Even if you’re not the most politically inclined individual, you’re probably aware of the proposed changes to the Australian Constitution. On January 19, 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard received a final report from an Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Amongst the various findings for suggested constitutional reform, The Panel’s final report recommended that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples be recognised as the first occupants of Australia and that section 25 and section 51 (xxvi), each of which allow for potential legal discrimination based on race, be removed from the Australian Constitution.
The Panel’s final report received bipartisan support, while a referendum to decide if the recommended constitutional changes should be enacted is expected to be held after next year’s Federal Election. Still, despite the widespread political and social support to constitutionally recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, there still remains a chance that the impending referendum may fail.
According to a 2010 report by the ABC program PM, “only eight of the 44 referenda since Federation have been successful”. This includes the unsuccessful 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic. However, the same report also notes the triumphant 1967 referendum that effectively gave Aborigines the attendant rights of citizenship.
Rock for Recognition…
Headlining a talented lineup of local artists is the ARIA-nominated Dan Sultan. A descendent of the Gurindji people from Northern Australia, the Melbourne-based musician is currently on the road to not only support equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but also to promote a greater unity between all people who consider themselves Australian.
“It’s [Rock for Recognition] just about raising some awareness about the fact that the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people are currently not recognized in the Australian constitution,” explains Sultan.
“There’s a lot of people far more qualified to talk about constitutional law and constitutional reform than me, so I’m not going to try and do that, but as a musician I can…put on a show and hopefully raise some awareness about this.”
“It’s not a right wing issue or a left wing issue or black or white issue or an Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal issue, it’s a general human rights issue. I think it’s very important and…it’s disappointing as an Aboriginal person and it’s embarrassing as an Australian.”
“As complex as constitutional law is, what we’re talking about is something very simple. Really, it’s just about basic human rights.”
An Empty Gesture?
For many Australians, altering the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first occupants of this ‘great southern land’ is a no-brainer. Much like Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generation in 2008, it seems an obvious and necessary gesture on the road to reconciliation.
And yet there lingers the argument that these ‘gestures’ are just that: meaningless rhetoric and tokenism. A public apology and constitutional reform may be well intended, but do such actions result in any kind of tangible change?
To Sultan the suggestion that Rudd’s ‘sorry speech’ and the possible changing of the constitution are empty gestures is as trivial as the assertion itself.
“For me it’s just about respect. Some people can say it’s just a token effort that doesn’t mean anything, but being an Aboriginal man it actually means quite a lot to me,” Sultan affirms.
“The apology was very important to me and my family and it means a hell of a lot. There’s been a lot of bullshit tokenism, so it’s nice that there’s going to be some respectful tokenism as well, and it’s nice that there has been in recent years.”
“I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with that. I think that it’s just out there showing respect and it’s something that’s been lacking for a long time now.”
A Matter Of Time…
It seems only a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ this current form of legal discrimination against the original people of our land is overturned due to popular public opinion. If not this generation then hopefully the next will lead Australia in removing legislation that promotes prejudice based on class, sexuality or race.
Originally, the Gillard Government began entertaining the idea of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution in 2010. Unfortunately, the ensuing Federal Election resulted in a hung parliament and any possibility of a referendum was postponed until at least late 2013.
The setback hasn’t deterred the determination of Sultan, who actually sees the delay as an opportunity to better prepare for the desired outcome.
“The referendum has been put off awhile. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. We’ve got to get it right and if we’re not going to get it right, then we shouldn’t do it,” considers Sultan.
“So let’s put it off as long as we need to, as long as the referendum happens in a way that is constructive.”
“It’s going to happen. Like it’s simple, we live in a first world country and the fact is that we have third world conditions in some places and the only way is up really.”
“We’re not going to let ourselves go on like this forever, but…it’s not going to happen overnight. I’m not going to say that everyone’s going to like it, but basically if we want to call ourselves a first world country and if we want to be amongst the leaders in the world…there’s a couple of things we need to sort out…and this is one them: how we treat a particular section of society and a particular community of peoples.”
Taking The Lead…
When it comes to significant social and political change in a democratic society, who does the onus fall on, the people or their elected leaders? Rock for Recognition is an effort to take charge and keep the issues of constitutional recognition in the forefront of the public’s mind while the media shifts focus.
Before a referendum can even come into being, however, it must first pass through both houses of parliament, putting the emphasis back on elected officials. Whoever has the greater responsibility or whether the weight of the challenge is equally shared between civilians and politicians, Sultan believes it’s the will of the people that will win out.
“It’s the chicken and the egg. We live in a democracy: the government is supposed to be doing what we want, but sometimes we need the leadership from the government to really take things forward,” muses Sultan.
“I think as good as people are in this country, there’s a lot of apathy and a lot of complacency, and I think old Prime Ministers encourage that. I think Howard particularly encouraged that. I think we were particularly fucked after his reign.”
“I think we’ll be OK. Like I said, people are generally pretty good and it doesn’t matter if you’re voting for Gillard or if you’re voting for Abbot…there is a group of people in this country who also happen to be the first peoples of this country and we’re currently not recognized in our own country’s constitution, it’s very simple.”
A Musician’s Message…
Throughout the conversation Sultan reiterates that he is not a lawyer and doesn’t pretend to know the intricacies of constitutional law. As a musician, Sultan often works from a gut feeling of right and wrong, and for the 29-year-old singer, the current Australian Constitution is an injustice towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on not only legal grounds but on a moral basis as well.
Finding himself the headlining act of an activist tour like Rock for Recognition was not necessarily something Sultan intended when he first picked up a guitar. But now with the opportunity to spread both the music and message he is passionate about, Sultan plans to use his platform for the greater good.
“I always wanted to be a musician, just because I thought it was really cool I guess, as a kid, you know, rock and roll and guitars and all that stuff. I always really liked the idea of that.”
“I think having some sort of purpose like this, that’s something that comes along a bit later in life. I’ve always had a bit of a social conscience, so I guess if I can help out any way I can then I’m all for it.”
“What I need to say is that it needs to change, it’s very simple, it’s about basic human rights, and my job this weekend is to put on some shows and raise awareness about that fact.”
“I’m a musician and that’s what my job is to do.”
Rock for Recognition – Australian Tour Dates
Thursday, 8th November 8
The Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Dan Sultan with Leah Flanagan & DJ Ken Eavel
Friday, 9th November
The Factory Theatre, Sydney
Dan Sultan with Leah Flanagan & Dead Marines
Saturday, 10th November
Bakery Artrage, Perth
Dan Sultan with Leah Flanagan & Wolves at the Door
Sunday, 11th November
Fly By Night, Fremantle
Dan Sultan with Leah Flanagan & Wolves at the Door