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Recognition or Treaty: an interview with Brooke Prentis

By Anthony N. Castle

When the Australian Constitution was written more than a century ago it failed to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had lived on this land for over 40,000 years. The only reference made to Indigenous Australians was to discriminate and to exclude them from being counted as citizens. In 2008, the Yolngu and Bininj clans across Arnhem Land called for constitutional recognition and an end to the racism built into what is sometimes described as ‘the nation’s birth certificate’.

Despite bi-partisan support, a referendum was not held in 2013 as agreed. Conservative voices have objected to the proposal and debate has arisen from within Indigenous communities. We spoke with Brooke Prentis, a descendant of the Waka Waka people and a member of The Salvation Army's National Indigenous Reference Group, about this debate and how to better understand the idea of constitutional recognition.

There seems to be a range of concerns about constitutional recognition, not only from conservative pundits but also from Indigenous Australians. Is this an issue that Australia fully understands yet?

My greatest fear is that Australians will go to the polls having not done any research on the issue themselves. The only way this issue has been presented in the mainstream media is the Recognise campaign, which isn’t what Aboriginal people in the community often want. It’s really about engaging where we are as a nation and what’s the best way for us to come together. Aboriginal people are talking about a treaty. We are a people that have never ceded our sovereignty but if you are now included in a piece of legislation like the Constitution then I don’t see how you can still have a treaty.

Constitutional recognition involves a foreign culture making allowances for a sovereign people. Rather than Indigenous Australia asserting itself on an equal footing, this gesture might feel more like ‘oh look, we’ve made some room for you’.

That’s it, and we’re not even talking about significant room. We’re talking about a paragraph potentially. I had someone who was with the Recognise campaign, an Aboriginal Christian leader, ask me ‘does our Constitution need to change?’ I said ‘yes’ because there are two racist clauses in our Constitution that need to be removed. We’ve been condemned over the years in the UN for those clauses, but that’s not really an Aboriginal issue. It’s just that those sections have only ever been applied to us as a people.

Aboriginal Australians have the highest rate of suicide in children in the world and we still haven’t made any significant progress in closing the gap. The apology was only ever offered to the Stolen Generations and that is still happening again in Queensland where one in four Aboriginal children are in out of home care. Right now 58% of Aboriginal people are living in poverty in this nation. How can we really believe that constitutional recognition is anything but symbolic?

Could a treaty be just another symbolic gesture though? And one that’s much harder to get up?

A treaty is the only real example of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people coming together as equal partners at the table to work out how the relationship works in this country. A lot of people are thinking that a treaty is too hard but Australia has made over 2000 treaties in its time. Surely making a treaty with international partners that stands up in an arena of international law is more difficult than making a treaty with your own people. Bob Hawke promised us a treaty in 1988. It was basically drafted, then thrown out. 1988 wasn’t that long ago but when I talk about it people seem to think it’s a new idea.

Clans in Arnhem Land in 2008 called for constitutional recognition but this issue can appear to be separated more and more from Indigenous voices. How does Indigenous Australia really feel about this?

People often don’t understand the diversity of Aboriginal voices. Recognise put out this statistic that 80% of people surveyed were in favour of constitutional recognition and hiding in there was the fact that 60% believed Aboriginal Australians should assimilate. Indigenous X have done their own survey of Aboriginal people and found that 80% of Aboriginal people are not interested in constitutional recognition at all.

If the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not interested in constitutional recognition, what might be the best way to begin to recognise Indigenous Australia?

How we recognise Aboriginal people in this country should be about how we tell the truth of our history. Constitutional recognition does not tell the truth of our history. The apology was only for the Stolen Generations. It was not for stolen land. We’ve had the Mabo decision but people still don’t really understand that it overturned terra nullius. The symbolic gesture means a lot for both sides but for Aboriginal people it can’t just be symbolism. The Constitution doesn’t tell us the story of Indigenous Australia. We still need a way for that story to be told.

Australian voters will eventually decide on this at the referendum. What are we then to make of the Constitution and its historic racism when we actually have the opportunity to alter it?

As an Aboriginal person I’m conflicted about constitutional recognition because I truly believe that a treaty is the only way. When I ask how many people have read the Constitution, on average it’s about four in 100 and usually two of those who’ve read it are Aboriginal people. I want people to read our Constitution but I think the debate is a distraction. As an Aboriginal person I want those two clauses removed but I do not believe the place to imbed the Aboriginal people’s position in this country is through the Constitution. Why do we think we need to change a constitution that people haven’t read or really valued? The question is why are we the only Commonwealth nation still without a treaty with its first peoples?

 * More of Brooke’s writing on constitutional recognition and treaty can be found here.The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of The Salvation Army, or all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Peoples. However we strongly encourage you to research more regarding this issue.



Anthony N. Castle is a writer based in Adelaide. He writes on the crossroads of social justice and pop culture.