Indigenous claims and the Constitution

Discussion of the proposed amendment of the Constitution to acknowledge aboriginal occupancy prior to 1788 occasionally evokes the memory of the high support for the 1967 referendum to enable aboriginal people to be counted in the census and to include them in the race power. Legislation for the Constitutional amendment was not opposed in Parliament so there was no ‘No’ case issued to voters. The positive vote at the referendum was 90.8%. However it was 81% in Western Australia and 86.3% in South Australia. In 1978 Monash political scientist and future Liberal minister David Kemp considered this in his Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia. This work was the first to suggest that future Australian politics would be influenced by a conflict between an educated and cosmopolitan knowledge elite and a conservative majority that would include many former Labor voters. Despite Kemp’s prescience the book was entirely ignored in the mass of commentary about John Howard’s populism. Kemp argued:

The great bulk of Australia’s aboriginal inhabitants are country dwellers…there is a tendency for Aboriginal numbers to be higher in the more remote country areas. We would therefore expect that if the size of the negative vote on the Aborigines proposition is related to this structural character of rural society, the most remote areas would be least favourable. The assumption underlying this proposition are that intensity of racial feeling is related to the extent of conflict between the races, and that the proposed constitutional amendment was identified as a proposal favourable to Aborigines

Kemp’s book was based on a PhD completed at Yale. The spectre of American backlash politics and the migration of working-class Democrats to the right is an unacknowledged presence in the book. From the 1980s aboriginal affairs would become appoint of cultural conflict. Hostility to aboriginal claims became a major theme of the 1980s and 1990s populist right. A constitutional amendment recognising indigenous occupation prior to 1788 would provide a test of their continued influence. Why has the populist right mobilisation against indigenous claims lost force? First because the absurdist predictions of the consequences of native title and land rights are now an embarrassment and because the social crisis in many indigenous communities has provided a more consensual topic of conservative preoccupation. Something rather similar happened in the United States. In 2004 Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman admitted:

Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” Mehlman said at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

Concerns about the consequences of welfare dependence for African-Americans became a major conservative theme and an area of liberal anxiety.

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