25/01/2012 - 11:00

Constitutional change needs consideration

25/01/2012 - 11:00


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What real difference will recognising Aboriginal people in the constitution make on a practical level?

What real difference will recognising Aboriginal people in the constitution make on a practical level?

THIS newspaper is dated January 26, which is, of course, Australia Day.

So I thought it was apt to offer some thoughts on the constitutional changes being proposed to recognise indigenous Australians.

The federal government-appointed Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples delivered a report recommending some key changes to the document that is the foundation stone of our democracy.

My reading thus far suggests that the panel wants to see: the constitution changed so that indigenous Australians are recognised and their advancement secured; negative racial discrimination is prohibited; and indigenous languages are acknowledged.

My first reaction to these recommendations was that it was hard to see what the fuss was all about. The changes seemed, in the main, so innocuous as to make me wonder as to their validity.

I have long wished to see Australia’s indigenous population have the opportunity to achieve the same standard of living as the rest of the community. That aim ought to exist no matter whether it is indigenous Australians or non-indigenous Australians who are suffering.

The issue for indigenous Australia is well recognised, and many different approaches have been made to tackle the issue since mainstream Australia became more enlightened with regard to the treatment of Aboriginal people. The issues extend across both urban and remote Aboriginal people, although the problems are not uniform.

I agree that much more remains to be achieved; and not just paternalistic strategies. Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson, who backs the panel’s recommendations, provide an example for real self-determination. Mr Pearson constantly rails against a welfare approach to improving the lot of indigenous people.

I remain hesitant, however, about understanding how changing words in the constitution will help achieve that goal.

Obviously the constitution ought to be about protecting everyone equally. Clearly it didn’t do that until about 40 years ago when discriminatory parts of the document were finally neutralised by adding anti-discrimination sections. 

Part of this new report recommends removing those old discriminatory passages, which is sensible because they are not only redundant but would be objectionable to most who read them.

Beyond that, though, I wonder what is to be gained that couldn’t otherwise be without the need to tinker with such an important document. I find it odd to remove negative discriminatory elements and yet add positive ones, as I understand is proposed. Isn’t singling out one race for advancement a form of discrimination? I realise this is the same argument raised by those who object to any form of positive discrimination, but it is a concern that resonates with me.

The problem for the backers of this idea is that, on the surface, most people are comfortable with recognising the special place of Aboriginal people in this country. An example is the regular acknowledgement of the traditional landowners in speech preambles and through the ‘welcome to country’ ceremonies that, beyond the recognition they offer, can also be thought provoking. 

This form of recognition is voluntary and, in my experience, quite popular. It would be interesting, however, to note what public sentiment would be like if such a thing were mandatory.

Similarly, thinking that some form of recognition is needed is different from welcoming a change to the constitution. I think many would balk at such a step, especially if the changes are numerous, complex and the long-term impacts unclear.

No-one wants the simple, and laudable, objective of recognition to one day create a legal quagmire for future generations.

I will watch the debate on this subject with a great deal of interest.

Waterfront planning

I’VE long been a supporter of developing Perth’s foreshore.

I won’t get drawn into the planning and architecture world’s use of fancy language for the reasons behind the move; we’ve all heard enough about ‘activation’ and other choice terms to highlight the excitement of trying some social engineering.

For me it is simple.

Perth’s foreshore is wasted as it is now. It is a boring, wind-swept expanse of sterile open space that’s poorly used.

It is time for those who oppose change – and here I must acknowledge WA Business News columnist Joe Poprzeczny, who is a founding member of a group objecting to the current plan – to realise that the way people use public space has changed.

We no longer promenade along the foreshore – impossible anyway due to the lack of shelter from the elements – but instead frequent places that offer us a mixture of activities, including cafes, restaurants and bars.

Just as the ‘no’ brigade has reduced the choices for people who want to visit the seaside, so too are they now dictating to us about how we’ll use our river.

If the plan pushed by Premier Colin Barnett involved the length and breadth of Riverside Drive, I too might be concerned. However, there is plenty of space remaining in the form of the Supreme Court Gardens and Langley Park to satisfy those who long for wide, open grassy plains.

These grassed areas are relatively well used by the public for sport, recreation and events – much more than the area planned for redevelopment.

I am also disturbed by the heritage argument being used to thwart the current plan. The area being developed is reclaimed land, which pushed the foreshore out by hundreds of metres. 

The road that will remain, The Esplanade, is cited as a historic location. This may be so, but let’s face it there is little recognition of this in any of the past development of the area, or the road’s current use.

Without belittling the European history of the Swan River Colony or Western Australia, it is hard to get excited thinking of The Esplanade as central to some form of incredible watershed of the modern era. 

If anything, bringing the Swan River right up to The Esplanade might refocus attention on the former foreshore.

As for the scale of the development intended, it is much reduced from that planned by the former state government – a project I also supported.

Mr Barnett believes the previous concept was over the top and made his vision less high-rise. So be it, although it is hard to see this as mattering in an area overshadowed by CBD skyscrapers.

The biggest deficiency of the current plan is that of traffic.

Before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, motorists put up with more than a year of road works as the CBD’s main thoroughfares were not just beatified, but significantly modified.

A lot of business people objected to this work, which delayed them getting to work.

The realignment of Riverside Drive will have similar consequences. It seems the government has not put enough thought into this issue, notwithstanding the premier’s view that people will just get used to it and alter their plans.

There is a fine line in leadership in getting people past the inertia that has held them back while dealing with genuine grievances.

Dismissing concerns can seem like arrogance, a label voters all-too quickly use in relation to politicians who do something they don’t like.

I think Mr Barnett has been brave to get on with a project that should have been done decades ago, but I sense that, if handled badly, the waterfront will be something he wished he’d never undertaken.

To make sure the naysayers don’t have the last laugh, the state government needs to make sure: traffic congestion is minimised; costs are kept within budget; work is done on time; and, importantly, the final result is above expectations.

After watching the nightmare of weed accumulation at Port Geographe near Busselton, let’s hope the new lagoon at the foreshore doesn’t end up as some sort of stinking pond right at the city’s doorstep.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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