With several landmark events hosting some of Australia’s most distinguished authors throughout the calendar year, including former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, the ANU and the Canberra Times once again collaborated for a “Meet the Author” event on the 16th of July. Held at the ANU, inside the Manning Clarke Centre, author, lawyer, and Indigenous spokesman Frank Brennan spoke candidly about his new book No Small Change: The Road to Recognition for Indigenous Australia.
Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal Australians is certainly not a new issue, but it is an immensely complex one. Starting the event with an acknowledgement of country, Frank’s talk outlined why he felt No Small Change was a book that needed to be written. Not only was it ‘something to do’ when he first arrived in Canberra 7 years ago, but also an attempt to “get an insight into what some of the better white fellas had done,” and see how he as a non-Indigenous man could help in his turn.
Brennan addressed the commitment of Barrie Dexter, William Stanner and Herbert Coombs – members of the Commonwealth Council of Aboriginal Affairs (CCAA) – to ending discrimination against Indigenous Australians. CCAA, which was formed in 1967, in part by then Prime Minister Harold Holt, was a response to a discriminatory Australian constitutional amendment. These men, Brennan noted, appreciated the dignity, spirituality and religious beliefs of Aboriginal Australians, in particular those in the Northern Territory, and made a huge impact in the lasting changes to policy and attitudes in both the government and the Australian people.
“It was a modest referendum, carried overwhelmingly by the Australian people, but in the prospect of instituting political change, the Council was a catalyst,” Brennan said.
This raised the issue of the proposed 2017 referendum, one that would signify Indigenous recognition in the Constitution.
Anne Martin, director of the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre at the ANU*, stated that the proposed referendum would be highly significant for Aboriginal Australians.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had no say in the creation of the Constitution at the time it was being drafted. This would allow people of this nation to come together in a positive manner and…to build a better and more inclusive nation,” she said.
Brennan admitted that the referendum lies at the heart of a very difficult debate. Ever since the last referendum 40 years ago, the notion of limits on land rights and determination have been central, he said.
His talk being rooted in legal history, he further discussed issues surrounding the proposed referendum, with “there being no point going ahead” unless Aboriginal leaders endorsed the changes.
Yet, his personal opinion that the referendum is a great step forward for Australia shone through. Brennan described Aboriginal Australians, especially young Aboriginal Australians, as “caught between Dreaming and the Market… they deserve to have a foothold in each.” In this, he agreed with the comments made by Anne Martin to Woroni when asked whether Australia was ready for this referendum:
“Is Australia ready and prepared? I’d say they probably are. I have great faith in my fellow citizens and confidence in young people across the nation who want to see a better Australia.”
*Anne Martin’s opinions are her own and are not representative of the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Learning Centre