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Constitutional Recognition and the Dream of the Kingdom

Tuesday, 11 August 2015  | Brooke Prentis

I have a dream. I have a dream of a different Australia. I have a dream there will be an end to racism and, in particular, the “peculiar racism” (Uncle Jack Charles) that Aboriginal people face each and every day.

I have a dream that all Australians would have a willingness to learn the true history of this country, would know the true history of this country, and would retell the true history of this country.

I have a dream that all Australians would live in a country that cares for the poor, respects difference, and embraces the world’s oldest living culture.

I’m sure I’m not the first to dream these things. I’m sure I’ve been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, John Lennon. I’m glad I know the stories of Bennelong, Truganini, William Cooper. I’m thankful that I am taught by the likes of Aunty Jean Phillips, Uncle Graham Paulson, Uncle Ray Minniecon, Uncle Neville Naden, and Uncle Graeme Mundine.

Many of you won’t know the names of the Aboriginal people I’ve just mentioned. I wish you did know; I wish you knew their stories, their teachings, and their legacies. As Aboriginal peoples we have been fighting for justice and understanding since 1770 when Captain Cook (let alone 1788 and Captain Arthur Phillip) didn’t understand our culture, our kinship, or our custodianship of the land and seas. The land and seas which we had sustainably managed for over 60,000 years. The story of how Captain Cook took too many turtles that were never his to take and suddenly we were thrown into an unknown world with an unknown peoples who valued greed, power, and ownership. As Aboriginal people, Australia’s documented history often brands us as the thieves, but we know the true history; we know what has been stolen from us all too well—stolen land, stolen wages, stolen children. Our fight for justice has been a long one.

Unfortunately, the discussion in our nation is not one of justice, helping the poor, or love. If it was, there would be no need to “close the gap”—we would have closed it already. There would be answers for Ms Dhu’s family—22 year old Ms Dhu who died in custody and who was in custody for unpaid parking fines—and the words of a former Prime Minister that said “it must never, never happen again” would not be ringing in the ears of the Aboriginal mother who just had her newborn baby removed from her in hospital—the new Stolen Generation.

I’m supposed to be writing about Constitutional Recognition. But I’ve found it hard. I’ve found it hard because I don’t know if it is the answer. I don’t know if it will help to achieve any of the dreams I talked about earlier.

I teach on the Constitution and Treaty formally and informally and not because I’m a High School Teacher, Scholar, Lawyer or because it’s my day job, but simply because I am a citizen of this country, this land we now call Australia. Some of you who read this won’t even understand the complexity behind that simple phrase “the land we now call Australia”. Some of you will have signed up with the ‘Recognise’ campaign. Some of you will not have heard of ‘Recognise’. But have all of you actually read Australia’s Constitution? Have all of you read your State’s Constitution? Have you read another country’s Constitution? Do you know the Yirrakala Bark Petitions? Do you know the 1988 Barunga Statement? Have you read the Treaty of Waitangi? Do you know Australia has made over 2,000 treaties in its time? Do you know we are the only Commonwealth country without a Treaty with our first peoples?[1]

My individual research has shown me that about 10% of Australian Christians have read Australia’s Constitution, about 5% have read their State’s Constitution, and about 2% have read another country’s Constitution. About 2% of Australian Christians know anything about Treaties. I don’t use these statistics to shame anyone, but simply to highlight that we need more education about what our options are. My greatest fear is that Australians go to a Referendum and vote on the basis of what the mainstream media tells them.

How will being recognised in Australia’s Constitution make a difference when as an Aboriginal person from Queensland I am already recognised in the State’s Constitution (also in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales)? What does being recognised even mean? (Note: we still do not know what the question at a Referendum might be.)

If Australia’s Constitution is a document that hardly anyone has read, will being recognised in that document make a difference? Why is the Constitution a document hardly anyone has read? I would love the Constitution of my country to be a document that inspires us, that is admired by other countries, and one that definitely doesn’t discriminate on race (Australia Constitution s25 and s51 [xxvi]): a Constitution which exhibits the values of today and tomorrow’s Australia, not a colonial yesterday where Aboriginal people weren’t mentioned because it was thought we would die out or be killed out.

Why are Australians not listening to the Aboriginal call for a Treaty? For me, Treaty is about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, coming together, side by side, as equals, and working out how our relationship will work in this country. When in our country’s history have we actually done that?

Please remember I am one Aboriginal person, one Aboriginal voice. Another dream I have is of an Australia where diversity of Aboriginal opinion is something to be celebrated and not condemned. If you come to the end of this article and say, “But what do Aboriginal people want?” then you’ve missed my point, you’ve missed my heart, and you’ve missed a chance to see the world through a different lens—a lens you won’t see in the mainstream media.

You see, I have a dream: a dream of an Australia built on truth, justice, love and hope. I have a dream of the Kingdom of heaven here on earth in Australia, I have a dream that we could truly show the world the true meaning of mateship—a mateship that stands side by side with my peoples—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Asylum Seeker, the Refugee, the person without a home, the teenager in prison, the elderly, and all on the margins of society, all who Jesus sees, walks with, and weeps with... all who are our neighbours.

Does Constitutional Recognition fit that dream?

Brooke Prentis is a descendant of the Waka Waka people and an Aboriginal Christian leader. She is a Chartered Accountant by profession and the volunteer Coordinator of the Grasstree Gathering, a national gathering of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders (www.grasstreegathering.org.au)

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU_H0oIQy60 (www.concernedaustralians.com.au)

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