Constitutional Recognition – “Yes”? or “NO!”

January 23rd, 2015  |  Published in Race(ism)

const1(NOTE: The views in this post now need to be read in relation to a more recent statement by more than 250 Indigenous elders in May 2017, in which they reject tokenistic changes to the constitution and call for a  constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice in parliament and a commission that will lead to a treaty.)


Have you ever wondered whether it’s better to work for change from inside or outside establishment boundaries? On the one hand, you might get heard at the top, on the other you are less likely to be co-opted.

I’ve been thinking about this because of the proposed referendum on inclusion of Aboriginal people in the Australian constitution.

No date has been set for a referendum, no question has been approved, and no proposed changes have been made available.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said the referendum might happen on 27 May 2017 (fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 referendum) although he has also warned “against the danger of rushing” (click here). By then, of course, he might well be out of office.

When I think about voting (even if it is a bit premature) I feel anxious at the prospect of having to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a question that is controversial among Aboriginal people themselves.


There are those who support recognition, provided it’s more than a bit of poetry in the preamble, and those who don’t want a bar of it. Some of the grounds for opposition include:

  • Scepticism about the ‘whiteness’ of the Recognise campaign, and suspicion that the “handpicked Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC)” is too close to government, too well funded, and too distant from grassroots (see, for example, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks; Amy McQuire; CQ News);const11
  • Wariness that the focus on recognition deliberately sidelines issues of treaty, sovereignty, land rights, and self-determination;
  • Anger that the focus on recognition shuts down discussion that hasn’t got off the ground about the diversity of views within Aboriginal people (see, for example, Gerry Georgatos, Celeste Liddle, Amy McQuire, David Marr).

I don’t know if there’s a majority view, or any chance of consensus. If there was I would follow.

Working for change – inside or outside the establishment

In the meantime, the inside-outside distinction provides one way of mapping the territory.

The Recognise Campaign is clearly positioned inside the establishment. It does have the support of some powerful Aboriginal voices, and could well achieve more than tokenistic outcomes, but will never drive a revolution. It has government funding that pretty much sets its limits.

The Freedom Summit, on the other hand, is a collective of Aboriginal groups, positioned outside white structures. It sees those structures as part of the problem, aimed at assimilation, and favours a return to traditional ways.

It’s a more ambitious project than constitutional recognition, but does not (yet) haveabo (17) comparable resources. It’s aims, although not on the agenda of white power, are not exactly revolutionary; after all, as Amy McQuire notes: “Australia is the only first world nation with a significant Indigenous population that has never signed a treaty with Aboriginal nations.” And, as Lilla Watson said on “Let’s Talk Sovereignty“, Aboriginal people have always been prepared to share, but no one is asking them how we can all do that.

One of the plans of the Freedom Summit, outlined by Gerry Georgatos, is for First Nations’ people to converge on Canberra on Australia Day, 26 January – also known as Invasion Day. Such action will hopefully bring this movement to general public attention.

Trailblazing action has also been taken by Murrumu Walubara Yidindji and others who have renounced Australian citizenship in favour of tribal law and created Aboriginal passports (click here) thus making it pretty clear what their position is on recognition – in a constitution they don’t recognise.

My experience as insider-outsider

The inside-outside dilemma has many faces and the one most familiar to me has involved feminism and psychology (a recurrent theme of my academic and professional publications).

insiderMy stand-out memory of working as a psychologist is that the more I pursued my feminist convictions, the more ‘extreme’ and ‘political’ and perhaps even ‘fanatical’ I was seen within mainstream psychology. On the other hand, simply identifying as a psychologist could put me on the fringe of some feminist groups.

Being ‘inside’ feminism thus sent me to the margins of psychology, while being ‘inside’ psychology left me in Coventry within feminism. Just so, being inside the Freedom Summit positions people on the margins of dominant white Australia, and being inside the Recognise campaign is viewed with some suspicion by the more overtly political Freedom Summit.

Both positions have their strengths. I have known people working ‘inside’ psychology who have achieved things I could never manage (guidelines for working with women, LGBTI clients, asylum seekers, and/or Aboriginal clients for example). I have also sometimes seen what they do manage as a bit lame compared to my ambitions for a complete overhaul of psychological theory and practice such that social context and power relations become core concepts. This would indeed be an achievement in my eyes.

That is, I value the reform agenda, but fear it will never go far enough. On the other hand, my critical agenda remains an ideal that is unlikely to ever be realised.

What about the intersection of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’?

const14Is there another possibility? For inside-outside dilemmas? Including for First Nations’ people?

Thinking about this, I was recently inspired by reading about Ada Lovelace (daughter of poet, Lord Byron) who had a passion for numbers, as well as for music. She integrated this combination to become the world’s first computer programmer – a century ahead of her time.

She is described as a (cognitive) time traveller, such folk occasionally popping up at the margins of their original fields, or at the intersection of different disciplines.

“Time travellers remind us that working within an established field is both empowering and restricting. Stay within the boundaries of a discipline and you will have an easier time making incremental improvements…But disciplinary boundaries can also serve as blinders, keeping you from the bigger idea, visible only when you cross those borders” (click here).

The creative challenge

And there’s the challenge I would love to see taken up by, and with, First Nations’ people. Can we, as a diverse Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal country, cross the borders that const12divide the Recognise campaign from the Freedom Summit and enable a creative outcome that might bring together the best of both projects, the worst of neither, and generate some mutually enriching way forward out of the carnage, wreckage, and treachery of race relations in Australia?

It seems a lot to hope for.

But, if Ada Lovelace could bring together mathematics and music to produce computer software, what might happen in the creative mix of the Recognise Campaign and the Freedom Summit.

Surely it’s worth the effort to “cross those borders”, ask the questions, and have the conversations – at a table that honors 60,000 years of history.

What a time-traveller’s adventure that could be!

Scroll down to leave your comments…always valued…Joan Beckwith

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(Postscript: Here is the “Statement from the Heart” written by more than 250 Indigenous leaders at Uluru in May, 2017, in which they call for a treaty and a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice in parliament.)

Statement from the Heart

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5 comments on “Constitutional Recognition – “Yes”? or “NO!””

  1. Additional notes and links, specifically on constitutional recognition, subsequently contributed by personal email:
    The best source I [the email contributor] have found is a 2010 discussion paper from the Law council ( which examines the bad clauses in the current Constittion and makes identifiable proposals.

    The Human Rights Commission website is short of proposals and just talks about the current situation (

    The latest (and practically the only) actual outcome is a Dec 2015 media release from the Referendum Council which states that discussions will take place and that it is important to listen to everyone ( Since that time the Referendum Council has met three times and has not released anything further, though a final report is due at the end of June.

  2. Collection of links to articles on constitutional reform:

  3. Subsequent article in “The Guardian” by Larissa Behrendt; useful for filling in a bit more of the overall picture:

  4. Susan foster says:

    Thank you more to think about

    • I agree, Susan, and I figure I’ve only skimmed the surface at this stage. Hoping to be a whole lot clearer by the time the referendum actually comes around – in 2017 if it is on current schedule…Joan Beckwith.

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