of course they have. Just because a number of my Anglo-Saxon predecessors were probably anti-Semitic, for example, or spoke disparagingly of anyone of “colour”, does not mean that I condone those attitudes and actions; anything but. However, I do not feel personally guilty. While I am sorry about the sad history of European settlement in Australia, there is also much glad history. The grief, sadness and savagery was not simply the preserve of European-indigenous contact and conflict; consider the tragedy for many a convict. But consider also the successes. There is no reason for me to feel guilty about the pasts of others.

    Over the last few hundred years in our Western societies at least, religion flourished with the tool of guilt; with loss of religious faith, we have substituted other causes, and assuage our guilt not with the indulgences over which Martin Luther railed, nor the salvation which Billy Graham hailed, but with environmental and social causes. As with religion, it’s important not to look under the covers. Just enjoy the indulgence of the electric vehicle whose batteries are powered largely by fossil-fuelled electricity generation, the salvation of those expensively manufactured wind turbines and solar panels, about whose decay and disposal in due course we give never a thought.

    Meanwhile, we shall remain safe in our politically correct postures, and accept the strictures of the exclusionists among us, as we cannot risk being seen to disagree.

    • dlb says:

      Good thoughts Peter.

      Ah Wokeness, not a very forgiving religion to transgressors.
      Though I’m not a supporter of Peter Dutton, I’m very pleased to see him taking a stand against “virtue signaling” in the military and his Department.

      Formal religions may be dying, but sanctimony is doing fine.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    Hi Don,

    We shall miss your thoughtful posts. There is much valuable insight that should not be lost. What is the future of your site? How can we access it as an archive?

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Peter Kemmis, I’ll be able to tell you in a few weeks.

  • Chris Warren says:

    Isn’t it interesting when denialists proudly claim they oppose identity politics and how everyone is equal under the law, but then ignore the deaths caused elsewhere where identity politics is State Law and different identities are not equal under the law.

    In Israel’s laws allow Jews to file claims over land in the East Jerusalem which they owned prior to 1948, but reject Palestinian claims over land in Israel which they owned.

    In the present case, the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah are refugees who have no right under Israeli law to repossess their pre-1948 homes in Haifa, Sarafand and Jaffa.

    • Boambee John says:

      Isn’t it interesting that Chrissy waits until everyonne has moved to a new thread before he posts what he hopes will be the last comment on this thread? A comment that seems to show an unhealthy focus on one ethnic group?

  • Mark says:

    “At the moment the Constitution is silent about race other than to say that the Commonwealth Government can pass laws about Aboriginal people. ”

    That is wrong. The constitution, ever since the 1967 referendum, is silent as to Aboriginals and/or indigenous. The constitution now allows the Commonwealth to make laws for “The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws” (section 51 (xxvi)).

    It is true that that section has been used almost exclusively in regards to aboriginals but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be used in regards to other races eg when Hawke gave special status to Chinese students following Tienanmen.

    The problem with these proposed changes is that of power. The aboriginal leaders only want the changes if it gives them more power under the constitution whereas, until now, the general population, while happy to give a nod to the pre-1788 situation, will only do so if it doesn’t give addition power to other groups. I don’t see the stand-off changing any time soon.

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