The status of aborigines in Australia has, to be frank, hardly crossed my radar until now. But that was before I met Tanya Hosch, a representative of the community who’s over here right now campaigning for them to get an honourable mention in the Australian constitution. ‘We just want to be acknowledged in the country’s foundational document,’ she says. ‘It really would make a difference to the way we feel that others see us.’
Australians, it seems, regard their constitution as a bit of a workhorse, clarifying various aspects of life without any of the grander aspirations of the US constitution. Most of them aren’t really aware that aborigines are absent from the constitution in the first place. Tanya is too polite to say baldly that they were there first but given this obvious reality, it seems odd, to say the least, that there’s no mention of them. In New Zealand, by contrast, there is a treaty between Maoris and the rest which allows for the subject to be endlessly debated. Six years ago the state made an apology to the Aborigines for the raw deal they got since Captain Cook, but it’s not quite the same as a constitutional mention.
Thing is, any change to the constitution requires a referendum. And in Australia that means a majority not just of voters but of states: so four of the six states plus at least 51 per cent of votes. Hence Tonya’s presence in London, lobbying the Australians here. But the normal objection to referendums, viz, that people can’t be bothered to turn up doesn’t apply there, on account of their – to my mind admirable – compulsory voting system. The effect of it is to shift politics to the centre ground, for since everyone’s voting – apart from those with $120 to burn (that’s the fine for not turning up) – you have to appeal to the mainstream.