Too tolerant of ugly racism

REJECTING discrimination in the constitution would empower us all.

There are examples where Aboriginal people have resisted attempts by the state and others to trample their rights without resorting to violence and the use of brute force. Noonkanbah in the Kimberley and the tent embassy in Canberra spring to mind, though recent events in Canberra may have tainted this perspective of the tent embassy for some.

It would be simplistic however, to condemn outright the behaviour of protesters associated with the tent embassy last week without considering the sense of oppression that some of our people still feel towards our governments on a whole range of matters.

I will always condemn bad manners and unnecessarily aggressive behaviour by whomever. But I will always defend people's rights to assert their political position and try to look to the heart of why people feel so oppressed that they feel violent confrontation is the only recourse to the resolution of their position.

As a nation-state, we have not succeeded in achieving a just accommodation of the truth concerning the sovereign indigenous peoples who occupied this continent before the arrival of the British.

This year I have had the privilege of working with an expert panel comprised of Australians from diverse backgrounds and political persuasions to search for ways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia to be recognised in the Australian constitution. Our report was handed to the Prime Minister earlier this month.

The panel proposed a new head of power called section 51A. This new section would incorporate a statement of recognition similar to a preamble, and also give the Commonwealth Parliament the power to pass laws for Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples. The panel also recommended a non-discrimination provision (section 116A) be inserted in the constitution.

This is not a one-clause bill of rights. Nor is this proposition something that is radical or new. Such a provision would bring us into step with international standards.

The expert panel has been criticised for over-extending its reach by proposing such a recommendation. There will, of course, be some who argue against and some who argue in favour for such a provision.

I hope, however, that we as a nation can have an informed and mature conversation about such matters, without resorting to divisive commentary or cheap political point scoring.

Australians generally do believe in justice and tolerance and are not racist, but we are perhaps too accepting of the racism and intolerance in our midst. The terrible attacks on Indian students, the demonising of Muslims and the Cronulla riots tell us how far we still need to go to address racism and intolerance in our society.

The intolerance and racism is something that many indigenous people are confronted with on a daily basis.

We have seen the demonising of our cultural identity and ridiculing of our traumatic history by Australia's political leaders who label the ''indigenous rights agenda'' as meaningless symbolism that has no positive practical outcomes.

What we have not seen is an honest dialogue about the impacts of the settler state and its intertwined history with us. What we do see are the consequences of modernity upon our ways, cultures and spiritual values. This is why a dialogue is essential. I believe that racial discrimination should not be tolerated in our society, and enshrining this in our constitution would be an act that enhances us all.

Patrick Dodson is chairman of the Lingiari Foundation. This is an edited version of the Mahatma Gandhi Inaugural Oration delivered last night at the University of New South Wales.

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