Constitutional Recognition Survey
The question of whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people wish to be recognised within the Australian Constitution, and what form that recognition would take, is still a topic of strong debate in the community. External to the community, because it has stated bipartisan political support, as well as government funding to run a recognition campaign, it is framed continually as a “black versus white” issue, where black people really wish to be recognised, and white people either need to be convinced or are opposed. This has long been a misrepresentation of the situation and just as some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been clearly visible in support of the “Recognise” campaign, so too have others been showing opposition. More are still trying to get more visibility and clearer answers on what it is that we are supposed to be supporting or opposing and why.
The problem continually appears to be that despite the clear evidence that this is not a ‘black versus white’ issue, the oppositional voices continually get discredited or even completely ignored. Perhaps this is a matter of pride, or political convenience; governmental or individual. The government is hardly, for example, going to come out and say that not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are convinced their recognition in the constitution will be a good thing considering that they have put several million dollars into funding a campaign stating that we are. Likewise, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been a part of that campaign. Some have even supported it or been employed within it. And Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been a part of the expert panel and therefore, the discussions of models and ways forward. So perhaps it is a strategic choice not to acknowledge contrary views, or perhaps there is something darker at play and what we are looking at is silencing of debate and voices on a platform which should really be about our rights and how we wish to move forward…
On the 18th of May this year, Recognise issued a media release stating that recent polling they had conducted via Polity Research indicated that 87% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would vote “yes” to be recognised within the Australian Constitution. Since then, this figure appears to have become a media tagline with numerous stories replicating it. Yet one glance on social media channels showed something quite different. Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have laughed at suggestions by Cory Bernardi and Andrew Bolt; amongst others; that our recognition would be somehow be racist (or a form of reverse racism). But from the Black Nationalists and also the pro-treaty activists all the way through the spectrum to the Aboriginal people who have actively written on Gary Johns’s website, the figure of 87% support seemed highly questionable. Even many Indigenous people who support Recognise seemed to think it was a bit excessive and this is not a surprise; a lot of them would have friends and family members who disagree with them after all.
Questions were asked from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people all over social media: who did Recognise survey? What did they ask them? What were the respondents actually indicating that they supported? The media release was big on the figures and light on the details. And certainly, the 87% support was not indicative of a lot of mob discussions. Social media cannot be sneezed at as a method of grassroots engagement, as it has been established that Indigenous people use social media at a much higher ratethan mainstream, and this is the case in urban, regional and remote areas. We have a lot of debate and discussion online and some of us have even carved out media careers by initially taking to online spaces. Therefore, it was felt by many that the online discussions were reasonably indicative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander views and could not be, in all consciousness, ignored.
In light of this, IndigenousX decided to release their own survey to the community on the topic of Constitutional Recognition. IndigenousX is uniquely positioned in Social Media as one of few Indigenous owned and operated online spaces that actively engages with many sides of the political spectrum, whether they are seen as ‘mainstream’ or not. In the 1.5 weeks this survey has been available for responses, 827 community members have responded. This survey was distributed online, via social media channels, and was shared widely. The results it has reaped have been telling. We will investigate the question responses one by one in the interest of transparency.
As this was an online survey, a “neither” provision was added. Despite specifically stating that it was a survey only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in both the survey information and the online distribution, there was no way to completely exclude non-Indigenous responses. Therefore, if people indicated “neither” on the survey, the rest of their responses were excluded using a filter so the data would become reflective of Indigenous views only. 153 responses were excluded, however these responses will be revisited later on in the discussion, as they are quite telling.
Of the 827 Indigenous responses, 93% indicated they were Aboriginal, 1.69% indicated that they were Torres Strait Islander and 4.96% indicated that they were both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
The population distribution shown in these responses, while not a direct match for the statistics of Indigenous population distribution, is not too far off. Victorians and ACT-dwellers overrepresented their population proportion the most, and Northern Territorians underrepresented the most, but for the rest of the states and territories, the difference between percentages is only a few points. Therefore, it can be concluded that while not perfect, the survey results are a reasonable reflection of the views held from one end of the country to the other.
It also shows that the numbers of response, though equating to a larger sample size than the data obtained by Recognise, were still quite small. In NSW, for example, this number equates to roughly 1.5% of the total Indigenous population in this state. Therefore questions regarding the distribution of the data collected by Recognise should be similarly asked and caution must always be exercised when claiming that a survey is “representative”.
For question 3, 3 respondents chose to not indicate a response. Of the 824 people who did respond, 25% indicated support for Recognise, 58% indicated that they did not support Recognise, and 17% were unsure as to whether they supported Recognise or not.
For three quarters of the respondents to indicate a lack of outright support for the Recognise campaign is telling, particularly when the government has been fond of stating that this is something that the community is pushing. This appears to not be the case. Certainly, it is, however, reflective of social media responses. There has been resentment that the government has cut vast funds from many frontline Indigenous services meanwhile continuing to boost the Recognise campaign funding. It is, additionally, a publicity campaign and due to historical example, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people tend to be quite weary of these, particularly when told it is what we want. This result should, therefore, state that a certain amount of caution needs to be exercised when describing the support for Recognise as being “grassroots”. Everyday Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the social media channels are clearly indicating otherwise.
For question 4, 4 respondents decided to not answer and therefore, the sample size here is 823 people. Again, the results are telling. Only 33% indicated that they would vote yes if all of the expert panel’s recommendations were included. This means not only recognition within the Constitution, but also the removal or amendment of the current sections which are racially discriminatory: section 25 which is the power to exclude certain races of people from being allowed to vote and section 51 point 26 which is the power to make laws specific to certain races of people.
So why, with the potential removal of discriminatory powers part of the included package, was the “no” vote on this question so high? The only conclusion we are able to draw is that it comes down to a rejection of Constitutional Recognition in the first place. Whether this is because people reject the constitution because they are black nationalists, feel that a treaty needs to come first and are weary of the noted issues around current Australian climate for recognising Indigenous sovereignty, or that they simply think recognition will not improve our situation is information we cannot ascertain from this data. The only thing we can ascertain is that 47% indicated a complete objection and 20% were uncertain for reasons unknown. This is nowhere near an 87% support rate.
For question 5, 10 of the respondents chose to not give a response and therefore the sample size for this question is 817 people.
Question 5 reflects the findings of Question 4. What was a minority support almost becomes a “no deal” when the proposal to remove discriminatory sections are taken off the table. In this instance, only 13% stated that they would still vote “yes” if it was only our recognition in the constitution that we were voting for. 68% outright rejected this proposal and just under 20% of the respondents indicated that they were unsure. Again, this is not 87% of people stating that they would vote yes to Constitutional Recognition and in fact, with the unsure cluster taken into account, it could indeed end up being 88% saying “no”.
So what then can we learn from these responses? At the end of the day, the fact that the Australian Constitution can still be used to discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is significantly more important to the respondents than the fact that we are not included within it. When considering how it was used in Northern Territory Intervention and also the Hindmarsh Island case, for example, these results make perfect sense. Unless we, as a people, have a guarantee that the Constitution will not be wielded against us again, then we are not interested in being included within it for it would amount merely to a tokenistic gesture.
Of all the questions asked within the survey, question 6 was the only one to come back with a majority support from the respondents. The idea of having an Indigenous parliamentary body included as part of the Constitution appears to be a cautiously attractive option. Indeed, from the 54% support rate, it seems that respondents who had voted “no” on all other questions indicated their support on this one, and it is not difficult to understand why this is the case.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may make up approximately 3% of the Australian population according to the most recent statistics, but at this point in time it is estimated that only 50% of us vote and indeed, there are only a few seats across the entire country where this Indigenous vote carries any electoral clout at all. Because of this and the fact that we are nowhere near parity rates when it comes to parliamentary representation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be victims of legislation imposed upon us, rather than having any say in it at all. Recent ignorant comments by the Prime Minister, referring to living on a remote and impoverished community as being a mere “lifestyle choice” are absolutely reflective of this history of imposition without consultation.
Indigenous people, as the Original Peoples of this Land, want the right to have a say in that which affects us. We are continually denied that right. Therefore, an Indigenous Parliamentary body where consultation is integral in the process of enacting laws which affect our lives is an attractive proposition which could make the government a lot more accountable. If democracy is the system which this country is going to operate under then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want a democratic say.
Of the 827 respondents, 817 responded to this question. This question reflects an act of symbolism, which could be either a few sentences within the body of the Constitution recognising our long ties to the land, or it could just be a statement in the preamble.
There is not much to reflect upon with this question. Of the responses, 75% rejected outright a mere symbolic gesture. There has been a long history of symbolic gestures in this country, the most recent being the Apology. Indigenous people are not interested in yet another gesture and wish there to be something tangible for a change. Therefore, if there is no will for this country to push for more equitable circumstances bar a few words of sentiment with little substance, then as far as the survey respondents were concerned, there was no point to Constitutional change.
Of the 827 respondents, 822 answered question 8. Question 8 can best be described as a “summary question”, where the very crux of why the discussion of Constitutional Recognition is on the table in the first place. In the Closing the Gap Reports for the past few years, most indications were that gaps were not closing. Life expectancy had barely changed, nor had numeracy and literacy rates. In addition, the Indigenous incarceration rate is horrific, suicide rates are climbing, Indigenous women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised as victims of assault and we are still significantly more likely to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Will recognition in the Australian Constitution change any of this (and more)? According to the survey respondents, the answer here is a very clear “no”. 62% of those who responded indicated that they felt we would not be better off with another 12% being unsure. Only 26% indicated that they felt Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be better off. Again, the only conclusion that can be drawn here is that unless there is a guarantee that there is going to be some real benefit to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people via our recognition in the Australian Constitution, there is little point to the referendum. The perception is that it won’t change Indigenous lives and it will not change Australia more broadly either.
As mentioned earlier, of the 980 responses to this survey, 153 were immediately excluded because they had indicated that they were neither Aboriginal nor Torres Strait Islander respondents. A second filter was placed upon the data so that these non-Indigenous responses could be looked at in isolation. The following figures are of note:
In short, of the non-Indigenous responses, the support for Constitutional Recognition was more apparent. This contradicts the findings by Recognise that non-Indigenous support was at slightly lower rates, though in this instance, as the sample size is much smaller, this is a mere indication rather than a conclusion.
Certainly, from the findings of this independent, non-funded, community-driven online survey, there seems to be little substance to the claim from Recognise that 87% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would vote “yes” for Constitutional Recognition. Indeed, it would appear that not only does a significant proportion of the community have oppositional views to Constitutional Recognition, but these views are complicated by what is actually going to be on the table when we do go to referendum. Indigenous people appear to be critical of the government and their motives and want a lot more assurance from mainstream Australia that what we are signing on for here is equitable and designed to actually benefit us.
This data should give Australian politicians, commentators and the general population an excuse to ask more questions, to collaborate more with Indigenous people, and to open up spaces for Indigenous debate on this topic. It is, after all, our rights on the table. Unless the Australian public is aware of the full spectrum of our views on this matter, then they have little right to go to the polls and cast a vote on what they think is best for us.
IndigenousX also approached a few different Indigenous voices to give them an opportunity to respond to this survey, and those responses are included below.
“I’m a sovereign person. My race of people have undergone a horrendous journey from the moment they unleashed the invasion onto us in 1788. Those people were brutalised prior to be unleashed onto us. It was preached that we were savages, but history shows otherwise. We are a generous people. None of these issues have been addressed.
Those that support Recognise need to have a look at the history first and realise that you cannot trust a foreign people to put us into their constitution. Our constitution is here. It’s not a written one, but through the ceremonies it is strong. It is time we reclaim that and reassert ourselves as the sovereign people of this country. The young people now reasserting and reclaiming need to call upon our brothers and sisters for a truth and justice journey and a new direction – which we lead.” Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Arrernte-Alyawarra elder
“At one level, my job is very simple, and that’s to make sure Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander voices are heard, and Constitutional Recognition is one of the most important ones for us to be heard on at this point in time. We need to make sure as many people as possible are engaging with this issue and discussing options, and surveys such as this one from IndigenousX are a extremely useful way for our people to express their views.” Mick Gooda, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
“If anyone wants to know what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are thinking on any political or legal issue you go to social media. Since 2011 the message has been clear: communities eschew symbolic recognition. They seek concrete reform to achieve practical outcomes. Then benefits of symbolism are indeterminate. This poll confirms the community seeks protection from racial discrimination parliamentary role in decision-making that affects their lives.” Professor Megan Davis, member of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
“My beef with the Recognise campaign is its lack of transparency and the fact that it seems to be just another tokenistic gesture that will do little, if anything at all, for Indigenous Australia. The current Australian government has had its hands dirty stripping huge amounts of funding from vital frontline services, and in many cases completely shutting them down, whilst redirecting those funds into the Recognise campaign. I’ve seen first hand the detriment these cuts have caused, and if all the Australian taxpayers get to see on this front is the Recognise campaign, then it would seem that much progress is being made within Indigenous affairs when in fact very little is being made. The Recognise campaign is a great opportunity to make Australia feel as if we as a nation are moving forward in the right direction, when in actual fact we are going backwards.” Jimblah, Musician, Larrikia
“The polling reflects a desire from our communities to engage with the detail of recognition to see a real & lasting impact on the lives and representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Judicial and legislative review are two key concerns raised by the poll with no real appetite for merely symbolic recognition. We need to move beyond the ‘feel good’ campaign & embrace the idea that for our mob this is an opportunity to potentially enhance rights and representation – otherwise to my mind it’s a waste of time. Non-Indigenous Australians need to understand that – it’s not just about feeling warm and fuzzy because they want to ‘recognise’ us. We need to give communities space and time to form their own views and consider models that best achieve their desire for that substantive reform. Discounting criticism and feedback about the current campaign denies the importance of robust debate and underestimates the significance of our communities feeling a sense of ownership over any model. Discounting criticism also denies that our people’s freedom to debate & hold contrary views were restricted until 1967 so the freedom to now do so should be cherished & celebrated. Providing space for that debate & encouraging participation is essential. Further, it should not be a debate owned by those enmeshed with political elites but should embrace the voices coming from all areas of our communities. Ultimately, this should be a reform about our people, for our people and shutting down diversity in our voices risks engaging and encouraging our mob to get involved.” Louise Taylor, lawyer, Kamilaroi
“It comes as no surprise to me that the only question to get over 50% support from Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people in this survey was for the idea of the Indigenous Parliamentary body. We want real and tangible representation at the highest levels. It is obvious that advisory bodies do not work, as their advice is more often than not ignored, as evidenced by the slash and burn of Aboriginal services funding. We deserve an elected peak representative body that is for us
and chosen by us.” @TheKooriWoman
“Given the wide diversity of experiences and opinions that exist, there aren’t many issues that I would expect 87% of all Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people to agree on, especially not one as contentious as this. At the end of the day I just want to see better outcomes; whether that’s through the law, through government, media, sovereignty, treaties, activism, protest, debate, or whatever I don’t mind so much. There are many ways to skin a cat, after all. The one thing I do believe in however, is that we need to be more directly involved in whatever form these movements take, much more so than we have been in recent years, and we need to hear a lot more from Indigenous people on the issues that directly affect us, which is why IndigenousX was created in the first place. Given the profile and reach that IndigenousX has built, I figured we would be able to get a decent cross spread of views to complete our own independent survey, and now that the results are in I hope it causes people to take note, leads to much more informed discussion, and creates additional opportunities for all views to be heard.” Luke Pearson, founder of IndigenousX.