Advance indigenous rights

The growing crisis of federalism demands a republican narrative from the left, writes Marcus Strom

This is an edited version of an article first published on the Australian website Labor Tribune: www.labortribune.net.

It says much about the state of the left that the conservatives are taking a radical lead on issues of constitutional change in Australia. It should be clear to all except the myopists of the far left that there is a burgeoning crisis of federalism, painfully highlighted by prime minister John Howard's paternalistic assault on indigenous Australians.

Howard's attempted land grab and 'war on sex abuse' in Aboriginal communities are clearly part of a last-minute attempt at wedge politics a few months out from an election. Apart from Howard apologists, much of the reaction is ostensibly correct: where is the consultation, let alone the negotiation? Why hasn't he done anything for the past 11 years? Why isn't Howard addressing underlying causes? What about other issues in Aboriginal health? What about abuse by non-Aboriginal men outlined in the Little children are sacred report, published in June? What about the widespread sex abuse, alcohol abuse and unpunished/unreported rapes in non-Aboriginal society?

Forced medical inspection of young children will only add to their trauma. And there is the growing panic in some communities that this whole process will see another generation of children taken away.

On ABC's Lateline business on June 27, Rex Wild QC, co-author of Little children are sacred, categorically stated that compulsory medical examinations of children under 16 did not form any part of the 97 recommendations made. Other than the first recommendation of declaring a national emergency, the federal government has gone off with its own agenda.

Out of fear of being wedged just outside an election campaign, the Australian Labor Party has predictably - and unfortunately - backed the Howard campaign, while reserving the right to criticise the detail. If Howard was serious about child abuse in indigenous Australia, he would not have ignored previous countless reports on the matter and he would have taken the matter to the last election "¦ or the election before that, or the election before that. So, too, would have the ALP.

In addition Howard is enacting legislation that will see the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal people escalate. The abolition of customary law in consideration of sentencing and bail will see incarceration rates soar. More black people will die in prison.

In 1992 I wrote the Central Land Council's response to federal, state and territory reaction to the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That report was at the time the most important document ever written in Aboriginal affairs. It made 339 recommendations, many calling for urgent support for Aboriginal self-control and self-government. The reaction of government was, in general, appalling.

In October 1990 the Central Land Council stated to a Royal Commission Underlying Issues conference: "In presenting its final report, it is essential that the Royal Commission does not present us with yet another set of admirable recommendations that we can look at in 10 years and say, 'Too bad no one ever acted on that report'."

That is the sad history of Aboriginal experience of paternalism and colonialism. "White governments come and go, but since the Europeans arrived our country has changed from the land of the dreamtime to the land of promises - promises which are always broken." So said Nancy Napananga of Utopia Outstation in central Australia.

This is Howard's attempted roll-back of Aboriginal rights won over the past 40 years. The irony of it all is that he is using the powers granted to the Commonwealth on indigenous affairs through the referendum in 1967. That referendum in many ways heralded the beginning of the modern land rights and self-emancipation movement. Ever since that referendum, Aboriginal organisations have called on successive Commonwealth governments to use that constitutional power to act on a wide range of issues - violence, sexual education, health, jobs, housing, education - and to enact land rights legislation for all states and territories. What an irony it is that Howard is using these powers now in such a limited, undemocratic and draconian way.


The timing of his assault is pure cynicism - Aboriginal organisations have been crying out for help to deal with sex abuse and many other social and health problems, only to be ignored by government. But behind it is a deeper political process, however. This is the latest act of centralisation in the hands of the Commonwealth under a prime minister who has been nothing but radical in his corralling of powers for the federal government. In the face of a conservative majority in both houses of parliament, this has led some leftists to actually trumpet states' rights. With no positive programme for change, with no narrative to take to the Australian people, such leftists merely respond to change in the most piecemeal manner, while spouting off about socialism in much the way of a Marxist Sunday school teacher.

John Howard's administration has seen the most undemocratic centralisation of power in the history of the Commonwealth outside wartime. Even in fiscal terms this has not gone unnoticed. Take Steve Burrell's article, 'Big squeeze: states as branch offices', published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on May 29. Burrell points out that specific purpose payments - a form of tied funding - now make up 42% of Commonwealth monies to the states and local government. These payments have been growing at the rate of 7% a year since 1999-2000.

A petty example is making funding to state schools conditional on a commitment to fly the Australian flag, or specifying that it must be used to pay for a religious pastor for counselling. It is money tied to achieve the federal government's policy agenda.

'So what?' many on the left would argue. What's this got to do with socialism? All governments, state and federal, are pursuing a fundamentalist market philosophy now. Such a view is extremely narrow and misses the big shift taking place in the Australian political landscape. It fails to comprehend the stance the workers' movement must adopt in response to such democratic issues.

Traditionally it has been the left that has favoured centralisation in Australia. Through the 20th century it was Labor that first promoted a national banking system, national arbitration - even a national navy. The conservatives have traditionally defended states' rights.

Of course, Labor's model was a bureaucratic social democracy from above - 'nation building', so that national capital could compete protected behind sturdy tariff walls, sailing first behind empire and then shoulder to shoulder with US economic interests, with occasional crumbs for the workers.

In modern times the Hawke-Keating governments started the centralisation process, albeit in a more corporatist vein and smashing through tariff barriers and the old social democratic consensus, bringing the representatives of capital and labour to the table to carve up the national pie, with labour doing all the belt-tightening to achieve the social wage.

Howard has continued that apace, but with a more robust anti-working class agenda: bureaucratic centralisation to underpin national capital's pursuit of profit in a globalised economy. The shift in the proportion of GDP from wages to profit is unprecedented under his rule. In 1999-2000 the share of national income going to labour was 70.3%, leaving the share going to capital at 29.7%. By the final quarter of last year, the wages share had fallen to 66%, while profits had increased to 34%. As Ross Gittins wrote on June 2 in the Sydney Morning Herald/ The Age, "That is a shift of a remarkable, unprecedented 4.3 percentage points in just 6.5 years."

Fight for a democratic republic

The Australian constitution is one of the most unchanged in the world. While this may suit the ruling class ideologically in extolling the permanence of the social order, it has become a barrier to its political and financial operations.

The Australian ruling class almost universally recognises a crisis of federation. In launching its report Reshaping Australia's federation: a new contract for federal-state relations last year, Michael Chaney, president of the Business Council of Australia, said: "Australia's system of federal-state relations is at a crossroads."

That report reaches some interesting conclusions. It says: ""¦ the old federal contract between the Commonwealth and the states has broken down. The trend through the 20th century towards the centralisation of power continues unabated." It proposes a 12-point plan, beginning with a constitutional convention to overhaul federal-state relations.

The BCA is not alone. In April this year South Australian premier Mike Rann called for a convention to rewrite the constitution. Peter Beattie, premier of Queensland, made a similar proposal last October. At a meeting of state leaders in February, the premiers called for a constitutional convention for February next year and gave in-principle support to Northern Territory statehood. The Australian newspaper proposed a constitutional convention in an editorial last November and George Williams, professor of law at UNSW and aspiring Australian LP parliamentarian, did the same in March. Even monarchists and federalists are backing a call for a convention to remake the constitution. The list could go on. Absent from the list, however, is the socialist left - inside the ALP or outside it in the grouplets.

Of course, all such players are approaching constitutional change in the most limited of fashion. The ruling class, through the BCA, is looking for a uniform market from which to extract surplus. It seeks market efficiencies such as uniform occupational health and safety laws, payroll taxation and the like. It is not interested in a democratic constitution.

No matter that these forces seek change for the sake of preserving the system. They point to a glaring democratic deficit in the constitution and political framework of modern Australia. The political centralisation that has occurred without the say-so of the mass of the population is allowing the Howard government to ride roughshod over democracy in areas such as Aboriginal rights, industrial relations, health, water, education, energy, taxation and our legal rights.

Democratic socialists must look much further than a tinkering with the system and seeking piecemeal reform, while extolling the virtues of some far-distant socialism. We seek the widest democratic space possible for the working class to organise for concrete socialisation and democratic change from below in the here and now.

Howard has been pursuing all manner of constitutional change by stealth. Our methods must be more radical, more wide-ranging, thoroughly democratic and driven from below. The answer is not less centralisation, but rather more centralisation under the democratic rule of the mass of the population, in part achieved by a militant campaign for a new, democratic and republican constitution.

Is centralisation bad? Well, it depends who it is for and how it is achieved. In general, socialists support the centralisation of administration, but only on the basis of it being democratic and accountable. That means, while administration can be centralised under democratic control, delivery and accountability needs to be decentralised. This would involve the development of robust and active regional governments.

But we must go much further. Democratic socialists must demand a constitutional convention, but not of the limited type proposed by the premiers or the Business Council of Australia. The workers' movement should campaign for a convention with full powers to rewrite the constitution. Such a convention should be elected by proportional representation across the country and be given authority to declare an interim government before endorsement of a new, democratic and republican constitution.

This must include:

l abolition of the monarchy system - including presidentialism, its undemocratic offspring;

l election by full proportional representation to a single legislative and executive chamber;

l annual parliaments, where MPs can be recalled and are paid no more than the average skilled worker's wage;

l abolition of the senate, which becomes obsolete with proportional representation;

l abolition of the states and introduction of strong regional-local government.

In addition a democratic constitution must guarantee the rights of its citizens. To this end we need:

l a treaty with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, reparations for lost lands and comprehensive land rights;

l a bill of rights;

l full citizenship rights for migrants and refugees after six months residence;

l the right to work and the right to strike;

l an end to secrecy in government and business;

l workers' supervision of management through workplace councils.

The ruling class is in a bind over the federal framework of government. In 1999 it was divided over the most minimal proposal for a 'Clayton's republic'. The workers' movement was also split, but the majority of people recognised that what was on offer was not a change in the direction of republicanism at all.

The ruling class's current dilemma is, of course, the opportunity for democratic forces in the workers' movement. The left must champion democracy because not to do so leaves the solution of such questions in the hands of the ruling class and its bureaucracy. Democracy is not a thing in itself: it provides the programme and the path for the workers' movement to embrace the future.

Socialism is impossible without democracy because the workers' movement cannot achieve socialism unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy and because victorious socialism cannot consolidate its victory and bring humanity to the withering away of the state without implementing full democracy.

Unless the left adopts such a programmatic approach, it will merely continue to seek crumbs from the table of capital through reform, or be relegated to the fringes of political life as socialistic sects.

The burning issue today is defence of indigenous Australia and tying this defence to a change in Australia's political framework. The failure of mainstream Australia to honestly come to terms with its colonial past has left a deep scar in our national psyche; it is central to the democratic deficit we face as a nation. The demand for a democratic constitution is not an abstraction from the day-to-day struggle for meaningful reform. Central to it is the fight for a treaty with indigenous Australia. That will involve a process of negotiations over land rights, autonomy, real investment in Aboriginal housing and health, and reparations for lost land. This must be achieved as part of the emergence of a democratic republic.

The left cannot carp about the appalling hypocrisy of Howard and the pale echo from Labor leader Kevin Rudd: it needs positive political solutions.