Constitutional change is harder than it looks

I’m in Crikey today on Tony Abbott’s push for constitutional “recognition” of Australia’s indigenous people. For non-subscribers, the simple takeaway message is that the feel-good media coverage of the issue is essentially useless.

You might not have thought there was a lot of similarity between Aboriginal reconciliation and local government, but the two plans for constitutional change have been portrayed much the same way. In each case there’s a specific proposal (a draft one in  the former case, an actual bill from the Gillard government in the latter), and in each case the media ignore them and talk about the issue in a free-floating way, devoid of any specifics.

So no-one is told why the issue is controversial, so it remains mysterious why progress doesn’t get made.

Tony Abbott and indigenous groups would both like to see an acknowledgement of Australia’s indigenous heritage in the constitution. But they don’t want the same thing: Abbott’s interest is mostly symbolic, and he’s committed to opposing the sort of guarantee that most of the supporters of change think would be necessary – at least if anything substantive is to be achieved.

And because, despite all the impression of novelty in the media coverage, the participants in this debate have basically been going round in circles for some time now, I can just quote what I wrote about it a year ago:

The deadlock over constitutional amendment is not in principle insuperable; if there was strong political pressure on the Coalition to come to an agreement, then no doubt some form of words could be found that would bridge the gap. But that is not the case: the Coalition’s core constituencies have approximately zero interest in Aboriginal reconciliation, so for Tony Abbott there is no downside in holding to his position.

The moral here is twofold. First, constitutional change is about specifics. You can’t pass a fuzzy notion into law, you can only pass actual words. They may be fuzzy words, but there has to be agreement on one actual set of words rather than another. If it’s not possible to find words that meet the competing demands of different interests, then no amount of “agreement in principle” will change that situation.

Second, politics is all about finding ways to overcome differences – ways that we can live together and get things done despite conflicting values and priorities. It may be a bad way of doing that (indeed I think it usually is), but that’s what it’s for. If instead we use the political process to produce motherhood legislation that doesn’t achieve anything and doesn’t settle any real controversy, we’re just wasting everyone’s time.



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