This week’s meeting at Kirribilli House between Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander leaders and politicians was one more step in the journey towards the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples in Australia’s constitution.
The meeting decided on the establishment of a Referendum Council, a series of community conferences, and that the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition produce a discussion paper. The meeting also endorsed the work that the Recognise movement has been doing and will continue to do as it raises awareness and fosters support for constitutional change via referendum.
There have been some dissenting voices in response to this Kirribilli meeting. Noel Pearson, who was at the meeting, called it “largely redundant“, asserting that the outcomes had already been pre-determined by Tony Abbot and Bill Shorten. New Matilda published an opinion piece in which the meeting was described as just one more step on the way towards “fluffy words in a preamble”.
We are being reminded that referendums are not about pleasing all the people. Referendums are about satisfying enough of the people so that these people can vote yes.
While it is important to address the shortcomings in the constitution with regard to Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people, there are questions around just how much recognition of indigenous peoples in the constitution (basically a ‘whitefellas’ document) can contribute towards the overall reconciliation of indigenous peoples and culture with post 1788 peoples and culture.
Perhaps in our constitutional enthusiasm we have forgotten about the power of the continent itself. Perhaps it is our common experience of this continent we now call Australia, more so than any constitution, that can reconcile us.
Spirituality is about human experience and our response to the transcendent in this experience. Australian indigenous culture has, for over 40,000 years, experienced this land and the transcendent in it. People who have settled in Australia during the last two centuries have experienced this same land and its transcendent qualities.
Eugene Stockton, along with artist Terence O’Donnell, has just produced a timely booklet called This Land, Our Mother. Stockton (theologian, archaeologist, and biblical scholar) has been a long-time advocate for the power of the Australian continent to reconcile pre and post 1788 Australia. In the booklet Stockton writes
If I was born in this land [Australia], by Aboriginal understanding, I have pre-existed here like them from the timeless Dreaming. So, on their own reckoning, I have a common bond with Aborigines and common spiritual roots in this continent, despite my racial roots elsewhere from my parents. (22).
We are in the experience of this land together. This experience is bigger than race and culture. It is the land, with its deep sense of awe, mystery, and otherness which is the “common bond” between all, a bond pre-dating the constitution and not reliant on it. It is a bond of birth, not a bond of legality. Stockton goes on to say
This land can become a unifying focus for our multicultural society, not only for those who came to these shores many millennia ago, but also for those who have come from different countries in the last two centuries. We can become a single nation, not only by cohabitating a single continent and sharing the economic, social and political opportunities if offers, but more deeply by sharing a spiritual link with the land, our mother, to whom we have at last come home. (22).
There is a deep link, a gift of divinity and land, one that is offered to all the inhabitants of this continent, regardless of how long we have been here, how we got here, and what has been done here. This spiritual view does not attempt to deny the gross injustices committed since 1788. Rather, the sincere embracing of our common “spiritual link with the land” invites us all to honesty and the ongoing journey of forgiveness. This is what can unite us if we are prepared to do the work.
Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander recognition in the constitution, whatever form it takes, can be another step towards this unity and reconciliation. We must not, however, forget the land, this continental island that is home to us all.