Rod McGarvie: Constitutional recognition has been built on a false premise

There have been various arguments supporting constitutional change in order to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, though a settled text is still not available. Arguments range from recognition will complete the constitution through to recognition is the Christian thing to do. A good number of those promoting change appear to be motivated by a genuine desire to do the right thing. Unfortunately what they promote will totally miss the overarching goal of achieving greater cohesiveness and unity across Australian society. The varying arguments all fail the most important test, that of inclusiveness, instead they unwittingly promote division and tribalism. There is also a high likelihood of unintended consequences flowing from any constitutional change. Unfortunately those thinking of voting No to the proposed referendum will be wrongly branded as uncaring divisive racists. Perhaps we need to be asking Australians a supplementary question at the referendum, one focused on promoting maximum social cohesion and unity.

Having worked with a language development and cultural research organisation in Uganda and Tanzania for 12 years I regularly witnessed the evils of tribalism across the east African region. Tanzania (a country with over 120 tribal languages) however has worked diligently since independence to promote the You are Tanzanians first attitude, deliberately minimising the role of tribes in society due to the savagery of tribalism across the African continent. Tanzania remains one of just a handful of African countries spared from tribal wars, due in large part to policies promoting a single unified nation, not a nation of tribes. The organisation I worked with was wrongly perceived by some bureaucrats as being at odds with the government policy of promoting Swahili and English as the national languages and therefore seen as being potentially divisive.

The organisation typically worked with the smaller and often marginalised languages of the world (including over 40 Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages). Working alongside local tribal communities and transforming their language from an oral to a written form. The production of literacy materials so speakers could fully engage with their language was a major part of the work. The practise of learning to read and write in the mother tongue (primary language) had the added advantage of increasing the potential of these remote villagers transitioning effectively to Swahili and English.

 I could however fully understand the concerns government officials raised regarding the potential of local communities identifying so narrowly with their tribal group that it would undermine the work of building a cohesive national identity. Though this was never a problem within any of the organisation’s Tanzanian projects, there does seem to be a trend toward narrowly aligning or over identifying with particular tribal groups and ancestors here in Australia.

Clearly there can be great personal significance in knowing your roots and gaining insights to the culture of your ancestors. There doesn’t ever appear to have been one cohesive Aboriginal nation, but a large number of small tribes speaking different languages, and having different cultures, many of whom were also traditional enemies. According to the Enthnologue, over 170 Australian Aboriginal and Islander languages are now extinct with another 160 or so listed as dead, dying or under threat. There are only around three dozen languages with any prospect of still being spoken 30 years from now, and only a handful of those are in a healthy state. So for the vast majority of those identifying as Aboriginal, there is only a tenuous link to that culture, for without language you can only scratch the surface of culture, you in essence remain an onlooker. The nuances within language carry rich cultural meaning, hence the importance of new Australian immigrants learning English well.

The Tanzanian government had a deliberate assimilation strategy, it would not allow public servants to work in their tribal areas and would also regularly move them around the country. This practise minimised opportunities for nepotism or the establishment of thiefdoms in their tribal homelands. The relocation also helped Tanzanians interact with and appreciate the different tribal cultures (Tanzania is the only country in Africa where all four major language families exist together). A key strategy in building national unity was to promote Swahili (a coastal language) as the national language of instruction, government, internal trade and commerce. As public servants moved around the country they were forced by circumstance to speak Swahili, thus spreading its usage. Interestingly, Tanzania doesn’t seem to have a chip on its shoulder regarding its colonial past as Kenya does, perhaps its focus on nation building and unity pushes aside that tendency toward victimhood and reliving past grievances.

However, for many activists the push in Australia for recognition appears to be just one step along the road toward greater power through tribal treaties, fully autonomous regions, and disproportionate representation in our parliaments (or pseudo parliaments). Unfortunately, the National Indigenous Television and Radio stations have been used as a vehicle for these agendas, inadvertently promoting resentment, division and tribalism with its programming choices, instead of reconciliation and harmony. We are becoming a nation that is increasingly divided by ethnicity and dictated to by tenuous racial lineages. This has sadly been dressed up as being the right thing to do.

The reality is our nation has been built by an impressive range of people with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. There has been great sacrifice made by many to build a nation in which we can all be immensely proud. A nation where an egalitarian attitude and the principle of a fair go is engrained into each of us. However, no good can come from dividing people along ethnic or racial lines through special privileges or status. None of our policies or programmes should support ethnic or tribal siloing, but promote greater engagement and integration into the fabric and life of our nation.

On the day of the referendum, on principle, I will be voting No to any change in the constitution, No to any pseudo parliament or additional consultative body, and No to any division by ethnicity or race.

However I would vote a big Yes to a supplementary question that encourages the removal of all ethnically or racially driven policies and programs that fail to effectively promote integration and social cohesion.

No to division by race, Yes to integration.

Rod McGarvie was the Executive Director of SIL International (Uganda – Tanzania Branch) for seven of his 12 years in East Africa. Rod is the federal senate candidate for the Family First Party QLD.