The Conservative Case for Constitutional Recognition

So, why conservatism?

A guiding principle of liberalism is individual rights. At its core, liberalism (and conservatism by extension) speaks to the idea that a person’s individual rights should not be compromised by the ideals of the state. This was the very principle in which liberal projects such as the United States were built on. It is important to recognise that the rights of indigenous peoples in this country are part of this equation.

Conservatism also seeks to respect, uphold and protect our national institutions which have built our country to where it is today.

What has those on the right done for the cause in the past?

Conservatism and by extension anyone on the centre-right of politics are often criticised for their handling of Indigenous issues. But history tells otherwise; successive centre-right governments in this country have set their own strong legacies in advancing the rights of indigenous people. It was the Menzies government that gave the franchise to indigenous people in 1962. It was under Harold Holt’s prime ministership in which the White Australia Policy was fully disassembled and the landmark 1967 referendum passed. Malcolm Fraser made the first steps towards legislating land rights by recognising the land rights of indigenous people in the territories. The first indigenous federal senator, MP, and cabinet minister have all come from the centre-right party. Most recently, Scott Morrison made changes in the anthem that, while small, reflected our growing acceptance of our country’s history prior to British settlement. And in the last twenty years, a shift in general policy approach has occurred from rights to responsibilities, something I argue must continue for the foreseeable future in order to give indigenous people the same access to the quality of life their non-indigenous peers enjoy.

And while I do concede that centre-right governments in this country have made some mistakes in advancing indigenous rights, nonetheless it is important to highlight the precedent of what the centre-right can achieve in indigenous policy making.

What’s conservative about constitutional recognition?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a document that was presented by Indigenous activists in 2017. It represents a roadmap for an Australia where Indigenous sovereignty is achieved while at the same time respecting the national institutions that have built our country. Initially the statement was met with scorn from some on the right – however I feel as if that criticism was unjustified:when one dives into the inner workings of the document it can be found to be quite compatible with centre-right politics.

As a matter of fact, support for the Statement from those on the right has grown in recent months with support from names such as former Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Ken Wyatt and Andrew Bragg. As a matter of fact, Berejiklian argues that the Uluru Statement contains ‘deeply liberal ideas’. And it does.

The statement itself is written in a way that presents a society where both indigenous and non-indigenous Australian institutions can coexist. It does not seek to tear down existing government institutions that have stood the test of time, rather it seeks to build up those institutions alongside others. The Statement posits that Indigenous sovereignty “co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown,” thereby highlighting that our current institutions are legitimate.

A common argument against the Statement from those on the right is that the indigenous voice is ‘a third chamber’. This argument is incredibly damaging and does not reflect at all the aims of what the indigenous voice is. Rather, as framed in the Uluru Statement, it is an advisory body, no different to something like the Department of Indigenous Affairs. The benefit to an enshrined voice as declared in the Uluru Statement is obvious, at the end of the day, nothing is more liberal than a legislative body that is accountable to the people of Australia through a direct vote – not to politicians who could simply change the body’s powers or abolish it at the drop of the hat to pursue a political agenda.

The other argument against the Statement is the fallacy that ‘race has no place in our constitution’. Unfortunately for them, native title was initially legislated for in this country using the constitution’s race power, as well as pretty much any piece of federal legislation aiming to improve the lives of Indigenous communities. That race power still exists in our Constitution.

The connection between indigenous people and Australia is pretty much a fact at this point. Ample evidence points to a connection between them and the land prior to British settlement, and it is important to recognise that as the first peoples of this country they deserve their own specific institutions and representation in our political system.

People who claim the Uluru Statement is some sort of radical or extreme idea probably haven’t read it. It is an incredibly moderate document that respects our national institutions and seeks to build upon them.

But how will this benefit the material lives of Indigenous Australians?

When Indigenous recognition is discussed, it is too easy for people on the right to fall into the trap of arguing that these measures don’t mean anything in improving the lives of indigenous Australians. And to them I return serve and argue that those on the right shouldn’t shy away from progressive social reform simply because “it doesn’t change anything” when it does. It reflects that symbolically we seek to grow better as a country and advance towards reconciliation with our indigenous people, an objective that anyone with belief in the cause of liberalism should strive to achieve. Why have centre-right governments continually legislated for progressive change in this country? Why did centre-right governments give indigenous people the franchise, legislate to allow Indigenous people to be counted in the census, or help form the foundations for land rights legislation? These all have set strong legacies on Indigenous policy in this country, which I would have no doubt would be classed as ‘it doesn’t change anything’ policy in their day.

At the end of the day, the most patriotic thing that one can do is wanting better for your country and your fellow citizens. It is thus important to recognise that while our history isn’t always as rose-tinted as it may seem, reforms such as implementing the Uluru Statement can help to seek to right those past mistakes.

Our nation stands at a crossroads. It is up to those on the right to decide as to whether they are willing to stand up to the challenge and uphold the legacy of centre-right governments before them, or remain indecisive and let those on the other side of politics disingenously exploit these issues for their own political goals.

Thomas Cleary is the Social Media Officer of the Conservative Club

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