It is a given that there will be ‘constitutional’ recognition of the First Peoples of this continent – of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is a given that the ‘racialised’ clauses will be deleted from the Australian Constitution and stains – diabolical and cruel – cleansed from the nation’s imprimatur and from our collective psychosocial identity. Racism will be reduced. There will be less pitting of Black verse White Australians. However much has been touted that constitutional recognition can bring about meaningful change of a substantive tangible nature. I doubt it and see instead a missed opportunity. I hope I am wrong. The most important bit is the improving of lives, the guarantee of equality – where in the Australian nation herein no-one is born into a poverty so entrenched that they will live poor their whole life and so too their children and their children’s children.
According to my measure of the poverty line, nearly 40 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders live below the poverty line. If you are born Black in Western Australia you have a 60 per cent chance of living poor your whole life, and it’s a 3 in 4 chance in the Northern Territory. According to my research, nearly 100 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are of individuals living below the poverty line. Nearly 100 per cent of the arrests and of the convictions are of individuals living below this diabolical poverty line. Nearly one in three of the national prison population is comprised of Aboriginal and /orTorres Strait Islanders and though I pray time proves me wrong, I estimate that by 2025 one in two of the national prison population will be comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders – three in four inmates in Western Australia and nearly 100 per cent in the Northern Territory will be comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders.
There is a catastrophic tragedy, an even more extensively harrowing tragedy than that of today’s awaiting the nation’s poorest in less than a decade. There is at hand today an opportunity to tinker with the constitution, the nation’s overarching legal tablet, and instead of settling for minimalist and reductionist outcomes, for symbolism alone, for a satisfying of the ego instead of the soul, we can press for constitutional demands to right wrongs, to build in the obligation of affirmative actions – for the poorest, to the neediest, for those left behind through no fault of their own.
My bit is always intertwined with the marginalised, the most vulnerable, with people who are seen as the most helpless, with the homeless, with the incarcerated, broken and ruined lives languishing in narratives of misery and suffering. I have been working at both the national level and at the coalface in responding to the marginalised, whether the critically vulnerable, the suicide affected families, the incarcerated. We beg forever and a day for the rolling out of transformational ways forward to address dire inequalities.
The fast approaching Uluru Convention follows a dozen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander only referendum council gatherings. The convention will either be an opportunity at historical redress and reforms or a missed opportunity cavalcaded by symbolism and fanfare alone. If all of a sudden the Uluru Convention can lead an inspiring charge to pen in clauses signalling the ways forward in the lifting of people out of generational impoverishment they will deliver authentic difference in the lives of so many who otherwise will never know equality. The Australian nation is ready to vote through constitutional reforms – it is a myth and malicious propaganda that the nation will not vote through referendum amendments to guarantee an improved lot for the descendants of the First Peoples. This assertion must be understood and not condemned. It must be the starting point, that the Australian nation will vote yes to whatever is presented to them. The nation’s identity has long been diminished by the cruelties of its past madness towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The nation is ready – as it was in 1967 – to right wrongs, to move forward, to come together. The collective conscience of the nation laments the fact that its identity remains incomplete til the nation’s most profound rights struggle, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights struggle is completed.
The call for constitutional reforms must not be tampered with by fear or scare-mongering. The calls must be visionary, greater and louder than what they are. There should be no short-changing. There will be 10 to 15 per cent of Australians who are likely to vote against any constitutional reforms, such is ignorance and racism but three in every four Australians are guaranteed of voting in any changes that will improve the lot of brothers and sisters. The opportunity to tinker with the constitution is an opportunity at saving lives and an opportunity to redeem the nation, to do away with or reduce institutionalised racism and haunting White guilt.
If what comes out of Uluru does not set in stone galvanising effect to address third-world-akin poverty and the direst disadvantages in one of the world’s wealthiest nations then generations unborn will be betrayed into near insufferable disadvantage and narratives of victimisation, marginalisation will continue. Failure at Uluru to lead the nation in a charge to address historical-borne contemporary wrongs will translate to a firmament of institutionalised disadvantages, of the entrenching of nearly 40 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in dire poverty, for many in irrecoverable predicaments.
I have travelled hundreds of communities – the inequalities though generally known are not described often enough and as deeply as they should. We soak up maladaptive understandings, cognitively betrayed. Despite increasing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander entrepreneurial and middle classes, and swelling the numbers in the academic contingents, there is also an entrenching of generational poverty with little to no hope of breaking free. People are being left behind. Yes, there are 300 Aboriginal medical doctors today as opposed to none a half century ago, and three hundred more on the way, and there are 700 lawyers who identify Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, but the poverty and inequalities remain disparate and for a significant proportion impossible to rise out of without the helping hand. In Gunbalanya the first two female high school graduates were in 2013 and on Groote Eylandt only a handful of students have ever graduated high school. The suicide rate is increasing, with one in 18 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths a suicide, and I estimate it’s even higher, one in 10 – because of under reporting issues and trouble with evidence gathering. One in three of the nation’s child suicides (to age 17) are of Aboriginal children. Eighty per cent of the nation’s suicides of children aged 12 years and less are of Aboriginal children – an abomination, and indictment of our nation and not only of its historical identity, but also of contemporary identity.
Nearly 100 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison inmates have not completed Year 12, while 70 per cent had not got past Year 9. We see the ways forward but we must enshrine them in the constitution. I have brought hundreds out of prisons and homelessness into education, employment, to an improved lot, and continue to do so, similarly so the Uluru gathering must be vital in articulating a constitutional expectation, the way for more than a hundred thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who standalone otherwise cannot score their way into vital opportunities. There is a narrative of debilitating disadvantage and those who argue otherwise do not understand or are not expert or have failed to translate what their eyes see – and are muddle-minded.
Unless what comes out of the Uluru Convention and into the constitution enables triage based, needs based, affirmative action then the poorest will be left behind, generations unborn betrayed – another missed opportunity. I remind that the Australian nation will vote ‘yes’ to whatever is put before it.