No Place For Race In Our Constitution

Written by:
2 June 2017
No Place For Race In Our Constitution - Featured image
Originally Appeared In

RACE has no place in the Australian constitution. Proposals to grant special legal rights to any group of Australians based on their race will be rejected. Australians are egalitarian. Fairness is a concept that runs deep in the Australian psyche.

This is why the two proposals contained in the Uluru Statement released last week — a treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and a new constitutional body to represent the interests of indigenous Australians — will not be accepted by the public. Both proposals would divide Australians by race. And Australians will not have a bar of that.

Indigenous Australians have made a significant contribution to the success of modern Australia.

The first British settlers of the 18th century, and the waves of migrants that have followed from all corners of the globe, have also helped to make Australia what it is today.

Australia’s story is a tale of diversity. Australians are right to be proud of the fact we are a successful, peaceful, prosperous country built on a respect for ethnic and religious plurality. But just as we recognise the contribution that has been made by individuals from so many ethnic backgrounds, we also recognise that race itself is an outdated concept.

We are all members of the human race. Civilised people know that differences between races are skin deep.

For that reason, race should never be used as a motivation for passing new laws, and it certainly shouldn’t be used to grant or to take away rights in our constitution.

The Australian constitution should be colour blind. It should treat every citizen equally, and it should not give the government the power to make laws that treat different groups differently because of their race.

This is why — if we are to make any changes to the constitution — we should ensure that any references to race are removed, not added.

Currently there are two sections of the constitution that refer to race. The first is section 25, which was designed to discourage state governments from banning people of any particular race from taking part in elections.

The second is section 51 (xxvi), which grants the Commonwealth the power to pass race-based laws.

If Australians are to be asked to change the constitution it is this change that should be supported — the deletion of the two provisions that make reference to race.

But anything that seeks to insert race back into the constitution is dangerous and divisive.

Leaving aside the principle that the constitution should be completely free of references to race are a series of practical problems.

The biggest of those problems is that indigenous Australians are individuals who don’t all necessarily think the same way about matters of public policy. The suggestion that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders can be represented by a single voice is condescending and paternalistic.

Every adult indigenous Australian has the vote and their ability to be heard at an election is the same as all other Australians. Treating indigenous Australians differently because of their race is wrong.

The proposal for a treaty makes even less sense. Treaties are legal agreements between two or more sovereign countries. But indigenous Australians are Australians. How can a country make a treaty with its own citizens? Some members of the indigenous community are open about the need for indigenous sovereignty to come before the negotiation of a treaty.

These members of the indigenous community do not accept the legitimacy of the constitution itself. This was why a group of delegates walked out of the Uluru summit last week, when a Victorian delegate said of her delegation: “We as sovereign First Nations people reject constitutional recognition. We do not recognise occupying power or their sovereignty, because it serves to disempower, and takes away our voice”.

This form of radical race politics sits at the heart of the constitutional change put forward in the Uluru Statement. It is a divisive ideology.

Our constitution is a rule book. It clearly sets out the way the Australian government should be organised. It is not an exciting document. But it treats all Australians equally.

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