John Howard’s referendum on assimilation


Yesterday John Howard announced that he will, if re-elected, hold a referendum to amend the preamble of the Australian constitution to include a “statement of reconciliation” and to “recognise indigenous Australians”

The first thing to note about the proposed change to the constitution is that it is legally meaningless. The preamble of the constitution contains no specifics and is not a basis for any legal framework. It is just a – preamble. It cannot be referred to to make or amend laws as the rest of the constitution can.

The key legal issues of land rights, customary law and sovereignty will not be included in Howard’s (or copy-cat Rudd’s) “acknowledgement”.

Howard’s media comments today included recognising Aboriginal people as the first “inhabitants” of Australia, which even James Cook and Joseph Banks “acknowledged” on the Endeavor voyage. But like Cook and Banks, Howard is incapable of acknowledging indigenous sovereignty or customary law, not even considering the possibility of “prior” sovereignty.

John Howard says constitutional change would include indigenous Australia’s “special, but not separate place within a reconciled and indivisible nation.”

Since the 1967 referendum allowing Aboriginal people to be recorded in the census and empowering the federal government to make laws about Aboriginal people, white Australia has been prepared to accept Aboriginal people as equal citizens; equal to white people, equal subjects of the crown. The racial discrimination laws of the 1970s gave full rights of white Australia to people of all cultures, and outlawed the removal of these “equal” rights, but they did not acknowledge any indigenous rights such as Aboriginal land rights or Aboriginal customary law which are not rights enjoyed by all Australians. The anti discrimination laws are also Terra Nullius assimilation laws.

When Eddie Mabo proved to the High Court that his family owned their block of land since before Captain Cook the court accommodated this in terms of English common law. It refused to acknowledge any legal rights or interests inherent in Torres Strait customary land law and how it connects to all other areas of life. White land law gave white notion of land rights (native title) and black law remained invisible and repressed.

The Howard government has thwarted any possibility of land rights by wrecking native title law, has essentially outlawed customary law and has very recently opposed the U.N. declaration on indigenous rights. What is left for Howard to “recognise”?

Having smashed all legal acknowledgement of indigenous rights this constitutional amendment will be a celebration of the victory of white supremacy, an arrogant assertion that indigenous people now have nowhere to go except into the white mainstream. This is certainly not reconciliation.



Filed under Aboriginal, australia, history, justice, politics, reconciliation, society

6 responses to “John Howard’s referendum on assimilation

  1. Pingback: The latest chapter « Contradiction

  2. Of course, when the Greens and Democrats state that they will not support such a ridiculous proposal the only real progressive parties in Australian politics will be roundly slammed by Howard for “hating Aborigines”.

  3. Hi Sam,

    The Greens and Democrats have both come out in support of the referendum, the Greens more skeptical than the Democrats.

    ANTAR is also supporting it.

    Bartlett’s argument is that the referendum is an opportunity to be taken advantage of, in particular getting indigenous people into the leadership of the process.

    I can see the sense of supporting it if there is a change of government. One of the few areas that the ALP has had a different opinion from the government is the UN declaration on indigenous rights.

    If a Rudd government and a senate with Green balance of power was to occur then it would be possible to push the envelope on the referendum and include something of substance from the UN declaration. Whether a conservative, racist electorate will vote for it is another matter.

    If Howard/Costello wins then the whole thing will be a meaningless stage managed fait accompli.

  4. Hey, cheers for the link! Always great to read your analysis of the madness that passes for politics in Australia

  5. While it’s, in my opinion, completely justifyable to be cynical about this announcement I’m willing to treat it as sincere as we’ve never heard Howard acknowledge the importance of symbolic gestures until now. I think there’s a few political benefits for him to reap out of this, but this doesn’t in itself downgrade the leap he has taken here. For 11 years he’s virulently attacked any mention of symbolism, and now after discussing it with Pearson and others he’s come to a revised position, this is good news whether politically motivated or not.

  6. pthomas66

    hmmmm, a big noisy nothing to replace the something previously trashed. Reminds me a bit of the affair of the Boundary St outhouse.

    Yes, I’m sure Howard sincerely wants to do nothing here, and with a wedge like this flying, will anyone be able to stop him?

    This is the bait, swallow it and get a free hook!

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