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Recognise: Join the campaign for Constitutional fairness
THIS week we sat down with the Recognise campaign’s Marta Hodul Lenton. The campaign seeks to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution. This year your CPSU Branch Council passed a resolution to support the Recognise campaign so it was a fitting time to sit down with Marta during National Reconciliation Week and after the campaign received major publicity at AFL games.
We talked to Marta about the campaign, why it’s important and how you can support it.
Explain your role with Recognise?
I’m the Executive Officer Tasmania for Recognise. Initially I started volunteering in early to mid-last year and I’ve been in this role a few months now.
In this role, there’s a fair bit of organising events. Earlier this year together with the University of Tasmania we held three public forums in Hobart, Launceston and Devonport. We had a different panel in each location. Constitutional expert George Williams, who’s been working for a long time in this space sat on each forum, which talked about what recognition in the constitution could mean. We were very happy with the attendance at each forum and it really sparked off a lot of discussions that people have taken back to their own communities and groups. So we’ve started to get a lot more contact from people now to find out more about Recognise. We also go to festivals, events, just to be able to speak to people one-on-one and explain it to people. It’s pretty simple. In Australia, we don’t change the constitution very often, so after a bit of explanation, it doesn’t take much for them to understand what Recognise is all about.
When you are talking to people, what do you say the campaign is about?
Firstly the campaign isn’t new, it’s part of a longer series of developments. The basic idea is that there are two things wrong with the Constitution at the moment. The first one is it’s silent about tens of thousands of years of cultural heritage, which is a very important part of Australia’s story and all Australians can rightly be proud of. However there’s no mention of it in our Constitution, if you read it you’d be invited to conclude before two centuries ago and there was nobody here.
It’s a living cultural heritage, so it’s something we need to embed into our founding document –that this is who we are as a country.
The second is there’s still racial discrimination in our Constitution. Most people are astonished to hear that there’s still a clause, in Section 25, which can ban people from voting because of their race.
Section 51 (26) says the government can make special laws for people of any race for the purpose of peace, order and good governance. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that can be a good thing, for example, we have the Native Title Act now. However, it also means that the government can also discriminate against people on the basis of race, and sometimes this happens. We are the only modern country that’s even talking about race in our constitution – it doesn’t belong in there and it doesn’t fit in with Australian people’s values – we’re all supposed to be equal before the law.
Is there a common reaction after you explain what Recognise is about?
Nine times out of 10 people say “definitely – we need to recognise this heritage that’s so important to our country”. Nine times out of 10 people haven’t heard we’ve got these racially discriminative parts of our Constitution. A few people have, and now I’m starting to come across people who have a bit of an understanding of what the idea behind it actually is. We have more work to do to raise awareness more widely in the community and to get people to get their heads around what it means.
Sometimes people have reservations and get the concept mixed up with other issues.
Do you think there’s an increasing awareness of the campaign?
It’s definitely gaining momentum. Over the last 12-18 months awareness seems to have risen to about half of Australians, according to surveys. There’s generally a very positive reaction to it as well. The last week, with all the coverage with the AFL supporting Recognise, and for example, cricketer Adam Gilchrist, it really helps to get the word out there and just understand it’s a good thing to do.
How can people support the campaign?
First and foremost, just go to www.recognise.com.au and sign up to show your support. There are about 190,000 people who support it at the moment. The point of signing up is just to show support for those principles of recognition and of getting rid of racial discrimination. The more people who say they support it and say they want this change, the more strength we have to say to the government “Australians want this and we need a referendum”.
It’s also a brilliant source of information and to find out what’s happening with the campaign. It’s worth just having a look at that site, the frequently asked questions, the explanation behind the campaign and the expert panel report, the report’s is super long but it’s very well indexed.
Word of mouth is also important to tell your friends and family about it and ask them to have a look at the website too so we can spread the word. It could be that there’s a referendum on this as soon as next year. The official six month campaign period isn’t very long to raise awareness and let people know what they need to do, so the earlier we spread the word and people understand the message the better.
You can also find Recognise on Facebook here.
In parliament last week the State Government said it supported constitutional recognition of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people as the first Australians. Although this still needs to be debated, it’s a positive move.